CategoryGovernment

Oh, how Chicago land use is controlled by spot zoning

If you only had a zoning map to try and understand how the different blocks in the City of Chicago relate to their neighborhoods and the city at large, you might have the idea that the city has no neighborhoods, but is actually a collection of tiny, randomly dispersed zones of differing land uses.

And then when you walked those areas you’d find that the zones, which attempt to prescribe a land use, at least nominally, don’t have anything to do with the restaurant, housing, and commercial building mix of uses actually present.

No plan would have been devised to create a map like this.

Over the last five years, and surely over the last 14, the City of Chicago has been divided (really, split) into an increasing number of distinct zoning districts.

The city’s zoning map is updated after each monthly city council meeting, to reflect the numerous changes that the 50 alders have approved individually. (Their collective approval occurs unanimously in an omnibus bill.)

Every few months I ask the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) for the latest zoning map, in the form of a shapefile (a kind of file that holds geographic information that can be analyzed by many computer programs). While Chicago has one of the country’s best open data offerings, some datasets, like zoning, don’t get updated in the catalog.

There are two ways I can analyze and present the data about the quantity of zoning districts. Both, however, show that the number of distinct zoning districts has increased. This means that the city is divided even more finely than it was just six months ago.

Analysis 1: Period snapshots

I have the zoning shapefile for five periods, snapshots of the city’s zoning map at that time. From August 2012 to now, May 2016, the number of discrete zoning districts (the sum of all B3-5, RS-1, DX-7, etc. zoning classes) has increased 7.8 percent.

Period Zoning districts change

August 2012

11,278

September 2014

11,677

3.42%

June 2015

11,918

2.02%

November 2015

12,015

0.81%

May 2016

12,162

1.21%

I collect the period snapshots to show the history of zoning at a specific address or building in Chicago, which is listed on Chicago Cityscape. For example, the zoning for the site of the new mixed-use development in Bucktown that includes a reconstructed Aldi has changed four times in four years.

aldi zoning history

Analysis 2: Creation date

The zoning shapefiles also have the date at which a zoning district was split or combined to create a new district, either with a different zoning class (RT-4, C1-1, etc.) or a different shape.

With the most recent zoning shapefile I can tell how many new zoning districts were split or combined and a record representing it was added to the list. The records start in 2002, and by the end of the year 7,717 records were created.

The following year, only 14 records were added, and in 2004, only 6. The Chicago City Council adopted a rewritten zoning code in 2004, and I guess that the zoning map was modified prior to adoption. After 2004, the number of new zoning districts picks up:

year zoning districts added by splitting/combining cumulative change

2002

7717

7717

2003

14

7731

0.18%

2004

6

7737

0.08%

2005

267

8004

3.45%

2006

497

8501

6.21%

2007

561

9062

6.60%

2008

592

9654

6.53%

2009

304

9958

3.15%

2010

245

10203

2.46%

2011

271

10474

2.66%

2012

277

10751

2.64%

2013

299

11050

2.78%

2014

397

11447

3.59%

2015

367

11814

3.21%

2016

173

11987

1.46%

none listed

175

12,162

It seems there’s a light relationship between the recession that started in 2008 and the number of zoning changes made. There are more made annually before the recession than after it. It actually seems to track with building permits (sorry, no chart handy).

The U.S. DOT should collaborate with existing “National Transit Maps” makers

The U.S. DOT demonstrated one idea for how a National Transit Map might look and work at a conference in February.

The Washington Post reported this month that the United States Department of Transportation is going to develop a “National Transit Map” because, frankly, one doesn’t exist. The U.S. DOT said such a map could reveal “transit deserts” (the screen capture above shows one example from Salt Lake City, discussed below).

Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in an open letter to say that the department and the nation’s transit agencies “have yet to recognize the full potential” of a data standard called the General Transit Feed Specification that Google promoted in order to integrate transit routing on its maps. Foxx described two problems that arose out of not using “GTFS”.

