Transforming a neighborhood of 400 neglected, dilapidated townhomes into a welcoming community that is family-friendly and walkable, and offers parks and 400 new or rehabilitated homes is a huge task no matter who undertakes it. Putting the design into the hands of nine graduate students from five Chicago-area institutions inspired new thoughts and designs that will help create a neighborhood of the future in Riverdale, Ill.
Riverdale, a community of 15,500 that abuts Chicago's South Side, is home to the Pacesetter neighborhood, a failed 1950s privately owned housing project. Pacesetter consists of two sections: one consisting of 100 brick townhomes that march along Lowe Avenue for almost the entire the length of the development, with railroad yards to the north and 138th Street to the south; and another consisting of 297 frame townhouses located on a maze of streets between Eggleston and Lowe avenues. Through the years, the Village of Riverdale and its citizens have debated strategies for improving Pacesetter, while the subdivision changed from owner-occupancy to primarily rental, the community became more transient, the homes deteriorated without repair by absentee landlords, and area crime rates rose.
In August 2003, the Campaign for Sensible Growth and the Urban Land Institute Chicago held a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) to develop an action plan and determine whether Pacesetter should be redeveloped and, if so,what public and private finance options were available for the effort. As a result of that panel and over the past two years, the village has worked through a number of issues and retained Farr Associates and Campbell Tiu Campbell to advise them on the planning and architecture.
However, the overarching question of how to redevelop the site remained.What could be rehabilitated and what needed to be razed? What families could or should be accommodated? What size and type of buildings should be built? All of these questions needed answers in the context of what was reasonably profitable for a developer.
Through the efforts of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a grant was secured from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation to support a design charrette – an intense week of planning and prototype designing produced by graduate students to create plans for a future Pacesetter neighborhood.  Two teams of students worked for seven days to create plans, then presented them to a jury of architecture experts and village officials on Jan. 10, 2005. Chicago-based professionals Susan Campbell, partner in Campbell Tiu Campbell; and Douglas Farr, principal, Farr Associates, served as jury co-chairs, and student supervisors, mentors and support staff.
The students were charged with creating plans that would transform the neighborhood into an ideal location: walkable (with a five-minute, ¼-mile “pedshed”); with parks; and able to be phased in over time. Each team was to produce a vicinity plan indicating the locations for work, shopping, transportation, school and day care, and recreation; a neighborhood plan, indicating the street grid, identifying which buildings were to remain and be renovated and which were to be new, and situating parks and open space; a written statement, explaining the theme and rationale of the plan, the financing behind the plan’s phasing, and the architecture; and a marketing piece. They were to analyze and map the area in terms of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
The results were two community plans, one for Prairie Glen, a "Green Welcoming Community," and another for "North Riverdale: A Home for Riverdale's Families." In each case, the teams retained or added to the existing number of residential units; "opened up" the development by connecting streets in the community to138th Street on the south and toward busy Halsted Street to the west; and provided a variety of housing types to accommodate the populations indicated by demographics, including larger homes for families of grandmothers (or grandparents) raising young children.
The neighborhood plan for Prairie Glen focuses around moving an existing park to the center of the new development, and building a new community center in an expanded civic campus that includes a recently build post office and police and fire station.
The Prairie Glen plan was designed to answer four concerns: wood frame units in extreme disrepair that require either extensive rehabilitation or replacement; non-resident owners/investors who control a large percentage, 60%, of units and are described as absentee owners; a neighborhood with high transiency and residents who loiter and contribute to crime; and a neighborhood disconnected from the rest of Riverdale.
A large park square was proposed forthe center of the development, with seven smaller parks sited throughout the area. This would encourage pride on the part of residents and soften the surrounding landscape throughout the development by bringing green space and nature to the community. Parks, front porches and landscaping are emphasized, to create a sense of community. A key element, which most judges noted was a good idea, was an observation deck at the north end of the site, overlooking the rail yards, which could provide an interpretive exhibit of this global center of trade.
