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Sonoc Architects Redesigns Commerce and Industry to Coexist with Urban Neighborhoods

Even with Chicago's reputation for its architectural landmarks, massive city sculptures and diverse neighborhoods, the Windy City still has many bland and colorless areas.

But one architectural firm is changing the face of Chicago's sterile environs. Since its inception, Sonoc Architects, a Chicago-based architectural firm, has taken on a number of challenging commercial and industrial projects that have helped to harmonize the city's architecture to coexist with its changing neighborhoods.

The firm has managed to play a leading role in forging key partnerships and political alliances with neighborhood groups, city departments and local development corporations in order to make its architectural solutions satisfy both their clients and the surrounding urban communities. While any architectural firm can design a building for a client, Sonoc Architects has shown a unique talent for designing for "the big picture" - for the betterment of the City of Chicago.

In fact, many experts in the fields of architecture and real estate believe that one of the firm's recent projects - a manufacturing corridor turned into an aesthetically-pleasing and inviting urban industrial campus for the surrounding upscale neighborhoods - is a noteworthy model that could improve other urban areas throughout the nation.

With a similar philosophy, Sonoc Architects has, in progress, what may be the first architectural project in the nation to blend heavy manufacturing with affluent residential interests. Sonoc was hired to soften the industrial image of a 15-acre heavy manufacturing corridor centered at Southport and Cortland avenues, which has been the headquarters for one of the premier U.S. steelmakers, A. Finkl & Sons Co., for more than a century.

Sitting at the eastern edge of the chicago River with its northern boundary at Clybourn Avenue, the gloomy manufacturing corridor had become a sore spot for the burgeoning Lincoln Park, DePaul and Bucktown neighborhoods that contain single-family homes valued at more than half a million dollars.

Moreover, the increasingly dense population in the area was beginning to slow the residential, commercial and industrial transport systems that utilized city streets, posing safety problems for both workers and passersby.

So while continuing to make improvements to the numerous buildings owned by A. Finkl & Sons Co., Sonoc Architects designed a master plan to turn the international specialty steel manufacturing plant and its industrial neighbors into an inviting campus in accord with the affluent residential neighborhoods and commerce nearby.

Essential to the planning process, Sonoc Architects and A. Finkl & Sons Co. met with the surrounding community groups, Chicago city departments, and local development corporations such as the Leed Council to discuss their needs for the neighborhood. After obtaining feedback, the final plan called for renovating and modernizing a number of industrial buildings and streets to blend functionally and aesthetically with the growing residential neighborhoods, as well as routing traffic more efficiently.

"City officials, surrounding residents and merchants were involved in planning this redevelopment effort from the beginning," says A. Finkl & Sons President Bruce Liimatainen. "This approach ensured that everyone's design needs were met, with the result being a model that can be used successfully throughout Chicago and in other urban areas nationwide."

Today, the newly named North River Industrial Corridor sports aesthetic improvements such as sculptural steel focal points, tall campus entrance arches, historical information plaques, extensive landscaping, coordinating colors, and decorative fencing; functional improvements like improved streets, outdoor seating for pedestrians, a revitalized riverbank, and a building identification graphics series; safety improvements including additional lighting, new windows for increased vision, and industrial traffic routes; and other interesting nooks and surprises.

With most of the physical improvements to the Finkl property and the campus completed this past fall, Sonoc Architects has already made Lincoln Park, DePaul and Bucktown residents proud of their mixed industrial-residential neighborhood, and encouraged others who drive by to take another look at the formerly faceless buildings. Without a doubt, the new lively atmosphere of the urban manufacturing campus is equally the result of the innovative planning and architectural design and the community partnerships.

"The improvements give people who pass through the industrial campus a sense that they've arrived somewhere significant," says Sonoc, who planned and designed the entire industrial campus with Finkl, its industrial and commercial neighbors, and the City of Chicago. "It's a place with the vitality of an outdoor exhibition where people now feel welcome to visit and explore."

To further encourage community involvement, A. Finkl & Sons Co. leaves the large overhead doors to its manufacturing areas open when work is in progress. So at certain hours of the day and night, passersby can catch a glimpse of the thrilling steel manufacturing process - complete with flames and molten objects - as effortlessly as they might observe a baker making croissants less than a block away.

"Much to its credit, A. Finkl & Sons Co. chose to blend the interests os the adjacent neighborhoods with its manufacturing needs to assure the area's long term survival, " says Sonoc. "Finkl could have taken the easy route and isolated all of its manufacturing processes, vehicles, and workers. But a public who understands what a company does and can see its daily operations is more likely to accept and embrace it as their own."

The Illinois Landscape Contractors Association has recognized Finkl for its exceptional efforts in improving, protecting and preserving the environment through landscaping with its Landscape Contribution Award. Also, Friends of the Parks has given the Park Steward Award to the steel company for its urban industrial park design. Also, Finkl was the recipient of one of 10 Bright New City Awards. According to Sonoc, the success of the North River Industrial Corridor has been measured by public opinion, which has been overwhelmingly supportive. The project is a perfect example of Sonoc Architect's architecture, planning and design goals: creating buildings and places that heighten aesthetic awareness and foster community pride.

"I think the notion of public space is essential to any successful architectural project from industrial to commercial to residential. There's so much that people can do to make their urban surroundings more human and inviting," says Sonoc. "It's fulfilling to know that we're contributing to the tradition of the City Beautiful movement, begun here in Chicago at the turn-of-the-century by architect Daniel Burnham."

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