How great cities do not get built

March 10, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

"Here's the Deal: The Buying and Selling of a Great American City," by Ross Miller. Illustrated. Knopf. 302 pages. $27.50

For every city there is a parallel Unbuilt City - an invisible universe of office towers, hotels and other structures that never made the leap from vision to reality. For every building in downtown Baltimore that has taken shape over the last 20 years, for example, there is at least one other building that was proposed but never materialized - most commonly due to lack of funding.

In "Here's the Deal," architectural critic and urban historian Ross Miller relates the most infuriating of all tales involving Unbuilt America: a case in which grand plans are made and absolutely nothing comes of them.

Mr. Miller recounts the saga of "Block 37," a three-acre parcel in downtown Chicago that was seen as a key to revitalizing the North Loop. Because of its size and location, the author relates, the block bounded by Washington, State, Randolph and Dearborn streets had the potential to be "the most valuable property in the country." But after decades of planning, it never fulfilled its promise. If anything, it has gone backwards, because the taxpaying properties that previously occupied the block were razed to make way for new development that never occurred.

In excruciating detail, Mr. Miller follows the block's history from 00 the 1960s, when Mayor Richard J. Daley first launched plans to redevelop it, to the mid-1990s, when his son, who is now mayor, continues to search for a way to make something happen. Along the way, the author provides valuable insights about the problems that confront most American cities - loss of industry, flight of the middle class, declining demand for downtown property.

This book is depressing because it's the ultimate story in which nothing happens - the developer's version of "Waiting for Godot." Mr. Miller makes clear from the start that there are no heroes and no happy ending - only villains and victims. He keeps the story lively by weaving in well-researched anecdotes and insider information that puts the facts in context - including snippets of city history, observations about Postmodern architecture and profiles of city bureaucrats who tried to manipulate the greedy developers but ended up being manipulated themselves.

What makes this cautionary tale so instructive are not just the details of back-room wheeling and dealing that relate specifically to Chicago. It's the extent to which Mr. Miller shows how the best-laid plans can go awry in any city - and what gets lost when they do. The perspective he provides, and the questions he raises about preservation and other urban issues, make this book must reading for anyone who cares about America's cities - and what keeps them alive.

Edward Gunts writes about architecture and urbanism for The Sun. A Baltimore native, he has worked for The Sun for 12 years. Before that, for six years, he wrote for the News-American. He is also a contributing editor of Architecture magazine. He studied architecture at Cornell University.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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