  1. Transit vehicles have significantly greater capacity than passenger cars, but are often considered just vehicles because we are unable to show where and when the transit vehicles are scheduled to operate. The realistic treatment of transit for planning, performance measures, and resiliency requires real data on transit system operations.
  2. One of the most important social values of transit is that it makes transportation available to people who do not have access to private automobiles, and provides transportation options for those who do. Yet, we cannot describe this value at a national level and in many regions because we do not have a national map of fixed transit routes.

“The solution is straightforward”, Foxx continued, “[is] a national repository of voluntarily provided, public domain GTFS feed data that is compiled into a common format with data from fixed route systems.”

The letter went on to explain exactly how the DOT would compile the GTFS files, and said the first “collection day” will be March 31, this week. As of this writing, the website to which transit agencies must submit their GTFS files is unavailable.

What Foxx is asking for has already been done to some degree. Two national transit maps and one data warehouse already exist and the DOT should engage those producers, and others who would use the map, to determine the best way to build a useful but inexpensive map and database. Each of the two existing maps and databases was created by volunteers and are already-funded projects so it would make sense to maximize the use of existing projects and data.

“Transitland” is a project to host transit maps and timetables for transit systems around the world. It was created by Mapzen, a company funded by Samsung to build open source mapping and geodata tools. Transitland is also built upon GTFS data from agencies all over the world. Its data APIs and public map can help answer the question: How many transit operators serve Bay Area residents, and what areas does each service?

For the United States, Transitland hosts and queries data from transit agencies in 31 states and the District of Columbia. In Washington, D.C., Transitland is aware of four transit agencies. It’s a great tool in that respect: Not all of the four transit agencies are headquartered in D.C. or primarily serve that city. The app is capable of understanding spatial overlaps between municipal and regional geographies and transit agencies.

Transitland has a “GUI” to show you how much transit data it has around the world.

“Transit Explorer” is an interactive map of all rail transit and bus rapid transit lines in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Yonah Freemark, author of The Transport Politic, created the map using data culled from OpenStreetMap, the National Transit Atlas Database (administered by the DOT and which shows fixed-guideway transit), and his own research. I wrote the custom JavaScript code for the Leaflet-powered map.

No other agency or project has collected this much data about fixed-guideway transit lines in any of the three countries, since the map includes detailed information about line lengths, ridership, and other characteristics that are not included in GTFS data. Transit Explorer, though, does not include local bus service or service frequencies, which the DOT’s map may if it incorporates the full breadth of GTFS data.

Transit Explorer also goes a step further by providing data about under construction and proposed fixed-guideway transit lines, which is information that is very relevant to understanding future neighborhood accessibility to transit, but which is not available through GTFS sources.

Finally, “GTFS Data Exchange” is a website that has been storing snapshots of GTFS feeds from agencies around the world for almost a decade, or about as long as GTFS has been used in Google Maps. The snapshots allow for service comparisons of a single agency across time. For example, there are over 100 versions of the GTFS data for the Chicago Transit Authority, stretching back to November 2009; new versions are added – by “cta-archiver” – twice a month.

Josh Cohen, writing in Next City, highlighted the significance of Google’s invention of GTFS, saying, “Prior to the adoption of GTFS, creating such a map would’ve been unwieldy and likely produced an out-of-date product by the time it was completed.” The DOT’s own National Transit Atlas Database includes only fixed-guideway (a.k.a. trains) routes, and hasn’t been updated since 2004.

Not all GTFS feeds are created equal, though. Some transit agencies don’t include all of the data, some of which is optional for Google Map’s purpose, that would make the National Transit Map useful for the spatial analysis the DOT intends. Many agencies don’t include the “route shapes”, or the geographic lines between train stations and bus stops. Researchers are able to see where the vehicles stop, but not which streets or routes they take. Foxx’s letter doesn’t acknowledge this. It does, however, mention that transit agencies can use some federal funds to create the GTFS data.

