CategoryNeighborhoods

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?

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.

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.

Barcelona’s superblocks are being implemented now to convert car space to people space

Most of the urban block pattern in Barcelona is this grid of right angles (like Chicago) with roads between blocks that range from small to massive (like Chicago). Barcelona’s blocks, called “illes”, for islands*, are uniform in size, too. This part of Barcelona is called Eixample, designed by ldefons Cerdà in 1859.

The city is rolling out its urban mobility plan from 2013 to reduce noise and air pollution, and revitalized public spaces. Part of this plan is to reduce car traffic on certain streets in a “superblock” (the project is called “superilles” in Catalan) by severely reducing the speed limit to 10 km/h.

Vox published the video above, and this accompanying article. The project’s official website is written in Catalan and Spanish.

My favorite quote from the video is when someone they interviewed discussed what tends to happen when space for cars is converted to space for people:

“What you consistently see is when people change their streetscapes to prioritize human beings over cars is you don’t see any decline in economic activity, you see the opposite. You get more people walking and cycling around, more slowly, stopping more often, patronizing businesses more. That center of social activity will build on itself.”

A superblock is a group of 9 square blocks where the internal speed limit for driving is reduced to 10 km/h, which is slower than most people ride a bicycle.

A superblock is a group of 9 square blocks where the internal speed limit for driving is reduced to 10 km/h, which is slower than most people ride a bicycle. That’s the second phase, though. The first phase reduces it first to 20 km/h. During phase 2, on-street parking will disappear. In addition to the reduced speed, motorists will only be able to drive a one-way loop: into the superblock, turn left, turn left, and out of the superblock, so it can’t be used as a through street even at slow speeds, “allowing people to use the streets for games, sport, and cultural activities, such as outdoor cinema” (Cities of the Future).

A grid isn’t necessary to implement the “superblock”; it can work anywhere.

In Ravenswood Manor, the Chicago Department of Transportation is testing a car traffic diverter at a single intersection on Manor Avenue, where drivers have to turn off of Manor Avenue. This effectively creates a small superblock in a mostly residential neighborhood, but one that is highly walkable, because schools, parks, a train station, and some small businesses are all within about four blocks of most residents.

The trial is complementary to an upcoming “neighborhood greenway” project to use Manor Avenue as an on-street connection between two multi-use trails along the Chicago River.

The Vox video points out that “walkable districts are basically isolated luxury items in the United States”. I agree that this is often the case, although NYC, pointed out as a place where people spaces are being made out of former car-only spaces, is spreading its “pedestrian plaza” throughout all boroughs.

Ravenswood Manor is a wealthy area, but the reason this project is being tried there and not one of the dozens of other places where a lot of car traffic makes it uncomfortable or dangerous to walk and bike is because of the need to connect the trails.

photo of a temporary car traffic diverter

These temporary car traffic diverters are set up at Manor Avenue and Wilson Avenue to force motorists to turn off of Manor Avenue while still allowing bicyclists and pedestrians to go straight. Photo: John Greenfield

The diverter should drastically reduce the amount of through traffic in the neighborhood. Its effect on motorists’ speeds will be better known when CDOT finishes the test in November.

A worker installs a barrier identifying the entrance to a “superilla” (singular superblock) last month. Calvin Brown told me, “I prefer the name ‘super islands’ because it is more poetic and captures the peaceful setting that they create.” Photo via La Torre de Barcelona.

I see a connection between the “superilles” plan in Barcelona, and what CDOT is piloting in the small neighborhood. The next step for CDOT is to try iterative designs in this and other neighborhoods and start converting asphalt into space for other uses, but we may have to rely on local groups to get that ball rolling.

I had the great fortune of visiting Barcelona a year ago, and I had no idea about the plan – but I was impressed by Cerdà’s design of Eixample. I will return, and next time I’ll spend a little time bicycling around.

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).

What should this area in Chicago be called?

The area is generally bounded by Harrison Street or Congress Parkway, Dan Ryan Expressway or Desplaines Street, Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago River.

The area is generally bounded by Harrison Street or Congress Parkway, Dan Ryan Expressway or Desplaines Street, Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago River.

Currently it’s called the South Loop, which is a neighborhood name. It’s in the “Near West Side” community area. See how the City of Chicago mapped the “South Loop” in the past when it used to keep track of neighborhood boundaries.

I think it should have a new name. It should not be called the South Loop because the commonly identified center of the South Loop is probably somewhere between Roosevelt and Harrison, and Michigan Avenue and State Street, very far from this area. It just might be the Roosevelt CTA station, which has over 12,000 boardings a day.

Saying that you’re going to some business that’s west of the river and saying that the business is in the South Loop would confuse a lot of people as to what its nearby.

It’s more of an industrial and commercial area that gained a lot of new big box (faceless) retail in the 2000s, so very few people live there. There are several stores that exist that came decades before the big box outlets; for fabric, clothing, shoes, and suits. It’s probably these independent store owners that can point to an older neighborhood name as they were the center of consumer commerce in this area.

It’s easy to give it a new name. Most of the housing is north of Harrison Street. It’s difficult to figure out how many people live here because the block groups for this area include more than the area in question.

