CategoryCommentary

Yes, please, to Accessory Dwelling Units and adopting Vancouver’s policy

income property

There’s a couch house back there, providing an income opportunity for the owner of this single-family house. It’s hard to find photos of coach houses in Chicago because, given their position behind the house, it’s hard to see them from the street! Photo by Curtis Locke

I’m a huge opponent of how cities use zoning to keep densities very low and prevent people from moving into a neighborhood to enjoy high quality public schools and good access to transit. This is evidenced by many of my tweets about zoning analyses in Chicago over the last two weeks, and many blog posts I’ve written over the years.

I’m a proponent of Accessory Dwelling Units. In Chicago these are most commonly seen, in practice, as coach houses, which were built before most of us were born. ADUs, because they’re behind the primary building on a lot, are a nearly-hidden, low-impact way to provide affordable housing for a couple more people per lot without affecting the “character” of the neighborhood. And they generate rental income for the family that owns the primary building!

Coach houses, and ADUs, are illegal in Chicago. You’re allowed to keep the one you have, and it can be rented out to anyone else, so long as you don’t renovate it.

Bryn Davidson is an architect based in Vancouver, B.C., and his firm, Lanefab, designs ADUs in that city, a housing type that was legalized in 2009. He wrote an article in CityLab today and there are *so many quotable parts*.

In the article, Davidson offers five strategies for a city that’s developing an ADU legalization policy.

In the “Keep the approvals process simple” strategy, Davidson says that Vancouver’s policy means homeowners “don’t have to solicit feedback from neighbors”, adding, “The…is perhaps the most important. In North America we have a long history of granting neighbors truly extraordinary veto powers when it comes to adding new housing. Going forward, if we want to treat younger generations and renters more fairly, we need to stop trying to litigate housing on a lot-by-lot basis.”

This is one of the worst things about zoning today. Zoning is supposed to be the way that you tell property owners what they can expect to be able to build, and it’s a way for cities or residents to manage certain aspects about the way their area looks and who is living there.

But if everywhere in the city (cough Chicago cough) where people want to build is improperly zoned to begin with – for example, allowing only single-family houses near train stations in areas that have hundreds of apartment buildings that predate that zoning – you get a situation where so many property owners have to ask their city council member for a zoning change.

The next quotable is…the entire parking strategy. But here’s some choice parts:

  • “We argued at length about parking in Vancouver, but in the end, opted to require only one onsite parking space…”
  • “Some neighbors will get irate about the new competition for street parking, but here’s the counterpoint: If a neighbor is complaining about street parking, it’s because they’re using their garage…for something else”
  • “Either way, a lot of single-family-home residents are parking on city property for free while extracting extra value out of their private land.”

Chicago is experiencing gentrification, with rising property values and taxes in neighborhoods filled with households that can least afford it. Many of these households live in a single-family house – what do you think about giving them the opportunity to renovate and rent out an existing coach house in North Lawndale, or build a new coach house in Humboldt Park?

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.

They didn’t pave paradise, but they still put up a parking lot

The building

The building. Image: Cook County Assessor

Two light industrial building were purchased and demolished in order to build more car parking for WMS Gaming in the Avondale community area. Congratulations on the success of WMS Gaming that they are hiring more people, but this kind of development is transit “dis-oriented”.

Nearly an entire block face of California from Melrose to Roscoe will have a surface parking lot. Across the street to the west, and across the street to the south is entirely residential.

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development staff wrote in their report to the Chicago Plan Commission that the project “Promotes economically beneficial development patterns that are compatible with the character of existing neighborhoods (per 17-8-0103) as evidenced by the compatibility of off-street parking within the broader industrial park character of the surrounding area.”

The Plan Commission had to approve the demolition of these buildings and the additional parking lots because they were not allowed in Industrial Planned Development 1151.

The change was neither an economically productive use of the land, nor is it “compatible with the character” of half of the surrounding area.

This might be economically productive for WMS Gaming, so more of its workers can drive. But there are more ways to get around than driving.

