Over at Streetsblog Chicago (formerly Grid Chicago), John Greenfield has written a wonderful retrospective of the failed State Street pedestrian mall and asks if and how a pedestrian State Street could be made to work today.
Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has suggested that the main problem of State Street is one of scale: State Street is so wide (about 100 feet facade-to-facade) that even with a decent number of people roaming it, it feels deserted. This is one of the perils of using density alone as a metric for urbanism: as you scale up the size of buildings, you scale up the size of space between buildings. Even if this results in a net increase in density, it may paradoxically make the environment more hostile for walkable urbanism. Streets built for people must be built to a human scale.
I’ve discussed before about how infill development could be used to turn the streets of Hyde Park into small streets by dividing our wide streets in two. This particular approach would fail on State Street for two reasons. First, as wide as downtown State Street may seem, it’s actually narrower, facade-to-facade, than many parts of many streets in Hyde Park, thanks to greenery and setbacks. Even more importantly, the vast height of the buildings on State Street would make an adjacent small street feel incredibly closed in and unfriendly
Nevertheless, small streets design can accommodate tall buildings. Nathan Lewis argues that tall buildings set back on a shorter pedestal are perfectly at home on a small street. He cites as an example the Empire State Building, which is set back on a very traditional city-like 5-story pedestal. The 100-foot State Street could be narrowed to a 30-foot pedestrian street by extending the existing buildings out by 35 feet to create 4-to-6-story pedestals, dimensions that are well within the parameters of Lewis’s designs.
Of course, there are other issues to deal with, particularly how to deal with traffic that crosses State. But ultimately, with this kind of infill development, we could have an entire small streets Loop, with vehicle traffic diverted around it. This would turn the Loop into what it should be as the center of Chicagoland’s transportation network: a vibrant, all-hours, people-centered environment, rather than another collection of stoplights for cars to drive through.