CategoryUrban Design

Two things I don’t like about TIF expenditures in Chicago

Chicago Cityscape's TIF Projects map

I built a map of most Chicago TIF projects that you can filter on the fly. Type in any keyword, alderman’s name, or neighborhood and the map will re-center and zoom to the results.

1. Millions of dollars ($14.4 to be exact) has been or will be given to rich corporations, like Home Depot, to build massive stores with huge roofs and parking lots far away from where people live so everyone has to drive there. It’s highly unlikely they don’t mitigate stormwater runoff (except through temporary storage in a retention pond) or treat any of the water on site, contributing to local flooding and clogged pipes.

According to the project descriptions, property tax payers in these four TIF districts have partially subsidized the construction of over 1,903 car parking spaces and the associated ills of expansive asphalt areas and motorized traffic.

2. A massive subsidy was approved – $96 million – for McCaffery Interests’s Lakeside development on the former U.S. Steel South Works plant to build a mixed-use tower of 250 apartments in an area that has weak transit access and will take decades to fully fill out. We should instead be spending this kind of money building housing in already developed parts of the city (where there’s already amenities, or infrastructure for amenities – the Rezko land comes to mind).

What’s interesting about the Lakeside TIF project approval is that the containing TIF district, “Chicago Lakeside Development Phase 1”, has collected zero property tax revenue because there is no property in it!

Trolley on the future Lake Shore Drive

A tour bus drivers on the Lakeside development. Photo by Ann Fisher.

There are some projects I like, though. TIF has been used frequently to build affordable housing, housing for seniors, and housing for people who need assistance. 78 out of 380 projects mention the word “affordable”.

The City Hyde Park building, designed by Studio Gang Architects, will have 20% of its residential units designated as “affordable”, for families (of varying sizes) earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. The city standard is 10 percent but developers are also able to pay an “in lieu” fee so they don’t have to build the affordable units and instead can offer those units at market rates.

Other projects have a majority of affordable units.

Jefferson Park station renovation highlights train station planning deficiencies

Jefferson Park train station rendering

Jefferson Park train station rendering from the City of Chicago. The only difference you see is canopies. What you don’t see is a walkable connection ut thisetween shops southeast of here and the train station – they’re separated by a strip of parking.

Plans for the renovation of the Jefferson Park CTA station are illustrative of the City’s failure to think deeply about how to design the projects that is funding in a way that maximizes potential for residential and commercial development around train stations.

The changes proposed for one of Chicagoland’s most important transit centers are weak. There’s no development plan, or any kind of neighborhood plan or “Corridor Development Initiative” for the Jefferson Park transit center.

Current city policy identifies train stations as optimal places to build new housing and commercial uses.

Without challenging the design to respond to this policy the transit center will continue to use neighborhood space inefficiently and doesn’t respond to demands from residents to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety and increase economic development.

Judging by the renderings, nothing is changing at the Jefferson Park Blue Line station (4917 N Milwaukee Ave). All of the improvements save for the canopy are invisible in this rendering. The CTA’s list of improvements reads like the superficial makeover that many stations got in the Station Renewal program almost three years ago, a stopgap measure until Your New Blue could begin.

There will be LED lighting, new paint, new escalators and stairs, new paving, and a new canopy. Only a few of those things make the station easier to access and use.

Jefferson Park is a major asset to the neighborhood and the city. The station serves CTA trains, Metra trains, CTA buses, and Pace buses to Chicago’s suburbs. The CTA’s September 2014 ridership report [PDF] said there are an average of 7,420 people boarding the Blue Line here each weekday, a 0.1% increase over September 2013. It’s the busiest Blue Line station outside of the Loop and O’Hare airport.*

On Twitter I said that the station should be surrounded by buildings, not bus bays. I’m not familiar with how many routes and buses use the station daily, and I’m not suggesting that space for buses go away. I’m challenging the Chicago Transit Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to come up with a better plan for vehicle and pedestrian movements, and to start welcoming new development.

