Category: Commentary

Is it possible for us to “greenline” neighborhoods?

(I don’t mean extending the Green Line to its original terminal, to provide more transportation options in Woodlawn.)

Maps have been used to devalue neighborhoods and to excuse disinvestment. There should be maps, and narratives, to “greenline” – raise up – Chicago neighborhoods.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “residential lending security” maps marked areas based on prejudicial characteristics and some objective traits of neighborhoods to assess the home mortgage lending risk. (View the Cook County maps.) The red and yellow areas have suffered almost continuously since the 1930s, and it could be based on the marking of these neighborhoods as red or yellow (there is some debate about the maps’ real effects).

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and its local consultants (brokers and appraisers, mostly) outlined areas and labeled them according to objective and subjective & prejudicial criteria in the 1930s. Each area is accompanied by a data sheet and narrative description. The image is a screenshot of the maps as hosted and presented on Chicago Cityscape.

The idea of “greenlining”

I might be thinking myopically, but what would happen if we marked *every* neighborhood in green, and talked about their strengths, and any historical and current disinvestment – actions that contribute to people’s distressed conditions today?

One aspect of this is a form of affirmative marketing – advertising yourself, telling your own story, in a more positive way than others have heard about you in the past.

In 1940, one area on the Far West Side of Chicago, in the Austin community area, was described as “Definitely Declining”, a “C” grade, like this:

This area is bounded on the north by Lake St., on the south by Columbus Park, and on the west by the neighboring village of Oak Park. The terrain is flat and the area is about 100% built up. There is heavy traffic along Lake St., Washington Blvd. Madison St., Austin Ave. (the western boundary) and Central Ave. (the eastern boundary).

High schools, grammar schools, and churches are convenient. Residents shop at fine shopping center in Oak Park. There are also numerouss small stores along Lake St., and along Madison St. There are many large apartment buildings along the boulevards above mentioned, and these are largely occupied by Hebrew tenants. As a whole the area would probably be 20-25% Jewish.

Some of this migration is coming from Lawndale and from the southwest side of Chicago. Land values are quite high due to the fact that the area is zoned for apartment buildings. This penalizes single family occupancy because of high taxes based on exclusive land values, which are from $60-80 a front foot, altho one authority estimates them at $100 a front foot. An example of this is shown where HOLC had a house on Mason St. exposed for sale over a (over) period of two years at prices beginning at $6,000 and going down to $4,500. it was finally sold for $3,800. The land alone is taxed based on a valuation exceeding that amount. This area is favored by good transportation and by proximity to a good Catholic Church and parochial school.

There are a few scattered two flats in which units rent for about $55. Columbus Park on the south affords exceptional recreational advantages. The Hawthorne Building & Loan, Bell Savings Building & Loan, and Prairie State Bank have loaned in this area, without the FHA insurance provision. The amounts are stated to be up to 50% and in some cases 60%, of current appraisals.

Age, slow infiltration, and rather indifferent maintenance have been considered in grading this area “C”.

Infiltration is a coded reference to people of color, and Jews.

My questions about how to “greenline” a neighborhood

  1. How would you describe this part of Austin today to stand up for the neighborhood and its residents, the actions taken against them over decades, and work to repair these?
  2. How do you change the mindset of investors (both small and large, local and far) to see the advantages in every neighborhood rather than rely on money metrics?
  3. What other kinds of data can investors use in their pro formas to find the positive outlook?
  4. What would these areas look like today if they received the same level of investment (per square mile, per student, per resident, per road mile) as green and blue areas? How great was the level of disinvestment from 1940-2018?

In the midst of writing this, Paola Aguirre pointed me to another kind of greenlining that’s been proposed in St. Louis. A new anti-segregation report from For the Sake of All recommended a “Greenlining Fund” that would pay to cover the gap between what the bank is appraising a house for and what the sales price is for a house, so that more renters and Black families can buy a house in their neighborhoods.

That “greenlining” is a more direct response to the outcome of redlining: It was harder to get a mortgage in a red area. My idea of greenlining is to come up with ways to say to convince people who have a hard time believing there are qualities worth investing in that there they are people and places worth investing in.


The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond digitized the HOLC maps and published them on their Mapping Inequality website as well as provided the GIS data under a Creative Commons license.

Yes, please, to Accessory Dwelling Units and adopting Vancouver’s policy

income property

There’s a couch house back there, providing an income opportunity for the owner of this single-family house. It’s hard to find photos of coach houses in Chicago because, given their position behind the house, it’s hard to see them from the street! Photo by Curtis Locke

I’m a huge opponent of how cities use zoning to keep densities very low and prevent people from moving into a neighborhood to enjoy high quality public schools and good access to transit. This is evidenced by many of my tweets about zoning analyses in Chicago over the last two weeks, and many blog posts I’ve written over the years.

I’m a proponent of Accessory Dwelling Units. In Chicago these are most commonly seen, in practice, as coach houses, which were built before most of us were born. ADUs, because they’re behind the primary building on a lot, are a nearly-hidden, low-impact way to provide affordable housing for a couple more people per lot without affecting the “character” of the neighborhood. And they generate rental income for the family that owns the primary building!

