The need for appropriate development at the Polish Triangle

Date: 
01/23/2010
Crown Theatre

Decades ago two neighborhood landmarks, the Division Street YMCA and the Crown Theater, which stood at the southwest corner of Ashland and Division were demolished.  When a Pizza Hut was proposed for the site, residents stood in firm opposition.  They recognized the importance of the location; its history and adjacency to the Polish Triangle warranted more than a fast food restaurant.  Sadly, the powers that be told them something to the effect of “you’re lucky to be getting anything in that neighborhood!”

AbandonedPizzaHut

Abandoned Pizza Hut with MB Bank building across Division St.

Prominent properties like this one, currently occupied by the now-abandoned Pizza Hut and the adjacent Wendy’s, have a civic value that far exceeds their monetary value.  Their ownership comes with a civic obligation that extends beyond their private use.  Corporations might argue that they are providing a product that their customers want.  That may be true, but personal transactions of fast food for money are not enough to repay the debt to the community.

Increased density, at locations such as the Polish Triangle, concentrates people where public transit options are most available.  This reduces reliance on automobiles and decreases pressure to overdevelop at the less dense neighborhood core.  Locating single-purpose, automobile-focused business at these locations squanders a scarce resource: transit proximity.  Many national retail, convenience and fast food chains fail to understand the importance of this. These corporations are some of the largest individual contributors to pollution, energy consumption and climate change.  Yet, they consistently fail to provide leadership, viewing sustainability as a marketing strategy rather than a moral obligation.  Simply put, when properties like these are underdeveloped, they are unsustainable.

In early 2007, after the Pizza Hut closed, the East Village Association organized a coalition of individuals, community organizations and chambers of commerce to call for the site to be developed as a mixed-use, high-density building of the character, scale and height of the landmarked Manufacturer’s Bank across the street.  The vision was to establish a gateway on the Polish Triangle that marked the Division Street retail district.

Later that year, Walgreens purchased the Pizza Hut property and attempted to build a prototypical freestanding building with a drive-thru, surrounded by a large parking lot.  At a mere 29’ tall, the proposed building was a full seven feet shorter than the average East Village four flat. And far from meeting the community’s demand for an edifice on the scale of the historic Manufacturer’s Bank, the proposed building would have been less than 1/3 of the square footage allowed under by the zoning ordinance.  An example of the company’s standard prototype, the building would have fronted the Polish Triangle with a gaping two-story high entrance foyer showcasing Walgreen’s trademark mortar & pestle in neon. 

Designed without recognition of its important location, this building was about establishing brand-identity for Walgreens rather than mending the urban fabric at a historic corner.  Contrast this approach with that of the landmarked Manufacturer’s Bank on the opposite side of the street.  Here the bank takes its identity from the building, not vice-versa.  Civility and restraint, values apparently lost on corporate decision makers, are what being part of a community is all about.

PolishTriWatercolor

Watercolor gives perspective to Polish Triangle

Walgreens has abandoned its plans for the building and put the property up for sale.  We can only hope that the next buyer is more sympathetic to the needs of the community.  It may take some time, but waiting for the right development, rather than acquiescing to the wrong one, is the right thing to do.  A highly profitable inappropriate use could tie up this corner for many more decades, as Pizza Hut already has.  Waiting a few years for the dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented development that this site deserves will pay dividends to the community in perpetuity.

Historic Photo: Courtesy of Sun-Times Archives

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