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You won’t believe why Arcade Place in Chicago’s Loop was changed from an alley to a street

The enhanced proposal for the building on the right, 230 W Monroe, was made possible by converting the alley to a “street”.

Arcade Place, for all intents and purposes, is an alley. It has Dumpsters, and loading docks. It has no sidewalks. It’s dark and probably dirty.

Yet in 1969, Alder Fred Roti passed an ordinance that gave the alley a name and street status.

Why? Because it gave an adjacent property owner the ability to get an FAR bonus and build a larger office building.

That’s not why Roti said he did it, though. “Nobody talked to me about this. I walk around the Loop all the time and I noticed this alley. It’s Arcade east and west and it didn’t make sense to me to be an alley here”, he told the Chicago Daily News.

How gracious he was to the poor alley!

There are several other “named alleys” in downtown Chicago, including Couch Place, Court Place, and Garland Court. I don’t know why they are streets.


I’m reading “Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago”, by Joseph P. Schwieterman, and Dana M. Caspall, which is full of downtown and North Side zoning change stories like the above. It’s available at the Chicago Public Library, or you can buy it right now.

A map of maps

The map of maps.

Over on my website Chicago Cityscape I’ve assembled a map of maps: There are 20,432 maps in 36 layers. You might say there are 36 maps, and each of those maps has an arbitrary number of boundaries within. I say there are 20,000+ maps because there’s a unique webpage for each of them that can tell you even more information about that map.

This post is to throw out some analysis of these maps, in addition to the simple counts above.

The data comes from the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the U.S. Census Bureau. Some layers have come from bespoke sources, including the entrances of CTA and Metra stations drawn by Yonah Freemark and me for Transit Explorer. The sections of the Chicago River were divided and sliced by the Metropolitan Planning Council. The neighborhood and business organizations layers were drawn by me, by interpreting textual descriptions of the organizations’ boundaries, or by visually copying an organization’s own map.

There are 6,879 unique words longer than 2 characters, in the metadata of this map of maps. The most common word is “annexation”, which makes sense, given that the layer with the most maps shows the 10,668 Cook County annexation actions since 1830 – the first known plat was incorporated in the City of Chicago.

The GeoJSON file, an open source, human readable GIS format, comes out to 30 MB, and it make break your browser when you try to display this layer.

The next group of words are also generic, like “planned” and “development”, related to the Planned Development kind of zoning process in Chicago – called Planned Unit Development in other jurisdictions.

After that, some names of municipalities that traded back and forth between unincorporated Cook County and incorporated municipalities are on the list.

Working down the list, however, it gets really boring and I’m going to stop. I bet if you’re a smarter data science person you can find more interesting patterns in the words, but I’ve also increased the number of generic words (like planned development) by adding these as keywords to each map’s “full text search” index, to ensure that they would respond to a variety of search phrases from users.

Inclusionary zoning calculator will tell you how many units a developer can afford to make “affordable”

An “inclusionary zoning” calculator can help you determine how much affordable housing your town should require that developers build in their new construction residential buildings.

I learned about Grounded Solutions Network’s Inclusionary Housing Calculator at the second-ever YIMBYtown conference in Oakland, California, two weeks ago.

YIMBY (yes in my back yard) is a movement to reduce barriers to building more housing in order to be able to house everyone at a level they can afford. It’s a movement for other things, and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people but the end result is that more housing needs to be built.

An interested person inputs a lot of values relevant to their local housing market into the IHC and it will calculate the cost of construction per unit and the rental income from those units, and then will figure the profit margin for the developer. What makes this “inclusionary” is that one also needs to enter the desired portion of units that are set aside as “affordable” (to people making a certain income) and subsidized by the developer’s rental income.

I put the IHC through a real world exercise by inputting as much data as I knew about a rejected proposal in Pilsen.

The first proposal from Property Markets Group had 500 units, and 16 percent of them were set aside (news on this and their subsequent proposals). Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, or ARO, requires that 10 percent of the units are affordable, and that 25 percent of those 10 percent must be built on site. The other 75 percent can be built on site, or the developer can pay an in-lieu fee per unit.

Needless to say, 16 percent on-site is much, much higher than 25 percent of 10 percent. A neighborhood organization, the Pilsen Land Use Committee, however, requires 21 percent in the area, and the city council member, Danny Solis, 25th Ward, adheres to.

PMG said they couldn’t go that high, and that’s what I wanted to test.

According to this Inclusionary Housing Calculator, could the developer make enough profit (considered as 10 percent) if the building had 21 percent of units as affordable?

In this exercise, the answer was “no, PMG could not make a profit if they had to set aside 21 percent of the units as affordable.”

But the calculator showed that they could earn a 12 percent profit if 16 percent of the units were affordable. 

Some of the inputs are actual, like the sale price of the land (found in the Illinois Department of Revenue’s transactions database), but I had to make up some inputs, including the apartments’ bedroom mix, and the future rental prices of those apartments.

Further reading

  • It’s tough for people to move into one of these set-aside apartments in Chicago (DNAinfo Chicago, July 28, 2017)
  • Inclusionary zoning cannot create enough affordable units (City Observatory, February 11, 2016)
  • Other housing cost calculators like this one (City Observatory, July 26, 2016)

360° spherical photos of Chicago from 300 feet in the air

This rad app called Hangar 360 captures a spherical photo from 300 feet in the air. If you look at them on your phone the picture takes advantage of your phone’s sensors and the image moves as your phone moves.

Click on the linked location to view the spherical photo.

Plazas at 150 N Riverside and River Point (444 W Lake St)

Wolf Point – this launch site can no longer be used because it became an active construction site for the second of three skyscrapers a couple of days ago.

Providence St. Mel and downtown Chicago

Garfield Park – one of the city’s grand parks and part of the boulevard system, or “Emerald Necklace” that connects the Northwest Side boulevards to the West Side parks of Humboldt Park and Garfield Park to the South Side parks of Douglas Park, Washington Park, and Jackson Park.

Former Ickes housing site and its relation to downtown

Ickes redevelopment site and National Teachers Academy – this site used to have over 1,000 residences owned by the Chicago Housing Authority and is going to be redeveloped into just under 1,000 units for a mixed-income community.

Smokestacks at a former incinerator in Humboldt Park

West Side incinerator – these two smokestacks remain from one of the city’s four trash incinerators, and are the subject of an upcoming story from City Bureau.

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.

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