Tag: zoning code

Why courtyard buildings aren’t allowed in Chicago anymore

Chicago Urbanist Twitter was abuzz this month when renderings of a proposed construction courtyard building were published (they’re shown below), given that the historical building typology hadn’t been built in Chicago in decades. Some wondered if this revered local design was making a return.

The post is probably better titled “how it is that courtyard buildings aren’t built in Chicago anymore” as I don’t know why the codes changed in such a way to, effectively, do away with the housing typology. And it’s the second time I’ve evaluated the feasibility of building a specific housing typology; see my post about cottage clusters.

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. At the end I discuss how Chicago might get courtyard buildings to return.

Chicago has several variations of courtyard buildings

Common variations of Chicago courtyard buildings include:

  1. Large inset front courtyard (U-shaped) buildings
  2. Buildings with rear courts, often with exterior unenclosed porches or a small rear yard and possibly a garage (I speculate providing a space for one or two cars in a 20-unit building was meant for the building owner)
  3. Side court buildings
  4. S-shape and multi-court (which are kind of modular)

People like Chicago courtyard buildings

To describe the Chicago courtyard building, I compiled reasons 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.

  • 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 the unit can have cross ventilation. This may be a subjective, though, as the use of constant mechanical air flow with filtering and exhausting may provide some with greater comfort. Additionally, the need for cross breeze is less necessary given air conditioning and low-cost energy.
  • 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 often place multi-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.

I also feel that a courtyard building’s layout is similar to a point access block’s (i.e. two or three units per floor per stairwell). Even though the courtyard buildings can be large, their multiple cores help them appear “small-scale and homey compared to having long hallways. You actually know people in your stairwell, not a bunch of strangers” (Jesse O.). (This also means they utilize space more effectively than double-loaded corridor buildings, which has impacts on cost.)

Mike Eliason is a major proponent and promoter of point access blocks because they offer a superior layout; his book, to be published this year, will argue that, but you can get a preview of his reasonings by reading through his Twitter (like this tweet) or reading the point access block policy brief that his architecture firm wrote for the City of Seattle.

If you’d like to learn more about the courtyard building’s history, Moss Design, a local architecture firm, explores the advantages and history of courtyard buildings in Chicago (the post is from 2014).

What do you like about courtyard buildings?

Zoning code conflicts

Courtyard buildings are difficult or impossible to build in Chicago for many of the reasons 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 rear 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 that is normally required for a rear yard is concentrated in the interior court pushing the building to the edges of the property.
  3. Parking requirements would need to be more flexible, both in quantity and in design, otherwise the parking areas 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 that reduces parking requirements may be relevant here, as it now applies in RM-5, and higher, residential zoning districts (notably rare).
  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 yet the land acquisition might be so costly as to make the project infeasible.

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.

Existing courtyard buildings in Chicago that don’t have a second interior exit stair will then have an exterior exit stair, often connected to porches; this example has a minimal shared porch attached to the exterior exit stair at a courtyard building.

There are limitations on the use of exterior stairs for exiting requirements and I’m unable to articulate their impact on size or orientation. They cannot be used for exiting on floors that are 45 feet above grade, and cannot provide “more than 50 percent of the number and minimum width or required capacity of means of egress components” (1027.2.1). There are also standards on the exterior stair materials.

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.

A quick note about elevators: it’s my understanding that an elevator is not required if the required accessible Type A units (20 percent) are at grade and no floors above the ground floor contain building amenities (1104.4).

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

Return of the courtyard building in Chicago?

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think the one proposed new construction courtyard building will lead the resumption of the courtyard building in Chicago. There are the conflicts in the codes that I think would need to be significantly modified to facilitate new courtyard building construction.

I also believe that there are other factors: who develops, who designs, who lends, and who would live there that matter. These may be more influential in whether a new courtyard building gets built in 2024 than the zoning and building code conflicts; in other words, what if the city tweaks those codes and no new courtyard buildings get built?