WMS Gaming is near the 52-California bus route. It’s also two blocks from the 77-Belmont bus route and 152-Addison bus route. WMS Gaming can operate a shuttle to CTA or Metra stations.

Turning what was – and still could be – productive space has now been turned into entirely productive

There are many kinds of shared space

A guy standing in the middle of the intersection

I took this photo outside the café Memory Lane in Rotterdam because the man in the white shirt was standing in the “middle” of this intersection for a couple of minutes. Before he took this position, he was walking slowly across the intersection to the opposite corner as his car. He’s a livery driver, and he appeared to be waiting for his passenger.

This intersection is raised (the sidewalk is level with the road surface), and is uncontrolled (there are no traffic signals, stop signs, or yield signs). A bicyclist or motorist can pass through this intersection without having to stop unless someone is walking, or a bike or car is coming from their right.

This junction has no crosswalks, either. And no one honks. Especially not at the man who’s in the roadway.

Because he’s not in the roadway. He’s in a street, and streets are different. Streets are places for gathering, socializing, eating, connecting, traveling, and shopping. There was plenty of space for him to stand here, and for everyone else – including other motorists who were in their cars – to go about their business.

The best way to store directions on your smartphone is low tech

map of southern illinois as seen in the OsmAnd app

OsmAnd has great offline mapping features but it was tedious to ensure I had all of the maps at the desired zoom levels for the three-city bike ride in southern Illinois (pictured).

My friend is going to pick up a unique bicycle in Ohio and ride it back to Chicago. He designed a good route on Google Maps but now he needs to save it to his smartphone so he doesn’t have to constantly load directions and use data and waste battery life.

I gave him these instructions:

The best way to get a mobile view of the route is to use the Google Maps print feature and save it as a PDF. Then transfer that PDF to your phone through the Dropbox app. Then, in the Dropbox app, mark the PDF file as a favorite so that it’s stored offline, onto the phone.

There’s probably an app that can do what he wants, but I don’t know about it. There are hundreds of “maps” apps to sort through in each the App Store for iOS and the Play Store for Android.

In fact, I’ve downloaded OsmAnd, an offline maps app, for my Android tablet. I installed it and tried to learn how to use it in order to follow a downstate, intercity bike camping route. The app, though, required that you zoom in to each part of the map you wanted to store and then press “download”.

 

I spent 30 minutes downloading parts of the map, manually panning to the next section, before I decided to instead obtain one of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s regional bike maps and just draw it on there and write out a “cue sheet” (turn by turn directions).

Jefferson Park station renovation highlights train station planning deficiencies

Jefferson Park train station rendering

Jefferson Park train station rendering from the City of Chicago. The only difference you see is canopies. What you don’t see is a walkable connection ut thisetween shops southeast of here and the train station – they’re separated by a strip of parking.

Plans for the renovation of the Jefferson Park CTA station are illustrative of the City’s failure to think deeply about how to design the projects that is funding in a way that maximizes potential for residential and commercial development around train stations.

The changes proposed for one of Chicagoland’s most important transit centers are weak. There’s no development plan, or any kind of neighborhood plan or “Corridor Development Initiative” for the Jefferson Park transit center.

Current city policy identifies train stations as optimal places to build new housing and commercial uses.

Without challenging the design to respond to this policy the transit center will continue to use neighborhood space inefficiently and doesn’t respond to demands from residents to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety and increase economic development.

Judging by the renderings, nothing is changing at the Jefferson Park Blue Line station (4917 N Milwaukee Ave). All of the improvements save for the canopy are invisible in this rendering. The CTA’s list of improvements reads like the superficial makeover that many stations got in the Station Renewal program almost three years ago, a stopgap measure until Your New Blue could begin.

There will be LED lighting, new paint, new escalators and stairs, new paving, and a new canopy. Only a few of those things make the station easier to access and use.