I pointed out the new Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Virginia where a residential building was constructed atop a bus bay (where I transferred from the Washington Flyer bus from Dulles). A plaza connects the bus bay to and apartment lobby and the Metrorail station.

Bus bays under an apartment building in Reston

The bus bay at the Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Reston, Virginia, is under an apartment building and plaza linking it to the Metrorail station.

The Metropolitan Planning Council conducted a consultation for the Logan Square Blue Line station – Your New Blue will make upgrades here, too – and the next door city-owned parking lot. Their consultation involved 700 people to decide what development at this station should look like. Their desires were pretty specific: there should be affordable housing, but not any higher than six stories.

The current policy, enacted as an ordinance and expressed in other city documents, allows developers to build more units in the same plot and save them and their tenants money by building less parking. But this policy is insufficient in that has no design review or public consultation attached. It also provides no zoning recommendations to expand the number of places to which it can apply.

A development plan, for which the CDI serves as a good, starting model, would bring residents – and people who want to live in the neighborhood – to discussions about if and how the neighborhood should change. It would hook into another city proposal, from the Chicago Department of Transportation, to build protected bike lanes on Milwaukee, but which ultimately failed. The process would probably uncover latent demand to build new housing in the neighborhood that’s stymied by incompatible zoning.**

The city’s recent choices for development and (lack of) urban design at this station as well as across from the Halsted Green Line station in Englewood where the city is selling vacant land to build a Whole Foods-anchored strip mall demonstrates how little deliberation there is in maximizing transit-oriented development, or TOD.

Their suburban forms are the antithesis of how we should be designing the stations and their environs – they should have higher densities and walkable places.

* Metra has published its 2014 station-level counts! This station had 599 daily boardings, yet not every train stops here. The Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) line that stops at Jefferson Park saw a 3.8% increase in ridership [PDF] from January to September 2014 versus the same period in 2013.

** There are no parcels near the Jefferson Park transit center that allow the transit-adjacent development ordinance to take effect; developers have to go through an arduous and sometimes costly process to persuade the alderman to change the zoning. The ordinance only affects Bx-3 districts (where x is 1-3 and -3 is the allowable density identifier).

Exploring Pace’s locations for mysterious Arterial Rapid Transit bus stations on Milwaukee Avenue

intersection of Touchy and Milwaukee in Niles

This is the semi-urban scene at Touhy and Milwaukee Avenue. The police station is ahead on the right. The water fountain (described below) is behind the bus on the left. There are multi-unit buildings to the left and across the street on the right. Image: Google Streetview

Update, Jan 21, 2015: Pace unveiled their plan for ART and their request to Congress to make the ART plan a project of regional significance to attract more funding.

Pace, the suburban bus operator in Chicagoland, is constructed an Arterial Rapid Transit bus route on Milwaukee Avenue from the Jefferson Park Transit Center in Chicago – a busy intermodal station where Metra and CTA buses and trains stop – to Golf Mill Mall in Niles. Both of these are major transfer hubs.

I’ve never looked into ART bus systems before but it seems to resemble what many call BRT Lite. Pace has minimal information on its website. Daniel Hertz, notable bus transit supporter, pointed me to an RFP [PDF, 10 MB] that describes the location and scope of Pace’s first (of many) ART corridors.

The RFP describes this project as one of 24 corridors outlined in its Vision 2020 document “to provide a regional network of premium transit services”. It appears that premium is relative and that bus riders will have a more comfortable and easier-to-find bus station at which to wait – bus travel time will not change.

I’ll try to paint you a picture of the built environment going north to south at the eight intermediate stops.

