CategoryUrban Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

How gracious he was to the poor alley!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

We can actually measure the “character of the neighborhood”

The vacant lots on the 2300 block of W Erie Street are owned by the City of Chicago.

At many public meetings about development proposals, people oppose new housing on their block because it “doesn’t fit in with the character of the neighborhood”.

This is often a code or mask that the person is trying to prevent anything from changing on their block (a.k.a. NIMBY), and sometimes trying to prevent a certain kind of person (poor, Black, disabled, veteran, you name it) from living near them.

Chicago is selling six vacant lots (marked as one parcel & PIN) to a developer for $6 who will buy six single-family houses that will cost about $247,000. Only a person or family who earns up to 120 percent of the area median income could apply to purchase the house; they have to live in it for 15 years.

The other dominant building type on the block are these one-story single-family houses.

I personally think that two-flats should be built here, because land is expensive and scarce, and there should be more affordable housing everywhere in Chicago.

Are there objective ways to measure the character of a block or neighborhood? Sometimes when people say character they mean that the proposed buildings are too tall, relative to existing buildings. Other times they mean that theirs is a single-family neighborhood and thus anything with more than one unit per lot is “out of character”.

One of the common building types on the block are these masonry single-family houses.

I can measure that. I’ve started developing a query against the Cook County property tax database that Chicago Cityscape has which will count the different property types on any given block.

One of the six lots is 2327 W Erie St (it’s currently classified as “UnClassified”). Here’s a breakdown of the other property types on the block:

  • Residential garage (1 of these)
  • Apartment building with 2 to 6 units, any age (5 of these)
  • One Story Residence, any age, 1,000 to 1,800 square feet (10 of these)
  • Two or more story residence, up to 62 years of age, 2,001 to 3,800 square feet (8 of these)

The dominant building type is a single-family house smaller than 1,800 square feet. The proposed houses will have 2,500 square feet and two stories, which is similar to the characteristics of the second most present building type on the 2300 block of W Erie St.

I’ll be rolling out this feature within a couple of weeks on Chicago Cityscape after some more testing. (Right now it can only grab the properties in the red boundary on the above map, and not the corner properties that have addresses on the intersecting streets, because the query uses string matching to find addresses on “W ERIE ST” with building numbers between and including 2300 and 2399.)

Which block do you want me to test?

City selects buyer for former fire station in Rogers Park

This was originally published on Chicago Cityscape’s Medium.

The city-owned fire station at 1721 W Greenleaf Avenue in Rogers Park is set to be sold to Jim Andrews and Dean Vance (no relation). Chicago Cityscape visited the building at an open house in February.

This was the third attempt to sell the property, and the Chicago Plan Commission will review the sale at its June 15th meeting.

Photos of the fire house taken during the February 2017 open house by Justin Haugens.

The two created a website dedicated to their proposal, and published a video introducing Scott Whelan, a developer who will be helping renovate the building. Whelan’s company, Red Line Property Group, pulls building permits mostly in the Edgewater and Lincoln Square community areas.

The image on the top-left shows the original bay doors. Renderings from the buyers’ website.

Andrews and Vance will locate their existing businesses to the building, restore the façade and historic features, add a garden and greenhouse to the rooftop, and provide on-site parking for up to 10 cars. Sustainable design features include photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, passive solar hot water, and geothermal heating and cooling.

Read their full proposal.

See how Chicago is a low-rise city from this 360° photo

Smokestacks at a former incinerator in Humboldt Park

Smokestacks at a former incinerator in Humboldt Park – click through to see the 360° photo.

I love the new perspectives that taking photographs from a DJI Mavic Pro quadcopter is showing me.

Chicago is a very large city, by land area, and has a low average neighborhood density. This 360° photo, taken from the corner of Ohio Street and Kilbourn Avenue in Humboldt Park, shows the cityscape five and a half miles west of downtown Chicago. It shows the cityscape west of this point, and north and south.

A little southwest of the center point is a small group of mid-rise buildings at the west side of Garfield Park. One of the buildings, the Guyon Hotel, has been abandoned for a while, and another is a residential building for senior citizens that’s undergoing a complete renovation.

Chicago’s “four tallest skyscrapers” are easily visible in the background; from north to south you’ll see the John Hancock tower, the Trump International Hotel & Tower, the Aon Center, and the Sears (Willis) Tower.

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.

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

The building

The building. Image: Cook County Assessor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

© 2017 Steven Can Plan

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