CITY HALL — An award-winning 2005 plan to renovate and repurpose the city's rooftop water tanks was left high and dry and ultimately all but forgotten by the city.
Beverly architect Rahman Polk won a competition sponsored by the city and the Chicago Architectural Club eight years ago to find a new purpose for rooftop water tanks. It proposed using the tanks and their platforms to expand free Wi-Fi and provide light-emitting-diode signage through power provided in part by vertical-access wind turbines.
"This was my attempt to preserve the water tanks and get the building owners to look at them as assets and not just a dangerous liability," Polk said Thursday, a day after a tank plummeted 100 feet to the ground in Lakeview, injuring three.
"When I saw this accident, I did think about that, that had they implemented my idea it might've prevented a lot of lax-maintenance issues," Polk said.
The competition was held during a vogue in interest in preserving the city's rooftop water tanks. Polk discussed his winning proposal at the opening of a 2006 exhibit on the tanks at the Cultural Center also attended by Mayor Richard M. Daley.
"I was always hoping that he'd take up the mantle and fund it," Polk said. The City Council went on to impose a 90-day delay on demolishing any rooftop water tanks later that year — an ordinance that remains in effect.
"After the competition, the idea just faded away," Polk said.
The tanks remain beloved by many architecture aficionados, and Polk said he's always shared that. "This was an issue I'd thought about prior to this competition," he added.
Polk, who works for Sandberg Architecture and Design in Ravenswood as well as doing work through Atelier Azara Architecture, said he was inspired, in part, by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, who once said one of the things that distinguished him from other artists was the inclusion of "urban detritus" in his work — like rooftop water tanks, Polk added.
"It rang true," Polk said. "If these things were slowly removed, you wouldn't really notice, but you'd have this empty feeling."
His proposal was an attempt to preserve the tanks. "I always thought that for Midwestern and Eastern cities, the so-called rust belt cities, this would be a good idea," he added.
Oddly enough, a couple of key elements of Polk's proposal have already been embraced, in other forms, by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The idea to increase free Wi-Fi to "reduce the gap between people who have the Internet and those who don't," as Polk put it, was recently cited by the mayor in bringing free Wi-Fi to the beach. And LED signs used to convey emergency alerts as well as neighborhood news were part of the freeway-billboards deal passed late last year.
"Maybe Mayor Emanuel would pick up the ball," Polk said.