City planning; Mixed-use development is not so bad

Opinion

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Alice Hohl

I'm reading this fascinating book on city planning called "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. The book is specifically about cities and not suburbs, but there are some great sections on why certain neighborhoods or streets "work" and feel safe, and others don't. Since our neighborhoods here in Forest Park are very urban, a lot of the ideas translate.

Most enlightened people understand what "mixed-use" development means, and they support it, but I'm finding it interesting to read why it works. Jacobs says streets and sidewalks feel safe and are safe when there are many pairs of eyes on them. She said shopkeepers often take an active role in watching the street and intervening when there are problems, because they have an investment in keeping the street safe, and feel ownership of it.

That's why it's important to have shops and business that are open during different hours along streets. It's a little rarer to find residents who take that same ownership. In the book, Jacobs relates a story where she was visiting an unfamiliar neighborhood and had sat down for less than a minute on a bench at a bus stop when a woman on the other side of the street flung open her third-floor window to tell her the bus didn't run on Sundays and to direct her to the nearest bus route she could use. But those neighborhoods are rare. I'd say I live in one that is not quite that involved, but we do have a lot of residents who spend time in front of their houses on nice days, sitting on the porch or doing yard work, and we all get to the know the usual teenagers and other folks hiking up to the drug store or convenience store.

The reason I bring all this up is that we have a lot of new development going on in town, and we want to make sure it all "works." The Madison street building doesn't worry me at all. There are shops on the ground floor, and restaurants and bars all up and down the street. The condos are pricey, so the people who live there may not be the type to yell out their third-floor window, or even make the effort to call the police if they see something. Jacobs said it is common for wealthier people to be less involved in keeping an eye on the street, but streets in rich neighborhoods are still safe because there are doormen and drivers and nannies and dog walkers to keep an eye on the street.

Lack of engagement with the street won't really be a problem, though, because there is so much foot traffic on Madison. And we all know it feels much safer to walk on a street with other people than to walk down a dark, empty one. When I used to go running after dark, I always made a pass down Madison Street, because I knew there were sure to be people out and it made me feel comfortable. Sure, some of them were drunk and whistled at me, but there were plenty of other people who would have come to my aid if I fell or needed water or something.

The other developments have me a little worried. The Roos Building plan has gone through so many incarnations, I cannot recall if there is a plan for a coffee shop or stores on the lower level. I hope there is. The problem with the Roos Building is the courtyard. Jacobs explains that all the insular developments that face away from the street just end up abandoning their block of street frontage, and cultivating an empty yard. The grass looks nice, but there is no reason to walk through it because there is nothing there to get to. Consequently it is a big, empty space. And big empty spaces make people feel vulnerable at night.

If the units faced onto Harrison, they would add to the bustle of kids going to and from the pool and people visiting the diner.

Even more worrisome is the townhouse development going up by the Forest Park el stop, at Abell-Howe. As far as I now, nothing commercial is planned for this area, and it will be completely isolated. Given the number of homeless people who take the el to the end of the line and then just hang around, it seems like this upscale development might not turn out to be everything the planners envisioned. Because townhouse residents don't have to mow the lawn or rake the leaves, there won't really be any reason for them to come out of their houses, except to get in their cars.

A few might walk to the library, but everything else is a bit far for the casual walker. No one will even be driving through to get somewhere else. No one really drives through my neighborhood south of Roosevelt to get anywhere else, either, but the residents are out quite a bit, doing yard work or walking to the corner store. Since there will be no yard work and no corner store, I don't envision the development as a vibrant place.

I want it to be. I want it to succeed and provide taxes to fund the village and schools, and I want it to work. But I think someone is going to have to make an effort to make that area a part of the larger Forest Park community.

Whoever gets that job might want to read Jane Jacobs.

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