Chicago Suburbs Building Up, Not Out

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Highrise in Chicago suburbAcross the country, shiny new skyscrapers remain half-empty in struggling cities, vertical graveyards as testaments to overzealous development. Sure, suburbs have their own share of housing graveyards, but there used to be one big difference: those dead zones stretch out, as opposed to up.

Which is why it's such a surprise that a gleaming high-rise is going up in a Chicago suburb. Tony Oak Park is slated to get a 20-story, $85 million condo-hotel that will stand painfully close to several Frank Lloyd Wright creations, including his own small home and studio from his pre-Taliesin days.

Forget suburban sprawl. A Chicago Tribune blog post on the proposed Oak Park tower and others like it sprouting up in the Chicago suburbs calls it "the age of suburban tall."It sounds more revolutionary than it is. In fact, many suburbs have edged steadily toward urban simply by reason of migration--enough people seem to want urban amenities with the promise of the suburbs intact (this despite reports that suburbia is dead and city centers are the preferable living choice). In recent years, many municipalities have relaxed building height restrictions at the behest of developers, and there must be enough demand, because supply continues. Such development is easily visible in the suburbs of New York City, where gleaming towers promising urban amenities and fancy vertical hotels have sprung up all throughout Westchester County. And there are plenty of skyscrapers outside Chicago, too, though none so close to FLW's prized works. Which is perhaps why there are plenty of NIMBY-style objections to the project; Oak Park residents probably moved there specifically for its low-rise, low-density living.

But we're talking about blurring the line between exurbs and suburbs now, more than blurring the line between cities and suburbs: the office park architecture in low-rise land. (Meanwhile, there's plenty of that office park exurban architecture invading my own city, Brooklyn, like Bruce Ratner's Metrotech). The real ruffled feathers come from wondering if this is the wave of the suburban future: to import exurban architecture and profoundly alter the fabric of these areas.

On the one hand, such projects can be classified as virtuous "infill" development, plopping new work down atop greyfields and areas with infrastructure already laid -- more density, rather than reaching out further to grab virgin land. On the other hand, giant skyscrapers are having a tough enough time in the city, where, in theory, the demand for them still holds. Increasing density is seen as the best way to save suburbia. There's even a whole book on it, which details projects where shopping malls are razed and reborn as mixed-use mini-cities and empty McMansions can become apartments.

The Chicago Tribune concludes that suburban dwellers and planners, around Chicago at least, are confused about whether they want more urban-like living, or less.

The same might be said for urbanites. City-dwellers are hungry for suburban amenities, as evidenced by the number of New Yorkers flocking to big box stores since former Mayor Giuliani changed zoning laws to allow them in the mid-1990s. If you could manage to plop a few McMansions down where skyscrapers used to be, you'd have buyers for sure. Perhaps we want the best of both worlds.
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