Friday, September 30, 2011

Drive-thru (or at) your door.

One of the most intense work months of my career has just come to an end, and it's been obvious that it has prevented me from devoting as much time and thought to my already meager average of two blog posts a month. And I conclude September with another short(ish) post on an observation I made during a visit to Chicago, just days before I left the country for this job in Afghanistan.

It's inevitable that trendy neighborhoods such as Lakeview, where I took the pictures from this series, will attract restaurants with an understanding of the pulse of urbanity. These shrewd entrepreneurs recognize that busy foot traffic on the sidewalks is not just free publicity but also an opportunity to expand their gross leasable area ever so slightly. For every party seeking a private meal in the restaurant's darkest, most anonymous corner, another will specifically stake out the extroverted front row seats, to increase the likelihood of chance encounters with friends from the neighborhood. It fits with the coveted lifestyle of the young professional as a Lakeview yuppie fits in the seat of a Volkswagen Jetta. And what better way to maximize the chance of lassoing passers-by into the coruscating dinner conversation than by getting them before they even make it into the door of the restaurant? Thus, witness the al fresco dining options.

If the sidewalk were broad and expansive, the owners of each restaurant could probably seek a permit for the city with much more artistic license—something that allowed a greater variety of seating arrangements, some waist-high partitions, maybe some tiki torches or other mood lighting at night, perhaps even a space for a roving musician. Obviously that's not likely to be the case on this street, where an restaurateur instead must take advantage of every square inch that he or she can get during Chicago's inevitably limited al fresco dining season; not much more than one-third of the year is warm enough. The outdoor dining configuration must fall within the allowable parameters set by the city, not to interfere with pedestrian accessibility or general safety.

But, judging from the photo of the streetscape here, the City of Chicago gives quite a bit of leeway for sidewalk amenities. It appears that these improvements, whether they include the setback for al fresco dining, or bike racks, or street trees, or potted plants—all of them can claim more than fifty percent of the width of the sidewalk—the total right of way. Pedestrians can't pass more than two shoulder-to-shoulder. Quite generous for the diners and restaurant owners, and my suspicion is that the city's planners conceived these dimensions with the hopes of further stimulating pedestrian vitality in the area by catering to them so much, then forcing them close together. The fence for the outdoor dining tables may not offer any visual privacy, which isn't a problem, since customers who would choose to eat here would have few qualms about being seen by as many people as possible. However, the fence does clearly demarcate a space which its users can clearly appropriate through the duration of the meal. And it provides an attractive mount for hanging plants and flowers. The restaurant's al fresco probably only caters to two deuces—just four people—but the owners prove that they value those potential customers by the amount they have invested towards gussying it up. The resulting arrangement seems to work for everyone: the business operators get to add a few more seats, the city gets the enhanced sense of pedestrian energy that drives up real estate (and, thus, tax revenue), the restaurant's patrons get all the seating options that they can hope for.

But one party still loses: the motorists.

For all they've been able to stuff onto the sidewalk, the interplay is problematic. The al freso diners could reach out and slap the car while remaining seated at their table. And while the driver may not have a problem with this arrangement, the passenger side sure gets a bum deal.

They're stuck. No real options if you park at this space. In this particular situation, the cars seem to fall last in the pecking order. For the militant urbanist, this isn't a problem, of course: cars are the problem, and we defenders of city living should never try to accommodate them at the expense of a healthy walking environment. After all, it's quite an improvement from the sidewalk fencing in downtown Chicago that I blogged about awhile ago, which clearly did nothing more than impede pedestrians' ability to cross the street on a particular side of the intersection.

But I'm not a militant urbanist, and I can recognize the need for a less lopsided arrangement. These images reveal a real predicament for a driver, and while this might seem like an isolated incident, I'd be be willing to bet the farm (or the entire slow food movement, in this case) that Lincoln Square, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Roscoe Village, Wrigleyville, etc etc etc have plenty more examples where the the powers that be have rammed the puzzle pieces together. Cars park and the passenger can't get out because of an impediment on the sidewalk. The fact remains that this is on-street parking we're impinging upon here—the most spatially efficient kind, the easiest to integrate to a pedestrian/bicycle heavy environment, and, in many parts of Chicago, the only option on that block. Is it really in the best interest of the city to allow a streetscape improvement that effectively maims the adjacent parking spots? Sure, it won't affect the driver of the car featured in the above photos. But in a dense environment like Chicago, where parking is never that easy, cars are more likely to have a passenger (or two or three) than a typical vehicle seeking a parking space in a huge lot in suburban, car-friendly Schaumburg.

Thus, the conductor of this urban symphony failed to perceive all that forces that make the counterpoint here so delicate. I'm hardly pointing out a crisis here. It may never need intervention through new codes or revisions to the permitting process; let's hope it doesn't. The restaurant owners may soon discover the problem that these fences pose, and they may decide that it's better not to antagonize drivers seeking parking on the street right outside their window. But this arrangement demonstrates that pushing heavily in one ideological direction only results in the other agent responding with a push back, or even an antagonistic tug. Urban environments can be just as hostile to drivers as the suburbs are accused of being toward pedestrians. Streetscape improvements have the opportunity for enhancing value in a huge, largely successful metropolis just as much as they do in a neglected small town, but calibration with the scale, an awareness of the context, and a sensitivity to the consequences are all critical. This observation has about as much complexity as arguing that a dish can be seasoned too heavily, or, by contrast, it might not be seasoned enough—gosh, what an insight. Yet the most obvious juxtapositions often pass us right by, until, lo and behold, a passenger has to climb across the driver's seat to get out of the car. “Take that, Lexus-owning yuppies,” retorts the militant. “Even worse than a Jetta.” May the cooler heads prevail.