Small Change (Makes Us Richer)

Above: Shops along Walden Parkway south of 99th Street.


The other day, I hopped on the train at a different station than my usual one, and I spotted signs of subtle but positive change taking place.

A vacant building on Wood Street appears to have been renovated, and a sign in the window indicates that it will become the new home of Sweet Freaks, currently located on Hale Avenue, just on the other side of the tracks.

This would be good news on its own, but the fact that this improvement comes on the heels of another building upgrade in the area — Tranquility Salon’s renovation of a different building on Hale — seems to suggest signs of a trend in the works.

These two renovations stand out to me, because they are shining examples of how neighborhood change is supposed to work: incrementally, and driven by locals. The 99th and Hale area, like most older business districts across the country, is made up of a mixture of structures, typically built on small lots, that feature storefronts of modest sizes that open out to the sidewalk.

For centuries, this development pattern served communities well. The smallest spaces served as incubators for new businesses, which could then upgrade to a larger storefront in the same area as they grew, making way for new upstarts in their former spaces.

This is what we are seeing now with Sweet Freaks and Tranquility, and it probably couldn’t happen if the 99th and Hale district had met the fate of similar business districts both locally and nationally.

A shift in thinking

In the past several decades, the traditional American business district — which, remember, also included a mixture of residences and civic institutions — has been decimated by top-down planning decisions (often heavily subsidized by governments at all levels). Such decisions have resulted in parking lots where buildings once stood, wide roadways unsuitable for valuable foot traffic, and larger retail spaces more suited to national chains, which move farther away to newer and cheaper land after a generation or so, leaving massive “X-Mart”-shaped voids that most entrepreneurs can only dream of filling.

As many communities are now realizing, they can get a lot more out of the traditional development pattern than the more recent suburban sprawl model. Not only does it boost the tax base, but it is also perfect for fostering small, homegrown business activity — establishments that put down roots in and form ties with a community.

In addition, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the “invisible” forces of banks and the government don’t make this type of development — or redevelopment — easy. Since World War II, America has streamlined a sprawling, suburban development pattern, with government entities at all levels essentially codifying it into law through measures like parking minimums, building setbacks, and strict separation of uses.

I’ve also written in the past about how getting a loan to fund traditional, mixed-use development is exceedingly difficult. Federal restrictions on lending for mixed-use development signal to the private market that this type of development is overly risky, despite evidence to the contrary. As a result, it’s often easy to approve a new subdivision of McMansions in a cornfield than a single, small storefront with apartments in an existing business district.

Needless to say, with so many archaic ideas about development that have been made into law, the process of renovating an older building or constructing something new in a traditional style can be long and expensive. So, I look at developments like Sweet Freaks and Tranquility as minor miracles.

It’s important to remember, too, that the developments that have captured our community’s attention in recent years are not of the cookie-cutter, national chain variety. They are establishments like Open Outcry, Pizzeria Deepo, Quilter’s Trunk, and Ain’t She Sweet Café — businesses that make use of existing buildings with smaller spaces built, to varying degrees, in a more traditional style.

And existing businesses that have stood the test of time — from Top Notch Beefburgers to your accountant’s office — have largely succeeded within the context of traditional development.

Change, from the bottom up

Let’s also not forget that at a time when the narrative of mega-projects driving economic development continues to exert a significant amount of power over leaders in many American communities, the work of grassroots organizations play an immense role in bringing traditional neighborhoods back to life.

In the case of Sweet Freaks, the work of the Beverly Arts Alliance has been invaluable. The last time I went on the annual Beverly Art Walk, I spent some time in the building that will become Sweet Freaks’ new home. While the art on display was impressive, it was the image of the building and the possibilities it offered that lingered in my mind. It had the ambiance of a loft building in a quaint, neighborhood atmosphere. I loved it and knew it could become something special.

That’s a long way of saying that the Arts Alliance has been incredibly instrumental in drawing attention to the forgotten corners of our neighborhood and offering a vision for what the community could be. When incremental development like this occurs, the community becomes richer not just through the money invested in the project, but also through the social capital.

Over the years, we’ve done out best (worst?) to shape our neighborhood into something it’s not by demolishing buildings for parking lots; subsidizing low-value developments; and accepting wide and dangerous roadways as the norm.

Fortunately, though, we have people and organizations that understand where our neighborhood’s strengths lie and actively work to engage the community around those strengths, driving change and creating long-term value.

That’s something that can’t be written into a zoning code.


Roll out the bulb-outs

Greetings, readers!