David Levinson, professor at the University of Minnesota, believes the map will bias coverage (geographic reach of transit service) over frequency (how many buses are run each day that someone could ride).

The U.S. DOT’s chief data officer, Dan Morgan, whom I met at Transportation Camp 2015 in Washington, D.C., presented at the FedGIS Conference this year one idea to demonstrate coverage and frequency in Salt Lake City, using the GTFS data from the Utah Transit Authority.

Levinson also tweeted that it will be difficult for a national map to show service because of the struggles individual transit providers have symbolizing their own service patterns.

Foxx’s letter doesn’t describe how planners will be able to download the data in the collection, but whichever app they build or modify will cost money. Before going much further, and before spending any significant funds, Foxx should consult potential users and researchers to avoid duplicating existing projects that may ultimately be superior resources.

Foxx can also take advantage of “18F” a new agency within the General Services Administration to overcome government’s reputation for creating costly and difficult to use apps. The GSA procures all kinds of things the federal government needs, and 18F may be able to help the DOT create the National Transit Map (and database) in a modern, tech and user-friendly way – or write a good RFP for someone else to make it.

Look for the National Transit Map this summer.

Adrienne Alexander tells ChiHackNight what she does as a union lobbyist

Adrienne Alexander speaking to ChiHackNight at Braintree. Photo by Chris Whitaker.

Adrienne Alexander speaking to ChiHackNight at Braintree. Photo by Chris Whitaker.

ChiHackNight is Chicago’s weekly event to build, share & learn about civic tech. Me and 100 of my friends (50 of whom are new every week!) meet in the Braintree auditorium on Tuesday nights at 6 p.m. on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart. Sign up for notifications on upcoming presenters. The content of my blog post is derived from real-time note taking.

Adrienne Alexander, or @DriXander on Twitter, came to ChiHackNight last night to tell us about her experience as a lobbyist working for the state’s largest public employees union. She lobbies the Chicago City Council and the Illinois state legislature for bills and budget modifications that would impact the members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees council 31.

Members of AFSCME (afs-me) are staff at numerous Chicago city departments and in state government. Alexander watches new bills that come in and analyzes what their impact might have on its members.

She gave the example of the privatization legislation that she lobbied, the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance, for three years. Salon reported on the PTAO in 2013, saying, “[it] is designed to help prevent abuses of privatization, and avoid the kinds of deals negotiated in the past that were intended to help close budget deficits but turned out to be massive boons for corporations and Wall Street while losing long-term revenue for the city.”

Alexander, however, had been battling efforts to privatize city functions earlier. In 2011, she said, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to privatize the water billing group. This would have been realized by amending the budget and reducing the amount budgeted for that group of staff.

“We represented those folks”, she said. “It got a lot of aldermen upset, it was supposed to save $100,000 annually but also lay off 40 people.” It didn’t happen. And neither did the 311 privatization that Emanuel proposed in 2015 for the 2016 budget. 

Alexander said that it was hard to keep the press focused on this issue for three years, because nothing was happening. “If there’s nothing happening, they would say, then there’s nothing to write about”, she said.

It was passed in November 2015. “It’s hard to get things passed that don’t have the mayor’s support,” Alexander said. “A lot of the calls the aldermen get are not about policy, but about alleys, trash, tree trimming, these very ‘quality of life’ issues specific to their ward”. 

There’s a good reason – for them –in all of this, she explained. “You can be the most citywide alderman, really focused on policy, but if you don’t take care of the stuff in your ward then you will lose your election.”

Alexander gave some advice to ChiHackNight members who are building tools that explain why some policies aren’t working and should change. Claire Micklin asked how to get alders to “mobilize on and care about policy issues, and can they affect policy change from the ground up if the mayor isn’t necessarily generating or supporting that policy issue?”

