As I continue to update this blog, I plan on coming back to the subject of 95th Street often. In many ways, it is Beverly’s Main Street. But unlike a traditional Main Street, it does a poor job fostering the spontaneous interactions among people that drive social interactions and economic activity. Instead, it does a great job funneling vehicles through and away from the neighborhood. I believe that through road design, land use and other changes, 95th Street can become the thriving place it deserves to be.
In the debates I’ve read about revitalizing 95th Street, one argument arises time and again: If we just had an anchor, it would spur all kinds of development. This argument is not unique to Beverly. As a newspaper reporter, I heard this reasoning from people in communities across the Chicago area, and you don’t have to look far to read about similar discussions occurring across the country. People seemingly everywhere like to talk about some sort of silver bullet of a development or business that will reverse decades of disinvestment, decline and botched projects. This silver bullet comes in many forms. It could be anything from a grocery store to a sports arena, a new highway to a parking garage. The truth is though, that Beverly, with its abundance of pre-World War II infrastructure, already has what it needs to be a vibrant community, and it already has a fixture that serves the goal of bringing people to our neighborhood’s main street: The 95th Street Metra station. The station is the type of public asset that most communities dream of, and it’s right under our noses. Hundreds — thousands, even — of people arrive there each week, many by foot, providing the type of critical mass of sidewalk traffic small business owners love and need. We don’t need an anchor, because we have one. There are myriad reasons why the area isn’t more vibrant with activity, but a good place to start is land use. We have designed the area around this community focal point first and foremost for cars, eating up some of the most valuable, develop-able land with parking lots, strip commercial buildings and dead zones like the small park at 95th Street and Winchester Avenue (tip: you won’t have a well-used gathering place without foot traffic).
Shifting the land use near the station could allow for more housing variety, more feet on the street and an even greater critical mass of activity that can help support the types of business we want to see — small- to mid-scale retailers that cater to our everyday needs.
Our zoning needs to allow for the development of buildings that contain retail or office space at the street level, apartments above and a minimal amount of parking (there is an abundance of both on- and off-street parking along 95th Street and just off it that is sorely underused). Residents can choose to live here without a car or with just one car and commute downtown via Metra, while business patrons can walk, bike, take public transportation from other neighborhoods or, yes, drive and park in one of the many spaces nearby. The idea that we can simply lure an “anchor” to the area that can draw people from afar and revitalize the street is a fallacy, especially if we assume most trips to this place will be by car. Planning to draw people in with more parking will further degrade the very public realm we are seeking to activate, and in the long term, it will make the area even less attractive of a place to spend time. Case in point: Borders. At one time, Borders was probably a wonderful amenity for Beverly. I personally have fond memories of spending many a Friday night browsing the shelves of the Borders near my childhood home (well, 30 minutes away) and heading home with a bagful of new music. However, even while the Beverly Borders was open, it did not singlehandedly save the neighborhood. Its positioning on the street — a front door faces away from the public realm toward a parking lot that occupies nearly two full blocks — ensured that those who arrived at Borders went only to Borders.It, in fact, deadened the street and area around it, a fact that became even more pronounced after the business closed. What we are left with is a hole in our streetwall in the form of a parking lot and an excessively large building that does not easily lend itself to adaptive reuse. Successful Chicago neighborhoods redeveloped from the inside out. These neighborhoods reached their full potential because people built on the assets they had, such as a varied housing stock, access to public transportation and a well-constructed network of buildings, streets and sidewalks that all together created an attractive public realm. They did not bait a big box store to open nearby or throw money at a vanity project hoping that it would reverse their fortunes (and they certainly did not expand parking before there was a demand for it). Beverly, to use a tired but appropriate phrase, has good bones. It has a solid street network, good transportation options and high-quality neighborhoods. We just need to refine them to help them function at their full potential.