Category: Cities

Why courtyard buildings aren’t allowed in Chicago anymore

Chicago Urbanist Twitter was abuzz last month when renderings of a proposed construction courtyard building were published, given that the historical building typology hadn’t been built in Chicago in decades. Some wondered if this revered local home style was making a return.

I don’t think there will be a resurgence or resurrected trend in building courtyard buildings in Chicago, because of how the city’s building and zoning codes inhibit them.

Notes before I begin the analysis: a Chicago courtyard building is very similar, if not the same as, a housing typology that’s extremely common in northern Europe: the point access block.

And, Chicago has, at least, two variations of courtyard buildings:

  1. Large inset front courtyard (U-shaped building)
  2. Rear courts, often with exterior unenclosed porches or a rear yard

Chicago courtyard buildings, described

To describe the Chicago courtyard building, I compiled a list of why people like courtyard buildings, especially the type with the front courtyard based on conversations I observed on Twitter and by asking members of Urban Environmentalists of Illinois (thank you J.O. and P.B.).

  • They look nice, with all of the landscaping visible from the sidewalk. Landscaping isn’t relegated to the roof and can be seen by the public.
  • Everyone’s unit has a designated nice view, as every unit faces the inner court. Compare this to a double-loaded corridor where about half the units will face the street and the other half may face the alley.
  • The unit layouts are some of the best; the apartments have lots of natural light and all rooms have windows. The units are often “dual aspect” and with windows on two walls open a cross breeze can occur.
  • Courtyard buildings enable many different unit types within one development (studios and 1-3 bedrooms), which means there can be a decent mix of types of people (families and singles and couples.) This is unlike a building using a double-loaded corridor floor plan, which can only get many-bedroom apartments at the corners.
  • Most units are pretty quiet since some of the unit’s layout is not directly against street, not too noisy.
  • The point access block layout (i.e. 2 units per floor per stairwell) mean that even though buildings can be big feels small-scale and homey compared to having long hallways. You actually know people in your stairwell, not a bunch of strangers (this also means they utilize space for effectively than double-loaded corridor buildings, which has impacts on cost).

What do you like about courtyard buildings?

Zoning code conflicts

Courtyard buildings are difficult or impossible to build in Chicago for reasons 4-6 that I described in a previous post about how to amend the zoning code to allow “cottage courts” in Chicago. They are repeated here:

  1. 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. 
  2. Side setbacks would need to be combinable or eliminated as a requirement for courtyard buildings because the unbuilt space on the property is concentrated in the interior court.
  3. Parking requirements would need to be more flexible, both in quantity and in design, because otherwise the parking area would occupy a third to half of the property, minimizing the space that can be used for the interior court. To maximize the 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 courtyard building needs to be allowable in the RT-4 zoning districts (as these are for more common).
  4. Minimum lot area per unit standards can likely be met cost-effectively in the less common RM-5 and higher zoning districts. The most common residential zoning districts in Chicago are RS-3 and RT-4. The RS-3 zoning districts do not allow more than two units on a lot; in RT-4 zoning districts the developer would have to assemble so many lots to be able to get the unit count necessary to make such a building’s construction cost-effective.

Walk around Rogers Park, Lakeview, and Hyde Park – where it seems the most courtyard buildings were built – and you’ll see that most of them don’t have any car parking. And the ones that do certainly don’t have as many to meet current car parking requirements.

Building code conflicts

Note that “IANAA” (I am not an architect) and my expertise on building codes is always quite limited.

Exits and stairs. The Chicago building code generally requires a minimum of two stairs for buildings of an occupancy classification of R-2 (multifamily with four or more units, not including shelters); see section 1006.3.2 in the Chicago building code for info about two-exit standards.

The two exits must also be within a minimum and maximum distance apart from each other; this standard ends up requiring a corridor between the two stairs so that each unit can access either stair. This corridor eliminates rentable area and decreases the floor plan’s efficiency (a metric for architects and developers that affects the pro forma).

In the new construction courtyard building’s renderings at the top of the post, there are three interior stairs! See also the Standard 8-3 comment below.

Section 1006.3.3 in the Chicago building code outlines the single exit (single stair) conditions. Without going further into alternatives and exceptions, a three-floor three-flat can be a single stair building as long as the third floor doesn’t exceed 1,600 s.f. of floor area and the house has a sprinkler system ($$). You read that right…Chicago allows single stair for buildings with 1-3 units and 1-3 floors.

Long corridor. The minimum corridor length and the sometimes-extra stairs require a bigger building footprint (increasing construction cost compared to a building without corridors, like the point access block), which is already constrained by parking mandates and inexplicable zoning code setback requirements. See section 1007.1.1 in the Chicago building to learn about how far apart exits need to be.

It’s not actually the multiple stairs that are the space hog…it’s the corridor that’s required to connect the multiple stairs.