It’s easy to argue that because of the land uses, it really has no current identifiable “place” or pattern that attracts people. I’d like to know more about its history and, South Loop being a modern name, its previous names.

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.”

How Chicago accomplishes “not planning”

Bloomingdale Trail meeting

The Bloomingdale Trail planning process was the highest-quality I’ve experienced or witnessed. It’s an exception, and even then, it wasn’t integrated with any neighborhood or citywide plan to connect the trail to other networks of infrastructure. In essence, how people left or arrived to the path and parks wasn’t addressed. I expressed my pleasure at the process in 2011

A friend said to me recently, “Chicago’s whole being is based on not really having planning.” It’s the answer to a question us Chicago planners get from people around the country, typically regarding how the city controls the built environment. Zoning is really the only “tool” it gives itself in the absence of any citywide or neighborhood-level comprehensive plan.

Examples.

Doesn’t a new zoning code serve as a kind of plan?

It’s not a plan, and it’s a bad kind of planning because it doesn’t set goals or policies that could address the questions below (population loss, vacancies, parks and recreation). The city last revised its zoning code in 2004.

Using zoning as planning is made worse because, as mentioned in an example below, aldermen constantly “spot zone” by changing the zoning for one land parcel to something wildly different from the parcels that surround it. This doesn’t necessarily create incompatible land uses for the desired proposal (a brewery with a public taproom area in a traditional retail area would likely need a zoning change) but it creates unreliability as to the future of that street or neighborhood, because it subject to the whims of the alderman.

It needlessly complicates planning for developers’ business plans, and that of community development corporations who are trying to find land.

What’s the city’s plan for the lakefront museum, park, and trail system?

Accept the first proposal despite longstanding traditions and laws that are supposed to prevent new buildings between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. Even go a step further and change a law, at the state level, upon which a lawsuit opposing the Lucas Museum is based to remove the grounds for said lawsuit. Consider that the existing use is for tailgating on a surface parking lot and that the new use would be better (even though there’s a net positive number of parking spaces, and some of those parking spaces would be in the same space, but on grass outside the museum building). Don’t attempt to come up with alternative uses. Delay the release of a Museum Campus Transportation Plan.

What’s the city’s plan for vacant lots in high-demand neighborhoods?

Downzone it ahead of time so that the developer who wants to propose a non-conforming use has to come to the alderman to ask for a zoning change. What’s more likely to happen, and has happened many times over, is that a single-family home will be built. Next to a 24-hour train line.

What about these “corridor” or neighborhood-specific plans I’ve seen?

One of the strongest plans has been the Milwaukee Avenue Corridor Plan from 2008. The problem with these is that it was created by a previous alderman using different ward boundaries, so the current alderman (or more than one!) have no obligation to follow it. But they do have an incentive: many people who participated in creating that plan still live there, and care more about the street than they do what ward boundaries cut across it.

What’s the city’s plan to deal with 50 public schools it closed?

Deal with them one by one, after their closures, as time and resources allow.

What’s the city’s plan to rebuild its population?

A massive portion of the loss of 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010 was the loss of public housing units. The Chicago Housing Authority, which is separate from the City Council’s governance, has $400 million in its bank account and has replaced only a few thousand public housing units. You could say it’s about a decade behind on its plan to restore public and affordable housing units. Two other regulations (revised ARO and TOD ordinances) are attempting to build more affordable housing but will not make as much of a dent as the CHA doing its job.

The city is seeing more and more high-end residential construction concentrated in the Loop, South Loop, and Near North Side, areas that were already seeing growth during the 2008+ recession.

What other examples are out there?

I finally heard “My best friends are bike lanes” at a meeting

Augusta @ Washtenaw

Yes, more bikes, but keep them in the parks! Unrelated photo by Josh Koonce.

Last night at a ward transportation meeting I finally got to hear it: “My best friends are bike lanes”. AKA the plight of the motorist.

In many words, bike lanes and other kinds of infrastructure that make bicycling in a city safer and more comfortable must be impinging on driving and the needs of the motorist must be considered.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly uttered “my best friends are bike lanes”, but no one ever says that verbatim.

It went more like this: “We’re all for more biking. Biking in the park, more of that, that’s great. But you have to consider the motorist because there’s very little bicycling in our neighborhood and most of us don’t ride bikes.”

No one ever says that they oppose the act of riding a bicycle. Doug Gordon keeps a diary of the different ways these phrases are coded. They say something that sounds like the opposite: “I’m not against cycling” and “We’re not opposed to bicycle lanes”.

Yes, they want more biking…but not if it affects driving.
Well, that’s just not possible.

And we’re not even starting from a place of equality, either, regardless of how many people in the neighborhood are riding bikes versus driving cars.

No, instead, there is zero infrastructure for bicycling, and all infrastructure is optimized (er, “accommodating”) for driving. However the city staff at this meeting said there are some times, evident from their traffic counts, when bicycles made up 10 percent of traffic on certain streets in the neighborhood.

So there are people bicycling, yet are not accommodated. Driving is fully accommodated and anything less than that is essentially impinging on this motorist’s right to drive and park for free on publicly-funded streets.

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