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American Society of Landscape Architects


November 2006 Issue

Preemptive Park
Can a park jump-start an “instant neighborhood” in Chicago’s downtown Loop?

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Preemptive Park David B. Seide, Defined Space

It will be one of the largest urban high-rise residential developments in the country. On 28 acres, Lakeshore East in downtown Chicago will ultimately draw $4 billion in mixed-used development, including roughly 4,500 residential units, an elementary school, and street-level retail. Yet little of the building stock has been built. At the center of all this, a park was put in before the buildings—designed to jump-start an “instant neighborhood” with a central gathering point and marketable views.

This sunken, oblong, six-acre space currently floats like a green oasis at the center of raw sites for roughly a dozen residential buildings yet to come over the next 10 years. As of the fall of 2006, there are two completed projects, the 29-story Lancaster condominium tower that is now sold out and the Shoreham, an adjacent tower for rental units with a purchase option. Both buildings face the eastern edge of the park. Five additional condominium projects with views of both the park and Lake Michigan are now being marketed. With the exception of the traditional townhouse feel of the park homes, the projects are all strikingly modern and scaled at roughly 30 stories. For the best current information on projects and their design, see Lakeshore East’s web site (

Built first and opened in the summer of 2005, the park is the lure, the organizing amenity by which prospective condominium buyers can imagine a livable enclave in what has, for years, been a strange and forgotten zone of the Loop. Wedged between Lake Michigan and Michigan Avenue in one of the densest urban areas in the nation, the Lakeshore East site was, almost unbelievably, used as a par 3 golf course for years. The land, in a sense, lay “fallow” because of what architect/developer Jim Loewenberg describes as a “complete lack of street infrastructure” and access in what had once been a yard for the Illinois Central Railroad. There was another problem to redeveloping the site: a three-story grade differential between the south side of the site near Grant Park and the north side near the banks of the Chicago River that had become the site of a barren zone of parking and car impound lots.

Master planners Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) determined early on the size and shape of the park in response to the scale of proposed buildings. Tightly framed by residential buildings, the new park would be unlike any in Chicago, designed in a pastoral motif: Neither open and sweeping like Lincoln Park nor filled with high-tech public attractions such as Millennium Park, Lakeshore East’s green core resembles more New York’s Gramercy Park, a verdant square framed by residential buildings.

Yet this park is not gated or fenced, although it is a little hard to find because there is only one entry from Grant Park to the south. To the north, elevated East Wacker Drive blocks inward views and creates a confusing north entry. But, like many great urban renewal projects in history—New York’s Park Avenue built over rail tracks, London’s Mayfair and Belgravia neighborhoods—Lakeshore East has the critical mass to forge its own identity. Few Chicagoans know of the park, yet with planned farmers’ markets and thousands of future residents, word will spread. With the much-touted “greening” of Chicago, it’s also possible that Wacker Drive will be torn down someday for future open-space connections to the riverbanks.

“The topographic change was the biggest challenge,” says James Burnett, FASLA. Burnett’s office joined the design team in 2000 to refine master planner SOM’s park concept. He explains that the big design debate was whether to build up the grade to East Wacker Drive or transition it down to the ground level where the golf course once lay. “We were worried that sinking the park would create an odd connection out the back door,” he says. Indeed, there is an odd connection to the north, where visitors arrive under East Wacker Drive.

From the terrace on the south side, there is a drop of 36 feet. The cost of filling in or decking a space of this size to the level of North Field Boulevard (connecting from Grant Park) could have reached nearly $100 million. This daunting prospect had long deterred residential and commercial development as city officials and private investors puzzled over a solution. “We recognized early on that we had to get it down on the grade,” Burnett explains. Burnett’s office then spent eight months developing a grade solution, site plan, and planting design.

The solution exemplifies how, for challenging former industrial and railroad sites, urban landscape architecture must sometimes find radically three-dimensional solutions. Although Lakeshore East’s arcing paths and elliptical lawns make a strong graphic pattern in photos, the real story behind this design is seen in cross section. Burnett’s office “took the leap”—rather literally—to design at grade level by dropping the site significantly on its south side and perching a stairway at the park’s front door that connects it to Grant Park on Chicago’s downtown lakefront. This bold gesture dropped the park’s cost to less than $15 million.

Set at grade, the park is divided into six areas: the expansively named Grand Stair, Great Lawn, Ornamental Gardens, Water Gardens, Children’s Play Park, and, most pragmatic, the Dog Park. Along the way, the paths offer a changing environmental experience of each of these elements. Burnett’s office led extensive programming and shadow studies to determine where people would congregate and how future residents might use the park. The design team involved the Grant Park Advisory Board, the Chicago Park District, and neighbors in the discussions. The result is a uniquely hybrid park that fuses the “Big Idea” patterned forms and fountains of a Silicon Valley corporate campus, accessibility design for steep slopes, and the daily amenities of a neighborhood park with playgrounds for dogs and kids.

Burnett describes the site plan as a “tilted ellipse” that responds to the grade change with the Grand Stair connecting to North Field Boulevard and main pedestrian entries at the east and west sides of the park. The park, a linear space intended to foster the social networks and identity of a new urban neighborhood, has arcing paths that stretch its full length in response to anticipated “desire lines” between future buildings. Water features at each end of the park help to draw visitors into what will, in a few years, be a cool summer canopy of maples and oaks.