Dempster Street, Niles

Milwaukee has six general purpose lanes here and Dempster has six, four of which go under Milwaukee; buildings are set back far from the curb and land uses are low-density and optimized for arriving in a car

Main Street, Niles

Milwaukee has four general purpose lanes and one wide parking lane here; Main is a two-lane street; there is some residential on both streets

Oakton Street, Niles

Milwaukee and Oakton both have four general purpose lanes

Harlem Avenue, Niles

this intersection has decades-old buildings that have limited parking up front and smaller setbacks; there’s a Dunkin Donuts here with a drive-through between the building and the sidewalk (that’s novel but awful)

Touhy Avenue, Niles

This intersection may be the most urban, despite its immense size. Touhy has six lanes here meaning pedestrians must cross 100 feet of pavement in a faded, stamped-asphalt crosswalk; there’s a massive police station building on one corner, a large multi-unit building on another, a strip mall that actually has entrances onto a  sidewalk plaza instead of just in the parking lot behind it (the Subway and Starbucks here even have sidewalk cafés), and a fountain rounding out the junction – I recommend demolishing the fountain in favor of selling the land to a developer who can build more of the multi-unit buildings like the ones behind the fountain while also getting rid of the pointless cul-de-sac

Highland Avenue, Chicago

This is one block south of Devon Avenue, in Norwood Park. There’s a conventional bike lane here but the Chicago Department of Transportation has noted that there just enough cars that reducing the number of general purpose lanes from four to two – part of a road diet that would add buffered or protected bike lanes – but many residents don’t support the project so the alderman has decided against supporting it.

The land use and design is a blend of what came before it and what’s typical in Chicago: old buildings up against the sidewalk, closer-built single-family homes, some multi-unit buildings.

Austin Avenue, Chicago

Like Highland but now seeing fewer surface parking lots.

Central Avenue, Chicago

Like the rest of the junctions we’re still in motordom; four of the six “first in line” motorists seen in Google Streetview are blocking the crosswalk while waiting for the light to turn green.

About the stations

Pace has established a $6 million budget for the station construction. The station platforms will span 40 to 110 feet, a raised platform that’s 12 inches tall, a new shelter, real-time bus tracker*, a common vertical marker, a single bike rack to hold two bicycles, and associated roadway, curb, and drainage improvements.

It’s unfortunate to learn that the RFP mentions that shelters in Chicago may have to be the insufficiently designed kind JCDecaux operates for the city as part of a very long advertising contract.

Pace ART station design

Pace shows a rendering mocking up a typical station design. I’m concerned the handrail at the rear of the bus will preclude using longer buses in the future, but that would be the least of Pace’s worries.

* It appears that Pace will be using NextBus‘s real-time arrival information services (page A-6 of 14); they’re a company founded in 1996 and now owned by Cubic, which operates Ventra.

Finding teardowns in Chicago

1923 South Allport Avenue, built 1884

A recent suspected teardown, at 1923 S Allport in Pilsen (25th Ward, 19th place for teardowns from 2006 to now). The demolition permit was issued August 7 and the new construction permit was issued August 5. The new building will have an increase in density, with three dwelling units. Photo by Gabriel Michael.

From Wikipedia, a teardown is a “process in which a real estate company or individual buys an existing home and then demolishes and replaces it with a new one”.

You can find suspected* teardowns in the building permits data on Licensed Chicago Contractors by looking for demolition permits and new construction permits for the same address. I limited my search to situations where the demolition permit was issued within 60 days prior or subsequent to the new construction permit. This shows properties that have a quick turnaround (thus more likely to get built). I didn’t want to include buildings that may have been demolished one year and got a building two years later.

Analysis

This analysis is based on data since January 1, 2006, the start of the first complete year of building permits data in the Chicago open data portal, and ends today. The first demolition permit in this analysis was issued January 10, 2006, and its associated new construction permit was issued five days prior. There may be a case when the demolition permit and new construction permits were issued in different years, but for this analysis I only consider the year in which the demolition permit was issued. (In my review of permits since March I believe that new construction permits are issued most often after the demolition permit.)

Suspected teardowns

The number for teardowns decreased dramatically as the economic crisis approached.

Results

There were 1,717 suspected teardowns in Chicago distributed across 57 community areas (of 77, whose boundaries don’t change) and 45 wards (of 50, whose boundaries changed in 2012).