Jefferson Park is a major asset to the neighborhood and the city. The station serves CTA trains, Metra trains, CTA buses, and Pace buses to Chicago’s suburbs. The CTA’s September 2014 ridership report [PDF] said there are an average of 7,420 people boarding the Blue Line here each weekday, a 0.1% increase over September 2013. It’s the busiest Blue Line station outside of the Loop and O’Hare airport.*

On Twitter I said that the station should be surrounded by buildings, not bus bays. I’m not familiar with how many routes and buses use the station daily, and I’m not suggesting that space for buses go away. I’m challenging the Chicago Transit Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to come up with a better plan for vehicle and pedestrian movements, and to start welcoming new development.

I pointed out the new Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Virginia where a residential building was constructed atop a bus bay (where I transferred from the Washington Flyer bus from Dulles). A plaza connects the bus bay to and apartment lobby and the Metrorail station.

Bus bays under an apartment building in Reston

The bus bay at the Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Reston, Virginia, is under an apartment building and plaza linking it to the Metrorail station.

The Metropolitan Planning Council conducted a consultation for the Logan Square Blue Line station – Your New Blue will make upgrades here, too – and the next door city-owned parking lot. Their consultation involved 700 people to decide what development at this station should look like. Their desires were pretty specific: there should be affordable housing, but not any higher than six stories.

The current policy, enacted as an ordinance and expressed in other city documents, allows developers to build more units in the same plot and save them and their tenants money by building less parking. But this policy is insufficient in that has no design review or public consultation attached. It also provides no zoning recommendations to expand the number of places to which it can apply.

A development plan, for which the CDI serves as a good, starting model, would bring residents – and people who want to live in the neighborhood – to discussions about if and how the neighborhood should change. It would hook into another city proposal, from the Chicago Department of Transportation, to build protected bike lanes on Milwaukee, but which ultimately failed. The process would probably uncover latent demand to build new housing in the neighborhood that’s stymied by incompatible zoning.**

The city’s recent choices for development and (lack of) urban design at this station as well as across from the Halsted Green Line station in Englewood where the city is selling vacant land to build a Whole Foods-anchored strip mall demonstrates how little deliberation there is in maximizing transit-oriented development, or TOD.

Their suburban forms are the antithesis of how we should be designing the stations and their environs – they should have higher densities and walkable places.

* Metra has published its 2014 station-level counts! This station had 599 daily boardings, yet not every train stops here. The Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) line that stops at Jefferson Park saw a 3.8% increase in ridership [PDF] from January to September 2014 versus the same period in 2013.

** There are no parcels near the Jefferson Park transit center that allow the transit-adjacent development ordinance to take effect; developers have to go through an arduous and sometimes costly process to persuade the alderman to change the zoning. The ordinance only affects Bx-3 districts (where x is 1-3 and -3 is the allowable density identifier).

Going to worship at The Beer Temple takes too long

Minor suggestion to improve Elston-California-Belmont

A map of Belmont, Elston, California with lines and labels that show how I get to The Beer Temple and where I think the city should add car parking.

The Beer Temple opened two blocks from my house in Avondale last year, at 3185 N Elston Ave, on the six-way intersection of Belmont Avenue, Elston Avenue, and California Avenue. This intersection is beastly.

And it’s timed wrong. Since I live southwest of the great craft and imported beer store and it’s on the northwest corner of Elston (a diagonal street) and California, I have to cross twice. I make the first crossing, east-west across California at my street, and then walk north to the second crossing, north-south across Elston.

I cross at my street across California because there’s no light to wait for, and the crossing isn’t diagonal like my other option at Elston (which would mean I walk north, then diagonally south and east). Once I get to Elston, though, I’m screwed because the walk signal is about 15 seconds long but the wait for the next walk signal is about 90 seconds long.

It’s so long because the green for Elston is held for Elston traffic, but also held green for eastbound Belmont traffic that makes a right turn onto southeast-bound Elston. Instead of the walk signal being green for two phases of the cycle (for two of the three streets), it’s green for only one cycle: California’s.

This is because this six-way intersection is the less common type, the type with an island in the middle. It’s got the island because the three streets cross each other at different points and don’t share a common cross point. I’ve got to wait for two phases because Elston needs to stay green for Belmont traffic because you can’t have drivers waiting in the island area – too many cars may stack up and block cross traffic during another phase.

