We can actually measure the “character of the neighborhood”

The vacant lots on the 2300 block of W Erie Street are owned by the City of Chicago.

At many public meetings about development proposals, people oppose new housing on their block because it “doesn’t fit in with the character of the neighborhood”.

This is often a code or mask that the person is trying to prevent anything from changing on their block (a.k.a. NIMBY), and sometimes trying to prevent a certain kind of person (poor, Black, disabled, veteran, you name it) from living near them.

Chicago is selling six vacant lots (marked as one parcel & PIN) to a developer for $6 who will buy six single-family houses that will cost about $247,000. Only a person or family who earns up to 120 percent of the area median income could apply to purchase the house; they have to live in it for 15 years.

The other dominant building type on the block are these one-story single-family houses.

I personally think that two-flats should be built here, because land is expensive and scarce, and there should be more affordable housing everywhere in Chicago.

Are there objective ways to measure the character of a block or neighborhood? Sometimes when people say character they mean that the proposed buildings are too tall, relative to existing buildings. Other times they mean that theirs is a single-family neighborhood and thus anything with more than one unit per lot is “out of character”.

One of the common building types on the block are these masonry single-family houses.

I can measure that. I’ve started developing a query against the Cook County property tax database that Chicago Cityscape has which will count the different property types on any given block.

One of the six lots is 2327 W Erie St (it’s currently classified as “UnClassified”). Here’s a breakdown of the other property types on the block:

  • Residential garage (1 of these)
  • Apartment building with 2 to 6 units, any age (5 of these)
  • One Story Residence, any age, 1,000 to 1,800 square feet (10 of these)
  • Two or more story residence, up to 62 years of age, 2,001 to 3,800 square feet (8 of these)

The dominant building type is a single-family house smaller than 1,800 square feet. The proposed houses will have 2,500 square feet and two stories, which is similar to the characteristics of the second most present building type on the 2300 block of W Erie St.

I’ll be rolling out this feature within a couple of weeks on Chicago Cityscape after some more testing. (Right now it can only grab the properties in the red boundary on the above map, and not the corner properties that have addresses on the intersecting streets, because the query uses string matching to find addresses on “W ERIE ST” with building numbers between and including 2300 and 2399.)

Which block do you want me to test?

City selects buyer for former fire station in Rogers Park

This was originally published on Chicago Cityscape’s Medium.

The city-owned fire station at 1721 W Greenleaf Avenue in Rogers Park is set to be sold to Jim Andrews and Dean Vance (no relation). Chicago Cityscape visited the building at an open house in February.

This was the third attempt to sell the property, and the Chicago Plan Commission will review the sale at its June 15th meeting.

Photos of the fire house taken during the February 2017 open house by Justin Haugens.

The two created a website dedicated to their proposal, and published a video introducing Scott Whelan, a developer who will be helping renovate the building. Whelan’s company, Red Line Property Group, pulls building permits mostly in the Edgewater and Lincoln Square community areas.

The image on the top-left shows the original bay doors. Renderings from the buyers’ website.

Andrews and Vance will locate their existing businesses to the building, restore the façade and historic features, add a garden and greenhouse to the rooftop, and provide on-site parking for up to 10 cars. Sustainable design features include photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, passive solar hot water, and geothermal heating and cooling.

Read their full proposal.

See how Chicago is a low-rise city from this 360° photo

Smokestacks at a former incinerator in Humboldt Park

Smokestacks at a former incinerator in Humboldt Park – click through to see the 360° photo.

I love the new perspectives that taking photographs from a DJI Mavic Pro quadcopter is showing me.

Chicago is a very large city, by land area, and has a low average neighborhood density. This 360° photo, taken from the corner of Ohio Street and Kilbourn Avenue in Humboldt Park, shows the cityscape five and a half miles west of downtown Chicago. It shows the cityscape west of this point, and north and south.

A little southwest of the center point is a small group of mid-rise buildings at the west side of Garfield Park. One of the buildings, the Guyon Hotel, has been abandoned for a while, and another is a residential building for senior citizens that’s undergoing a complete renovation.

Chicago’s “four tallest skyscrapers” are easily visible in the background; from north to south you’ll see the John Hancock tower, the Trump International Hotel & Tower, the Aon Center, and the Sears (Willis) Tower.

A Green Line train zooms by industrial and residential areas on the West Side

Another short aerial video I shot this month in Chicago’s West Garfield Park community area. This part of the neighborhood has a lot of industrial uses, but which abut residential, both of which are conspicuous in the 20 second clip.

Equipment is a DJI Mavic Pro.

See beyond the Bloomingdale Trail’s west end

The wonderful Bloomingdale Trail ends at Ridgeway Avenue because any further and you would be bicycling on or next to active passenger and freight railroads.

Even if you walk up to the solstice viewing area at the terminal, which is slightly elevated above the trail level, you can’t get a good view of Chicago’s west side.

