Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Raising Of "Chicago Bottoms" - Or So We Hope

I have been watching the area along Corral Street for several years, basically since they tore down the old City Hall and the Clark Street jail. With all the barren surface parking and treeless streetscape, there is little reason for many people to go there. I guess that much of the property on the south side of Corral is just waiting for the Central Christian Church to expand their religious campus.

This part of downtown used to be a hive of activity with the daily hum of city officials , court attendees and the bill payers going to the offices of the local telephone and gas companies on nearby corners. Pedestrian traffic was so heavy that there was a stoplight required at the intersection of Walnut (now MLK) and Barr. Thirty years later, this volume of activity is merely a memory to some of us.

Back when the Council was discussing the food truck issue, many of the “bricks and mortar” restaurants were pushing strongly for Corral St to be a primary location in which to place these trucks. It made no sense to me, as this is such a distant walk from anywhere people downtown currently frequent. What the street needs is something to draw activity to the area other than the regular movement of street people from Phoenix Park to the Lighthouse Ministries or the Catholic Action Center.

One good thing to happen in the area was the recent Louis Armstrong mural, with its bright, vibrant colors. It does strike me that he is looking back over his shoulder toward a section of town hich was called “Chicago Bottoms”. The housing is long gone now but the streets used to be lined with small shotgun shacks and a few rough and tumble bars. Spruce and Second Sts had some particularly deadly bars, about 80 years ago.

Neglect and the addition of downtown support businesses may have cleared the area but it sure wasn't gentrification and displacement by the trendy spots as we have seen elsewhere. Lexington's young professionals tend to shy away from here, but that is about to change.

Over the last five years or so, an LLC by the name of Lexington MLK (since changed to Urban 221 LLC) has bought up a little over 1.6 acres on N Martin Luther King, between Corral and Wickliffe, and looked to be repairing the old Columbia Gas Office. A Robert McMeekin designed structure from the early '30s, it is still in fairly good shape and solidly built. Alas, it appears that they could find no new use for the beautiful corner building.

Plans I saw today show a five story apartment building, with ground floor structured parking and providing 150 residential units. The building envelope sets right on the existing property and right-of-way lines to the extent that it will crowd the street a little more than probably necessary. Though its access is from Corral, I believe that it will front primarily on Martin Luther King but could certainly command the full corner beautifully.

I hear that these unit will be targeted toward the young urban professionals that we call the Millenials. Quite different from the single room occupancy units on the other end of Corral. One good point is the ground floor space available for amenities, but I understand that it may extend only to exercise rooms and a “dog spa”. Hardly something which can bring street front activity during the day when the residents are away working or sustain it into the evening.

All in all, I find the proposal encouraging for the area. Will Sayre School follow along with something on their parking lot? Or will the Central Christian Church fill out the other corner with an urban use which is compatible? I hate to lose a dignified building that we have, but there is much to gain and this area can use it. We have a chance to begin something nice on MLK (there is another LLC acquiring land up the block) so lets start out correctly.

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