(At many intersections I would just cross whenever there’s a gap between fast-moving cars, but with six-way intersections you don’t always know from where a car will be speeding towards you.)

I get that, but that makes it suck for walking in this area. This design also makes it suck for people biking and driving to turn left from certain streets to other streets because they can’t make the left turn and keep on going. They make the left turn and then have to stop and wait for a second phase to keep going.

I’ve racked my mind for ideas on how to improve this intersection just mildly, in such a way that few would oppose (because that’s really the threshold you can’t cross to have a nice outcome in Chicago).

My idea? Add car parking in front of Dragon Lady Lounge in the “non-identified lane” there. It’s used as a travel lane, or a right-turn lane, depending on who’s driving and how they choose to maneuver their vehicle. It’s not needed for either because of the way traffic moves southbound on Elston past Dragon Lady Lounge and that Elston only has one travel lane in each direction on either side of this big intersection.

The parking would have the obvious benefit of putting customers closer to their destination, but would have the less obvious benefits of protecting people on the sidewalk, buffering noise and speeding vehicles from sidewalk users, and slow traffic past Dragon Lady Lounge when people are parking.

Outta left field: I recreated the city’s contractor listing website

The site looks good and works quickly on mobile devices.

LicensedChicagoContractors.com looks good and works quickly on mobile devices.

I’m working on a secret project to get something installed on the public way. The process to find out how to do it is as arduous as getting it done because you never finish learning the process. Every time you think you’ve figured something out, there’s something else.

To get the secret project installed I need a licensed contractor. Not only do a need a licensed contractor, but they must have the license to do work in the public way (versus doing work at your private property).

The Chicago Department of Buildings publishes a continually updated list of licensed contractors on its website but it’s annoying to use. There’s no search, no permanent links, and if you leave the window open long enough this weird session manager kicks in and stops you from browsing to the next page of results.

I asked my followers on Twitter the best way to scrape the data. The ever-amusing Dan O’Neill, who leads the Smart Chicago Collaborative (which hosts the Chicago Crash Browser), recommended just copying and pasting all 10 pages. That would work fine for the first time, but I might need to do it a second time when the data updates. Nick Bennett jumped in and used Selenium, a tool that automates web browsers. He said, “it’s inefficient but for a small job like that I figured why bother with something faster”.

I imported the data into a MySQL table and ran through some of my “standard” data cleaning methods (like trimming leading and trailing spaces, removing odd characters, and extracting good information into other columns, like phone numbers and ZIP codes).

With PHP – my favorite web language – I created a single page website that loads all 3,930 licensed general contractors extremely fast, loads the DataTables JavaScript library to enhance the table with search and sort. I used Bootstrap to make a responsive design meaning it adjusts to fit multiple screen sizes including smartphones and tablets.

I call it LicensedChicagoContractors.com.

The new website still doesn’t solve my problem of finding a company that can do work in the public way – I’m still working on this. The last online dataset I could find is on the city’s old http://egov.cityofchicago.org domain, and was cached by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine on January 25, 2010. Ideally this information – plumbers, public way, and general contractors – should be posted on the City’s data portal.

Can you rely on Metra after hearing a story like this?

Tweet shows a different Metra line but is representative of experiences since #Chiberia began in January. 

My friend Shaun relayed this story to me about his coworker who rides Metra’s BNSF line from the Aurora/Naperville area, the commuter train in Chicagoland that carries over 300,000 people each weekday but fractions on weekends (because it rarely runs).

The train he was about to board Wednesday morning with several other people arrived and when the doors opened only one of the two sliding doors opened. The other one was stuck shut. So he “touched” it to get it to open up and the conductor yelled at him.

The conductor said “we’ve told you several times to not do that!” seemingly referring to other people who had done so, not my coworker himself. The conductor told him a guy at the last stop did that and it “broke the door.” (sounds like it already was!])