Just over the fence is the Pacific Junction where three Metra Lines here (NCS, MD-W, and UP-NW) and Amtrak run. Ten years ago, Canadian Pacific serviced industrial clients along the Bloomingdale Line branch from the junction.

Also in this video are three schools, the former Magid Glove Factory, and the Hermosa community area.

I filmed this on Friday with a DJI Mavic Pro.

The on-time trains and wonderful transit workers of Japan

I’m watching this mini-doc about the Tokyo Metro subway and they focus on customer service for a few minutes. They don’t explain why there’s a need to have so many staff at each station dedicated to customer service, aside from the plethora of passengers. I think one of the reasons is that the system is so vast and complex that so many people always have questions. Indeed I saw many Japanese confused or looking for where to go.

I experienced some of this great customer service myself. (In the video, skip to 14:00 to watch the segment on customer service training.)

I was at Ōmiya station in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, and I wanted to ride the New Shuttle a short distance from Omiya to Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan to visit the Railway Museum, but I first wanted to get a “Suica” reloadable smart card so I didn’t have to keep buying single-ride tickets.

The scene outside Ōmiya station is a lot of mixed-use and malls

Oddly I noticed at least five different kinds of ticket vending machines at different stations. They all will display in English, and a sign above each lists some of its functions. There are many overlapping machines. After I tried to buy one with one machine I asked a worker how I can buy a Suica card.

Ōmiya station (JR side)

He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese but his colleague understood my unaccented pronunciation of Suica, and informed him what I was looking for.

People wait in prescribed queues for the New Shuttle

It turns out that the machines at the New Shuttle “side” (more on this later) of the Omiya station don’t sell new Suica cards. The man walked me over to the JR side of the station and introduced me and my problem to a Japan Railways East worker. This second man spoke English and guided me through buying a personalized Suica card; a card with my name printed on it.

What was impressive was that the first man walked with me 570 feet away to the other side of the station, where he doesn’t work, instead of trying to point me in a direction. Even if he could verbally describe where I should go, that still wouldn’t solve my problem of obtaining a card because I would still probably have to ask someone else.

My personal Suica card for transit and convenience stores in Japan

This wasn’t unique in being “walked” to a destination. The next day in Chiba I bought a bento box “lunch set” (complete meal with veggies, meat, and rice) in the food hall of the Sogo department store, where there are dozens of independent shops selling fresh food.

After I bought the food I wanted to know where there was a place to eat it. Again, I didn’t speak Japanese and the woman who sold me the food didn’t speak English. I mimed my problem, by looking around, pointing, and making an eating motion. She nodded and walked me over to a small eating area at the edge of the food hall.

In Taiwan my host advised me that this would happen, and she also said to not hesitate asking someone for help. It happened one time in Taipei, but I don’t remember the circumstances. In a separate and similar occasion, however, a worker at the Taipei Discovery Center (which is similar to the city gallery in Singapore, Hong Kong, and many cities in China) approached me while I studied an exhibit. He talked to me about Taipei history, what I had seen so far during my visit (nothing, as this was my first stop on day one), what I planned to see (a lot), and then recommended more things for me to see (I checked out a couple things).

Station sides

I measured the 570 distance the New Shuttle worker walked with me to introduce me to a JR East worker who showed me how to buy a Suica card. Transit in Japan is privately operated and New Shuttle is one company (Saitama New Urban Transit Co., Ltd.) that operates one part of a station, and JR East operates the majority of the station. Tobu Railway also operates the station because it terminates a single commuter line here. Depending on how you look at it they are separate buildings but when you’re inside transferring from one to another there’s no distinction; the building connections are seamless.

Where do those weird Chicago place labels on certain maps come from?

Andrew Huff pointed out some archaic neighborhood names he saw on a map that was generated using Carto. The company’s map “tiles” use free and open source data from OpenStreetMap, “the Wikipedia of maps”.

I’m going to tell you where these names come from!

I had a similar question as Andrew several years ago. (Note: I’m a very active OpenStreetMap editor, and I add/change/delete things from the map multiple times a week.)

First, we have to find that place name in the OpenStreetMap database, after which we can discover its provenance. The best way to do this is to search Nominatim, the “debugging search engine” for OSM.

I searched for “Summerdale” because that sounds unique. The fourth result is the right match, so go ahead and open that place name’s details page.

That details page still doesn’t tell us what we need to know, but there’s a link called that starts with “node” that leads deeper into the OSM database.

On the page “Node: Summerdale (153430485)” there are a bunch of “tags” that describe this place’s record in the OSM database. Some of those tags start with “gnis”, which is an abbreviation for “GeoNames Information System”, commonly shortened to GeoNames.

GNIS is managed by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which is part of the United States Department of Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (commonly known as USGS).