West Town, Lake View, and North Center share top billing, with the most teardowns each year, but Lake View was #1 for seven of 10 years. Other top five community areas comprise Logan Square (thrice), Lincoln Square (thrice), Bridgeport (twice), McKinley Park (once), and Near West Side (once).

From 2012 to current, the most teardowns occurred in Wards 32 (Waguespack), 47 (Pawar), 1 (Moreno), 44 (Tunney), and 43 (Smith). All of those wards include parts of the top three community areas mentioned above.

The sixth ward with the most teardowns in this period was 2 (Fioretti) but this boundary no longer represents any part of the pre-2012 boundary that covered almost the entire South Loop. That means Ward 2 is now covering the west side. Additionally, the 2nd Ward made sixth place with 28 teardowns and fifth place, the 43rd Ward had 60 teardowns.

The South Loop, represented by the Near South Side community area, has had 0 suspected teardowns from 2012 to now. There was one teardown in the entire time period, where a three-story commercial was demolished at 1720 S Michigan Ave and replaced with a 32-story residential tower.

What else do you want to know about teardowns in Chicago?

* Notes

I use “suspected” because it’s impossible to know from the data if buildings were actually demolished and constructed.

Download the data as CSV for yourself.

Why architects should learn OpenStreetMap

I’m teaching OpenStreetMap 101 at the first MaptimeCHI.

Architects will learn that OpenStreetMap can be used as a data source when developing projects and as a basis for designing custom maps in project publications (website, anthology, monograph, client presentations).

This meeting is about getting an introduction to OpenStreetMap and learning to make your first edit in the “Wikipedia of maps”.

Thursday, July 17th, from 6-8 PM
Thoughtworks office
200 E Randolph St

RSVP on EventBrite.

Here are two examples of how architects could use OpenStreetMap data.

Example 1 of how to use OpenStreetMap. Instead of publishing a screenshot of Google Maps in your documents or website, create a custom design map like this without having to spend so much time tweaking it in Illustrator. This map was created by Stamen Design using TileMill.

Example 1 of how to use OpenStreetMap. Instead of publishing a screenshot of Google Maps in your documents or website, create a custom design map like this without having to spend so much time tweaking it in Illustrator. This map was created by Stamen Design using TileMill.

And the second.

Willow Creek Church on OpenStreetMap: After

Here’s one example where OpenStreetMap could be useful. Let’s say you’re working on a site plan for Willow Creek Church in South Barrington and you need a general layout of the parking lot. 1. You can get it from OpenStreetMap because it’s already there. 2. You can draw it in OpenStreetMap yourself (to benefit all other OSM users) and then extract it as a shapefile.

Maptime is time for mapmaking and it’s taking the country by storm.

What’s up from Europe: A train station that looks like a train station

Walking towards the Hoxton station on Cremer Street. 

Train stations – metro and commuter rail – in the United States, outside city center terminals, are often simply queuing areas, with zero amenities (some don’t even have a shelter). In some locales, people getting dropped off in a car will sit in the car with their driver (a friend or family member) until they see a sign that the train is arriving.

In Europe, train stations are places. Places to hang out, conduct errands, and eat, so that your time is enjoyable and, to put it frankly, used efficiently.

One of my favorite train stations in London was Hoxton serving Overground trains. Overground trains started less than a decade ago and provide near-rapid transit levels of service (meaning they come almost as frequently as Underground trains). They use refurbished track and are almost always elevated. Bombardier built the trains to look a lot like the newest Underground trains.

The station plaza on Geffrye Street. I have a feeling this street used to ferry cars, but now it forms a car-free piece of the walking and bicycling network. 

Overground trains have a lot of space for sitting, standing, and moving about – after all, they’re articulated giving them the roomy feel and allowing one to board at one end and find a seat at the other.

When you approach Hoxton you’ll see that you’re near a train station because of the iconic Transport for London “roundel” on the tracks over the street. Just before you arrive the walls break open and there’s a large gap that opens into a plaza with the Beagle café.