The conductor told him it would be a $500 fine if it happened again. At that point my coworker said he just shut up. When my boss tried to get on the train the conductor told him he wasn’t allowed to board! There was apparently plenty of room to get on so this was at the “conductor’s discretion.” Coworker had to wait 20 min for the next train [in single digit temperatures, no less], missed a meeting, etc…

Just completely shocked me that they wouldn’t let him on the train for pushing the door open (no sign, conductor wasn’t at the broken door to tell people not to touch it, etc.).

This started a conversation about our perceptions of Metra.

Steven: “It’s right that the new Metra CEO [Don Orseno]* wants to work on communication, but I think he needs to emphasize customer service overall.”

Shaun: “In Ogilvie Transportation Center tonight, same announcement played: ‘some trains are delayed. We will continue to update you.’

Every few minutes — no actual information. Lot of work to do I’m guessing. Wonder how many Metra people in charge ride their trains.”

Steven: “I rarely ride Metra for ‘important’ reasons (like going to work or for meetings). The last time was on the Electric to a meeting in South Shore in October.

Every time I ride I feel that the lumbering of the trains as they exit the stations (switching tracks, they sway side to side) is analogous to how Metra operates: ‘move in a slow, heavy, awkward way’.”

Shaun: “It reminds me of a novelty train ride. Like at an amusement park.

I only take it from work to home. To work is too risky. CTA is consistent (lately actually, Red Line at morning rush is so frequent I don’t even check the arrival times while walking to the station).

Kind of funny how you say you can’t rely on Metra for work or meetings, considering that’s what people use it for.

* Orseno, who’s been there for decades, said at the Metra board meeting where he was promoted to executive director from his interim position that he drives to work because the SouthWest Service “doesn’t get him to the office early enough, or home late enough” (Chicago Tribune).

However, Orseno lives in Manhattan so you can see how the infrequency would be a problem: this station only has three trains per direction per day. Remember from my previous post that Chicago rapid transit service has only shrunk since 1950. I wonder what he can do about that…

Smartphones replace cars. Cars become smartphones.

Teens’ smartphone use means they don’t want to drive. Car makers’ solution? Turn cars into smartphones.

The Los Angeles Times reported in March 2013, along with many other outlets, that “fewer 16-year-olds are rushing to get their driver’s licenses today than 30 years ago as smartphones and computers keep adolescents connected to one another.”

Smartphones maintain friendships more than any car can. According to Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd, who’s been interviewing hundreds of teenagers, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other.” (Plus not every teen needs a car if their friends have one. Where’s Uber for friends? That, or transit or safe cycle infrastructure, would help solve the “I need a ride to work at the mall” issue.)

Driving is on the decline as more people choose to take transit, bike, walk, or work from home (and not unemployment).

intel cars with bicycle parts

Marketing images from Intel’s blog post about cars becoming smartphones.

What’s a car maker to do?

The first thing a car maker does to fight this (losing) battle is to turn the car into a smartphone. It’s definitely in Intel’s interest, and that’s why they’re promoting the story, but Chevrolet will soon be integrating National Public Radio – better known as NPR – as an in-dash app. It will use the car’s location to find the nearest NPR affiliate. Yeah, my smartphone already does that.

The second thing they do is to market the product differently. Cars? They’re not stuck in traffic*, they’re an accessory to your bicycle. Two of the images used in Intel’s blog post feature bicycles in some way. The first shows a bicycle helmet sitting on a car dashboard. The second shows how everyone who works at a proposed Land Rover dealership is apparently going to bike there, given all the bikes parked at an adjacent shelter.

The new place to put your smartphone when you take the train.

* I’m looking at you, Nissan marketing staff. Your commercial for the Rogue that shows the mini SUV driving atop a train full of commuters in order to bypass road congestion (and got a lot of flack) is more ridiculous than Cadillac’s commercial showing a car blowing the doors of other cars, while their drivers look on in disbelief, in order to advertise the 400+ horsepower it has (completely impractical for driving in the urban area the commercial showcases).

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