Micklin led the development of “My Building Doesn’t Recycle”, a map where Chicagoans can report that their multi-unit building doesn’t have a third-party recycling service (required if the tenants of a building with 5 or more units request it).

Alexander said “I think there’s not so much a culture of [alders generating their own policy initiatives] here, but I think it’s possible”.

She advised Micklin, and anyone else who’s working to change a city policy, to:

  • Choose your sponsor carefully.
  • Be clear of what your expectations are, have a plan so you can help guide them
  • Have grassroots support, so it’s more than one person coming and talking to them about it
  • Make sure they’re hearing about it from different places, and find out who else they’re listening to.

In each ward, she said, there’s at least one organization that an alder really cares about, so if that organization is making something an issue, or it would be beneficial to that organization, then they could be helpful.

I’ve seen this kind of organization-derived influence a lot in property development matters. If there’s a neighborhood-based organization that purports to represent resident issues in a specific boundary, then the alder who’s receiving a new property development proposal will ask that the developer meet with the organization to gain their approval. I’ve seen situations, especially in the 1st Ward, where the alder supports the development if the organization supports the development.

Alexander concluded her response to Micklin’s question, saying, “It’s really helpful if you can do a lot of the legwork, and you can get the alderman plugged into the process.”

Which places in Chicago get the most building permits?

View from the CTA green roof

The Merchandise Mart in the Near North Side community area ranks second place in locations receiving the most building permits.

Ed. note: I changed the title of this blog post because one interpretation of the original, “Where are the most building permits issued in Chicago?”, has the answer “City Hall”, the location of the issuer. My bad. 

Without regard to type or construction cost, the most building permits in the City of Chicago are issued at 11601 W Touhy Ave.

Where is that? It depends on which geocoder you use.

Two buildings at 11601 W Touhy Ave from Google Street View. The City of Chicago has issued thousands of building permits to this address, but the work is actually distributed across the O'Hare airport grounds. Google Maps and the Cook County parcel map places these buildings in Des Plaines.

Two buildings at 11601 W Touhy Ave from Google Street View. The City of Chicago has issued thousands of building permits to this address, but the work is actually distributed across the O’Hare airport grounds. Google Maps and the Cook County parcel map places these buildings in Des Plaines.

Google Maps puts it on this building that’s on a street called “Upper Express Drive” and in the city of Des Plaines, Illinois. But the City of Chicago wouldn’t issue building permits in another city.

Our own geocoder converts the geographic coordinates given in the city’s building permits database for these permits to the address “399 E Touhy Ave, Des Plaines, IL”. The Cook County parcel for the same location has the address “385 E Touhy Ave, Des Plaines, IL”.

Now where is this building?

It’s at O’Hare airport, and it’s one of a handful of addresses* the city’s buildings departments uses to denote permits issued to work at O’Hare. Since 2006 to Saturday, December 12, 2015, there’ve been 2,403 building permits issued here. The permits’ work descriptions indicate that a lot of the work occurs elsewhere on the airport grounds.

13 buildings have had more than 400 permits issued since 2006 to yesterday.

address community area count
11601 W Touhy Ave O’Hare

2403

222 W Merchandise Mart Plz Near North Side

802

141 W Jackson Blvd Loop

538

233 S Wacker Dr Loop

518

2301 S Lake Shore Dr Near South Side

516

30 S Wacker Dr Loop

510

5700 S Cicero Ave Garfield Ridge

495

500 W Madison St Near West Side

482

227 W Monroe St Loop

422

55 E Monroe St Loop

421

875 N Michigan Ave Near North Side

408

151 E Wacker Dr Loop

407

350 N Orleans St Near North Side

401

A pattern emerges: 10 of these 13 buildings are in the Central Business District and the other three are O’Hare airport, McCormick Place (2301 S Lake Shore Drive), and Midway airport (5700 S Cicero Ave).