Setbacks. Fire separation distance is different than a zoning setback. The building code allows buildings to abut (touch) adjacent buildings but the fire protection standards on that side of the building are increased. No windows could be built on a wall that has zero setback, so natural light and vent requirements for bedrooms would have to be provided through light courts and placing bedrooms at the front or rear of the building.

Do you know of some other regulatory standards that affect the development feasibility of courtyard buildings and point access blocks in the United States?

Show expansion of transit networks over the decades using Transit Explorer

Yonah Freemark just launched the biggest expansion of transit network mapping on Transit Explorer and I built a new feature for TE that allows users to visualize the size of a network by decade from 1970 to today.

When looking at a region of the world, change the era of transit network that you’re seeing by selecting a decade from the dropdown menu under the “Change the era” heading. In a moment, the map will automatically refresh.

I’ll show you three cities:

  • Salt Lake City
  • Hong Kong
  • São Paulo

Salt Lake City

The Utah Transit Authority opened its first modern light rail line in 1999 from Salt Lake City to the southern suburb of Sandy. It opened the second line, from downtown Salt Lake City to the University of Utah, in 2001, in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Some games and ceremonies were held at the university. FrontRunner commuter rail opened in 2008, and the third light rail line, to the airport, opened in 2011 and various line extensions opened in 2013. A BRT route that opened in 2018 in Provo is also mapped but not shown while a BRT route in Salt Lake City is shown under construction in 2024.

View Salt Lake City on Transit Explorer

Hong Kong

In 1970, the only rail transit that Hong Kong had were a tramway on Hong Kong Island and the East Rail Line, which opened in 1910 and was electrified in 1983. Every decade since there was a new line or two on the Hong Kong MTR network, culminating in the ten lines you see in 2024.

View Hong Kong on Transit Explorer

São Paulo

In 1970, São Paulo’s metropolitan network, Metrô, didn’t exist, but it had six regional train lines operated by three railroads – these kinds of trains are shown in brown on Transit Explorer. The metro, shown in blue, began in 1974, and now has six lines (including one monorail line) while the regional train network was modified to five lines. São Paulo saw its first bus rapid transit (BRT) line added in 1988, but added four more BRT lines since then – just five of the over 900 bus routes operated by EMTU.

View São Paulo on Transit Explorer

Chicago City Council could end up voting to ban new dollar stores

Update: This ordinance passed out of licensing committee on Monday, January 22, 2024. Also, the link to the ordinance is not working and I can’t find another way to link to it on the City Clerk’s legislation database. The version that passed out of committee reduces the radius from 2 miles to 1 mile and reduces the threshold for fresh and frozen food to avoid the radius minimum from 40 percent to 10 percent.

Update 2, February 22, 2024: A substitute ordinance was passed by City Council yesterday; the thresholds described in the paragraph above were established but the distance separation clause was amended so that only dollar stores of the same owner are banned within one mile. In other words, and this is dependent on the definition of “controlling person” in the code at section 4-4-005, a Dollar General could not open within one mile of a Dollar General or a Dollar Tree, but a Family Dollar could. A new map is shown at the end.

Ald. O’Shea (19th Ward) has proposed an ordinance with 35 cosponsors that would ban dollar stores within two miles of another dollar store and within 1/8th mile of an “R” zoning district. The ordinance number is O2023-0004978; read the PDF of the proposed ordinance.

The ordinance would amend the zoning code in chapter 17 as well as add business license regulations in chapter 4 of the Municipal Code of Chicago. The new business licensing section would establish strict rules on “excessive loud noises” and trash accumulation at dollar stores, and even regulate what people outside the store could be doing, as well as require a site plan review by the planning and transportation departments (something usually only required when there is a driveway, drive-through, or larger development).

The city codes would include dollar stores under the new definition of “small box retailer”, which excludes Walgreens and gas station mini marts.

Specifically, “small-box retailer means a retail store (a) with a floor area between 5,000 and 17,500 square feet; (b) that sells at retail an assortment of physical goods, products, or merchandise directly to the consumer, including food or beverages for off-premises consumption, household products, personal grooming and health products, and other consumer goods; (c) that continuously offers and advertises a majority of the items in their inventory for sale at a price less than $5.00 per item; and (d) that does not: (i) contain a prescription pharmacy, (ii) sell gasoline or diesel fuel, (iii) primarily sell specialty food items, or (iv) dedicate less than 5% of shelf space and display areas to food sales.”

The proposal’s purpose is spelled out in the preamble, which makes some judgements about the prevalence of dollar stores in Chicago.