I know — it’s been awhile. The past year has been a bit of a whirlwind. My wife and I became parents last spring, and you don’t need me to tell you how much that changes your life. What originally began as a few weeks of a blogging break morphed into a full-blown hiatus so subtly that I just realized that I haven’t posted anything since last March. I can’t guarantee that I will be posting as frequently as I was before our little peanut came along, but I hope to get back to somewhat regular postings.

What pulled me back in was an experience I recently had on 111th Street while on a post-work mission to bring home tacos for dinner, and what I thought about for days afterward was how even the best parts of our public realm need to be tweaked over time to keep them inching ever closer to their full potential. These tweaks are low cost, common-sense features that improve safety, property values, and the quality of life in the area.

I was driving west on 111th when I noticed a pedestrian waiting on the north side of the street (my passenger side) to cross at Campbell, at the crosswalk. So, I stopped and waved, giving him the signal that I was letting him cross. Well, the traffic in the eastbound lane wasn’t stopping, and the man clearly saw this, as he stayed put. But after a couple seconds, the eastbound traffic did come to a halt due to a traffic signal ahead. Great! He can cross safely, I thought.

What I didn’t expect was for driver after driver behind me to start steering around my car and passing me on my passenger side, between me and the pedestrian. I was stuck, and so was the man I had stopped for. About 10 cars finally passed before a break in the traffic flow came.

By this point, I knew I needed to just move on. The pedestrian was clearly not ready to step into the crosswalk after what had happened, and the best thing to do was just clear the roadway so he could cross in peace.

But that wasn’t the end of the experience. When I got to my destination, El Gallo restaurant, a block away, I spotted a parking space across the street on the north side, pulled into it, and hopped out of the car. Now, it was my turn to be the pedestrian. I looked around for a crosswalk. Although I was at an intersection — 111th and Maplewood — there was no marked crossing.

I could go back a block to Campbell or up two blocks. Of course, both of those routes would be silly. My destination was across the street. I waited for a lull in traffic and crossed mid-block, scratching my head and wondering why this section of the street, an otherwise pleasant place for walking with businesses on one side and multifamily dwelling units on the other, wouldn’t have marked crosswalks.

Subtle signals

As I’ve written before, 111th is one of the most pedestrian-friendly districts in the 19th Ward, whose highly walkable environment is undermined by an archaic master plan that puts an cars and out-of-scale suburban-style development over people. While I was previously focusing on the heart of Mount Greenwood around 111th and Kedzie, similar principles could be applied to the area to the east in Morgan Park where I encountered the aforementioned flaws in pedestrian infrastructure.

In regard to the situation with man in the crosswalk, I am hesitant to express frustration with the drivers who passed me, failing to give the pedestrian his six seconds to cross the street. Many people are quick to express blame close calls and collisions on those who don’t follow the rules of the road, and sometimes, I’m right there with them.

But most drivers are following what I’ll call the “unwritten rules” of the road. These are the visual cues they absorb unconsciously that tell them what type of driving feels safe. These cues come from all the decisions made by engineers and planners that are “baked into” the street design. These include wide lane widths, lack of street markings, extra lanes so drivers can jockey around each other, and corners that permit wide, fast right turns.

Often, these factors work against the “written rules” of the road, which include speed limits, traffic signals, and crosswalks, because they suggest that motorists drive in a manner that is unsuitable for the environment. In other words, all the visual cues suggest that you drive fast and aim high when you really need to slow down and be aware of your surroundings.

What happened at 111th and Campbell was an example of drivers following the visual cues and maneuvering as they felt comfortable. There was an obstruction in the roadway — me, stopped for a pedestrian — and there was a lane’s worth of space between the obstruction and the curb for other drivers to swerve and continue on unimpeded. They probably didn’t even see the man waiting to cross.

Alternative scenario

Now, what if there wasn’t a lane’s worth of space? What if there were, say, curb extensions at the corner that gave the pedestrian a little more visibility and forced drivers to think twice before taking a shortcut, lest they jump the curb? Well, that would simply change how we think about traveling along 111th — as pedestrians and drivers.

Curb extensions — often known by other terms, such as “bulb-outs” — are pretty much exactly what they sound like: A little extra concrete that extends the sidewalk into the roadway. They have been implemented successfully across communities in Chicago and beyond in an effort to enhance pedestrian safety and make a place more comfortable for walking. The desired effect is that they help define the roadway for all users. Pedestrians get a little more visibility, parking motorists can visualize their on-street spaces, and drivers get the signal to “hey, stay in the lane.”

By Richard Drdul (Traffic Calming Flickr Photoset) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Studies that look at traffic calming and pedestrian safety measures, which include curb extensions, show that, on the whole, they tend to work. This report, by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, explains how such measures have reduced collisions when implemented in U.S. and European cities, both between multiple vehicles, as well as vehicles and pedestrians.

