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Urban Planning Folly: The United Center and the Near West Side

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In 1992, ground broke on the United Center, a massive new arena to support ballooning demand for Bulls tickets. With the Bulls in the middle of a playoff run, WBEZ invited UIC urban planning professor Rachel Weber on this morning to talk about the impact of 'The House That Jordan Built' on the surrounding neighborhood. (Spoiler alert: It hasn't been great.)

"I would say that the development that has taken place on the Near West Side has happened in spite of the United Center, and not necessarily because of the United Center. ... The United Center is surrounded by... a sea of surface parking lots, and so, that's not exactly — typically — the kind of setup you want to have if you want a sort of more integrative neighborhood, or if you want an institution to have effects on the surrounding area." On why the United Center isn't a "neighborhood stadium":

"I don't exactly know why there wasn't more effort to integrate the United Center with the fabric; it could have been that the owners were drawing off of an earlier development style which is kind of reminiscent of urban renewal, where you build these kind of fortresses, and you surrounded them with a sea of parking lots. And that was intended to make suburban consumers — the fans — feel more comfortable. Easy in, easy out. They could drive right off the expressway; the could park; they could walk to the stadium; and they could drive back home."On what a newer model of the United Center might look like:"I think that if we saw the United Center being built today, 20 years later, you'd see a lot of different design and planning ideas. One is that idea of transit-oriented development, where you always want to have good transit links. And also the ideas that have been put forth by the New Urbanists, that you want a diverse mix of land uses and architectural styles, and you want an extant built environment and housing stock." On how civil unrest in the '60s might have influenced planning in the area:"This is a neighborhood that has really been hammered by dramatic physical transformation, not just the two stadiums, but also the civil unrest that took place in 1968 after Martin Luther King was assassinated. You also had the Henry Horner Homes being built on several acres of land, and that also led to the demolition of a lot of the existing housing stock. This is an area that has really just been battered by the waves of redevelopment, and it was the sort of historic gateway to a thriving African-American neighborhood."On factors inhibiting development today: "I think the United Center, and all of the surface parking lots around it, and the control of development that takes place around it, also leads to that kind of... If you were a commercial developer, there's still a lot of sort of instability, not really clear what the future of that neighborhood is going to look like, even though you see the sort of westward expansion of high-end residential development... Commercial developers are much more risk-averse than residential developers, so I think that's why you see a lot of new residential developments in that area; there's been a lot of new condo development, and a lot of new single-family homes and townhouses that have been built in that area, but not a whole lot of commercial development.