The last five families were moved out of the Harold Ickes Homes at the end of March, one of the latest clusters of high rise public housing the city is clearing as a part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.” Dozens of highrise towers have been demolished across the across the city, opening vast tracts of land for mixed-income and in some cases mixed-used development. While few would dispute that the large-scale warehousing of the poor in these projects helped to create major urban problems, the nearly total erasure of these areas seems as blunt as the urban renewal tactics through which they were originally built.
Designed by SOM in the 1950s, the buildings reflected the architectural, planning, and sociological thinking of the day. Arguably the Plan for Transformation reflects the thinking of the last 10 to 15 years in public housing: New Urbanism. Chicago architects DeStefano + Partners proposed a contemporary reuse and reimagination of the Ickes Homes in a masterplan that called for making the buildings more sustainable and better integrated into the neighborhood. Their plan called for reducing the amount of parking space, adding green roofs, restoring the street grid, and adding infill buildings to bring the complex closer to the street. They also advocated reskinning the buildings to break up their massing and improve energy efficiency, as well as adding rain gardens and solar canopy’s over the remaining parking areas, among other features. The plan was strong enough to win the firm a 2009 AIA award, but it didn’t change the Housing Authority’s decision to call off the wrecking ball.