The plaza also hosts a Barclays Cycle Hire (Boris bikes) and plenty of seating to relax and wait for a colleague. The station entrance stands out with a large, glass canopy, and noticeable, polished-metal walls flank the doorway.

You know you’re at a train station now. Feel free to stick around before or after your journey.

A northbound Overground station at Hoxton. You can see in this photo the only feature I disliked about the station: the narrow corridor that doesn’t allow you to see around the corners. 

Oh, by the way, I’m not in Europe anymore – I got back on Saturday and the first thing I did was eat a burrito, something I sorely missed.

What’s up from Europe: London pedestrian spaces

I found walking around in London a tad stressful, as crossing the street can only be safely done at signalized intersections, or at zebra crossings with the flashing yellow globe. Crossing the street safely is then compounded by the left-driving traffic. The “< Look Left” and “Look Right >” messages aren’t printed at all intersections and there’s a delay at signalized intersections because you can’t cross every other phase: you have to wait until the all-walk phase (when signals stop traffic in all directions).

However, London still has a lot of great pedestrian spaces and alleys (with bars and pubs) scattered around the town. It doesn’t have as much car-free space as city centers in the Netherlands and Germany. These three photos show three spaces on my many long walks around the town during my three-day trip there*.

Hay’s Galleria, seen on my Thames Path walk along the south bank. It was redeveloped in 1987 to the design and condition you see here. Like many pedestrian spaces I passed by and walked through this one is privately owned (and monitored). 

This pedestrian space off of St. John’s Road near the Clapham Junction station (with National Rail and London Overground services) was created simply by blocking car traffic from entering or exiting St. John’s Road. It has distinct pavers that match the high street – it’s not exactly a shared space as buses have priority but there is limited traffic otherwise because only delivery and construction workers can access the road. 

Old Spitalfields Market has been redeveloped – it maintains the old buildings and look on the edges with shops and restaurants but has a modern glass and steel roof with modern construction on the interior for more shops and restaurants. Even if you aren’t shopping here passersby can use it as a shortcut through the block. 

View more photos as I upload them directly from my iPhone to Flickr.

* Calling it three days is a stretch because I was tired and slept a lot, missing precious walking and exploring time. I still managed to spend over an hour walking around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and go shopping at Westfield Stratford City for about two hours.

Respect the corner!

Buildings on corners should have corner entrances or minimally deviate.

Contractors work on building the new entrance.*

The residential building on the northwest corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Halsted Street was built in 2003 with a first-floor commercial space with an entrance on the Milwaukee Avenue side. Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal – Milwaukee is a busy street and this side of the street has a fair amount of foot traffic. But the other side of the building, on Halsted Street, faces one of two entrances to the Grand Blue Line subway station and a major transfer bus stop.

7-11 is moving into the building and have built a new entrance out of the corner space with floor-to-ceiling windows. Now it’ll be much easier for transit riders to get to a convenience store. The other advantage is the added visibility: seeing the entrance from far away, from all sides, saves milliseconds in our internal GPS processing time – make a bee-line to the entrance instead of “hunting” it down after you make your way in the general direction of the building.


View Larger Map

* You can see that there’s a step here so it’s not currently accessible. Originally this wasn’t the entrance so that makes sense. I don’t know what these contractors are doing but 7-11 must make the entrance accessible.

Going to worship at The Beer Temple takes too long

Minor suggestion to improve Elston-California-Belmont

A map of Belmont, Elston, California with lines and labels that show how I get to The Beer Temple and where I think the city should add car parking.

The Beer Temple opened two blocks from my house in Avondale last year, at 3185 N Elston Ave, on the six-way intersection of Belmont Avenue, Elston Avenue, and California Avenue. This intersection is beastly.

And it’s timed wrong. Since I live southwest of the great craft and imported beer store and it’s on the northwest corner of Elston (a diagonal street) and California, I have to cross twice. I make the first crossing, east-west across California at my street, and then walk north to the second crossing, north-south across Elston.

