Storage Wars

“Self storage units” by Hankwang – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Can a storage facility be a good neighbor?

That’s the debate playing out in Mount Greenwood as the community weighs the pros and cons of a proposal for a storage facility on a vacant parcel along 111th Street in Mount Greenwood. Reactions seem to range from “Not in my backyard” to “It’s better than nothing,” and I find myself leaning toward the latter.

I certainly understand some of the opposition. No, this wouldn’t exactly bring additional life to one of our community’s main streets, but as far as storage facilities go, it doesn’t get much better than this.

More problematic, and what I see as the story hidden within the story, is that residents’ opposition seems to have thwarted a proposal from the developer to include a retail or restaurant component, which would have made the development significantly more beneficial to the community. More on that in a minute. First, some thoughts on the storage component.

Storage facilities and warehouses, designed well, are hardly incompatible in mixed-use districts. After all, the purpose of mixing residential, commercial, office and even light industrial uses is to make a variety of everyday services convenient for people in the neighborhood. A storage facility is simply one more such use. What we have here is a building that appears to makes decent use of the footprint of its lot. Of course, I’d rather see a series of narrower buildings with a succession of storefronts that open to the street, but at the same time, we aren’t getting a development that is 70 percent surface parking. The building, as they say, completes the street. The renderings even show the possibility of a corner entrance off the sidewalk, which would bring a bit of human scale to the building.

That leads to my second point — this is an infill project. In other words, it is a new building that will occupy a vacant space in an otherwise built-out area. This is a good thing. Our walkable mixed-use corridors, are our most productive, and the more compatible development that occurs in them, the better. It’s a good thing when we intensify offerings in well-traveled places. While this segment of 111th Street isn’t as vibrant as the area several blocks to the east, it still has the potential to serve the neighborhood in a similar capacity.

This proposal not analogous to other many other single-use developments in the ward, such as the Advance Auto Parts proposed for the site of the 95th Street Metra station or the poorly planned Borders, which could finally be coming back to life after a long vacancy. Both of those developments are cases of single-use buildings and parking lots replacing existing urban fabric. They take steps backward by lessening the intensity of uses in areas that for all intents and purposes should be bustling with pedestrian activity. They reduce the value of their places. They are more like urban renewal, where the 111th Street storage facility is urban infill. Big difference.

Finally, a storage facility is hardly a noxious use that deserves to be placed far from people’s homes or even banned outright. Storage facilities don’t emit toxic fumes, they don’t generate much loud noise and they don’t even generate much vehicular traffic the way that, say, a single-story drive-thru would. The president of the company even says his facilities only see about 20 visitors a day.

This isn’t first time we are seeing a storage company interested in moving to the 19th Ward. Another facility is being built on 95th Street, and as in this case, I find myself underwhelmed but not outraged.

In general, both of these buildings could be adaptable to future uses. There is a long history in Chicago and other cities of warehouses being converted into residences, offices and retail spaces, and there is no reason we couldn’t see the same thing happen with both of these in the future.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 4.35.45 PM
River North wouldn’t be what it is today if the warehouses weren’t there first. (Google Streetview)

Before my wife and I moved to Beverly, we lived in a four-story auto-part warehouse that had been converted into apartments. Some of the units even served as live-work spaces. Besides us, our building housed a family, single residents, an insurance office, a security company, a photo studio and a recording studio. Any one of those spaces could become something different in the future. Adaptability the sign of good development. Even if it isn’t what we want today, it could turn into what we want tomorrow.

But back to that proposed retail space. According to the DNA Info story I linked to above, residents seem to have killed that component because of a common knee-jerk reaction — here and in countless other communities across the county — to assume that any addition to the neighborhood is going to cause a traffic nightmare. While I don’t want this to turn into an extended post about the parking-shortage fallacy that seems to grip neighborhoods across the county, as I have written about this before in more detail, I must say that I’m a bit confounded by these objections. In a ward where one of the chief complaints among residents is that we need more retail and restaurant options, we just turned down a proposal that could have brought something new, because parking.

In a nutshell, a collection of small businesses in a district with a limited amount of free, off-street parking actually creates a healthy business climate where on-street parking spaces routinely turn over, supporting a place that actually has a good amount of foot traffic. Providing an abundance of free, off-street parking as a solution to fighting congestion is counter-intuitive. This leads to more people driving in the neighborhood, more traffic and less pedestrian activity. Long story short, the small retail space the developer proposed would have been one more step to bringing vitality to our business districts. Both storage warehouse developments in the ward could use more ground-level retail space to liven up the street. (I highly recommend reading the works of so-called parking guru Donald Shoup and planner Jeff Speck for a more thorough explanation of the role of parking.)

In light of these developments, though, I do hope residents of our neighborhoods ask why we aren’t seeing the type of growth we do want. Why is a new storage facility the development that makes news? I strongly urge residents to consider what types of developments are zoning allows or even encourages (low-intensity, auto-centric) and who our public realm is primarily designed for (drivers). These are two neighborhood characteristics that can be altered with very little money yet would have a tremendous impact on the value of our public spaces. Taking these steps would also send a clear message to developers and business owners of what we want.

Storage warehouses? They aren’t aren’t going to bring the foot traffic, but they’re fine for what they are. Let’s just make sure that they don’t represent the best of what’s to come for our neighborhood.


One thought on “Storage Wars

  1. I agree that this is one of the least noxious forms of commercial development in terms of its impact on adjacent residential areas. Resistance to any street-level retail in the 111th St. proposal is unfortunate, because blank walls create an uninviting street presence lacking in vitality.

    I like the suggestion you make about the potential for adaptive reuse in the future, although I think it’s less likely than with vintage buildings because modern warehouses are usually of much lower construction quality than vintage ones. Too much modern commercial construction is essentially disposable.


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