Looking at curb extensions exclusively, researchers in Oregon concluded that after installing them, fewer drivers would pass a pedestrian waiting to cross the roadway than before the extensions were installed, due to enhanced visibility of the pedestrian. They also concluded that more drivers tended to yield for pedestrians, although when examining driver behavior on roadways with more than two travel lanes, the researchers found that drivers in the lane closest to the curb were more likely to yield than the drivers in the lane farther from the curb. (To me, this is an expected result. We see this frequently on 95th street, where a driver in the right lane might stop, but others swerve around into the left lane. This suggests that curb extensions alone can’t solve safety issues on wider streets. But they should help on two-lane 111th.)

Beyond safety

For many, myself included, simply improving safety would be reason enough to start installing these immediately across the 19th Ward. After all, who wants to walk around the neighborhood when they feel they could be struck crossing the street? And I wouldn’t just stick to four-way intersections. Curb extensions are needed at the three-way ones, too, including 111th and Campbell, where I would have had to take a roundabout pat to get to my destination. (It goes without saying, but I will, anyway: Please paint a crosswalk here, as well.)

But others probably need more evidence that curb extensions aren’t just frivolities that make things look “nicer” but just inconvenience drivers and have little economic impact. Well, I’m here to tell you that even aside from the safety improvements, they are worth the investment.

The ITE report notes that comprehensive studies on the effects of traffic calming on property values are difficult to come by — and the ones cited don’t specifically deal with curb extensions. (They look at traffic diverters and speed humps, which I believe people overall are less receptive to. Such measures are seen more as “punishment” to drivers, where subtle design changes like curb extensions seem less punitive. They are a visible sign that we care about the pedestrian experience.) However, the anecdotal evidence about traffic calming measures impacting property values is powerful.

In West Palm Beach, Florida, the same report notes, traffic calming changes on one main street had a significant impact on the rise in property values and commercial activity in just a few years. Retail space occupancy rose from 30 percent to 80 percent, and the price of commercial space rose from $6 per square foot to $30 per square foot. Home sale prices also rose from an average of $65,000 to $106,000.

The ITE report also notes a similar positive impact on traffic calming measures in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, neighborhood, which were implemented after a fatal crash. To be fair, it also notes that traffic calming measures had little impact when implemented in one Georgia county. But as I mentioned before, these measures included components I believe people react negatively to, such as speed humps. Plus, judging by the photos, they appear to have been focused primarily on residential neighborhoods with auto-centric design rather than mixed-use and commercial districts where pedestrian activity is high. Plus, even if there is zero impact on property values, we should consider the safety improvements to be reason enough to implement traffic calming measures, including curb extensions.

Change, little by little

Finally, what about the cost? Good news once again: We don’t have to spend a fortune. The first thing we do is “install” curb extensions on a trial basis to see if they have the desired safety impacts. Our neighborhood is full of people who are incredibly passionate about the place they live, and this could even begin as a community-based effort (with city approval, of course). Start on a weekend. Residents could place traffic cones and use temporary street markings to indicate where the curb extensions would be. Then, spend a couple days observing to see if the project has the desired effect.

The next step is to make it slightly more permanent. Get the city to install plastic bollards (the types of posts you see around some protected bike lanes) and paint the extension area around them.

A similar project, known as the Lincoln Hub, was recently done in the Lakeview neighborhood at the six-corner intersection of Lincoln, Wellington, and Southport. During this stage, planners and engineers can see how the project is taking shape and what tweaks need to be made before making it permanent.

When the time comes, the concrete curbs extensions can be poured and graded. Traffic signs noting their presence of a crossing could even be installed.

We have the opportunity here to take on a truly incremental project that has a small scope but a potentially major impact on how the neighborhood functions and is valued —from an economic perspective, sure, but also from social and safety perspectives. And what starts with one intersection can be replicated in similar places throughout the neighborhood. Our shared public space becomes a point of pride when we all have a hand in improving it.

Can’t Catch a Break

Above: A block of small storefronts on 95th Street is prepared for demolition to make way for an auto parts store and a parking lot. Is this what passes for economic growth in our neighborhood?

The more I think about the intersection of economic growth and the physical development of neighborhoods, the more I come to see that the cards are stacked against the little guys. Small-scale developers, entrepreneurs, people who rent their residences by choice or necessity — the converging systems of finance, zoning and planning are almost always set up to limit access to personal or community economic development. Sometimes it is intentional, such as when communities enact large-lot, single- family zoning in order to ensure that their neighbors are only the types of people who can afford such a property. Other times, the little guy is collateral damage, the unintended consequence of good intentions gone bad, such as when we sacrifice walkable streets for high-speed, high capacity thoroughfares, ensuring that a resident of the area must spend a sizable chunk of his or her income on a car just to take care of routine errands.

