Friday, September 23, 2016

Anatomy of a Small Urban Plaza

Even though American cities are primarily planned on a grid there are still idiosyncrasies in development that can allow for an unexpected amenity or two.  One of the ways in which a neighborhood rises above the unrelenting standardization of the grid is in how well local businesses recognize and utilize those spaces.

Sheridan-Columbia plaza highlighted in green.
Even in the dense areas near Lake Michigan Rogers Park has some retained some ability to bend the grid, if not actually break it.  The buildings on the west side of Sheridan between Columbia and Pratt are a good example.  The older buildings are substantially set back from Sheridan Road, creating an ideal location for a cafe or outdoor dining area.  Not all the businesses on this block take advantage of this, but those that do help to make the block attractive despite its proximity to Sheridan Road. Or perhaps because of that proximity. 

80-Acre Map detail showing subdivision setbacks in green.
Chicago established its comprehensive zoning code in 1923, but subdividers already knew restrictions could actually improve the value of their lots. Prior to Rogers Park's 1893 annexation to the City of Chicago it was subdivided in accordance with the Cook County standards defining the public rights-of-way, lot depths, block lengths, etc.  But these requirements didn't address exactly what could be built and where.

Private restrictions defining setbacks and minimum yard requirements were often recorded to the deeds of subdivision to channel appropriate development.  Those restrictions would then become part of the legal description of each parcel.

 This block (and the neighboring blocks ) were subdivided in 1890 and extensive use was made of the subdivision setback. A 30' subdivision setback line was established along Sheridan Road with 10' setbacks for the corner lots.  A 25' setback was established for Pratt and Columbia.  Interestingly, there was a diagonal setback between the lots fronting on Sheridan and those on the side streets providing a setback transition zone between the two areas.  This also made it easier to see pedestrians when coming out from the alley.

IDOT Photo detail from 1937. Overlay added to show setback.

The early development of this block was captured in a 1937 photo taken by the Illinois Department of Transportation  (Accessed through the UIC digital archives)  At that time the entire block was held to the same setback standard.  There was a vibrant mix, including a movie theater, a drug store, furrier, and even a small apartment building (you can see the steps for the apartments encroaching into the setback).  The photo looks to be taken in the fall of winter, but  there didn't appear to be much use of the plaza at this time.

Block plan showing existing development and construction dates.
The subdivision setback wasn't sacred.  Just like setbacks established by zoning ordinance there were ways it could be varied or even eliminated. Because the setback represented a private legal agreement it could be modified with the permission of the adjacent property owners.  I'm still trying to identify this exact legal mechanism, so any land-use lawyers reading this post should feel free to chime in at the comments.

In 1972 a 4-over-1 apartment building (4 floors of apartments and 1 below-grade level of parking)  was constructed in the middle of the block, extending to the front property line and disregarding the subdivision setback entirely.   But this encroachment actually provided something that the 1937 plaza was lacking- a sense of enclosure.  Without enclosure the setback just feels like an extra-wide sidewalk.

In recent years Starbucks has taken most advantage of this space, installing cafe tables, benches, and sun umbrellas.  With its proximity to Loyola University it becomes a very popular place in the warm months.  Two adjacent restaurants also make use of the plaza, although they are comparatively small.  On the north corner along Pratt there's another cafe that utilizes a portion of the setback.  Unfortunately the fence is so high that it goes beyond comfortable enclosure and makes the corner feel more like a cage. Having the opportunity for a plaza doesn't always mean establishing an outdoor room will work.  A careful balancing of space is still needed.

This isn't the only example of this type of amenity in Rogers Park.  Any favorites out there?  I'll be taking a closer look at some others in the coming months.


  1. I thought the setbacks were made with the intention of creating a boulevard.

  2. The setbacks don't affect the width of the Sheridan right-of-way and only appear sporadically on the west side. But I've never read about any plans to boulevard that portion of Sheridan...

  3. Wow, that photo looks so open. Think you're right about the set back working better for certain businesses than others. Little further south on Albion, Chipotle & bopNgrill were able to use it nicely. But when it was Budget Finer foods it just seemed like dead space for garbage to collect.

  4. I simplified the patio quite a bit. And Starbucks has really ramped up the furniture in recent years. Definitely true you don't need the space for a copy shop, laundromat or convenience store. There are probably better locations for those businesses.

  5. Larry, Kitty-corner from here on the east side of Sheridan, a four or five storefront setback was viable until the late Sixties when of course, another 4 plus 1 was built.

  6. Thanks Bob. There is one more good image of this intersection showing that corner from the IDOT collection: