Tagzoning code

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).

How Chicago accomplishes “not planning”

Bloomingdale Trail meeting

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

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

Examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other examples are out there?

Car parking really is the root of all of Chicago’s transportation ills

Two pools! Read more about the Maryville Hospital site proposal from JDL Development.

Parking has a greater effect on new traffic impacts in a dense neighborhood, more than bike lanes, more than road diets, and more than the number of people who live or will move there.

Yet we require so gosh darn much of it in Chicago! A developer who proposed a 25-story residential tower in Uptown, one block from the lakefront, essentially said that parking is a waste. He’s already proposing the lowest without a special ordinance that favors (singles out) his development.

 

I think that Streetsblog Chicago, where I work, could have a part-time writer dedicated to new property developments and parking issues. But for now it’ll stay my beat!

Looking at multi-unit residential bike parking

Residential complexes with eight or more units are required to have bike parking because they’re required to have parking. The zoning code requires a ratio of 1 bike parking space to 2 car parking spaces (the quantity of car parking spaces it needs is a determination the Department of Housing and Economic Development makes).

A Grid Chicago reader recently sent me some photos of the bike parking inside the parking garage at the 900 S. Clark AMLI South Loop Apartments (see map). I was not surprised by what they showed based on what I’ve seen at other residential complexes in Chicago.

The photo above shows a double-decker bike rack with height alternating bike parking slots. This means that bikes can theoretically be spaced closer together because one bike’s handlebars won’t interfere with the bikes on either side of it. The bike rack has 10 slots. There are at least 16 bikes in the photo (it’s hard to count them from just the picture) and it seems only 5 are actually in slots.

The Chicago zoning code that applies to this situation is section 17-10-0207-C. As the complex is providing over 200 car parking spaces in this garage (I counted them in Google Earth), the AMLI South Loops Apartments must be providing 50 bike parking spaces (17-10-0301-B says max 50). Granted, the remaining 40 spaces could be inside the apartment tower, I highly doubt it. I don’t have enough information about this location to know if zoning code was not correctly or fairly applied.

Aside from obviously not having enough bike parking spaces, here’s what else isn’t cool about this bike parking installation:

  • The rack design offers no locking points. I believe this rack was intended to hold bikes at a retail store.
  • It’s outside, so bikes are getting wet
  • It’s over 200 feet away from any residential unit
  • It’s in a far corner of the parking garage (but not the furthest from the garage entrance)
  • An upper level rack design is not easy to use: one must first lift their bike to the second level, and then awkwardly reach around the frame and wheels to lock it.

I’ve created the Simple Bike Parking website as a resource and tool for anyone who wants to install bike parking. It discusses the three rules I’ve developed over the 4+ years I’ve consulted on bike parking in Chicago. It’s simple to have good, useful, and desirable bike parking if it’s:

  • Close to the entrance where people commonly enter and exit
  • Of the right design (nothing hard to use, please)
  • Placed at least 36 inches away from anything else, on all sides

There are a lot of abandoned bikes on the streets of Chicago, but I’m sure there are plenty more in residential buildings. I’m blaming difficult to reach and hard to secure bikes for this.

Updated 1145h to correct the maximum number of bike parking spaces a developer must provide, based on a different reading of the zoning code prompted by a reader. Thanks, Erik. 

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