Consider two stories:

  • In one, a man sets out to buy a small, run-down, mixed-use building in a Cincinnati-area neighborhood and turn it into a property that not only generates income for himself but also can serve as an affordable residence and commercial space for the neighborhood that could use a refresh of its infrastructure as well as new services. However, he can’t get a loan, not because he’s a bad businessman, but because the bank has strict rules about lending for what it considers “investment properties” (typically mixed-use buildings) — minimal loan amounts, commercial vs. residential space, etc. Nevermind that properties in many mixed-use urban neighborhoods are appreciating in value faster than their suburban counterparts and serve as viable fixtures in their communities. So, the man backs away from his plan, opting to buy a residential property instead, leaving the future of the mixed-use building and a good commercial space for a local entrepreneur up in the air.
  • In another, a developer in Cleveland proposes a building with 34 apartments and no parking spaces, a type of traditional building that exists in many cities (think about Chicago’s courtyard apartment buildings), yet has been difficult to build in the past 50 years due to minimum parking requirements written into zoning codes. The Cleveland Board of Zoning Approvals recognized that this type of development would enhance its neighborhood and approved the proposal. But the lending bank was another issue. Without the parking, the bank didn’t think the development would be feasible and refused to grant a loan. The city was forced to write the bank a letter assuring them that the lack of parking wouldn’t be an issue.

These are just two examples of the barriers to economic growth in traditional neighborhoods as well as communities that want to make room for the little guys, the small businesses, the risk takers, the people who add value to a neighborhood little by little. Cities leaders and residents are beginning to see the advantages of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and the role they play in fostering entrepreneurial development. Yet a web of policies at all levels of government combined with large financial institutions that are skittish about disrupting the post World War II status quo of development threaten to snarl the sort of growth that would produce the kinds of places Americans increasingly say they want to live in. Whether people live in the city, suburbs or rural hinterlands, they are asking for walkable neighborhoods but being force fed the same pattern of suburban development that we are now realizing costs more to maintain than we are often willing to pay.

Last month, a widely circulated report by the Regional Plan Association explained how the policies of Department of Housing and Urban Development, Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac policies favor single-family, low-density housing developments over their mixed-use counterparts, thereby limiting development opportunities, housing choices and options for commercial space, such as the classic Main Street building that offers a storefront below, dwelling space above. By placing regulatory limits on the amount of non-residential space in a building, these agencies hinder the development of many small-scale, mixed-use projects and re-investment in traditional neighborhoods by curtailing access to federally guaranteed loans and loan insurance. The report notes that 81 percent of federal loans and loan guarantees support single-family home ownership. The rules that these institutions are guided by limit the amount of non-residential space in a building to about one-quarter. In other words, good luck getting a loan for a two-apartment, one-storefront building. Or for adding a residential unit or two above your shop to bring in extra income. But as long as you want a to construct a single-family house or have the means to build a large-scale mixed-use building, congratulations! You’re in good shape. Given what neighborhood politics and zoning ordinances are in many American communities, you’ll probably be less likely to build the latter, though, so the former will continue to proliferate. If we don’t have (smaller, local) financial backers willing to support those in-between projects, we will always get more of the same and continue to prevent opportunities for those who want to do something different. (I highly recommend reading the full report I linked to above — it isn’t terribly heavy on jargon. But if you’re strapped for time, check out the abridged version.)

I’m often asked what we can do to encourage more development in our neighborhood, and the glib answer would be, “Do the opposite of everything we’ve been doing.” I don’t consider myself a deregulate-everything-type, but when you see that existing policies might be doing more harm than good, it might be time to think about switching gears or putting a different set of policies in place in order to get the result you want. In some cases, such as the aforementioned bias against small-scale mixed use, the policies are at the federal level, making change a difficult, highly political process. What we can do in that case is make sure we are asking our elected officials where they stand on these issues and electing the people dedicated to turning things around. It’s already becoming clear that some people at the federal level are noticing that antiquated rules are having negative consequences. Even HUD has already relaxed its regulations regarding the commercial space to residential space ratio.