The first location that’s outside the Central Business District and not one of the city’s airport or its convention center is at 1060 W Addison St – better known as Wrigley Field – in the Lake View community area with 321 building permits issued. It ranks #30. If you keep running down the list, the next most frequently issued location is 7601 S Cicero Ave – that’s the Ford City Mall and I think the city’s only sprawl-style indoor mall. It ranks #39 because it pulls monthly electric maintenance permits.

The Merchandise Mart’s position at #2 is notable because the majority of its permits are for small amounts of work: there is a lot of electrical rewiring done because of the frequent shows and exhibitions in the interior design materials “mall”.

The Mart sees other activity, though, including multi-million renovations for technology companies like Motorola Mobility and Braintree. The Mart also received a permit this year for a new $3 million staircase construction, part of its building-wide renovation project.

Rendering of new main (south) lobby staircase at the Merchandise Mart

This rendering shows a new grand staircase that will be built in the Merchandise Mart’s south lobby jutting from the side of the lobby that’s between the doors on the Chicago River side, and the reception desk and central elevator bank. A building permit issued this fall puts the construction cost at $3 million.

If you want to know more about building trends in Chicago, send me a message through the Chicago Cityscape website and I can put together a custom report for you.

* Other addresses I’ve noticed are:

  • 10000 N Bessie Coleman Dr
  • 10000 W Ohare St
  • 11600 W Touhy Ave
  • 11555 W Touhy Ave

Of these only the two Touhy Ave addresses are logical: O’Hare Street isn’t a real road, and 10000 N Bessie Coleman Dr is much further north than the northernmost point in Chicago.

How to use Chicago Cityscape’s upgraded names search tool

Search for names of people who do business in Chicago.

I created a combined dataset of over 2 million names, including contractors, architects, business names, and business owners and their shareholders, from Chicago’s open data portal, and property owners/managers from the property tax database. It’s one of three new features published in the last couple of weeks.

Type a person or company name in the search bar and press “search”. In less than 1 second you’ll get results and a hint as to what kind of records we have.

What should you search?

Take any news article about a Chicago kinda situation, like this recent Chicago Sun-Times article about the city using $8 million in taxpayer-provided TIF district money to move the Harriet Rees house one block. The move made way for a taxpayer-funded property acquisition on which the DePaul/McCormick Place stadium will be built.

The CST is making the point that something about the house’s sale and movement is sketchy (although I don’t know if they showed that anything illegal happened).

There’re a lot of names in the article, but here are some of the ones we can find info about in Chicago Cityscape.

Salvatore Martorina – an architect & building permit expeditor, although this name is connected to a lot of other names on the business licenses section of Cityscape

Oscar Tatosian – rug company owner, who owned the vacant lot to which the Rees house was moved

Bulley & Andrews – construction company which moved the house

There were no records for the one attorney and two law firms mentioned.

Who are the top property owners in Cook County

235 West Van Buren Street

There are several hundred condo units in the building at 235 W Van Buren Street, and each unit is associated with multiple Property Index Numbers (PIN). Photo by Jeff Zoline.

Several people have used Chicago Cityscape to try and find who owns a property. Since I’ve got property tax data for 2,013,563 individually billed pieces of property in Cook County I can help them research that answer.

The problem, though, is that the data, from the Cook County combined property tax  website, only shows who receives the property tax bills – the recipient – who isn’t always the property’s owner.

The combined website is a great tool. Property value info comes from the Assessor’s office. Sales data comes from the Recorder of Deeds, which is another, separately elected, Cook County government agency. Finally, the Treasurer’s office, a third agency, also with a separately elected leader, sends the bills and collects the tax.

The following is a list of the top 100 (or so) “property tax bill recipients” in Cook County for the tax years 2010 to 2014, ranked by the number of associated Property Index Numbers.

Many PINs have changed recipients after being sold or divided, and the data only lists the recipient at its final tax year. A tax bill for Unit 1401 at 235 W Van Buren St was at one time sent to “235 VAN BUREN, CORP” (along with 934 other bills), but in 2011 the PIN was divided after the condo unit was sold.

