Author: Steven Vance

Allowing cottage courts in Chicago requires changing the zoning code

Ed. note: This is a work in progress; I’m looking for feedback, and for good imagery of cottage courts in other cities with neighborhoods that have a similar structure as typical ones in Chicago (I’m specifically referring to block and lot sizes).

Cottage courts (or clusters) are a common multi-family design typology in cities outside of Illinois. You’ll find them in California (where they’re more often called bungalow courts) and Tennessee, for example. They are characterized by having multiple detached one or two-story houses on a single and compact development site. The houses commonly face a shared green space and have shared parking behind them.

A primary benefit of cottage courts is that it creates more for-sale detached houses (which are in very high demand in Chicago) while sharing land [1]. In other words, cottage courts create more detached houses using less land.

It is not possible to build a cottage court in Chicago because of how the zoning code is written. The purpose of this article is to discuss specific text amendments that would have to be collectively adopted in order to allow this housing type.

screenshot of a page from a guide about Missing Middle housing in Chattanooga, TN. The image has a site plan for a cottage court, an isometric view of the rendered cottage court, a narrative about the sample project, and statistics.
A sample cottage court intended for an audience in Chattanooga, TN, created by the Incremental Development Alliance.

Zoning code barriers

  1. The Chicago zoning code allows only one principal building per lot. A detached house constitutes a principal building and only one of them is allowed. The code would have to be changed to allow more than one principal buildings per lot. If the city council wants to limit this allowance to cottage courts then other code would have to be modified to define a cottage court (similarly to how it has a definition of a townhouse).
  2. Cottage courts should be fee simple [2], to make them easier to mortgage and sell, which means subdividing a lot into one lot per house. The Chicago zoning code does not allow subdividing a lot below the minimum lot area for the particular zoning district governing a lot. For example, currently in RS-3, if more than one principal building per lot was allowed, each cottage court house would have to occupy 2,500 s.f., which is an untenable size for cottage court development.
  3. Minimum lot area per unit standards also severely restrict development of cottage courts. To build four houses in an RS-3 zoning district one would need a 10,000 s.f. lot!
  4. Rear setbacks would need to be reducible, preferably without the need for a variation from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Because the houses are oriented to face a common green space at the interior of the lot (not at the front or rear of the lot), the rear of the house may be close to the side property line, violating the rear setback standard of ~30 feet.
  5. Side setbacks would need to be combinable or eliminated as a requirement for cottage court development, so that the houses could be closer together or the designer could have more flexibility in their orientation.
  6. Parking requirements would need to be more flexible, both in quantity and in design. Parking is currently allowed only in the rear setback, but these houses may not have a rear setback because of their inward orientation. To maximize shared green space parking requirements should be reducible for this housing type. The Chicago TOD ordinance may be relevant here, as it now applies in RM-5, and higher, residential zoning districts, but the cottage court needs to be allowable in the RS-3 and RT-4 zoning districts (as these are for more common).

Attorneys, designers, and developers: Are there any other Chicago zoning code standards missing?

Examples of cottage courts

I know of two cottage court examples in Chicago (thanks, Matt and Matt):

  • 7436 S Phillips Ave (et. al.). These were built prior to 1952, according to historic aerial images, and are individually parceled (see barrier #2 above).
  • 7433 S Euclid Pkwy (et. al.). The houses were built between 1938 and 1952, according to historic aerial images, and are individually parceled. Two of the parcels are vacant.
  • 1802 S Kildare Ave (et. al.). The houses were built after 1950.

All of the images below are from the Missing Middle Housing website, created by Opticos Design, an architecture firm that has popularized the term “missing middle”.

Notes

A tiny house village may also be considered a cottage court. The influential architecture firm, Landon Bone Baker, once designed a proposed tiny house village (knowing full well it was not legal) for Thresholds and Easter Seals in Chicago.

[1] It’s also assumed that sharing land means sharing land costs, and land costs are a significant part of purchasing a house. In the areas where demand for detached houses is the highest, land costs are also the highest. Cottage courts create more detached houses with less land.

[2] fee simple has a legal meaning, but here I mean “the house owner also owns the land beneath the house”, and the pair are collateral for the lender that, on paper, looks like any other detached house the lender has mortgaged.

Chicago Crash Browser updates with stats, filters, and news article links

Today I’m adding a bunch of new features to the Chicago Crash Browser, which lives on Chicago Cityscape.

But first…special access is no longer required. Anyone can create a free Cityscape account and access the map. However, only those with special access or a Cityscape Real Estate Pro account will be able to download the data.


