Urbanist Cadillac Attack!

How radical are we here at Curious Feet? Do we just like a brisk stroll once a month, or are we so hell-bent on pro-pedestrian sentiment that we become violent?

Well…. A couple of weeks ago, I spent the evening reading and I got all hopped up on Jane Jacobs and then in a blind, frothy rage, I drove a car (a Cadillac, no less) into an anti-urban, anti-pedestrian Walgreens near my home, in an attempt to destroy both in one massive fireball. Doug Duckworth has the story over at Random Talk.

Well…. Not quite. I did indeed drive Doug’s Cadillac into a Walgreens, but it was an accident which happened because I’m a very inexperienced driver. Other than minor bruises on my leg, I didn’t hurt us at all, and I didn’t damage the fugly Walgreens, either. I did, however, total the Caddy. I put its front end all in a tangle, caused both airbags to deploy, and cracked the windshield about as thoroughly as is humanly possible. For some reason, Doug opted not to murder me and is, in fact, still talking to me.

The horrendous and peculiar irony of it all is that I actually lobbied against the construction of this particular Walgreens building. It was the one on North Grand by the MLK Plaza. The cinderblock Walgreens that now stands replaced two conjoined older buildings, one of which was a very, very charming, terra cotta laden, historic storefront. The buildings were not all that far off in size from the Walgreens that was later constructed, and really a Walgreens could have easily been placed in them. The non-terra-cotta building was even a former supermarket, meaning that it was pretty much ready to go into service as a Walgreens. It even had an extant parking lot.

Placing the Walgreens in the two extant buildings would have helped maintain the character of that stretch of North Grand, which has lost so, so many commercial buildings very recently (notably the also terracottalicious Carpenters Building right across the street, which had shared some nice harmony with the creamy terra cotta of this particular storefront building when they both stood). It would have kept the materials from which the buildings were constructed out of the landfill. And it would have kept this little patch of North City, a crossing of several major streets, from looking that much more like suburban nowhereland.

And the thing is, I’ve seen Walgreenses go into historic storefronts and make the space work for their needs. I’ve also seen them build much more respectfully, with better materials and design than what they gave us last month here on the Near North Side. Walgreens should seek to reuse whereever possible and build with good urban design whenever they’ve got to build new, but the reality is that they are a big ol’ lame corporation, and they only actually try to do something decent when they are pressed by design codes and/or politicians. Other communities have chosen to respect themselves enough to press for better design; here in StL, apparently we don’t care enough to press.

I expressed these and other thoughts about the issue to then-Alderman, now License Collector Mike McMillan prior to the demolition. The project was in his ward, and he was the one presenting the Board Bill to make it happen. A neighbor and I talked about adaptive reuse and the Near North Side, and I described Walgreenses in historic buildings that I’d seen in other cities. Alderman McMillan’s response was to change the subject. Yeah.

And we all know how the story ended: Terra cotta and old growth wood were smashed and carted off to the landfill. Some brick was smashed, and other brick was palletized to be sold to wealthier cities, never to be seen on the Near North Side again. The old enameled sign was ripped down and crushed into metal shreds, since it was outfitted for character-rich neon, rather than for scrolling red LCD hideousness. And where thought-out, pretty structures had once stood, a heap of cinderblocks from St. Charles rose in their place.

And less than a month after the store opened, I drove into the side of it.

What were we doing, patronizing a building I’d fought against? Plain and simple: Show me another store that’s open after 9pm on a Sunday on the Near North Side, and I will gladly shop there. That’s part of what bothers me so much about this demolition–what with the dearth of retail on the Near North Side, it’s not as if people are going to avoid shopping at a Walgreens because it’s in some rehabbed buildings rather than a foul mess of cinderblock blandness. Au contraire: We need the Walgreens.

And are you not convinced that it was an accident? Well, if you want to see exactly how bad good my driving is, I’ll gladly get behind the wheel of your car and demonstrate for you. Just don’t ask me to take you to Walgreens.

Published in: on November 20, 2007 at 4:53 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. The “bricks” are from St. Charles Brick Company. We can’t even reuse our own bricks. We instead employ St. Charles Hicks and use their cinderblocks. Every day it seems this City simply destroys its unique regional advantage: the historic built environment. Pretty soon there will be really no reason to live here as it will look similar to O’Fallon. We can’t even do “faux historic” New Urbanism. Why would anyone want to reside in this town when everyone else, suburb and big City, is so far ahead?

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