But that is more of a response to the question of what can we as a society do. (The “royal ‘we,’” as one Jeffrey Lebowski might say.) The question I hear most often, though, is in regard to the more local “we,” the residents of Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood. I often feel that people who ask this are interested in some type of financial incentive. While I’m not totally opposed to incentives, I tend to think that in many cases they mask larger issues. Tax increment financing (TIF), for instance, asks the government to pick winners and losers when it comes to development, and often, the winner is the person with the time and resources to devote to an extensive review and approval process and create a large-scale, quick-fix project. Done in a vacuum outside of a more comprehensive redevelopment plan, TIF ignores factors like street design, zoning, population density and access to transit that might also be part of the reason development just isn’t happening. And when our officials favor large scale projects, they take on huge risks — like the fact that a bankruptcy doesn’t just impact one parcel, it can impact a whole community. Governments that give these types of incentives are often like failing restaurants who try to attract customers by constantly offering low price specials while refusing to consider that maybe the food just isn’t that good

The most basic thing we can do is simply build a better, more resilient neighborhood — or at least advocate for one. Think about this: One of the key aspects of a community businesses look for when considering where to open is placemaking, or what can commonly be referred to a quality of life issues. Can people easily access things in the neighborhood? Are there amenities nearby that attract new residents, enhance property values and foster a sense of place? Can a person walk to the potential new business safely and conveniently? Can an entrepreneur easily start up a small business that can grow and build wealth over time?

These are things that we can tackle at the city and neighborhood levels, making our community a better place little by little. We can paint narrower travel lanes on our streets to help calm traffic and make being a pedestrian safer. We can take a “complete streets” approach to our wide arterials to accommodate multiple modes of transportation, including bikes. New York City is doing this perhaps better than any other place in the country, and officials there recognize the economic benefits. At one busy intersection in Harlem, traffic reconfiguration and new public space resulted in a 48 percent increase in retail sales.

We can tie together corridors that are disjointed patchworks of parking lots and single-use buildings. Taking a comprehensive look at the parking we have and how it can best serve the needs of the entire area is a more responsible approach to accommodating motor vehicles that blindly requiring developments to include a minimum number of on-site spaces. Parking spaces in general are expensive ($29,000 per above-ground garage space in Chicago), and while surface parking lots are cheaper, they still are barriers for small-scale developers and entrepreneurs: Is it more valuable to put money into your business or buy another lot next door to fulfill a zoning requirement for parking? Is it more valuable to devote half your parcel to asphalt or 100 percent of your site to a profitable service?

I could go on, but the message will remain the same: Remove barriers that prevent the small scale developer and the entrepreneur from getting into the game and building local wealth, and strengthen the public realm to foster vibrancy. The key thing to remember, though, is that this type of growth takes time. It requires patience and the implementation of many inexpensive, low-risk changes primarily aimed at remedying an extensive, decades-old system that favored a single form of growth — suburban sprawl — above all else, long-term liabilities be damned. It’s easy to attract big names with the promise of public money or a blank canvas to construct their megastore. But these places don’t stick around forever. They have little allegiance to the community. When they leave — and they will leave — all they have to offer are gaping holes in the economic and social fabric of the neighborhood.

We’ve had some economic wins in recent years with entrepreneurs who have managed to work within the system to bring something fresh to the neighborhood, whether it be delicious sweet potato creations, craft beer or quilting supplies. But we also continue to bank on the status quo with drive-thru fast food joints, Walgreens and an auto parts store that is one of the more misguided developments I’ve seen in recent memory. (As recently as February, business reporters were talking about Advance Auto Parts’ weak sales and whether O’Reilly Automotive, which operates a store just a few blocks from the future Beverly Advance site, would buy out the company.) It’s as though we are so hungry for new development that we are willing to settle for those that are less than optimal. Instead, we should be priming our neighborhood for what’s good. It’s time we worked toward a new paradigm for economic growth in the 19th Ward.

‘It’s Your Own Fault’

Quick post today. I have some more detailed, analytical pieces planned, but it’s just a matter of finding the time in my hectic schedule to sit down and write them. I was walking to work and thinking about a piece I read that morning on “beg buttons,” those buttons at intersections pedestrians must press in order for a walk signal to appear. They commonly appear in places that would otherwise be inhospitable to pedestrians, and if the place already seems dangerous and/or unpleasant for those on foot, they arguably don’t improve the situation much.

The argument for them is that they are needed to protect pedestrians — and drivers — because one errant step could mean certain doom. Yes, that means supporters of the buttons feel that, in these places, pedestrians are the problem.

I get a big smile on my face anytime a real life scenario aligns with a gag from “The Simpsons,” and thinking about this argument reminded me a bit of this classic:

Bart: On my way, I’m gonna be doing this [swings arms in circles as he walks]. And if you get hit, it’s your own fault.

Lisa: OK, then I’m gonna start kicking air like this. And if any part of you should fill that air, it’s YOUR own fault.