We can use the GNIS Feature Search site to look up Summerdale by name or ID. (Using name is easier, and I recommend narrowing it to the state of Illinois.)

There are four results for “Summerdale” in Illinois, and two are in Cook County, and one of these is a church, and the other a “populated place”. We want the populated place result.

Here’s where our journey ends, because this result page tells the citation of how “Summerdale” got to be in a United States federal government database of place names.

Hauser, Philip M. and Evelyn M. Kitigawa, editors. Local Community Fact Book for Chicago 1950. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago, 1953. p18

You can find that book in the Newberry library. Request it on their computer and a librarian will fetch and bring it to you. I did that in 2015.

Uptown community area page in the 1950 Local Community Fact Book

Here’s what that book looks like, and you can see “Summerdale” mentioned at the end of the third paragraph on the page for the Uptown community area (which is an official place with a permanent boundary):

During the 1870’s and 1880’s, Uptown was still predominantly open country. The area east of Clark Street, from Montrose to devon, was a farming community. At each of the station that had been opened on the Chicago and Milwaukee line –at Argyle, Berwyn, Bryn Mawr and Devon Avenues–there were a few frame residences. West of Clark Street, a substantial portion of the land was swampy. Scattered settlements, chiefly the frame cottages of railroad employees, appeared along the Northwestern railroad tracks. An important factor in the growth of this area was the opening of the Ravenswood station at Wilson Avenue. The opening of another station on this line at Foster Avenue, eventually gave his to the settlement of Summerdale.

I haven’t answered Andrew’s other question, on why Lincoln Square or Uptown, official community areas with permanent boundaries, don’t show on Carto’s map.

That’s because no one has imported these boundaries or these place names into OpenStreetMap. You can do it, and here’s how.

Looking back on my winter holiday in Europe two months ago

A pretty tram in Budapest

A tram travels along the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary

I’ve posted a few articles about my trip to four countries in Europe over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so this is purely a recap to link to them.

I visited Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Germany again, and Switzerland. It was a multimodal trip by train and plane, and some local transit buses. There are hundreds of captioned photos on my Flickr, but check out these three articles:

  • Five common “best practices” that every city with a high-use transit system in Europe has that the transit agencies in Chicagoland should adopt.
  • Day 1 in Switzerland on Mapzen’s Transitland blog – I discuss how amazingly interconnected Swiss public transport systems are, and how their single schedule data source makes it possible to get a route for a journey from Zürich to the top of a nearby mountain via four modes of public transport.
  • Day 2 in Switzerland where I spent a lot of time riding trams, buses, funiculars, and a cog railway to get around Zürich and visit a couple of museums.

 

Designing a new static map style for Chicago Cityscape

I redesigned the static maps that are shown on Chicago Cityscape’s Place pages to tone down their harsh hues, and change what data (which comes from OpenStreetMap) is shown.

All 2,800 maps are automatically generated using a program called MOATP (“Map of all the places”) which is based on Neil Freeman’s svgis program. Both programs are open source.

The map now shows all roads; it was awkward to see so many empty spaces between buildings. Secondary* and residential roads are shown with slightly less thickness than primary and motorway roads. Also included are multi-use trails in parks.

Parks and grass are shown in different hues of green, although I don’t think it’s distinctive enough to know there’s a difference. Cemeteries remain a darker green.

I’ve changed the building color to soften the harsh brown. Only named buildings and schools appear, which is why you see a lot of gaps. Most buildings outside downtown aren’t named.

Retail areas have been added in a soft, salmon and tan-like color to show where “activity” areas in each Place.

I’ll be uploading the new maps soon.

* These road categories come from the OpenStreetMap “highway” tag.

Chicago’s ward boundaries should go down alleys instead of main streets

Dividing a small part of a business district, centered on one street, into three fiefdoms cannot be an efficient way to govern a neighborhood, aggregate resources, or provide services.

This graphic illustrates how many elected “stakeholders” – each with their own ideas – a city transportation department and its contracted engineers have to deal with to repave a street and rebuild the sidewalks.

The constituents are the same, however. They are all small business owners, and if you want to get together and advocate for change, you’ll have to make three different appointments.

Say the first elected official supports your small group’s proposal. Are they going to talk to the next door elected official and collaborate?

Naw. Not in Chicago. This is the city where a bike lane will be repaired on a street, but only up to the point where the fiefdom boundary ends, because the next official didn’t want to pay for the maintenance on their side.

I can see one situation where having three boundaries is good: Say one of the official is really good, responsive to needs, pushes for street upgrades, spends their discretionary funds in ways that you like, and attracts more businesses to locate there.

The next door official, however, isn’t as responsive or “good”, but they want those businesses to locate on their side of the street. They’ll become better, in essence, competing.

I don’t think this happens in Chicago, because you’ll tend to have officials who are about the same.

The depicted project was proposed a little over four years ago, and is now complete, it appears.

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