WHEREAS, The City of Chicago (“City”) is a home rule unit of government under Article VII, Section 6(a) of the 1970 Constitution of the State of Illinois and, as such, may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare; and

WHEREAS, There is a proliferation of small-box retailers, such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar (which is owned by Dollar Tree), and Dollar General, in urban areas, including the City, where small-box retailers are clustered in and around South and West Side neighborhoods; and

WHEREAS, Although small-box retailers can fill a need in communities lacking basic retail services, growing evidence suggests small-box retailers are not merely a byproduct of this economic distress, they can often be a cause of it; and

WHEREAS, By saturating communities, particularly majority-Black urban neighborhoods, with multiple stores, small-box retailers’ business strategy often makes it impossible for independent and local grocery stores to open, or, indeed remain open, in a community; and

WHEREAS, Small-box retailers are not a meaningful alternative to local grocery stores, often devoting minimal, if any, floor space to fresh, wholesome foods, and offering low-cost, single serving, highly processed foods that are in actuality much more expensive per ounce; and

WHEREAS, In addition to these negative economic impacts, small-box retailers also tend to attract higher inc dences of crime, theft, and other negative effects on the public health, safety, and welfare, suc as littering and the accumulation of waste far exceeding the dumpster space provided by small-box retailers; and

WHEREAS, Regulating small-box retailers is necessary, desirable, and in the public interest by promoting stronger, more resilient neighborhoods and protecting the public health, safety, and welfare of our Cit ; now, therefore:

Natalie Moore wrote a column in the Chicago Sun-Times about some of the impacts of dollar stores in the city.


If this ordinance went into effect, new dollar stores would only be allowed in the green areas of Chicago. Additional areas would open up if the proposed dollar store would dedicate ≥40 percent of shelf space to fresh or frozen food. This map only considers “Big Dollar” stores and not independent dollar stores that might meet the parameters in the proposed ordinance.

The map below shows 150 locations of Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar stores. Family Dollar is part of Dollar Tree.

The green areas show the parts of Chicago where a new dollar store that follows the default “two mile minimum” rule would be allowed. The proposed ordinance has a provision that if 40 percent or more of shelf space is dedicated to fresh or frozen food then that new dollar store only has to be one mile away from any other dollar store.

It’s possible that dollar store companies could erect stores that are smaller or larger than the floor area standard in the proposed ordinance that would otherwise capture them into the “small box retailer” definition.

A map based on the approved substitute ordinance, showing 1 mile buffer areas, is shown below.

Chicago’s entitlement and permitting approval times are not nearly as bad as in Los Angeles

Researchers at ULCA studied permitting and entitlement approval times in Los Angeles. They are pretty terrible compared to Chicago.

tl;dr: Los Angeles, 500 days; Chicago, 180 days. Read on for some low-level discussion of our methodologies.

I learned about this development-slowing phenomenon from episode 59 of the Housing Voices podcast (one of my favorites). The paper – download it – was written by Michael Manville, Paavo Monkkonen, Nolan Gray, and Shane Phillips.

They found that the median time to permit for discretionary (i.e. not permitted as of right) developments in Los Angeles “transit oriented communities” (which are not equivalent to Chicago’s transit-served locations) was 495 days; the timeline was 747 days for by-right developments outside of transit oriented communities.

While my study is less rigorous, I programmed Chicago Cityscape to constantly calculate the time between the day the zoning change application is submitted to City Council and the day a relevant building permit for that project is issued.

I believe that this is roughly the same metric that their study used; however, it doesn’t account for potential variations between the two cities’ staff review processes and how much time a project in Chicago may be entertained by planning staff prior to a zoning change application being submitted to City Council.

I find that the median time to permit for discretionary developments in Chicago is 180 days. That’s compared to 495 days in Los Angeles!

This metric includes projects that (a) were approved by Chicago City Council within the last two years (the calculation is updated daily), (b) received a new construction or renovation permit having an estimated construction cost of $100,000 or more, and (c) was issued after the zoning change application’s approval date.

Both of our studies do not have information about the length of time a project spends in a “pre-approval” or “ideation” stage. And their study does not account for the time that a permit application (prior to issuance) is spent outside of a plan examiner’s review time (what Los Angeles calls “hold days”). However, my study accounts for the total time from permit application start to permit issuance date (because that is the value that the Chicago Department of Buildings published), so if their study accounted for that time then the number of days between application start and issuance would be even longer in Los Angeles!

The sweet water sea

I guess some people in the world call large freshwater lakes “sweet water seas”. that would include Lake Michigan, a great lake.

Sweet water sea
Photographed on a very moody day (June 25, 2023). It was raining, then it was sunny, then it was windy. Well, it was never not windy yesterday. And then it rained again.

The mouth of Belmont Harbor is a great place to photograph large planes arriving from Europe and Anchorage, charter fishing boats leaving the harbor, and pre- and post-war apartment buildings that overlook Chicago’s precious source of drinking water and recreation.

Flight UA763 from Denver to O'Hare
Flight UA763 from Denver to O’Hare. There was also Lufthansa B747 in retro livery, Austrian B777, and Korean Air Cargo B747.
King Fisher charter fishing boat on Lake Michigan
King Fisher charter fishing boat heading out onto Lake Michigan from Belmont Harbor.

All photos taken on iPhone 14 Pro. The 3x zoom lens is handy, but still not as good as a handheld camera with interchangeable zoom lens. I’ll bring that next time I’m going to be around Belmont Harbor at the time the jumbo jets arrive.