Aging retail center receives facelift: Uptown Retail

Designing to adhere to a surrounding urban context is always an interesting challenge. It is important to be sensitive to several variables: nearby building aesthetics, historical neighborhood influences, urban design elements, and local character are a few considerations that must be held true when designing in a city. Upon being approached by GO Investments to provide a design solution for the Weiss Plaza Shopping Center in the north Chicago neighborhood of Uptown, we found that we were faced with a different type of challenge. We were to not only design to a surrounding urban context, but to do so with a building that had been renovated in such a way that it had eliminated the aesthetic which mimicked nearby buildings.

The original building (constructed by our estimation in the 1960s…though that point was unclear) had its charm, with Norman-sized brick and horizontal proportions that helped settle it into the gritty context of Uptown. However, the shopping center was renovated in the 1980’s to reflect the average style of that day – stucco badge walls, traditional cornice details, horribly top-heavy proportions. We knew this building needed help, as the design choices of the original building that helped enhance its connection to its surrounding context had been ignored in its renovation. Our task was clear: peel off the layers of crumbling stucco to reveal the original character of the building and use this as the canvas on which we will create a contextual design.

The building itself is a 20,000 SF “L” that opens to the corner of Lawrence and Sheridan roads. The intersection is busy, and the shopping center’s site serves as a reprieve from the taller buildings surrounding it. Uptown itself is a neighborhood undergoing a renaissance. It has the wear-and-tear of Chicago and is littered with self-promotional signage. Everything from business titles to bike racks to street pole banners proudly display the name of the neighborhood, and renovations are abundant.

The design staff took a look at the Uptown area and made a few assertions about the design – BRR would need to encourage the celebration of the Uptown name, utilize materials that are both modern and warm as to reinvigorate the site, utilize forms that are contemporary as to align with the progressive attitude of the neighborhood, and redefine the building’s image while still being sensitive to the original composition.

The first design move was to provide elements that would improve the building’s functionality and approachability. We added badge walls to create a variation in heights throughout the parapet line of the design. These badge walls are clad with a wood veneer material that provide warmth while remaining modern, and a unique running bond pattern provides further interest to these areas. Spanning between these walls are perforated metal panels, which provide layering and texture to the design. Lastly, a canopy spans the entirety of the façade, providing shelter to visitors, lighting to the storefront and a human perspective to the overall design. We used clear-finished metal on the modern details throughout, including on the new storefront system.

Breaking up the monotony of the building’s canopy are “ladders” – steel tube elements extending from the ground and wrapping over the canopy. Much like many elements of the building, these ladders are well-lit with accent lighting. Lighting was added to wash the wood badge walls and perforated metal sections, as well as under the new canopy.

The base building was constructed with a Norman-sized brick veneer in a buff color. We loved the horizontal nature of this brick size but felt the color of the masonry fought the urban context. We elected to stain the brick to a burgundy color, providing more connection with buildings of the surrounding neighborhood. This retained the original building material but elevated its presence on the site while also connecting it with its context.

At this point, we realized that there were two blank masonry walls facing busy streets that would provide excellent canvases for branding the building. BRR suggested a new name and designed a logo for the building, one that was simple but helped further encourage connection with the neighborhood. The owner excitedly approved, and therefore the Weiss Plaza Shopping Center became Uptown Retail. We gained the city’s approval to stencil the logo on each of the stained masonry walls facing Lawrence Avenue and Sheridan Road.

No longer does an aging, stucco-clad building sit on a busy corner in Uptown nor does it “turn its back” on the neighborhood in which it sits. Uptown Retail now embraces its surroundings and serves as a positive addition to an area on the rise.

About the author:

Jon works with multiple teams across the firm to provide high-level design services for grocery, retail, hospitality, industrial and office environments projects. He is critical to the continual evolution and implementation of our design process, and plays an essential role in developing and maintaining BRR’s brand standards for design presentations. Contact him at