I’m thinking of the “Standard 6-3” building I promoted, a typical design in Chicago that was re-legalized in some areas of the city when the Connected Communities Ordinance was passed in 2022. That zoning code amendment allows for a six-flat (back to back apartments on three floors) to be built on a standard size lot with minimal or no car parking. To my knowledge, though, none have been built.

Then there’s the circumstance that the double loaded corridor makes a lot of financial sense for developers and construction companies; the identical unit layouts are easy to design and build and the density of units is quite high. Plus the floor plate efficiency is significantly higher in a DLC compared to a single-loaded corridor (which Chicago has some of, in the form of “California style” apartments). DLC buildings often have a much greater proportion of studios and one-bedroom units, which, on a per-square-foot basis, collect more rent than larger units.

To comment on those factors of developer, designer, lender, and tenant, I would defer to asking those people, which is beyond the scope of this blog post. Conveniently, a developer of smaller-scale multifamily buildings, Coby Lefko, wrote a guest article on Noah Smith’s blog that I think addresses some of the friction to develop something like a courtyard building.

Coby writes, “Even while recognizing the need for comprehensive solutions, too many urbanists have ignored the importance of finance [emphasis added] in charting a different course for the future.” The thrust of the article is that cities need small developers but it’s hard to be a small developer.

I think many urbanists, myself included, opine on development in ways that fail to reflect lacking the knowledge of experience of having actually built something. I’m trying to gain more knowledge about it; recently, I nominally learned how to read and write a pro forma, a special spreadsheet that developers use to gauge the cost and benefit of a specific proposal.

As more of us consider land use reforms to allow for housing abundance in Illinois, let’s also discuss “supporting new courtyard buildings” – they provide desirable unit layouts, small and family-sized apartments, cozier neighbor arrangements, and Chicagoans just really like them!

How an 18-unit building on a Chicago boulevard disappeared and was re-zoned to allow 7 units

Several things happened in November that has inspired me to finally document the story about a building whose history I had previously researched but never shared. It’s the story of a rear-courtyard-style building two blocks from the Garfield Park Conservatory that had 18 dwelling units, was demolished in the 1990s due to unpaid water bills, and rezoned – along with many other buildings nearby and across the city – to allow the next owner to build only seven dwelling units.

Those three things, for the curious: A question was posed to the speaker at a recent real estate group luncheon about the prevalence of downzoning in Chicago and the impact that might have on limiting some redevelopment of vacant lots; the city’s launch of ChiBlockBuilder, a program that replaces and expands upon the former $1 Large Lots program; and a meetup I attended with other urban planners to discuss, among other topics, zoning, transit, and cannabis dispensaries.

I make a few contentions in this blog post about zoning in Chicago. Among them:

  • Downzoning is a municipal practice that reduces how densely a property can be developed; in this context, the number of dwelling units allowed.
  • The zoning text and maps have progressively downzoned the city between the first zoning code and today’s zoning code; this blog post reviews the zoning text changes using a case study of a single building.
  • The zoning text and map at the time allowed an 18-unit building to be built on a particular property in East Garfield Park but the current zoning text and map allows only a seven-unit building to be built.

Introducing the vacant lot at 3454 W Fulton Blvd

There is a vacant lot owned by the City of Chicago at the northeast corner of Fulton Boulevard and St. Louis Avenue in East Garfield Park, in view of the renowned Garfield Park Conservatory. The lot has an area of 7,500 square feet.

The property’s PIN is 16-11-404-025-0000 (open its Address Snapshot on Chicago Cityscape).

The group of six three-flats is at the northeast corner of Fulton & St. Louis, or at the top-left corner of the image. The image is a screenshot of a Sanborn map, volume 11, sheet 84, last revised in 1950. Access to the HIG – Fire Insurance Maps online database is via the Chicago Public Library (a library card is required).

For what it’s worth, the southeast corner lot had 15 units, the southwest corner lot had 18 units. Then there’s the northwest corner lot that had a rear-courtyard-style building with interior corridors with 45 units (that’s 250 percent more units on a lot that’s 150 percent larger). (See Sanborn map volume 11, sheet 83, to visualize the corners on the west side of St. Louis Ave.)

