Monday, November 7, 2016

Anatomy of a Small Urban Plaza - Jarvis Square

Aerial view looking South. Plaza outlined in green.
The outdoor seating areas along Sheridan Road aren't the only examples of unexpected urban plazas in Rogers Park.  At the southeast intersection of Jarvis and Greenview, just east of the el station, there's a 3-story brick and terracotta building that's substantially set back from Jarvis to create a generous plaza. 

As with many older Chicago neighborhoods, Rogers Park developed commercial districts around its public transit nodes. This was especially true around neighborhood el stations. Areas adjacent to stations functioned as primary or secondary commercial districts for the community, with development right up to the front property line.  The first floor would consist of storefronts and offices to serve the commuters, and affordable apartments would be found on the second and third floors above.

Detail of an 80-acre map showing subdivision setbacks.
Areas that were further away from transit were expected to develop as residential districts with single family homes, two- and three-flats, and larger apartment buildings like Chicago's classic courtyards. The density of any given street was based on the cost of the land; the more expensive the land, the greater number of units that could be expected.  Early development close to Lake Michigan consisted of single family homes.  But as the desirability of the area increased in the 1910s and 1920s, those same blocks began to support larger apartment buildings.

Zoning requirements in Chicago were only imposed in 1923, so subdivision setbacks, which were basically private agreements recorded to the parcels, were utilized to guarantee generous front yards and a consistent appearance of a block.   The map above shows lots the area immediately adjacent to the El  (with no setbacks)  while the green areas indicate a required 30 foot "front yard" setback.

Building footprints with Jarvis Square in green.
But, on rare occasions, the single family homes never moved in. The lots, which were still tantalizingly close to the public transit corridor, developed into standard mixed-use buildings with storefronts and offices on the first floor and apartments above. What would have otherwise functioned as a front yard became a private plaza. This seems to be what happened at the southeast corner of Jarvis and Greenview.

In recent years the Jarvis plaza has been recognized for the neighborhood amenity that it is.  It has been elaborately paved, filled with flowering plants and prairie landscaping, and enclosed with a decorative cast iron fence. The building's storefronts have seen a succession of quirky Rogers Park businesses including Don's Coffee Club, which was basically like awkwardly ordering coffee in someone's living room, as well as lefty used bookstores, black box theater companies, and antique shops. The plaza was even the site of the Rogers Park Prom (1996 to 2000?), a peculiar local event that seems to have faded into the mists of time. But the plaza is still there,  so perhaps the Prom will someday be revived, with a few ironic vintage prom dresses, a skilled DJ, and a dash of Rogers Park's neighborhood spirit.

View of Jarvis Square looking East.


  1. I live on a block in Rogers Park that has a restrictive covenant from 1916, before anything was built, that has the setbacks from the sidewalk in a draftsman's drawing. I used it about 10 years ago to prevent a building from being built just seven feet from the sidewalk, because the required setback was about 20 feet at that point. I was told by an attorney that if the building had been built as planned, I could've gone to court & forced it to be torn down, back to the original setback point, but it would cost me some bucks, so I let the alderman know & he told the builder to move the building back.
    To anyone that doesn't understand restrictive covenants, they run with the land forever & can only be changed if every property owner that's covered votes to change it [just one holdout can force it to stay in effect] or if it's one of those outlawed by the 1949 Supreme Court decision that banned any restrictive covenant that had a racial or religious ban in it.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I see so many buildings in RP that don't observe the recorded setbacks. I'm not sure why they weren't prevented at the permit stage, since the setback would have been represented on a plat of survey.