Are there beg buttons here? Take a wild guess.

The arguments for and against beg buttons would be moot if we just designed a better street. For decades, oversized roadways that carry high-speed traffic have been rammed through the hearts of our neighborhoods, the places where people have long walked, shopped and lingered. But, if you get hit by that traffic, well, like the Simpsons kids say, it’s your own fault. Beg buttons are symptoms, not causes, of an inhospitable environment. They are primarily located in places that serve to move many cars quickly — usually stroads. Pedestrian activity was an afterthought long before the buttons were installed.

We aren’t talking about climbing Mt. Everest, the type of activity that inherently carries a significant amount of life-threatening risk. We are talking about walking across the street in our own neighborhood, which should carry risk that is or is extremely close to zero. I’m not suggesting that we forget about being aware of our surroundings as pedestrians — “look both ways” is still a helpful rule. But it’s also important to create environments where drivers must be hyper-aware, and that’s just not possible at 40-plus mph on a four- to six-lane roadway. Beg buttons are just one more way that we attempt to remove “impediments” (humans, in this case) from the driver’s milieu, enabling the very high-speed traffic that poses a danger.

A healthy street is not one where pedestrians are at odds with cars zipping through the neighborhood. A healthy street fosters activity. You don’t have to press a button to participate — you just show up on your own two feet.

We Know Where to Walk — And It’s Not Always Where We’re Told

We haven’t had much snow this winter, but what has fallen on our neighborhood has spoken volumes about the way we transport ourselves from one place to another.

I snapped the photo above in January, but the story of what you see dates back months prior. Last fall, People’s Gas performed extensive infrastructure work in my neighborhood (and elsewhere in the area), and this required that portions of our sidewalks, parkways, and lawns be torn apart. After the work was complete, crews replaced the sections of missing sidewalk and sodded over the missing patches of grass. For the most part, everything went back to looking as it had before — except for the corner of 92nd and Leavitt streets.

Long before People’s Gas came to the neighborhood, the sidewalks along of 92nd extended all the way to the curb, where the street dead-ended at Leavitt. The crossing was never completely “official” — the curbs were not graded to be wheelchair accessible and on the west side of Leavitt, driveways served as unofficial crossing points. Still, given that these two streets border Kellogg School and serve as heavily trafficked routes to Christ the King and the 91st Street Metra station, the crossing points have always seen a good amount of pedestrian activity.

While walking down the street somewhere, I saw a sidewalk that wasn't there...
While walking down the street somewhere, I saw a sidewalk that wasn’t there…

To complete their work, People’s Gas crews removed the sidewalk portions that extended to Leavitt. But when it came time to replace them, the neighborhood got patches of sod instead, effectively removing any semblance of a crossing for walkers.

In the weeks and months after, though, something interesting happened: No one changed their behavior. People still crossed where the sidewalk used to be, as it likely felt safer than walking in the street and around the corner to get to the next accessible section. This became even more evident after snow fell around the holidays, as the slushy, muddy footprints left by pedestrians clearly marked where their familiar sidewalk was. In the photo above, you can see the tracks left in the snow and the damage to the freshly laid sod after the snow melted.

...It wasn't there again today. Why on earth did it go away?
…It wasn’t there again today. Why on earth did it go away?

This got me thinking about how people actually navigate the public realm versus how engineers, planners and the like expect people to navigate it. I cannot say for certain what happened on the corner in question — maybe it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to force pedestrians to change their behavior, but it could be a case of cutting corners, no pun intended. But what is clear is that pedestrians aren’t stupid. They know the best way to get from point A to point B, and it isn’t always the path that engineers and planners want them to take. As a society, we need to make better observations about how people walk around their own neighborhoods and design our infrastructure accordingly to make sure the walk is safe and pleasant.

At the 91st Street Metra Station, off in the distance, people take the most convenient route to the platform.
At the 91st Street Metra Station, off in the distance, people take the most convenient route to the platform.

Last spring, a short story appeared on the site of the organization Strong Towns (which I know I refer to a lot on this blog, but it’s only because they are one of the only organizations I’ve come across that truly knows how communities function) that relates a story about Walt Disney. The tale goes that one day, Disney noticed some workers erecting a fence at Disneyland. When he asked why, the workers told him it was because people were taking a shortcut and trampling the grass. Disney’s reply: If that’s where people are walking, they need a path, not a barricade. The workers removed the fence and rerouted the path.

