Planning Chicago's Near West Side

Planning Chicago's Near West Side

Richter’s Food Products, 1933, at 1040 West Randolph Street.
chicagogeek / Flickr

It looks like Chicago’s near West Side watering holes could find themselves in the thick of the city’s latest historic district. Under a plan first made public on April 1, Randolph Street and Fulton Market would anchor a landmarked area beginning just west of the Kennedy Expressway and running until Ogden Avenue.

Modern land-use plans for the neighborhood go back at least 15 years, but it makes sense that the city is making a public push now—there might be no other area in the city whose identity has changed so rapidly. With Google moving into the Fulton Market Cold Storage warehouse, West Town’s cultural cachet may have fully fused with the pressure for commercial development cheered on by local tech sector boosters.

Like pretty much any landmark district proposal, this one needs to be carefully considered. Parts of the neighborhood certainly meet the criteria, and a real estate boomlet threatens to overshadow that fact if left to its own devices. But in a downtown neighborhood that has changed so much already, and which is now home to the city’s newest El station, some more density could be a good thing. It just has to be the right kind.

There is no doubt the neighborhood has character. Sepia-tone photos from the 1890s show a dusty Randolph Street packed with horse-drawn produce carts. In 1850, the city split Randolph at Des Plaines Street with the Market Hall building, which was demolished a few decades later. The widened street remained, however, housing an open-air farmers market. Most of the surviving historic buildings along that stretch are about 100 years old now. Randolph’s unique layout gives the strip a singular typology—raised sidewalks, two traffic medians, and sidewalk overhangs contribute as much to the sense of place as the brick industrial buildings.

Since about 2000, the district’s identity as a thriving marketplace and entertainment destination has been in resurgence, this time less as a place for processing food than for eating it. Randolph Street has quickly become the city’s premier dining strip, drawing on the area’s heritage as a hub for wholesale packaging and local farmers markets. Two rows of meat packing buildings still stand, including the handsome red-brick Fulton Street Wholesale Market Company facility—an 1887 headquarters for the nation’s “big three” packers. The 75 buildings up for landmark status under the proposal include popular restaurants like the Girl and the Goat, and the Publican.

The city likened the neighborhood’s prospects as an historic destination to Pike Place Market in Seattle and Cleveland’s Ohio City Market District. “There is a need for development to be more consistent with the area’s low density building scale, traditional loft district architectural character, and urban streetscape,” reads the city’s proposal, which is still awaiting public comment. That statement is somewhat charged, given the attractive real estate market nearby. Downtown high-rises peek over the expressway. Chicago’s hotel boom has followed the nightlife, though only one in the vicinity of Randolph Street is under construction now.

The first step is to draw up a new land-use plan. The City’s initial sketch does not stray too far from existing zoning, consolidating the northern swath of manufacturing-zoned land into the catch-all “innovative industries.” It maintains the predominantly commercial/business use of the bottom two-thirds of the proposed areas, but delineates two distinct historic districts: Randolph Row and Fulton Market. Bridging the two is an eight-block stretch of C2-5 and C3-3 zoning dubbed “stay and play”—surrounding the Morgan station, it would allow for development up to 15 stories. That is higher than Google’s 10-story brick warehouse, the tallest existing building in the West Town neighborhood.

It also forbids housing along Fulton Market. And, naturally, people are concerned about parking. The new CTA stop is a boon to the neighborhood. It makes the area more accessible without meddling in its naturally thriving scene. If there is one thing that will kill a historic district’s sense of place, it is parking podiums, surface lots, and hulking garages. Sure, it will need more parking, but it is past time to relax some of the city’s parking minimums on development, especially if the goal is to preserve character.

The plan is still a work in progress, with The Department of Planning and Development very much inviting feedback from the public.