Five new features include:

  • Statistics that update weekly to summarize what happened in the past week: the number of crashes, the number of people killed in crashes, and the number of people with the two worst tiers of injuries. The statistics are viewable to everyone, including those without access to the crash browser.
screenshot of the new weekly statistics
The statistics will update every Sunday. The numbers may change throughout the week as Chicago police officers upload crash reports.
  • For data users, the crash record ID is viewable. The crash record ID links details about the same crash across the Chicago data portal’s three tables: Crashes, Vehicles, and People. My Chicago Crash Browser is currently only using the Crashes table. Click on the “More details” arrow in the first table column.
screenshot of the data table showing the crash record ID revealed.
The crash record ID is hidden by default but can be exposed. Use this ID to locate details in the data portal’s Vehicles and People tables.
  • Filter crashes by location. There are currently two location filters: (1) on a “Pedestrian Street” (a zoning designation to, over time, reduce the prevalence of car-oriented land uses and improve building design to make them more appealing to walk next to); (2) within one block of a CTA or Metra station, important places where people commonly walk to. Select a filter’s radio button and then click “Apply filters”.
  • Filter crashes by availability of a news article or a note. I intend to attach news articles to every crash where a pedestrian or bicyclist was killed (the majority of these will be to Streetsblog Chicago articles, where I am still “editor at large”. Notes will include explanations about data changes [1] (the “map editor” mentioned in some of the notes is me) and victims’ names.
screenshot of the two types of filters

After choosing a filter’s radio button click “Apply filters” and the map and data table will update.
  • Filter by hit and run status. If the officer filling out the crash report marked it as a hit and run crash, you can filter by choosing “Yes” in the options list. “No” is another option, as is “not recorded”, which means the officer didn’t select yes or no.
  • Search by address. Use the search bar inside the map view to center the map and show crashes that occurred within one block (660 feet) of that point. The default is one block and users can increase that amount using the dropdown menu in the filter.
screenshot of the map after the search by address function has been used
Use the search bar within the map view to show crashes near a specific address in Chicago.

Footnotes

[1] The most common data change as of this writing is when a crash’s “most severe injury” is upgraded from non-fatal to fatal, but the crash report in the city’s data portal does not receive that update. This data pipeline/publishing issue is described in the browser’s “Crash data notes” section.

The “map editor” (me) will change a crash’s “most severe injury” to fatal to ensure it appears when someone filters for fatal crashes. This change to the data will be noted.

I tried to see the Vatican City train station

Vatican City has a train station but you cannot see it. You can, however, see the large gates within the papal state’s wall that enclose the train station and separate it from the main railway network in Italy. 

Beyond the gates is the Vatican City railway station
Beyond the gates is the Vatican City railway station

The Citta Vaticano railway station is on a branch on the Roma-Capranica-Viterbo mainline and nominally connected to the Roma San Pietro train station which serves Trenitalia regional trains, including the numbered Lazio region commuter lines

Railway branch to Vatican City

There is one way to visit the train station and that’s to take a Vatican City-sponsored day trip from the station to the Pontifical Villages about 15 miles southeast of Rome. In 2022, the trips are offered on Saturdays through October 29 and cost about €43. 

A proposal intended for visitors interested in taking part in a tour of the Vatican City and the Gardens of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo.

Every Saturday, a modern and comfortable electric train connects the historic Vatican City railway station with the Pontifical Villas for a Full Day visit that, starting with the wonders of the Vatican Museums and continuing through the Vatican Gardens, will lead the visitor to discover the Gardens of the Pontifical Villas.

Pope Francis opened the villas and Castel Gandolfo in 2015. Watch an AFP video in English or in French about the news.

Watch this video from The Round the World Guys – skip to 5:58 – for a view of the station and their ride to the villas. (I thought The Tim Traveller also made a video about the Vatican City railway station but I cannot find it on his YouTube channel.)

When I was in Rome this month – part of a longer trip to Rome, Florence, Lyon, Strasbourg, the Netherlands, and Germany – I wanted to see what I could see, so I walked south and west around the wall towards the San Pietro station. A street follows the southern wall; walk along this and you’ll come to an entry to a railroad viaduct. At this point, it’s at ground level, but to the left (south) the ground quickly slopes down several stories. The viaduct holds the branch from the main line and you can walk across it to San Pietro station. 

If that’s too difficult to follow, go to the San Pietro station, go up to binario (platform) 1, and walk towards the large St. Peter’s Basilica you see to the right.

Railway to Vatican City

Chicago Crash Browser is back

ChicagoCrashes dot org was, for many years, the only source for people to get information about traffic crashes in Chicago. I started it in 2011.

Chicago Crash Browser v0.2
A screenshot of Chicago Crash Browser v0.2 showing what the website looked like on December 30, 2011.