Now, the 19th Ward isn’t completely dominated by “barricades,” but it is overwhelmed by partial “paths,” or places that appear on the surface like they are accommodating of pedestrians but fail miserably when actually put into practice. Crossing five-lane Western Avenue, for instance, is a harrowing experience, even if you’re using a crosswalk. White stripes on the pavement don’t protect you from 45 mph traffic that won’t stop or slow for pedestrians. We’ve told people “walk here” but scared them away from ever wanting to actually do so. (Let’s be thankful we don’t have to deal with many situations like our suburban neighbors Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn, where 95th Street becomes seven lanes at some points, dividing neighborhoods with crosswalks striped only every third-mile or so.)

When our planners and engineers don’t design for pedestrian safety, the consequences can be fatal. Just the other day, for example, a pedestrian was killed in Lakeview, one of Chicago’s most walkable neighborhoods, while crossing at an unstriped corner that nevertheless is a common spot for pedestrians to get to their shopping destinations on the other side of the street.

In a tragic incident in suburban Atlanta several years ago, a child was struck and killed by a driver after exiting a bus with his mother and siblings and walking across the street to his apartment building. The mother was convicted of vehicular homicide, despite being on foot, and at one point faced jail time. At the intersection where the crash occurred, there is no crosswalk — or any type of safety control — despite the presence of a bus stop and residences. The nearest crosswalk is three blocks away.

A safe crossing for a busy street.
A safe crossing for a busy street.

Now, take a look at how a frequently congested part of The Loop was handled. This scene is on the west side of City Hall, obviously a major destination. Workers come and go throughout the day. Citizens stop by to pay their water bills. I’m sure that in the past, pedestrians would take any route possible to get there, even if it meant avoiding controlled intersections. The city could have put an end to this by putting a median down the entirety of LaSalle Street, forcing pedestrians in other directions. Instead, the city obviously encouraged mid-block crossing by striping a crosswalk. Now, even when traffic is at its worst, people can cross safely by City Hall.

This post isn’t a call to have the sidewalk in my neighborhood replaced (although that would be nice), and it isn’t a call to further segregate walkers from drivers. It’s a call for all of us to be more cognizant of how people actually use the streets in our neighborhood and what purpose those streets serve. Yes, there will continue to be a need to circulate vehicular traffic — but we can’t do that at the expense of our pedestrians’ safety. People on foot say a lot with each step they take. It’s time we paid attention.

Winter Reflections

As in most years, I find myself in reflection mode the closer we inch toward the holidays, and this year is no different. The latter part of 2015 has been filled simultaneously with some of my highest highs and lowest lows, which is why I’ve been fairly quiet lately. Frankly, there’s been a lot going on that has taken precedence over this blog, and I feel that all of us deserve time to take stock of what’s important in life in order to be the best people we can be.

That said, I’ve still been spending a good amount of time thinking about our built environment. Pretty much every trip I’ve made outside the house has been an opportunity to consider what makes our neighborhood special and what can be improved in order to allow it to function better for the people who live here.

To close out 2015 at Main Street Beverly, I’d like to share some thoughts about what I’m thankful for in the 19th Ward and what I would love to see in the coming year (all focused on urbanism, of course).

I’m thankful for…

Our good bones. Possibly our neighborhood’s greatest asset, one that drew me and likely many others here, is the fact that it was laid out in an era before planners began overcompensating for personal automobile use. Unlike many areas on the edges of other major U.S. cities, Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood feel more like traditional neighborhoods rather than sprawling suburbs. We have a strong street grid that accommodates pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists (to varying degrees depending on the area). We have a fairly high-functioning commuter rail line with hubs of activity centered around the stations — or at least a strong potential for such. We are served by two different bus lines. We have many buildings and trees that help frame the public realm and create a sense of place. In other words, we have the makings of a neighborhood that in most places is illegal to build due to modern zoning codes. The neighborhood’s “good bones” are worth nurturing because they are what differentiate us and what will make us successful for years to come as more Americans seek out the types of vibrant, walkable communities that are in short supply. That leads me to…

Every 19th Ward and nearby community Metra station and the area within a 15 minute walking distance.
Every 19th Ward and nearby community Metra station and the area within a 15 minute walking distance.

Our public transit connections. Few American cities have the type of extensive network of trains and buses that Chicago has. And on the South Side of Chicago, few neighborhoods have the abundance of transit options the 19th Ward has. We have eight Metra stations — and more if you count ones in abutting communities — where residents can hop a train that takes them downtown, in some cases, in less than 30 minutes. Each trip on Metra is one trip that isn’t being taken by car, which keeps our streets safer and encourages the kind of foot traffic that proprietors of small businesses love. Additionally, a bulk of our residents live within a 15 minute walk of a Metra station and many also within a 15 minute walk of a major bus route. That’s the type of transit network many communities in Chicago elsewhere in the United States would kill for. We have it. Every day. With better planning around it, we can make it work in our favor. I briefly mentioned it above, but I also love…

Trees along 92nd Street.
Trees along 92nd Street.