The timeline of construction to demolition to city ownership to resale

The flats were built between 1922 and 1949, according to Sanborn maps (link to 1922 map, volume 11, sheet 83, hosted by the Library of Congress, which shows a vacant lot, while the 1949 version above shows the building).

In February 1992, the City of Chicago’s water department filed a statutory lien on the property to claim and to notify the owner that there was unpaid water service balance of $2,593.89.

If the building was dilapidated and had been cited, I did not find evidence in the documents available at online Cook County and City of Chicago sources. There is evidence, however, that the property was sold in 1988 a five-year delinquent tax sale.

The lot had six adjoining three-flats for a total of 18 units until its demolition, by the City of Chicago, on February 12, 1992 (read the lien the city filed against Exchange National Bank, in the amount of $14,754, to cover the cost of demolition).

Seven years later, on March 1999, the City of Chicago acquired the lot after succeeding in its lawsuit against Exchange National Bank in the Cook County Circuit Court’s Chancery Division (case number 95 CH 3958).

I’m going to repeat this part: Available evidence shows that the City of Chicago demolished the building due to unpaid water bills. I believe that political and planning circumstances – and policies – have changed such that if the situation were repeated in 2022 the building would not be demolished. For example, there is a coalition program called the Troubled Buildings Initiative that the city helped found in the mid-2000s to place buildings in this and similar situations into “receivership”, to ensure that the building does not get demolished and can actually be stabilized and improved (renovated). This is a better way of handling the problem!


Fast forward twenty-three years from the acquisition in 1999 to now. The lot is for sale to eligible neighbors – for the second time this decade – for use as a landscaped space (side yard, garden, plaza) or redeveloped (anything allowed by zoning, but you may need assistance learning to decode the zoning code).

The lot was first for sale in the Large Lots program during one or more of the tranches promoted between 2015 and 2018. The lot is now for sale since the ChiBlockBuilder program launched on November 17, 2022.

The property shown on the ChiBlockBuilder website. The property is highlighted in green on the map.

The rules are different between the former Large Lots program and ChiBlockBuilder. In the past, anyone who owned property on the same block or across the alley could apply to acquire the lot. All lots were sold for $1.

Now, through ChiBlockBuilder, interested buyers who want a low-cost acquisition must own and live in a property adjacent to the lot. This lot has only one eligible neighbor; I don’t know if the owner lives there. If they do, they can acquire the property for 10 percent of its market value.

That’s another difference between Large Lots and ChiBlockBuilder: All properties for sale (which is a subset of all properties that will eventually be for sale) have already had their market value appraised.

The market value for 3454 W Fulton Blvd is $29,953 or $2,995 for eligible applicants. There’s one other group of potential buyers that can obtain lots for 10 percent of market value and that’s non-profit organizations who have a proposal for a landscaped-based project.

The other day the City of Chicago added a wood fence around part of the vacant lot. The RV is parked on another city-owned lot, and the semi-trailer belongs to the water department because of underground work being conducted in the neighborhood.

What does zoning allow?

Successful neighboring owner-occupant buyers are able to do anything with the vacant lot that zoning allows. Although, without an expertise in reading the Chicago zoning code or a tool like Chicago Cityscape, it will be hard to know what that is.

A screenshot of ChiBlockBuilder showing the FAQs that provide links to identify a property’s zoning district and to the Chicago zoning code documentation.

My real estate information company, Chicago Cityscape, automatically generates a “Zoning Assessment” for every parcel in Chicago.

At 3454 W Fulton Blvd, the Zoning Assessment estimates that, currently, seven dwelling units are permissible, 11 fewer than what were extant there back in 1992.

Downzoning takes effect: Zoning codes of 1923, 1944, 1957, and 2004

Downzoning is a process – through either a change in the map (the zoning district assigned to a property) or a change in the text – that reduces the number of dwelling units permissible on a given lot.