Of the 100 names, DataMade’s new “probablepeople” name parsing Python script identified 13 as persons. It mistakenly identified eight names as “Person”, leaving five people in the top 100.

The actual number is closer to 90, arrived at by combining 5 names that seem to be the same (using OpenRefine’s clustering function) and removing 5 “to the current taxpayer” and empty names. You’ll notice “Altus” listed four times (they’re based in Phoenix) and Chicago Title Land Trust, which can help property owners remain private, listed twice (associated with 643 PINs).

[table id=2 /]

Use Turf to perform GIS functions in a web browser

Turf's merge function joins invisible buffers around each Divvy station into a single, super buffer.

Turf’s merge function joins invisible buffers around each Divvy station into a single, super buffer –all client-side, in your web browser.

I’m leading the development of a website for Slow Roll Chicago that shows the distribution of bike lane infrastructure in Chicago relative to key and specific demographics to demonstrate if the investment has been equitable.

We’re using GitHub to store code, publish meeting notes, and host discussions with the issues tracker. Communication is done almost entirely in GitHub issues. I chose GitHub over Slack and Google Groups because:

  1. All of our research and code should be public and open source so it’s clear how we made our assumptions and came to our conclusions (“show your work”).
  2. Using git, GitHub, and version control is a desirable skill and more people should learn it; this project will help people apply that skill.
  3. There are no emails involved. I deplore using email for group communication.*

The website focuses on using empirical research, maps, geographic analysis to tell the story of bike lane distribution and requires processing this data using GIS functions. Normally the data would be transformed in a desktop GIS software like QGIS and then converted to a format that can be used in Leaflet, an open source web mapping library.

Relying on desktop software, though, slows down development of new ways to slice and dice geographic data, which, in our map, includes bike lanes, wards, Census tracts, Divvy stations, and grocery stores (so far). One would have to generate a new dataset if our goals or needs changed .

I’ve built maps for images and the web that way enough in the past and I wanted to move away from that method for this project and we’re using Turf.js to replicate many GIS functions – but in the browser.

Yep, Turf makes it possible to merge, buffer, contain, calculate distance, transform, dissolve, and perform dozens of other functions all within the browser, “on the fly”, without any software.

After dilly-dallying in Turf for several weeks, our group started making progress this month. We have now pushed to our in-progress website a map with three features made possible by Turf:

  1. Buffer and dissolving buffers to show the Divvy station walk shed, the distance a reasonable person would walk from their home or office to check out a Divvy station. A buffer of 0.25 miles (two Chicago blocks) is created around each of the 300 Divvy stations, hidden from display, and then merged (dissolved in traditional GIS parlance) into a single buffer. The single buffer –called a “super buffer” in our source code – is used for another feature. Currently the projection is messed up and you see ellipsoid shapes instead of circles.
  2. Counting grocery stores in the Divvy station walk shed. We use the “feature collection” function to convert the super buffer into an object that the “within” function can use to compare to a GeoJSON object of grocery stores. This process is similar to the “select by location” function in GIS software. Right now this number is printed only to the console as we look for the best way to display stats like this to the user. A future version of the map could allow the user to change the 0.25 miles distance to an arbitrary distance they prefer.
  3. Find the nearest Divvy station from any place on the map. Using Turf’s “nearest” function and the Context Menu plugin for Leaflet, the user can right-click anywhere on the map and choose “Find nearby Divvy stations”. The “nearest” function compares the place where the user clicked against the GeoJSON object of Divvy stations to select the nearest one. The problem of locating 2+ nearby Divvy stations remains. The original issue asked to find the number of Divvy stations near the point; we’ll likely accomplish this by drawing an invisible, temporary buffer around the point and then using “within” to count the number of stations inside that buffer and then destroy the buffer.
Right-click the map and select "Find nearby Divvy stations" and Turf will locate the nearest Divvy station.

