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The Biggest Urban Renewal Flubs: United Center

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In this special Curbed series, we're going to line up four nominees for biggest urban renewal flub , and on Friday we'll put it to a readers' vote. It's hard not to be partisan in making our selections, but some criteria may help. Most of these standards should be met: 1) Significant fracturing of community 2) Social engineering gone wrong 3) Extreme concentrations of poverty and/or crime 4) Wasteful land use 5) Undemocratic planning process. Today's Pick: The United Center:


[Photo by Wally Gobetz/ Flickr Creative Commons]

If you're in the vicinity of Madison & Damen, look closely and you might spot a 20,000 seat stadium with 45 acres of parking. This is the United Center, folks! Built in 1994 to replace the Chicago Stadium, it's one of the largest arenas of its kind. Seventeen years in, what are its effects on the Near West Side and what might be its legacy? In the opinion of urban planning professor Rachel Weber, given to WBEZ, neighborhood development has happened in spite of the United Center, not because of it. Spillover from the West Loop boom and from hip 'hoods to the North brought a wave of condos and townhouses to the North and South of the arena. If anything, the Center has helped thwart the westward march of gentrification by fracturing the fabric of the area.
Not an official urban renewal development (the federal program ended in the 70s), it still mimics the top-down, game-changing, and fortress-like characteristics of many institutional renewal projects from a generation earlier. It's biggest problem is its oblivious suburban-style design, planned for the convenience of car-driving fans who don't intend on lingering for a bite. Another issue is its relatively poor transit connections despite being near Green and Pink line tracks. This isn't surprising, considering transit-oriented, mixed-use development wasn't urban planning dogma just yet. The development that has occurred in the area is almost entirely residential, some of it subsidized, and all of it hemorrhaging value. If commercial developers had ever seriously considered coming to Madison, Ashland, or Damen, they're certainly not circling now.

There's an interesting design solution Curbed encountered a couple months back at CAF's "Design on the Edge" Exhibition, by Urban Lab Architecture + Design. They envision a lively and irregular multi-story barrier around the surface lot perimeter, that would itself accommodate mixed-uses. There would be passages through the barrier for cars and pedestrians alike. This could succeed in two ways: Taming the corrosive effects of the sea of parking; and supplying attractive new spaces for homes and businesses. Additionally, the speculative design calls for a new Pink Line station to serve the statium. The exhibit is ongoing.
·Examining how the United Center has impacted the Near West Side [WBEZ]
·Urban Lab Architecture + Design
·"Design on the Edge" [CAF]