CategoryUrban Design

In sci-fi, even parks get turned into parking lots

In one of Philip K. Dick’s short stories, titled “Precious Artifact”, Dick appears to recognize what tends to happen in American cities. 

Earth, “Terra”, has been attacked by “Proxmen” and the “Terrans” have lost. However, one of the Terrans, who has been reconstructing Mars for future Prox inhabitation has come back to Earth. A guide meets him at the spaceport and asks the Terran where he wants to go…

“I’m Mary Ableseth, your Tourplan companion. I’ll show you around the planet during your brief stay here.” She smiled brightly and very professionally. He was taken aback. “I’ll be with you constantly, night and day.”

“Night, too?” he managed to say.

“Yes, Mr. Biskle. That’s my job. We expect you to be disoriented due to your years of labor on Mars…labor we of Terra applaud and honor, as is right.” She fell in beside him, steering him toward a parked ‘copter. “Where would you like to go first? New York City? Broadway? To the night clubs and theaters and restaurants…”

“No, to Central Park. To sit on a bench.”

“But there is no more Central Park, Mr. Biskle. It was turned into a parking lot for government employees while you were on Mars.”

“I see,” Milt Biskle said. “Well, then Portsmouth Square in San Francisco will do.” He opened the door of the ‘copter.

“That, too, has become a parking lot,” Miss Ableseth said, with a sad shake of her long luminous hair. “We’re so darn over-populated. Try again, Mr. Biskle; there are few parks left, one in Kansas, I believe, and two in Utah in the south part near St. George.”

“This is bad news,” Milt said. “May I stop at that amphetamine dispenser and put in my dime? I need a stimulant to cheer me up.”

Don’t ban apartments on this vacant lot if you want more affordable housing – a case study

A vacant lot is for sale near the 606’s Bloomingdale Trail, a popular amenity that’s now known to have an effect in increasing home values. It’s zoned RS-3, which means it bans apartments. If the zoning stays the same, then the vacant lot will only allow a rich family to move in here. If the lot’s zoning is changed to allow apartments or condos, then the vacant lot could welcome families that earn median incomes.

You can build multi-family housing on the lot if you can get a zoning change, but you’ll have to pay the city a fee, convince your future neighbors that they shouldn’t oppose it, convince the alder that he should support it, and you’ll have to hire a lawyer.

Let’s say that zoning changes in Chicago were free and frictionless*. What should be built on this lot?

If the lot would allow multi-family housing, we can build several units for less money per unit than if we built a single-family house. That means that three families (let’s stick with three, which requires a zoning change to RM-4.5) could be housed for less money per family than the cost of one family.

How’s that? The sticker price for this lot is $425,000 right now, and if one family is paying for that plus the cost of building a house, then your minimum investment is pretty massive. (I suspect the lot will sell for something closer to $400,000.)

I looked at new construction costs on Chicago Cityscape, as indicated on building permits issued within 1 mile of the vacant lot, took the average, and added it to the cost of land per unit.

Construction costs

The average new construction single-family house, from the 10 most recent permits, is $304,052.78.

The average new construction multi-family housing, from the 10 most recent permits, is $230,192.13 per unit.

Total cost per unit (land + construction)

Add in the land cost per unit ($425,000 for the single-family house and $141,666.67 per unit for the 3-flat) and you end up with the total costs of:

  • $729,052.78 for the single-family house
  • $371,858.80 per unit in the 3-flat

Add in the profit or “cap rate” that a builder wants to make and the price is even higher, but the people who would buy in the multi-family house would be paying much less for their homes.

Takeaways

The city can generate more affordable housing if it “upzones” vacant land and stops banning multi-family housing. (Much of the city’s parcels have been “downzoned” to ban multi-family housing in a process that creates “exclusionary zoning” and allows only – expensive – single-family housing.)

The city and the Chicago Transit Authority will earn more real estate transfer taxes (RPTT) from the sales of the units as condos than from a single-family house.

Three families instead of one would enjoy living to the wonderful amenity that the Bloomingdale Trail and the parks that the 606 offers.

Want this kind of analysis for a property in Chicago? You can order a zoning report from me.

* The City of Chicago charges a zoning change fee of $1,025, and you will most likely have to hire a lawyer, and it will take about 3-6 months, depending on the complexity of the proposal that requires the zoning change. You can use Chicago Cityscape to see actual approval times (excluding the time meeting the alder for the ward of the proposed project).

Upzone the 606

Map of the single family-only zoning around the Bloomingdale Trail

The area in green only allows single-family houses to be built.

Something’s gotta give.

This is all of the land area within two blocks of the Bloomingdale Trail that allows only single-family housing to be built (view full map). This isn’t to say that multi-family housing doesn’t exist here; it definitely does, and there’s probably a handful of two-flats on a majority of the blogs.

All of the five parks of the 606 are within this two block radius, and 49.6 percent of the land allows only single-family housing to be built.

But why build a transportation corridor, a park, a new, expensive, public amenity, and not change the kind of housing – which often determines the kind of family and makeup of a household – that can afford to buy a home near here.

It’s already been shown that detached single-family housing prices have grown intensely the closer you get to the trail. That price growth has meant displacement for some, and “no chance to buy or build a house here” for many others.