It was updated annually with data from two years ago, because of how the Illinois Department of Transportation processed the reports from all over the state. I shut it down because it had outdated code, I was maintaining it in my free time, and I didn’t want to update the code or spend all the time every year integrating the new data.

In 2015, the Chicago Police Department started testing an electronic crash reporting system in some districts that meant police officers could write reports and they would immediately show up in a public database (in the city’s data portal). The CPD expanded this to all districts in September 2017. (A big caveat to using the new dataset is that it has citywide data for only four and a half years.)

Since then, whenever someone asked me for crash data (mostly from John to illustrate Streetsblog Chicago articles), I would head to the data portal and grab data from just the block or intersection where someone had recently been injured or killed. I would load the traffic crash data into QGIS and visualize it. I found this also to be painstaking.

Now, with renewed attention on the common and unfixed causes of KSIs (“industry” term for killed or seriously injured) that we’re seeing repeatedly across Chicago – read about the contributing cause of Gerardo Marciales’s death – I decided to relaunch a version of Chicago Crash Browser.

The new version doesn’t have a name, because it’s part of the “Transportation Snapshot” in Chicago Cityscape, the real estate information platform I operate. It’s also behind a paywall, because that’s how Chicago Cityscape is built.

I wanted to make things a lot easier for myself this round and it comes with a lot of benefits:

  • Explore all crash reports in a given area, whether that’s one you draw yourself or predefined in the Cityscape database.
  • Quickly filter by crash type (bicyclist, pedestrian, etc.) and injury severity.
  • Download the data for further analysis.
A screenshot of a map and data table visualizing and describing traffic crash reports in Columbus Park.
What the crash data looks like within Chicago Cityscape.

How to access the Chicago Crash Browser

The crash data requires a Cityscape membership. I created a new tier of membership that cannot be signed up – I must grant it to you. It will give you access only to Transportation Snapshots.

  • Create a free account on Chicago Cityscape. The site uses only social networks for creating accounts.
  • Mention or DM me on Twitter, @stevevance, saying you’d like access to the crash data. Tell me what your email you used to create an account on Chicago Cityscape.
  • I’ll modify your membership to give you access to the “transportation tier” and tell you to sign out and sign back in to activate it.

Once you’re in, this video shows you how to draw a “Personal Place” and explore the traffic crash data there. Text instructions are below.

  1. From the Chicago Cityscape homepage, click on “Maps” in the menu bar and then click “Draw your own map”.
  2. On the “Personal Place” page that appears with a large map, decide which shape you’d like to draw: a circle with a radius that you specify (good for intersections), a square or rectangle (good for street blocks), or an arbitrary polygon (good for winding streets in parks). Click the shape and draw it according to the onscreen instructions. For intersections I recommend making the circle 150 feet for small intersections and 200 feet for long intersections; this is because intersections have an effect on driving beyond the box.
  3. Once you’ve completed drawing the shape, a popup window appears with the button to “view & save this Personal Place”. Click that button and a new browser tab will open with something called a “Place Snapshot”.
  4. In the Place Snapshot enter a name for your Personal Place and click the “Save” button.
  5. Scroll down and, under the “Additional Snapshots” heading, click the link for “Transportation & Jobs Snapshot”; a new browser tab will open.
  6. In Transportation Snapshot, scroll down and look for “Traffic crashes”. You’ve made it to the new Chicago Crash Browser.

S-Bahn, RER, and Overground

This blog post was inspired by Steven Lucy’s comments on Twitter about three different “regional rail” networks.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced in her State of the State speech the other day that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state authority that operates New York City’s transit, would do a feasibility study for the “The Triboro” (or “Interborough Express”).

The line would use existing freight railroad rights of way to connect Queens and Brooklyn (ironically there isn’t a third borough connection).

Screenshot of a tweet from @RegionalPlan on January 5, 2022. Text of the tweet: “🚨 TRIBORO IS MOVING FORWARD 🚨 @GovKathyHochul just announced @MTA will launch an environmental impact statement for Interborough Express, an above-ground rail line using existing tracks through Brooklyn and Queens, and two-thirds of RPA’s Triboro proposal #StateOfTheStateNY

Transit Twitter has been abuzz, as reusing infrastructure is a really good idea!

John Surico, a professor in New York City, tweeted, “Wonder if NYC is about to have its London Overground moment. An overlooked transit project using freight lines, ended up being way more popular than expected. Since led to new routes, changed where Londoners saw themselves living, and connected otherwise disconnected locales.”

Steven Lucy, a business owner in Chicago, said in response, “Everyone says ‘Chicago RER’ or ‘Chicago S-Bahn’ but I think Chicago is ripe for a London-style Chicago Overground.”

