we are what we build

master plan (April 2012)

What follows is an op-ed piece regarding a proposed development to the former site of the Applied Composites factory in St. Charles, Illinois, as a residential project called Lexington Club (see more about it on the city website).  Although an issue of particular importance to its immediate community, it is a case study for similar developments that are unfortunately being approved all over the country. (image: from this source)

As is true of most places, the history of St. Charles is written in its buildings.  Not only are they the backdrop for the regular festivals and daily activities that draw people to the town and help to keep them here, but they are also symbols of how the city’s people have lived and what they value.  This is an obvious lesson for famous places: from the cathedrals of Europe to the casinos of Las Vegas, travelers can immediately tell what was important to the people of a place by virtue of what kinds of buildings attracted the investment of their time, effort, and money.

Likewise, the buildings of St. Charles tell its story.  From the modest start of the town (visible in two-room stone houses that dot older neighborhoods) to its rise as an entertainment destination (expressed in the extraordinary architecture of the Hotel Baker and Arcada Theater), the city’s growth and values are evident in its buildings.  Beyond these few examples stand hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of structures of diverse style, age, and use, and for all their differences, the great majority of them have in common an obvious concern for quality: quality in design, and quality in construction.  Even when buildings were economical, they prove their builders’ investment in the city, for their own use, and in preparation for the future.

We now call that concern part of “sustainability in architecture,” although that concept has been so obvious to architects and builders through most of history that they had no need to remind each other to do it.  That is not the case any more, and Lexington Club, the single largest development of residential homes to be proposed in the core of the city in many years, does not reflect the values that have long been part of St. Charles’ identity.  The design of the individual houses is a poor reflection of the city’s heritage; they are, at best, cartoons of the houses that make up the majority of St. Charles.  Their minimal variations within the enclave would actually express a dull redundancy across the project rather than connect it to its surrounding neighborhood and the abundance of architectural styles that presently are a hallmark of, and asset to, the city.  The street plan does not follow the traditions of St. Charles’ grid but rather is a low-cost, thoughtless solution that will ensure that the zone is isolated from, not knit into, the existing city.  The building materials are specifically chosen as a cheap alternative to those used throughout the city; the builder has requested a variance from the municipal building code to allow the use of substandard materials inferior to the standard set for residential construction by law.  The very name chosen for the development is isolating: “Lexington” means something in Kentucky or Massachusetts but it has no significance in Illinois; likewise, a “Club” is defined as much by the members it admits as the ones it excludes.

Just as the naming of the development reveals the degree to which the developer has no interest in the city, the choices to make the development an island of second-rate houses express miserly values of cold economy, not the concerned interests of community development.  The developers have little understanding of St. Charles except as one more mine from which to draw profit before they walk away.  They have no investment in the place except for a financial one.  And that is absolutely their right in a capitalist society.  But it is not their right (nor the right of any business) to demand a certain profit margin from the community where they offer their wares.  That is also part of capitalism: there are no guarantees that the public will buy what you are selling.  This is a point that surely the developers are not unclear about, but they have been very cunning with the means by which they have sought city assistance through variances in the zoning laws, TIF financing, and other means, to ensure profits on their investment.  The property is simply not as good an investment as it appeared to be before the bubble burst in 2008, and the developers are eager to recoup what they can.  They have tried to stretch the limits of the law to cheapen the product they are selling below the quality of what is acceptable in the city, ignored the dictates of the Comprehensive Plan and thus the voice of the community, and basically asked the city to offset their own losses.  It is their grasp for a bailout, paid for by the residents of the city.

It is past time to say no to this flawed proposal.  No is an option; no has a proud history in St. Charles.  In 1937, a proposal to build a new post office was encouraged (as the general idea of residential development on the Applied Composites site has been); but the design sent from Washington was met with immediate rejection (as the specific design by the developer has been).  The community at large refused the simple, economical box designed by an architect in a federal office hundreds of miles away because it would detract from the visual quality of the city.  Community leaders stepped forward: Mayor Ival Langum and citizens E. J. Baker and Lester Norris told the feds no, and arranged for the project that was constructed, and still stands, on Second Street: the beautiful Neo-Classical building that, even when the post office facility moved, was deemed valuable to preserve, and now houses a business (Doc Morgan).  The building is a memorial to civic engagement and strong leadership that was willing to say no to a bad idea and worked to make sure a good idea was raised in its place.

At some point the voice of the city must, finally, say no to Lexington Club.  No to a development that will flood an already bloated housing stock, no to houses that are cheap and boring, no to a development that will be physically segregated from the rest of the city, no to architecture that will fail to contribute to the character of the city.  When the parcel of land is developed, it must be done in a way that enhances, not diminishes, the city.  It is the City Council that has the power and voice to do so, to act in the stead of the people who have trusted them with their offices, and vote, not only for the current situation in mind, but also on behalf of the heritage of the city.

One might say of a city that we are what we build.  The diverse and interesting buildings of St. Charles express the many ages and characters of this special place.  The values of Lexington are not ones worth recording in built form.  The city we pass on to the next generations should express our belief in the heritage of the city and our hope for its future; it should not epitomize absence of political will and abundance of greed.


2 thoughts on “we are what we build

  1. I have two cents I would like to throw in. I live in deep south Texas about 10 miles from the Mexican border, and due to the lingering violence plaguing their country, many Mexicans are moving to this side of the border. In response to this influx, housing and condominium developments have sprung up all over the community as developers scramble. Since many of those moving are somewhat wealthy they buy whatever is available, immediately, and sometimes with all cash. This boom of immigration and liquid assets have led these developers to put up multistory boxes with little regard to what is already here. I have heard of some apartments that are 5 bedroom, 1.5 bath communes shoved into a 5 story block tower. These towers are plugged into any available, cheap space and wrapped in a green-less parking lot.
    Now the reason I describe all this is in an effort to relate to the post about how, when developers think they can get a big payday, they will completely decimate a local identity and style. Instead of creating solid structures that will reflect the surroundings and promote the beauty of the skyline, they take simplified caricatures of architecture and sell these to a populous who has no idea of the history and community they are moving to. My main point is this, developers are indeed a greedy component of the system but the system is based on the people who desire these developments. I am sure Lexington Club will probably succeed because people want cheap housing that makes them feel special. A change needs to take place in the attitude of people in order to change the attitude of the developer.
    P.S. That rant was a little long…here are two more cents.

    1. Brandon, We appreciate your extended and thoughtful response–worth way more than $0.02. It made us think of one of our favorite architecture critics, who once wrote: “To give these [buildings] symmetry and taste would not increase their cost. It would only change the arrangement of the materials, the form and combination of the members. This would often cost less than the burthen of barbarous ornaments with which these buildings are sometimes charged. But the first principles of the art are unknown, and there exists scarcely a model among us sufficiently chaste to give an idea of them.” That was Thomas Jefferson around 1781. Sadly, many builders still do not think that the expenditure of a little creativity is worth the investment.

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