Yesterday Connolly Net Lease, the developer who has acquired the historic Fire Station No. 22 and several adjacent parcels along the 3100 block of Clairmont Avenue South, held a charrette to help determine what a new Walgreens would look like. Coming off of a contentious earlier effort (which involved demolishing the Fire Station), the new plan is at first glance more pleasing to neighbors and others: the Fire Station has been saved, and will house two of the existing businesses that will be demolished on adjacent lots (Bogue’s Restaurant and Triple Platinum Salon). Connolly said the famous Bogue’s neon sign will be preserved and move it to the Fire Station; a neighborhood landmark is preserved and will have two local businesses inside. Good. But what about the plan for the new structure and site layout?
The largest issue here is not the architecture per se (although it’s important), but the site layout itself. Above is Clairmont Avenue, looking west from the Fire Station. Note all the setbacks along the street–except for Bogue’s, whose setback is perhaps 5 feet or so, all structures are placed back 10-30 feet from the front property line. This is due in part to the fact the street was initially laid out residentially, with houses, porches, and apartment buildings. And lawns.
About 1960, the architectural firm Henry Sprott Long moved from their downtown offices to the leafier region of Clairmont Avenue, which by that point had become a less desirable residential address. They built an international style gem, with exposed steel beams, plate glass, stone veneer, and a flat roof (above). However, they were careful to respect their residential neighbors, preserving trees, keeping the scale modest–and setting the building back to match the adjacent houses.
At the design charrette, the principals of Blackmon Rogers Architects showed a site plan that has a +/- 13,500 square foot Walgreens moved all the way to the western edge of the lot, and pulled out to the sidewalk with no setback. This awkwardly hems in Henry Sprott Long. In many cases, the correct “urban” and “pedestrian-friendly” location of a commercial building is right at the sidewalk. In this case, we’re not as sure.
In the architect’s quick sketch prepared yesterday above (please note: these are very early sketches in the process), an option for the new Walgreens facade on Clairmont is illustrated. They have made an effort to bring down the height to relate to Henry Sprott Long seen at the left; what you don’t see is the shadow that would be cast on the older building which is set so much further back. And to the other side of the Walgreens is…
…a large surface parking lot, the extent of which can be seen in the second part of the sketch above (note the diminutive Fire Station to the far right). Having this much surface parking running along Clairmont is not good. If I were to redesign this site, I would place Walgreens more in the center between the international style and Spanish-style historic structures (and yes, they are both historic); I would make it longer and skinnier along Clairmont to put more mass on the street; I would set it back a very modest amount from the sidewalk; and parking would be contained at the rear. As it is, the Fire Station feels marooned in isolation at the end of the sea of parking, and Henry Sprott Long has the opposite problem: it’s being strangled by its much larger new neighbor.
While certain participants yesterday asked for “historical” elements in the design, what actually emerged as a favorite “prototype” was the new part of the Oak Park, IL Walgreens, shown above (the other part is a renovated existing historic structure). It’s decent, if conventional, corporate architecture. It’s much better than your standard Walgreens, which is good. And it’s good the neighborhood gets to have input into materials. It’s also good activists were able to save the Fire Station from demolition, and the developer plans to relocate local independent businesses there.
But the neighborhood should also insist on a better site plan. The current plan (sketched crudely above by this author) does a disservice to both historic buildings. The architects are at least on the right track with a “21st century” style that doesn’t cheapen the Fire Station by mimicking it. Hopefully, the developer will reconsider the site plan so that the block can feel more whole, and the beautiful little modernist building can breathe again.
[Thanks to Blackmon Rogers for allowing us to show the elevation sketches; Oak Park Walgreens pic courtesy of Walgreens]