There are still plenty of vacant lots within the mapped area; lots that should have a 2-4 unit building built on them, but where only a 1-unit building is allowed.

This map was made possible by the new Zoning Assessment tool on Chicago Cityscape. Read about it or use it now.

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!

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.

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.

Transportation infrastructure is for more than transportation’s sake

Transportation infrastructure should be designed for more than carrying people through places. It also needs to be about carrying people to places, because transportation is for moving people as much for commerce as it is for being social.

The Dutch consider “social safety” when designing and redesigning streets (they’re constantly upgrading streets, roads, and entire neighborhoods to standards that seem to be frequently updated).

Mark Waagenbuur posted a new video this week showing a new tunnel under Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station in Amsterdam, and he highlighted several of its social safety features.

The screen grab I embedded above – and posted on Twitter where it got a lot of shares and likes – shows an aspect that’s common across all cycling facilities in built-up areas: it’s wide enough to ride side by side with your friend, mother, or lover, with still enough room on your left for people to pass you in the same lane.

Another aspect of this tunnel is that it has sound-absorbing panels. Often tunnels have a disturbing echo that inhibit comfortable communication – my new home office has an echo and it makes it hard to have conversations on the phone here because I hear an annoying feedback. The communication is important to be able to hear people cycling with you, but also to hear what other people are doing.

The tunnel has a final feature that supports social safety: clear, wide, and open sight lines. Not just from end to end, but also to the sides. It’s hard to hide around the corner because the breadth of vision is so wide that you would see someone lurking in the corner.

For Chicagoans who use one of the many old tunnels under Lake Shore Drive connecting the “mainland” to the nation’s most popular trail along Lake Michigan, the feeling of claustrophobia and invisibility of what’s around the bend is too common. New tunnels, which I prefer to bridges because you go downhill first, should be a priority when the State of Illinois rebuilds Lake Shore Drive north of Grand Avenue in the next decade. This is what those tunnels look like; sometimes they have mirrors.

We can sell ads on the Lakefront Trail underpasses, but they're still shitty to walk through

People want more walkability and property developers can make it happen

Columbus Commons

The Columbus Commons in the tationty center. Photo by Brandon Bartoszek

This is my favorite part of Sam Schwartz’s book “Street Smart” so far. You’ll find it on page 117 following a discussion of Walk Score, a tool used mostly by realtors that measures “walkability” of any place in American cities based on the location and diversity of services, shops, and amenities nearby.

Every way you slice the data confirms that what all the polls say is true: people want more walkability.

Why, then, is there so little of it?

Why is there such a mismatch between the supply of, and the demand for, walkable neighborhoods?

Is it because, as one observer wrote, “Americans would like to live in places that don’t really exist”?

Do you live in a walkable place? Answer, and then check your Walk Score. I’m curious to know if they match.

Schwartz answers these questions with “not really”.

They want to live in places that do exist, but there are far too few of them.

Schwartz mentions that the housing prices in the most walkable cities – San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City – are so expensive, but being walkable is what makes them the “coolest” cities.

Higher Walk Scores positively correlate with higher housing prices, “which is a problem”, Schwartz says.

[It’s] also an opportunity. By definition, only a few neighborhoods can be the coolest places to live. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make everywhere cooler.

Many pages later Schwartz describes how one city attempted to get property developers to make their proposed buildings or complexes more receptive to walking and biking (active transportation).

Columbus, Ohio, needed to lose some body weight. The city’s sprawling nature contributed to 59 percent of adults being obese or overweight, and 38 percent of children in the third grade (here’s the citation).

The Columbus Healthy Places program was formed in 2006 and implemented by the transportation and public health departments. Here’s one of the strategies they undertook to affect the built environment.

[The transportation and public health officials] persuaded the [buildings] department to grant them an opportunity to comment on all requests from developers to rezone a particular bit of land.

With that opportunity, Schwartz explained on page 133, they proposed that developments with shopping centers, bus stops, schools, park, libraries, drugstores, or grocery stores, within half a mile of residences, “include a suite of active transportation elements” like bike parking, connections to bike lanes and trails, and wider sidewalks.

It worked, he said. Before the program only seven percent of projects requesting a zoning change included active transportation elements, but after it was reviewed by the Columbus Healthy Places managers it “jumped” to 64 percent.

Welcome back, Bloomingdale Trail

Back to transportation service, that is.

Before it was the Bloomingdale Trail – associated parks comprising The 606 – it was the Bloomingdale Line, an elevated railroad route along Bloomingdale Avenue to serve industrial customers in Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Bucktown, and Wicker Park.

It was abandoned in the early 2000s. I don’t know when the last customer received a delivery via the line. It reopened to use for transportation on June 6, 2015, or 6/06. Now that same embankment transports pedestrians and bicyclists, in addition to providing new recreational and public space.

I’ve ridden and walked on it four times now since the opening and there are people all over the place on it. I tweeted as much last night.

On Monday, two days after opening, I filmed this 14-minute video of the entire west-to-east length and condensed it to 4 minutes.

Bicycling west to east on the Bloomingdale Trail from Steven Vance on Vimeo.

The solution to its crowding problem (I guess one of those “good problems to have”) is more. More car-free spaces. More low-stress transportation spaces. Space for walking, and space for cycling. Which we currently don’t have on the ground.

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