Right-click the map and select “Find nearby Divvy stations” and Turf will locate the nearest Divvy station.

* I send one email to new people who join us at Open Gov Hack Night on Tuesdays at the Mart to send them a link to our GitHub repository, and to invite them to a Dropbox folder to share large files for those who don’t learn to use git for file management.

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).

The effects of TOD bonuses versus what a transit overlay district could do

I responded to Carter O’Brien’s comment on an EveryBlock discussion about a gentrification series on WBEZ, Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate. I reposted the comment here because I want to talk about the problems of piecemeal zoning and how the city’s TOD ordinance can be improved to generate more and diverse housing types (by types I’m talking about quantity of units and stories, not rent vs. own).

@Carter: I think we might be on the same page about something. You wrote:

The question becomes to what degree should zoning be used to encourage one form of land use over another. That’s the tool in the City’s toolbox, so to speak.

Substantial zoning bonuses which will create brand new high rise towers in a neighborhood of lower-density historic architecture will encourage the settling of one economic class of people and the removal of another. [snip] The evidence is that we see shrinking populations of lower-middle class people raising families by the L stops in Wicker Park, Bucktown, Old Town, Lincoln Park and Lake View.

[Actually, pause now and go read Carter’s full comment – he mentions teardowns as an issue that should be part of a gentrifying neighborhood discussion.]

I like that the TOD ordinance seems to be fueling proposals to build many units near transit stations, but it may be building more many units than the community prefers.

I’d like to see transit-oriented zoning also used as a tool to also spur smaller, multi-unit buildings (two flats, three flats, four flats, courtyard buildings) by perhaps preventing low-density buildings so close to transit.

Across from Goethe Elementary School a huge parcel of land is being turned into 7 single-family homes on Medill Ave. That’s great land near a good school and 3 blocks from the California Blue Line station.

Zoning could have been used to require 2-4 unit buildings so that more families have a chance of benefiting from that location but instead the zoning district here makes building 2-4 unit residences on those parcels illegal.

A “transit overlay district” would be something new to Chicago and could do away with the piecemeal zoning of differing densities, one right next to or mixed in with the other. You might see Bx-1 next to Cx-2 and then a Rx-4. Create concentric zoning circles that keep the density uniformly high nearest the train station and then drop off the further away you get.

zoning districts around the California Blue Line station

This map includes the California Blue Line station and the Goethe school houses (empty area northwest of the RM-5 zone on Medill Avenue). The school is outlined inside PD 349.

Quick zoning primer

  • Adapted from Second City Zoning’s plain-English zoning district descriptions.
  • B = retail and apartments above
  • C = commercial (more business types than B) and apartments above
  • RS = single-family homes only
  • RT = 2-4 flats, single-family allowed
  • RM = multi-unit, single-family allowed

The -x number of a district indicates the density allowed (this works for single-family homes, too, setting the minimum parcel area upon which the house is built).

Note: This post has slightly different text from my EveryBlock comment because I had to edit that one for length (the site accepts 2,000 characters maximum).

Working with ZIP code data (and alternatives to using sketchy ZIP code data)

1711 North Kimball Avenue, built 1890

This building at 1711 N Kimball no longer receives mail and the local mail carrier would mark it as vacant. After a minimum length of time the address will appear in the United States Postal Service’s vacancy dataset, provided by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Photo: Gabriel X. Michael.

Working with accurate ZIP code data in your geographic publication (website or report) or demographic analysis can be problematic. The most accurate dataset – perhaps the only one that could be called reliably accurate – is one that you purchase from one of the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) authorized resellers. If you want to skip the introduction on what ZIP codes really represent, jump to “ZIP-code related datasets”.