I cross at my street across California because there’s no light to wait for, and the crossing isn’t diagonal like my other option at Elston (which would mean I walk north, then diagonally south and east). Once I get to Elston, though, I’m screwed because the walk signal is about 15 seconds long but the wait for the next walk signal is about 90 seconds long.

It’s so long because the green for Elston is held for Elston traffic, but also held green for eastbound Belmont traffic that makes a right turn onto southeast-bound Elston. Instead of the walk signal being green for two phases of the cycle (for two of the three streets), it’s green for only one cycle: California’s.

This is because this six-way intersection is the less common type, the type with an island in the middle. It’s got the island because the three streets cross each other at different points and don’t share a common cross point. I’ve got to wait for two phases because Elston needs to stay green for Belmont traffic because you can’t have drivers waiting in the island area – too many cars may stack up and block cross traffic during another phase.

(At many intersections I would just cross whenever there’s a gap between fast-moving cars, but with six-way intersections you don’t always know from where a car will be speeding towards you.)

I get that, but that makes it suck for walking in this area. This design also makes it suck for people biking and driving to turn left from certain streets to other streets because they can’t make the left turn and keep on going. They make the left turn and then have to stop and wait for a second phase to keep going.

I’ve racked my mind for ideas on how to improve this intersection just mildly, in such a way that few would oppose (because that’s really the threshold you can’t cross to have a nice outcome in Chicago).

My idea? Add car parking in front of Dragon Lady Lounge in the “non-identified lane” there. It’s used as a travel lane, or a right-turn lane, depending on who’s driving and how they choose to maneuver their vehicle. It’s not needed for either because of the way traffic moves southbound on Elston past Dragon Lady Lounge and that Elston only has one travel lane in each direction on either side of this big intersection.

The parking would have the obvious benefit of putting customers closer to their destination, but would have the less obvious benefits of protecting people on the sidewalk, buffering noise and speeding vehicles from sidewalk users, and slow traffic past Dragon Lady Lounge when people are parking.

Outta left field: I recreated the city’s contractor listing website

The site looks good and works quickly on mobile devices.

LicensedChicagoContractors.com looks good and works quickly on mobile devices.

I’m working on a secret project to get something installed on the public way. The process to find out how to do it is as arduous as getting it done because you never finish learning the process. Every time you think you’ve figured something out, there’s something else.

To get the secret project installed I need a licensed contractor. Not only do a need a licensed contractor, but they must have the license to do work in the public way (versus doing work at your private property).

The Chicago Department of Buildings publishes a continually updated list of licensed contractors on its website but it’s annoying to use. There’s no search, no permanent links, and if you leave the window open long enough this weird session manager kicks in and stops you from browsing to the next page of results.

I asked my followers on Twitter the best way to scrape the data. The ever-amusing Dan O’Neill, who leads the Smart Chicago Collaborative (which hosts the Chicago Crash Browser), recommended just copying and pasting all 10 pages. That would work fine for the first time, but I might need to do it a second time when the data updates. Nick Bennett jumped in and used Selenium, a tool that automates web browsers. He said, “it’s inefficient but for a small job like that I figured why bother with something faster”.

I imported the data into a MySQL table and ran through some of my “standard” data cleaning methods (like trimming leading and trailing spaces, removing odd characters, and extracting good information into other columns, like phone numbers and ZIP codes).

With PHP – my favorite web language – I created a single page website that loads all 3,930 licensed general contractors extremely fast, loads the DataTables JavaScript library to enhance the table with search and sort. I used Bootstrap to make a responsive design meaning it adjusts to fit multiple screen sizes including smartphones and tablets.

I call it LicensedChicagoContractors.com.

The new website still doesn’t solve my problem of finding a company that can do work in the public way – I’m still working on this. The last online dataset I could find is on the city’s old http://egov.cityofchicago.org domain, and was cached by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine on January 25, 2010. Ideally this information – plumbers, public way, and general contractors – should be posted on the City’s data portal.

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