Coach houses, and ADUs, are illegal in Chicago. You’re allowed to keep the one you have, and it can be rented out to anyone else, so long as you don’t renovate it.

Bryn Davidson is an architect based in Vancouver, B.C., and his firm, Lanefab, designs ADUs in that city, a housing type that was legalized in 2009. He wrote an article in CityLab today and there are *so many quotable parts*.

In the article, Davidson offers five strategies for a city that’s developing an ADU legalization policy.

In the “Keep the approvals process simple” strategy, Davidson says that Vancouver’s policy means homeowners “don’t have to solicit feedback from neighbors”, adding, “The…is perhaps the most important. In North America we have a long history of granting neighbors truly extraordinary veto powers when it comes to adding new housing. Going forward, if we want to treat younger generations and renters more fairly, we need to stop trying to litigate housing on a lot-by-lot basis.”

This is one of the worst things about zoning today. Zoning is supposed to be the way that you tell property owners what they can expect to be able to build, and it’s a way for cities or residents to manage certain aspects about the way their area looks and who is living there.

But if everywhere in the city (cough Chicago cough) where people want to build is improperly zoned to begin with – for example, allowing only single-family houses near train stations in areas that have hundreds of apartment buildings that predate that zoning – you get a situation where so many property owners have to ask their city council member for a zoning change.

The next quotable is…the entire parking strategy. But here’s some choice parts:

  • “We argued at length about parking in Vancouver, but in the end, opted to require only one onsite parking space…”
  • “Some neighbors will get irate about the new competition for street parking, but here’s the counterpoint: If a neighbor is complaining about street parking, it’s because they’re using their garage…for something else”
  • “Either way, a lot of single-family-home residents are parking on city property for free while extracting extra value out of their private land.”

Chicago is experiencing gentrification, with rising property values and taxes in neighborhoods filled with households that can least afford it. Many of these households live in a single-family house – what do you think about giving them the opportunity to renovate and rent out an existing coach house in North Lawndale, or build a new coach house in Humboldt Park?

You won’t believe why Arcade Place in Chicago’s Loop was changed from an alley to a street

The enhanced proposal for the building on the right, 230 W Monroe, was made possible by converting the alley to a “street”.

Arcade Place, for all intents and purposes, is an alley. It has Dumpsters, and loading docks. It has no sidewalks. It’s dark and probably dirty.

Yet in 1969, Alder Fred Roti passed an ordinance that gave the alley a name and street status.

Why? Because it gave an adjacent property owner the ability to get an FAR bonus and build a larger office building.

That’s not why Roti said he did it, though. “Nobody talked to me about this. I walk around the Loop all the time and I noticed this alley. It’s Arcade east and west and it didn’t make sense to me to be an alley here”, he told the Chicago Daily News.

How gracious he was to the poor alley!

There are several other “named alleys” in downtown Chicago, including Couch Place, Court Place, and Garland Court. I don’t know why they are streets.


I’m reading “Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago”, by Joseph P. Schwieterman, and Dana M. Caspall, which is full of downtown and North Side zoning change stories like the above. It’s available at the Chicago Public Library, or you can buy it right now.

They didn’t pave paradise, but they still put up a parking lot

The building

The building. Image: Cook County Assessor

Two light industrial building were purchased and demolished in order to build more car parking for WMS Gaming in the Avondale community area. Congratulations on the success of WMS Gaming that they are hiring more people, but this kind of development is transit “dis-oriented”.

Nearly an entire block face of California from Melrose to Roscoe will have a surface parking lot. Across the street to the west, and across the street to the south is entirely residential.

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development staff wrote in their report to the Chicago Plan Commission that the project “Promotes economically beneficial development patterns that are compatible with the character of existing neighborhoods (per 17-8-0103) as evidenced by the compatibility of off-street parking within the broader industrial park character of the surrounding area.”

The Plan Commission had to approve the demolition of these buildings and the additional parking lots because they were not allowed in Industrial Planned Development 1151.

The change was neither an economically productive use of the land, nor is it “compatible with the character” of half of the surrounding area.

This might be economically productive for WMS Gaming, so more of its workers can drive. But there are more ways to get around than driving.

WMS Gaming is near the 52-California bus route. It’s also two blocks from the 77-Belmont bus route and 152-Addison bus route. WMS Gaming can operate a shuttle to CTA or Metra stations.

Turning what was – and still could be – productive space has now been turned into entirely productive

There are many kinds of shared space

A guy standing in the middle of the intersection

I took this photo outside the café Memory Lane in Rotterdam because the man in the white shirt was standing in the “middle” of this intersection for a couple of minutes. Before he took this position, he was walking slowly across the intersection to the opposite corner as his car. He’s a livery driver, and he appeared to be waiting for his passenger.

This intersection is raised (the sidewalk is level with the road surface), and is uncontrolled (there are no traffic signals, stop signs, or yield signs). A bicyclist or motorist can pass through this intersection without having to stop unless someone is walking, or a bike or car is coming from their right.

This junction has no crosswalks, either. And no one honks. Especially not at the man who’s in the roadway.

Because he’s not in the roadway. He’s in a street, and streets are different. Streets are places for gathering, socializing, eating, connecting, traveling, and shopping. There was plenty of space for him to stand here, and for everyone else – including other motorists who were in their cars – to go about their business.