Whether viewed from above or experienced on foot, much of the design is about the intersection of differing materials. From above, the site plan of curving walks recalling the outlines of sailboats on the Lake Michigan horizon stands out against the lawn and bosques of trees. When experienced on foot, paving materials change in pattern, color, and hardness. Crushed gravel is used in the ornamental and water gardens as a soft yet easily maintained walking surface.

The design splits the main pathway with fountains to create an experience much like a parkway. Lannon stone edges the smaller pools while the linear spines of fountains are built of red Texas granite. Every 10 feet, stainless steel scuppers pour water into a bed of basalt rock below. When the water is shut down for the winter, the basalt stands out in the snow unless completely buried in drifts that will likely create fascinating patterns of their own. The granite and colored paving of the walks adds color throughout the year. Also adding winter texture, swamp white oaks line the center planting beds of the linear fountains. On the secondary pathways, dawn redwoods will grow to provide a soft green veil.

“The stonework was pretty intense for the entire park,” says Ernie Wong, ASLA, whose office, Site Design Group Limited, served as primary landscape architect to implement Burnett’s design concept. Building on Burnett’s design, Wong’s office refined ADA strategies such as the ramp that sweeps along the south end of the park to address the grade change.

Calling forth images of a fishing hamlet, Lakeshore East’s web site describes the project as “a lakeside village in the heart of Chicago.” The marketing text continues: “Inspired by the traditional urban neighborhood, Lakeshore East intertwines homes, services, schooling, businesses, and recreation.” In terms of scale and land use, this claim is largely true, although “traditional” urban neighborhoods were not designed and built by a single team in a short time frame. Lakeshore East resembles an established Chicago neighborhood in the way that Seaside recalls an old Florida town. But the predictable benefits of newness packaged in an older urban form have a significant lure in today’s marketplace.

The finished park is a draw for neighbors to relocate. “I have heard of people moving from adjacent buildings to this development because they love the view of the park,” Wong says. He adds that Lakeshore East will succeed as a development because of the Chicago economy’s continuing vibrancy and the allure of living in the city thanks to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s numerous design and environmental initiatives.

A planned elementary school to be located near the playground should also provide some animation and variety to the park and its surroundings. The development master plan calls for roughly 750,000 square feet of commercial space, including a grocery store and street-level storefronts such as dry cleaners and coffee shops. Time will tell if the 5,000 residential units can support such uses and whether a grocery store can thrive before the neighborhood is completed and a destination for outsiders.

As of June 2006, 55 percent of purchasers (for the 1,449 then-available units) were from Chicago’s suburbs. As with many American cities, this return to the core is a strong reflection of the growing demographic of empty nesters seeking a more urban life without the trappings of a large house. As a prepackaged “neighborhood” with the enclave feeling of a cul-de-sac, Lakeshore East makes the transition easy. There will be no street litter here, no garish signage, no rundown properties. Like a planned new town, private and public space will be maintained at a consistent level over the decades.

Yet Lakeshore East raises a question: When private developers finance a complex public park as a signature greenspace for a project, can a public agency maintain its expensive finishes and fountains over time? Without the city’s commitment to maintenance, this new park may have never gotten off the ground. But the question remains whether the Chicago Park District will be able to maintain its complex fountain mechanics, construction, and planting details. Will the Park District stock the correct sorts of colored gravel and light bulbs? Will it have the budget to maintain the fountains over many cold winters? All too often, superb works of modern landscape architecture, as seen in Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis and many of Lawrence Halprin’s designs in Denver and Seattle, fall into serious disrepair over time when left to public agency stewardship. With Lakeshore East’s design of such edges and contrasts, municipal quick fixes of asphalt patches and landscape timbers simply will not work for long.

As a marketing tool to burnish a mega-residential project, Lakeshore East’s park succeeds in attracting buyers. Its fountains, nautical details, and arcing paths help to sell the notion of living by a lake. But one can argue that the strongly graphic design is one that, with variations in plants, could be anywhere—in California, Texas, or Florida. The marketing boilerplate for Lakeshore East compares the “sailboatlike” forms of the swooping paths with the silhouettes of real vessels that can be seen on Lake Michigan’s horizon. Yet, from the ground, one has very little sense of being near the Great Lakes at all, and from above, the swoops could resemble many other things, including clouds and waves.

By historic accident, Lakeshore East survived as a large contiguous parcel until the marketplace could support a single big mixed-use project. The master plan and design created by SOM, Burnett, and Site Design Group Limited creates a new kind of London square in a midwestern city of broad parks and parkways once planned to reach outward across the prairie. Yet, in the eighteenth century and today, places of safety and quiet retreat in the city have a great allure for builders. Sometimes, landscape architecture in the urban hardscape can inject a natural maritime symbolism where none has existed for more than a century. Whether or not this park invokes the ecology and vistas of Lake Michigan, some buyers find solace here—and predictability.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian, campus planner, and regular contributor to Landscape Architecture.

Project Credits
Prime landscape architect and designer of record: Site Design Group Limited, Chicago. Design landscape architect: The Office of James Burnett, Houston/Solana Beach, California. Master plan and team lead: SOM, Chicago. Developers: The Magellan Group Limited, Chicago, and Loewenberg and Associates Inc., Chicago.

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