I think all three – RER, S-Bahn, and London Overground – can be grouped as “regional rail”, which constitutes passenger trains running between center cities and their suburbs, stopping at the major stations and a few key stations in the cities, at frequencies higher than commuter and intercity rail and lower than rapid transit.

Regional rail is not quite a walk-up-and-board service, but it’s better than having the hourly or every other hour off-peak service that most United States cities with passenger trains endure.

What are they?

Someone asked Lucy, “What’s the difference between those three?”

Lucy: “My view: they all kind of operate similar service but have different histories.”

I’ll summarize those, and show some of my photos since I’ve ridden and experienced all three types of regional rail.

S-Bahn

Lucy: “Most S-Bahn systems share tracks and stations with long-distance trains (Berlin huge exception) and mainly serve one corridor in city center with branches to burbs.”

An S-Bahn train at the Munich Hauptbahnhof
Most S-Bahn trains in Germany have the same livery: Blocks of red with white around the doors. The Munich S-Bahn train is shown above. The Berlin S-Bahn, pictured below, is the oddity.

The “S-Bahn” branding, in particular, is used only in German-speaking countries, while in Denmark you’ll find the S-tog. The Wikipedia article for S-train reports a few other networks with similar branding.

S-Bahn trains typically use the same fare structure as the metros (rapid transit) they intersect with. And, in Germany, most S-Bahn trains look the same! Berlin is a major exception, and there are also some smaller networks with unique liveries. German regional transit is owned by cross-state cooperative transit agencies called “zweckverband” (a singular word there) who can operate lines themselves or contract them to other operators, and often S-Bahn services are contracted to DB, the federally-owned railway corporation.

An S-Bahn train passing the O2 World stadium

RER

Lucy: “RER was built from scratch post-war, mostly underground in city, to relieve both metro lines and traditional commuter rail.”

When used without qualifiers, RER means “Réseau Express Régional” in French, for Regional Express Network, and the term refers to the hybrid system used in Île-de-France, the region that includes Paris and its suburbs. Many of the lines are interlined, meaning they share routes and stop at some of the same stations. That means that some stations will have high-frequency service and appear to have a “walk up and go” function, but not all trains stopping there are going to the same place.

RER double decker commuter train with level boarding
RER trains are double decker. This model also has very wide doors with level boarding. Sydney’s regional rail trains (SydneyTrains) also have very wide doors and level boarding, which facilities expeditious boarding and deboarding.

The acronym works great in English, though –Regional Express Rail – and it’s being used in Toronto to denote a project to increase frequencies on the GO Transit commuter rail lines.

To call something that’s not in Paris “an RER” would mean that a transit authority is increasing the frequencies and service hours (later runs) of a commuter line and adjusting the fare structure to make it usable for more people.

The goal is to build a transit system that supports non-work trips at any time of the day for everyone; rather than weekday rush hour commuters that many regional trains in the United States (cough Metra cough) serve.

It’s debatable whether the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), Metro North Railroad (MNR), and New Jersey Transit (NJT) in the New York City metropolitan area are a type of “RER”. There are some periods in their schedules, outside of peak periods, when there is better than hourly service, but the two systems do not have fare integration with buses, PATH subways, or NYC Subway, adding a barrier to people using the complete network.

London Overground

Lucy: “Overground took over some underused / disused lines and is kind of a lower-capacity mesh to the complement the Underground, mainly non-radial trips.”

On the Transport for London map, all Overground lines share the same hue of orange, and are identified by their geographic names. S-Bahn lines are typically called “Sx” where “x” is a number, and the five RER lines are letters A through E.

Hoxton Overground station
Hoxton station on the East London line.

I think it’s neat that the London Overground runs on original embankments between buildings in the city, making its presence very visible, much like the stations on Chicago’s four-track North Side Main Line (all of the Red, Brown, and Purple Line stations north of North Avenue).

One thing that several people noted in the various branches of conversations on Twitter were the effect on land use and development after the London Overground lines opened. I don’t know the details, but some said it accelerated gentrification.

London Overground train arriving into Hoxton
A London Overground train arrives into Hoxton station.

In Chicago, I don’t think converting Metra to an RER system would accelerate gentrification across the system because the current characteristics that inhibit or mitigate gentrification in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods (one of that characteristics is Chicago’s segregation and aldermanic privilege situation, which is better described by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance).

The situation would be a little different if Metra added new stations or restored historic stations, as stations change market and neighborhood development fundamentals. For example, there used to be a station (with trains from Metra’s BNSF predecessor) two blocks from where I live in Little Village. The station area is now John G. Shedd Park.

Metra’s current leadership has indicated their desire to increase service frequency, but remains opposed to electrification (a key change to increase service frequency and operational efficiency and reducing costs) and has not indicated a desire to revamp their operations “style”.