Five types of structures were envisioned. The first suggestion was to rehabilitate and,in some cases, enlarge brick townhomes along Lowe Avenue, creating an historic district. The teamencouraged this move becausehistoric tax credit financingwould be available. The other four housing styles would be new construction: two apartment buildings along 138th street; 32 four-unit duplexes; 251 two- and three-story townhouses; and 32 single family homes, for a total of 425 units. The group suggested increasing the number of bedrooms in some buildings to three, four or three-plus; and building the apartment units to three stories with an elevator. Alleys, or “rear streets,” would be used for access to garages, and trash can storage and pick-up, which would eliminate curb cuts off the main streets, provide for pedestrian safety, and reduce clutter on the streets.
North Riverdale’s proposed plan centers around a new Community House that can be seen as one enters the development from138th Street near Halsted. 137th Street is extended through the development to connect the neighborhood to Riverdale Park and Metra service to the east.
For North Riverdale, the second team also looked to "open up" the development to reduce existing isolation, and reduce overcrowding that forces children onto sidewalks and streets and increases crime. Key features of the new development include accessibility through Community Avenue/137th Street. Traveling through the entire neighborhood, east to west, the new boulevard wouldconnect a number of community assets: the Community Resource Center, Metra’s Riverdale Station, Riverdale Park, Patton Elementary School, the proposed Community House and park, outdoor basketball courts, police and fire stations, and a potential small retail site at the intersection with Halsted Street. Community Avenue would be have extensive tree coverage, a full supply of street furniture, and broad sidewalks running along bike lanes to make the route pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, although it would be a primarily vehicular route. An additional entrance to the community would be created at 138th Street at Lowe and Parnell avenues. Alleys with garage parking would prevent congestion and allow easy garbage collection.
At the center of the plan, this team, too, created a town square park and proposed a Community House, an all-purpose recreational and educational center with gyms, meeting rooms, after-school tutoring and mentorship programs, job training, and multiple spaces for events, meetings and "just hanging out." The major difference between the two plans was that while each had a town square, Prairie Glen’s square was planned at the center of the roads, creating a "square"route map with streets going around the park, whileNorth Riverdale’s park would be situated along Community Avenue/137th Street with traditional grid roads.
Housing variety in "North Riverdale" would provide the neighborhood with a “fresh, family-focused” look. Again, Lowe Avenue would remain and be renovated, with the interior floor plates of selected units altered by combining two standard 3-bedroom townhouses into one 1-bedroom flat and one larger 4-bedroom townhouse. New townhomes, replicating the design of existing units, would be built facing the Lowe Avenue extension.
Existing framed townhouses would be demolished in limited locations. Construction of the southern park would provide an overlook and increase the sale value of new, detached single-family homes and duplexes. Along 136th Street, three 3-story apartment buildings would be opening on the north end of the neighborhood. To the west of Lowe Avenue, new, mid-priced duplexes would be constructed facing Community Avenue/137th Street and adjacent to a new park with outdoor basketball courts. In total, the plan calls for 74 single-family detached homes; 70 high-end duplexes; 135 mid-range duplexes; 94 townhomes; and 120 apartments. (See attached maps.)
Students comprisingthe Prairie Glen team were Marcus Davis, University of Illinois at Chicago - CUPPA; Niti Desai, University of Illinois at Chicago - Architecture; Hans Fedderke, Art Institute of Chicago - Historic Preservation; Lawrence Kerner, Roosevelt University - Real Estate; and Jennifer Swindlehurst, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign - Planning.
Students on the North Riverdale team were Kim Barker, Art Institute of Chicago - Historic Preservation; Ben Grubb, University of Chicago - Harris School of Public Policy; Michael Keymer, Northwestern University - J.L Kellogg Graduate School of Management; and Sonali Tandon, University of Illinois at Chicago - CUPPA.