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Make no concrete zoning plans

John McCarron's monthly column for the Chicago Tribune
Circle the wagons, city-lovers, they're talking about a new Master Plan for the city of Chicago.

Not that planning for the future is a bad thing. Having a general idea about how we want our city and region to develop over time is a good thing. Certain principles ought to be agreed upon, principles by which we can judge proposals for new development.

These principles should be democratically arrived at, of course. Some that would get my vote include: walk-ability, or the spatial ability to hoof it from home to school, to a restaurant, to a convenience store; proximity to public transit, which is self-explanatory; and preservation here and there of natural spaces, for reasons ranging from aesthetics to drainage.

Most people, I suspect, have their own planning principles in the back of their minds. Some prefer expansive neighborhoods with big backyards. Some would rather hit the highway to a Wal-Mart for the discounts than stroll a sidewalk to a family-owned store for warmer vibes. Many are opting for a mixed environment that lets us have it both ways. What is Starbucks, after all, but a blend of corner coffee shop and corporate predictability?

A good set of planning principles provides for all tastesand most important, city and regional plans need to be flexible. Things change. Things like the public's idea of what constitutes the good life. Things like communications technology, energy prices, real estate economics and even the makeup of the family.

All of which gets back to why Chicago ought to think twice about creating a Master Plan.

Planners at City Hall are busy rewriting the city's 44-year-old zoning ordinance. Mayor Richard M. Daley's Zoning Reform Commission has been collecting the opinions of legal experts, developers, civic types and just plain folks about changes that need to be made. But a lot of the experts, especially those who make a hobby out of city planning, claim the commission is putting the cart before the horse. They say the city needs a Master Plan before it rewrites the book-length collection of rules, classifications and maps that comprise the zoning ordinance.

There is some logic to this. It's good to have goals in mind when drafting the nitty-gritty rules and regulations that govern what can be built and where. But "master" planning entire cities is tricky business.

For instance, it is in our civic marrow to speak with reverence about Chicago's first Master Plan. As well we should, because the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett was instrumental in creating many of the amenities that make ours a world-class city: the lakefront and interior park systems, the boulevards, Wacker and Lake Shore Drives, even a procedural apparatus--the Chicago Plan Commission--to oversee implementation. But there is a downside to Burnham's legacy, for by not anticipating the impact of the automobile, or air travel or the modern skyscraper, much less the mass migration here of have-nots or of deindustrialization, the plan prepared us poorly to cope with the only true constant of modern life: change.

Likewise, the biggest failing of Chicago's still-operative 1957 zoning ordinance is its dogmatic promotion of a post-WW II vision of the ideal city known as the International Style. Its goal was to clean up crowded, noisy streets and sidewalks by rewarding developers for building glass-box skyscrapers on broad, sunlit plazas. Imagine an entire Loop of Daley Civic Centers and Sears Towers. When it turned out people actually crave the sights and smells of a lively sidewalk, not to mention walk-in places to buy a cigar or a ham sandwich, City Hall planners were forced to wink at the box-on-plaza formula and negotiate for what people really want: storefront retail, subway connections, river-edge promenades.

Nor did the 1957 vision of what makes a good neighborhood stand up. Its strict division of the city into districts for housing, commercial activity, manufacturing and recreation hardly describes how people live today. What about factory loft conversions? Business-in-the-home? Home-based or at-work child-care? Who knew in '57 that shopping malls would make obsolete much of Chicago's 700 lineal miles of retail-zoned arterials?

So please, you zoning commissioners, spare us from a new, cosmic, dawn-of-the-century Master Plan. Some thoughtful planning principles, maybe. And definitely some design guidelines to stop hack developers from jabbing cinderblock condos into stately rows of Victorian two-flats.

But make no Master Plans. They have no magic to predict what tomorrow will bring.

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