1923

In the 1923 zoning code, Chicago’s first, the allowable density of building on this lot was controlled by the “2nd Volume District” which established very simple rules: a ground coverage limit of 75 percent, and a height limit of 66 feet. The building height could be higher with an upper floor setback.

A graphic from the 1923 zoning code shows how height limits varied based on upper floor setbacks and distance from the street.

Multiplying the lot size of 7,500 s.f. by 0.75 equals a maximum building footprint of 5,625 s.f. Multiply that by six floors and there’s a maximum floor area of approximately 33,750 s.f. This created an FAR of 4.5.

1944

In the 1944 zoning code, the allowable density of building on this lot was still controlled by the “2nd Volume District” but the maximum density had been reduced: a ground coverage limit of 45 percent, and a height limit of 45 feet (the current zoning code applies a height limit of 38 feet on the lot in question, while ground coverage is dictated by FAR and setbacks standards that the 1944 zoning code didn’t have).

Multiplying the lot size of 7,500 s.f. by 0.45 equals a maximum building footprint of 3,375 s.f. Multiply that by four floors and there’s a maximum floor area of approximately 13,500 s.f. This created an FAR of 1.8.

Yet neither the 1923 nor the 1944 zoning codes had a limit on the number of dwelling units. The number of dwelling units was thus limited by whatever building code standards there were and the unit sizes the builder wanted to market.

1957

The 1957 zoning code introduced a more stratified Use + Density schedule of districts more similar to the current zoning code than the two prior codes. The map was drawn to place 3454 W Fulton Blvd into an “R4” district.

1957 zoning code map sheet 1-J (which is the same grid index/sheet number as the current zoning code’s map). Image from the HathiTrust database, page number 171 of 348 (page 91 of the zoning code, though). 3454 W Fulton Blvd is outlined in a pink-colored box near the center of the image.

In 1957, the R4 zoning district applied a new density rule that there can only be one dwelling unit per 900 s.f. of lot area. This differs from the prior two codes which did not have a standard establishing a maximum number of units.

Since the lot has an area of 7,500 s.f., that equals eight dwelling units allowed.

The 1957 zoning code introduced the minimum lot area per unit standard. The standard in R4 zoning districts was that there had to be 900 s.f. of lot area per unit the owner desired to build. That number increased to 1,000 s.f. in the 2004 (current) zoning code, reducing the number of units allowed to be built on this vacant lot. Scan is from the HathiTrust (scanned page 24).

The 1957 zoning code also introduced a floor area ratio (FAR) of 1.2 to control building size, and front, side, and rear yard setbacks that controlled lot coverage. Remember that this lot had an effective allowable FAR of 4.5 in 1923 and 1.8 in 1944.

I think it needs to be pointed out that the most dense residential-only zoning district in the 1957 zoning code – R8 – allowed more than twice the number of units on a given lot than the most dense residential-only zoning district in the current zoning code – RM-6.5. It was a matter of requiring 135 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit prior to 2004 and 300 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit since 2004, respectively.

In practical terms, if the lot was zoned R8 in 1957-2003 then 55 units would be allowed; if it was zoned RM-6.5 in 2004-2022 then 25 units would be allowed.

2004

In the current zoning code, adopted in 2004, the lot’s “R4” zoning district designation was converted to “RT-4”. The code was updated to reduce the density rule from requiring 900 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit to requiring 1,000 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit. Since the lot has an area of 7,500 s.f., that means seven dwelling units are allowed here (also, the zoning code says the number must be rounded down in instances where there is a maximum standard). That’s a difference of one unit, so hardly an indictment of the downzoning of this lot that occurred between 1957 and 2004.

The current zoning code has a table in 17-1-1406-A that instructs readers how to convert from the 1957 zoning code districts to the current zoning code’s districts.

The FAR stayed the same between the 1957 and 2004 zoning codes, at 1.2 (far below 4.5 in 1923 and less than 1.8 in 1944).

