CategoryUrban Planning

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).

Riding on a ring of Rotterdam

Map of bike ride around some Rotterdam harbors

This map shows my bike ride starting from “My flat” and going west, then south, then east, and north.

Read more frequent sabbatical updates on my Tumblr.

Two Thursdays ago I took a two hour bike ride around the western part of Rotterdam and some of its harbors. I used “GPS Recorder” for the iPhone to track my trip, and it registered that I biked a little under 38 kilometers (24 miles). The trip is notable because it uses both the Beneluxtunnel and the Maastunnel (the river is called “Maas”, pronounced like the Spanish word “mas”), and the route one takes differs depending on where they begin and end.

My bike parked on the canal in front of my flat

Sometimes I park my bike on the canal in front of my flat, and other times there’s bike parking on the sidewalk. Look at the boat; in the back you see a car. Most shippers take a car with them so they can drive around the city at their destination. Some ships have the car already in a kind of tray that can be lifted by a crane dedicated for this purpose where they dock.

I started at my flat in the Nieuwe Westen neighborhood, across the canal from Spangen, about 10 minutes west of the Rotterdam Centraal train station. From there I headed slightly north to cross the canal on a bridge that carries a main road past the Sparta football stadium. Then it heads into the suburb of Schiedam and through a very pretty nature preserve.

Most bridges are moveable. This one is a bascule bridge and those red and white poles are the gates that close the road and the bike path.

Most bridges are moveable. This one is a bascule bridge and those red and white poles are the gates that close the road and the bike path.

Beyond the nature preserve the route winds past some “havens” (harbors) and reaches the north side of the Benelux tunnel. An escalator takes you and your bike down about three levels to a tunnel that’s separated from the northbound highway by a full-height wall. There’s an elevator, also, which “bromfietsen” (scooter) riders must use.

Riding south towards the northern Beneluxtunnel entrance

The north bike/pedestrian entrance to the Beneluxtunnel.

On the south side of the harbor you pass through a village, Pernis, in the city of Schiedam. To give you a sense of how connected small towns in the Netherlands are by transit, it has its own metro rapid transit station. This is the only part of the route where there’s not a dedicated bike path.

Abandoned house in Schiedam

An abandoned house in Pernis, taken from the bike path atop a “dijk” (dike). Behind the line of trees is the Metro line C and the A4 motorway, which is heading to and from the same tunnel I came out of.

After the village, the bike path goes south and up on an overpass to cross over a railroad and then takes you down to the east. The path parallels freight railroad tracks and a highway. Huge machines upon which the AT-AT walker in Star Wars was modeled are dormant in one of the many intermodal yards on the harbor.

The bike path has to cross the highway to the south side of it, and there’s a signalized intersection to make this maneuver. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a timed intersection in the Netherlands. Every one I’ve passed through and paid attention to has a sensor of some kind. In many cases this reduces the amount of time any one person has to wait (okay, that sounds impossible, but it’s also dependent on the time of day, the traffic volumes of each mode, and which road or bike path is supposed to have priority). As I pedal toward the intersection it turns green before I get there, so I don’t have to stop.

I have to make another crossing over railroad tracks and get to the other side of a different highway. There’s another overpass this time. I stopped on my way down because some workers were carrying containers on what looked like Transformers-sized forklifts.

Bike around the Rotterdam harbor from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

After the overpass is a path under the highway, and from here and to the east most of the harbor is far away. There are office buildings on the north side of this path, and a railroad yard on the south side. Between the office buildings are tracks so trains in the yard can reach the harbor. All of the tracks cross the bike path at an angle. Signs say “let op” (caution) and because a fence and hedges separating the bike path from the yard, it seems like a train could pop out onto the bike path at any moment.

Ten minutes later and I’ve reached a neighborhood. On the harbor side is what looks like housing for workers, and the other side is residential. I can see the Maastunnel’s ventilation shaft. One more corner turned and I can see the little house where “fietsers” (cyclists) and “voetgangers” (pedestrians; “voet” is pronounced like foot) take the escalator down.

There are separate levels for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s unclear where the road tunnel is, whereas the low rumbling noise I heard in the Beneluxtunnel gave away its position. The tunnel slopes downward toward the middle, so you can gain a little momentum but it seemed harder in the Maastunnel than in the Benelux tunnel because of what felt like a headwind (maybe the ventilation system is strong).

Maastunnel

Descending into the Maastunnel so I can ride north to home.

The Maastunnel was built from 1937 to 1942, and its 74-year-old age shows: the escalators have fascinating wooden steps. The walls along the escalators are adorned with photographs showing people using the tunnel, and other scenes of building the tunnel. The Beneluxtunnel was built in two phases, with the first group of two tunnels opening in 1967, and the second group of six tunnels, including the bike and pedestrian tunnel, in 2002.

Now that I’ve been riding around Rotterdam for four weeks I can always get home without consulting a map and it’s an easy ride home from the north side of the Maastunnel to home, and I can take several different routes that are all about the same distance and time.

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.

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