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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.

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.

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.

This map shows how transit access from Uptown would diminish if the Red Line wasn’t there

The dark pink shows areas you can get to within 45 minutes by transit, and the light pink shows you how far you can get within 60 minutes of transit. The transit shed without the Red Line is much smaller!

I virtually dismantled the Red Line to show how important it is to get around the North Side via transit.

Mapzen, a fantastic company that makes free and open source mapping tools, and for whom I’m an independent contractor, updated its Mobility Explorer map to show where you can go from any point in a city by transit if a piece of existing transit infrastructure didn’t exist.

So, I handily took out the Red Line – the Chicago workhorse, carrying 145,000 people each weekday north of State/Lake station. The map shows the analysis, called an isochrone, as if you were departing from the Wilson station in Uptown.

Try it yourself.

You can download the map as a GeoJSON, open it in QGIS, and measure the area in square miles that each scenario covers.

At least 2.5 percent of the land area in Chicago is covered in parking lots and garages

Here’s how I know that at least 2.5 percent of the land area in Chicago is covered in parking lots and garages, as of February 5, 2017.

That’s a lot of polluted water runoff.

I grabbed the land area of 227.3 from the Wikipedia page.

I grabbed all the parking lots from OpenStreetMap via Metro Extracts, which is going to be the most complete map of parking lots and garages.

Volunteer mappers, including me, drew these by tracing satellite imagery.

With the parking lots data in GIS, I can count their area in square feet, which comes out to 160,075,942.42. Convert that to square miles and you get 5.74.

5.74/227.3*100 = 2.5 percent

The last snapshot of parking lot data I have is from February 2016, when only 3.39 square miles of parking lots have been drawn.

There are still many more parking lots to be drawn!

There are still $1 lots that no one has applied for

I’d like to point out my story on the Chicago Cityscape blog highlighting the fact that ~1,800 city-owned lots that are being sold to $1 to nearby property owners that haven’t been applied for. The City of Chicago is selling 3,844 vacant lots for $1 in these 34 community areas, but the city has received only 2,031 applications.

You want a plan for Logan Square infrastructure? Let’s try out the one we got

I posted a modified version of this post to Streetsblog Chicago.

extralarge

A group in Chicago says “current infrastructure” cannot handle ~120 more people moving into Logan Square. Ring the NIMBY warning bell!

Logan Square is more equipped to handle ten times that number of new residents than most neighborhoods.

The Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association’s (boundary map) Zoning and Planning Committee’s submitted their opinion on a proposed building on the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Campbell Avenue to 1st Ward Alder Proco Joe Moreno.

They wrote, “Current infrastructure cannot sustain the increase in density and ZAPC would like to know how is this is being addressed by the City”.

“Of the 88 units”, DNAinfo Chicago reported, “28 would be studios, 48 would be one-bedroom units and 12 would be two-bedroom units.”

What’s wrong with current infrastructure that it can’t handle 120 new residents? The GGNA doesn’t say. 

The context of this demand is a bit unfortunate, as far as good city planning goes. The city is in no way required to respond with how the city is addressing how current infrastructure can or cannot handle 120 new residents. And neither is Alder Moreno. Neither the city nor the developer* are required to do anything to change infrastructure in the area.

Logan Square’s population is much, much less than its peak. These 120 new residents are in some ways making up for the loss in units in the neighborhood due to deconversions. And their supply will help stem any rapid rise in rent increases.

What would be a good outcome, I believe, is that there’s a process or three:

  1. Measure the impact of new housing on current infrastructure (housing availability and pricing, sewer, transportation, roads, and parks).
  2. Measure the impact of converted or demolished housing on current infrastructure.
  3. Measure the potential impacts of not building the proposed building.

This stretch of Milwaukee Avenue had a plan adopted for it in 2008. It would be nice to try and stick to a plan’s recommendations, for once. As far as neighborhood plans go, it is pretty good.

Wanna know what the plan said? Build more housing.

Higher density housing is often attractive for young couples, as well as new families, singles, and empty-nesters looking to downsize their housing units and spend less time on home maintenance and repair. These residents are drawn to urban living because of the goods and services that are available in pedestrian-oriented environments.

Taller buildings would continue the streetwall found along other sections of the Corridor. This would accommodate higher density housing to maximize the number of residents in the area who could conveniently take advantage of the existing transportation and the existing stores, restaurants and services located along the Corridor.

These housing types will help build the immediate population density necessary to create a vibrant and growing Study Area.

I despise this kind of comment from neighborhood organizations: “The density is of major concern for the surrounding residents of the proposed project and is not received favorably.”

How would you feel if someone got to influence the approval process for the place you live now? How would you feel if someone was saying you should live elsewhere? How come people who live in a part of a city get to decide who else can live near them? Why do people say they don’t want to live around a bunch of other people?

* It’s actually a group of developers.

Bicyclists in Chicago can travel pretty far in 15 minutes

Mapzen* released Mobility Explorer last week. It is the graphical user interface (GUI) to the Transitland datastore of a lot of the world’s transit schedules and maps.

It also has isochrones, which are more commonly known as “mode sheds”, or the area that you can reach by a specific mode in a specific amount of time.

I wanted to test it quickly to see what these mode sheds say about where I live, a block north of Humboldt Park. From my house, on a bicycle, I can reach the edges of an area that’s 25 square miles in 15 minutes.

Isochrones map of transportation distance from my house

The distance you can travel from my house at the north end of Humboldt Park in 15 minutes by three modes, assuming you leave at 2:21 PM today (in increasing distance/area): Transit (dark purple) Bicycling (burgundy) Driving (pink)

You can request these isochrones through this API call for any location and they’ll be returned as GeoJSON.

I’m still learning how isochrones work, and how they can be adjusted (to account for different rider seeds and route costs or penalties). One difference between bicycling and driving is that the driving area is increased by expressways while the bicycling area has a more uniform shape.

The bike shed is 25.7 square miles, and the driving shed is 52.0 square miles.

*I do contract work for Mapzen and maintain parts of the Transitland Feed Registry.

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