Allowed zoning summary

I contend that there was a severe decline in the number of dwelling units allowed between Chicago’s first and fourth (current) zoning codes, manifested through a reduction in reduced height limits and lot coverage between 1923 and 1944 and the introduction of the maximum number of units standard (called “minimum lot area per unit”) in 1957. The zoning code in 2004, as it pertains to this lot, looks very much like the zoning code in 1957.

chart of four zoning codes and how they regulate, or would have regulated, density and parking at the location in this blog post
Chart that compares the zoning standards of height, lot coverage or FAR, and units allowed, amongst the four iterations of Chicago’s zoning code. Thank you to Daniel for compiling the different zoning codes’ standards.

Miscellanea

  • Another big change between the 1957 and 2004 zoning codes was the amount of parking required: in the equivalent zoning districts, the 1957 zoning code required 0.75 spaces per dwelling unit while the 2004 zoning code requires 1 space per dwelling unit, which is still the case as proximity to transit has no bearing on RT-4 zoning districts.
  • The 1923 had a cap on the number of garage parking spaces of one space per dwelling unit. This cap went away at some point, and has been reinstated in a limited basis in the “Connected Communities” ordinance adopted in 2022.
  • The 1923 zoning code allows more “auxiliary” uses in “apartment districts”, such as the one governing the vacant lot in question, compared to the current RT-4 zoning district, including: a boarding or lodging house, and an apartment hotel with a restaurant or dining room that is entered from within the lobby. (I don’t think apartment hotels exist anymore in Chicago.)
  • In 2022, the Chicago City Council adopted a zoning code amendment called “Connected Communities” which would allow the next owner of this vacant lot to build housing without any car parking – like it was in the 1920s – if they were to also obtain an upzone (that is, a zoning map amendment to a higher-density zoning district) to RM-5 or higher. This is because the lot is near enough to an eligible transit service.

P.S. The other type of downzoning (or upzoning) is to change the map. This means to reassign certain parcels to a different zoning district. Chicago city council members do this constantly, often for unknown or unexplained reasons. When it is explained, it’s often to ensure that a property owner must proposed a project to the alderperson and then obtain their permission to (usually) upzone.

When the zoning is changed one parcel at a time, or several parcels for a single property owner, this process of downzoning – or upzoning – gets an additional name: spot zoning. This is generally bad urban planning and development policy and has been part of political corruption. Chicago used to have a department policy that rezonings (changes to the zoning map) had to cover at least 10,000 s.f. of contiguous parcel area at a time (just a little bit larger than three standard size lots).

Several examples of alderperson-initiated downzoning in the 2010s include (from memory):

  • Former alderperson, and chairperson of the City Council’s zoning committee, Danny Solis, downzoned a large residential property in Pilsen to “M” (industrial); the property owner, PMG, sued Solis and the City of Chicago. The settlement was that the city would buy the land from PMG at market rate. This is now the 18th & Peoria development site, and the city is conducting public meetings to determine how to develop it.
  • Alderperson Roberto Maldonado submitted dozens of downzoning ordinances to City Council in ~2020, to change vacant lots in Humboldt Park and Logan Square from RT-4 (which would allow a three-flat) to RS-3 (which would allow a single-detached house, and in rare locations, a two-flat). The planning department staff had to limit his submissions to a few per month because they could not handle all of his ordinances amongst their other work processing real zoning change applications.
  • Alderperson Carlos Ramirez-Rosa downzoned a commercial district along Milwaukee Avenue north of Diversey Avenue to allow a lower density and lower height. Any developer that proposed more than allowed has to go through the 35th Ward Community Zoning Process (I have not personally experienced this process but I appreciate that it’s well-documented and seems to be applied consistently). The scope of the downzoning was reduced after some pushback.

Allowing cottage courts in Chicago requires changing the zoning code

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 – and smaller footprint housing, generally – 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). (Section 17-1-1300 – this anti-housing provision is in the first chapter of the Chicago zoning code!)
  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.

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?