Understanding what ZIP codes are

In other words the post office’s ZIP code data, which they use to deliver mail and not to locate people like your publication or analysis, is not free. It is also, unbeknownst to many, a dataset that lists mail carrier routes. It’s not a boundary or polygon, although many of the authorized resellers transform it into a boundary so buyers can geocode the location of their customers (retail companies might use this for customer tracking and profiling, and petition-creating websites for determining your elected officials).

The Census Bureau has its own issues using ZIP code data. For one, the ZIP code data changes as routes change and as delivery points change. Census boundaries needs to stay somewhat constant to be able to compare geographies over time, and Census tracts stay the same for a period of 10 years (between the decennial surveys).

Understanding that ZIP codes are well known (everybody has one and everybody knows theirs) and that it would be useful to present data on that level, the Bureau created “ZIP Code Tabulation Areas” (ZCTA) for the 2000 Census. They’re a collection of Census tracts that resemble a ZIP code’s area (they also often share the same 5-digit identifiers). The ZCTA and an area representing a ZIP code have a lot of overlap and can share much of the same space. ZCTA data is freely downloadable from the Census Bureau’s TIGER shapefiles website.

There’s a good discussion about what ZIP codes are and aren’t on the GIS StackExchange.

Chicago example of the problem

Here’s a real world example of the kinds of problems that ZIP code data availability and comprehension: Those working on the Chicago Health Atlas have run into this problem where they were using two different datasets: ZCTA from the Census Bureau and ZIP codes as prepared by the City of Chicago and published on their open data portal. Their solution, which is really a stopgap measure and needs further review not just by those involved in the app but by a diverse group of data experts, was to add a disclaimer that they use ZCTAs instead of the USPS’s ZIP code data.

ZIP-code related datasets

Fast forward to why I’m telling you all of this: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has two ZIP-code based datasets that may prove useful to mappers and researchers.

1. ZIP code crosswalk files

This is a collection of eight datasets that link a level of Census geography to ZIP codes (and the reverse). The most useful to me is ZIP to Census tract. This dataset tells you in which ZIP code a Census tract lies (including if it spans multiple ZIP codes). HUD is using data from the USPS to create this.

The dataset is documented well on their website and updated quarterly, going back to 2010. The most recent file comes as a 12 MB Excel spreadsheet.

2. Vacant addresses

The USPS employs thousands of mail carriers to delivery things to the millions of households across the country, and they keep track of when the mail carrier cannot delivery something because no one lives in the apartment or house anymore. The address vacancy data tells you the following characteristics at the Census tract level:

  • total number of addresses the USPS knows about
  • number of addresses on urban routes to which the mail carrier hasn’t been able to delivery for 90 days and longer
  • “no-stat” addresses: undeliverable rural addresses, places under construction, urban addresses unlikely to be active

You must register to download the vacant addresses data and be a governmental entity or non-profit organization*, per the agreement** HUD has with USPS. Learn more and download the vacancy data which they update quarterly.

Tina Fassett Smith is a researcher at DePaul University’s Institute of Housing Studies and reviewed part of this blog post. She stresses to readers to ignore the “no-stat” addresses in the USPS’s vacancy dataset. She said that research by her and her colleagues at the IHS concluded this section of the data is unreliable. Tina also said that the methodology mail carriers use to identify vacant addresses and places under change (construction or demolition) isn’t made public and that mail carriers have an incentive to collect the data instead of being compensated normally. Tina further explained the issues with no-stat.

We have seen instances of a relationship between the number of P.O. boxes (i.e., the presence of a post office) and the number of no-stats in an area. This is one reason we took it off of the IHS Data Portal. We have not found it to be a useful data set for better understanding neighborhoods or housing markets.

The Institute of Housing Studies provides vacancy data on their portal for those who don’t want to bother with the HUD sign-up process to obtain it.

* It appears that HUD doesn’t verify your eligibility.

** This agreement also states that one can only use the vacancy data for the “stated purpose”: “measuring and forecasting neighborhood changes, assessing neighborhood needs, and measuring/assessing the various HUD programs in which Users are involved”.

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