PRETROFIT: British fast-foodie chain's Chicago locale reminds us that retrofits need not be suburban
After blitzing New York City and dipping a toe into Washington, DC, Britain's trendy quick-serve foodie chain, Pret A Manger, has opened its first shop west of the Potomoc — in Chicago's Loop. Given Pret's reputation for ethically sourced fresh delicacies — a source of comfort to our family in the chaos of Heathrow Airport — it should be a welcome option for hungry folks in the Windy City. I had a crisp, warm almond croissant there this morning.
Perhaps even better than its sandwiches and salads may be its location. In the urbanist world, the word "retrofit" is routinely joined with the word "suburban." The still counter-intuitive idea of transforming malls, business parks, race tracks and other completely auto-dependent places into walkable, mixed-use urban places has become a sensation since CNU board member Ellen Dunham-Jones and fellow professor June Williamson wrote the influential Retrofitting Suburbia a couple years ago. In another sign of the trend's stickiness, the "Sprawl Repair Manual" proposal by Galina Tahchieva of Duany Plater-Zyberk was named the People's Choice winner in Dwell's Reburbia contest.
But retrofits don't have to be suburban. The hearts of cities have plenty of underperforming auto-oriented, life-sucking places too — and Pret has just moved into one of them. Until last year, this parking garage just west of the landmark Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) on Adams Street was one of the Loop's few uncharacteristically dreary places — a dark-painted, low-slung ore freighter of a building with absolutely zero curb appeal, just some grimy street level parking stalls.
But as it happens, it was Ellen Dunham-Jones herself who first let me know that downtown garages like this were being retrofit, right along with all the malls, airports and business parks. We were chatting with Austin Chronicle writer Katherine Gregor outside a refurbished Austin music hall, when Katherine lamented a new parking structure a half-block away — a cold, single-use structure bleeding metal halide light all over the neighborhood. "Oh, those are being converted too," Ellen told us. The challenge to bringing first-floor retail uses to these decks was always the ground-floor ceiling height — high enough for cars but not for attractive stores and their ventilation systems. The retrofit strategy, she explained, was to remove the ground-floor floor parking slab and excavate enough dirt to create a walk-down first floor with high celings. That's exactly what happened at Adams and Franklin in Chicago and the retailers have followed. Score another win for urbanism and appetites — and a loss for underperforming asphalt and concrete.
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