Our flora. Trees might be the most misunderstood part of a neighborhood. Used in the wrong way, such as in newly built exurban subdivisions, they are little more than “nature Band-Aids” — greenery that masks poor planning decisions in a half-hearted effort to make people feel as if they are living in a rural community. And in some cities, trees can be an afterthought, something planners feel is better left out in nature where it belongs. (Until recently, Virginia road regulations infamously referred to trees as “fixed and hazardous objects.” Buzzkill.) But trees play a vital role in neighborhood-building in part by cleaning the air and also by working in tandem with the surrounding built environment to create a strong sense of place. In our neighborhood, trees are typically more than just nature Band-Aids, and they are certainly not an afterthought. They line our streets and frame our parks. While nice to look at, they also provide a sense of enclosure and comfort, forming the walls of outdoor rooms and corridors. But they would be less effective if it weren’t for… 

Kellogg Elementary School sits at the heart of North Beverly. Just on the other side lies Christ the King, another neighborhood focal point.
Kellogg Elementary School sits at the heart of North Beverly. Just on the other side lies Christ the King, another neighborhood focal point.

Our mix of uses. It’s true that I can be critical of the reluctance to build in a mixed-use fashion in our neighborhood. This is particularly true of our main streets, which would benefit from an injection of uses beyond single-story commercial buildings and parking lots. But as you wander around the neighborhood, it’s clear that putting different types of uses next to each other — or even on top of one another — was once viewed as the positive attribute it is. Take, for instance, the location of some of our most beloved institutions: Our schools and our churches. They are nestled among our homes; they are the focal points of neighborhoods. In a day and age when a new school or church is built in a far-off field to attract the maximum number of people in a sprawling region, the simple placement of an institution in the center of a community almost seems radical. But think about how your family gets to church on Sunday or how your children get to school during the week. I’m sure that in many cases walking is the preferred choice, giving families and friends the opportunity to bond over a shared activity. Elsewhere, streets and (sometimes) sidewalks just lead to these places. Here, those paths instead form an interconnected network around them, reminding us that education and spirituality aren’t just values we reflect on at specific times of the week. They are always with us. Speaking of our streets and sidewalks, I have to give a shout-out to…

Our residential streets. When we think about the state of many of our main corridors, we should look to our residential streets for inspiration. It’s clear that these streets were designed with pedestrian safety — and pleasure — in mind. Already narrow travel lanes become even narrower when cars are parked on the street. Intersections are frequent. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s these types of obstacles and interruptions that make streets safe. On many streets it’s next to impossible for a motorist to travel faster than about 20 mph, and often one driver has to pull to the side to allow another to pass. The design of most of our residential streets forces drivers to be alert. If our streets absolutely have to carry motor vehicle traffic this is a good way to allow it. Low traffic speeds combined with a solid if utilitarian set of sidewalks and the aforementioned mixture of uses make our side streets pleasant places to walk and bike. In cities and villages across the country, rules about engineering prevent these types of narrow, complex streets from being built today. We have them, and we are all the better for it.

In the coming year, I wish for us to…

Embrace the “urban” in “urban village.” “Urban village” is a great, catchy moniker, but I don’t know that it is always applied accurately in the case of our neighborhood. We tend to throw it around when we try to keep out elements we consider incompatible with a “village” atmosphere, such as apartments and mixed-use development, when the truth is that those very things would fall perfectly in line with a traditional village (see my earlier piece on the characteristics of a more traditional village.) As a result, we end up looking and operating more like a decentralized suburb, and there can be little to differentiate us from Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn and the like. Being an urban village also entails building on our amenities and infrastructure that are uniquely urban, such as our transit network, a hugely important piece of life in the 19th Ward that must be treated as a driver of activity, particularly around our Metra stations. We can turn to other “urban villages” for inspiration, such as the neighborhoods of Seattle, or we can look closer to home. Chicago encompasses numerous other “urban villages,” including Ukrainian Village, Roscoe Village and Andersonville, all of which more closely resemble the traditional villages we strive to be like. Perhaps the most successful one is Little Village, the vibrant Mexican-American neighborhood on the Southwest Side that was recently the subject of a very flattering photo essay in Crain’s Chicago Business. There, pedestrian-focused design, public transit, mixed uses and proximity to amenities have helped make its main thoroughfare, 26th Street, the greatest generator of sales tax revenue for the city after the mighty Magnificent Mile. A good start would be to…

Recognize that everyone is a pedestrian. At some point on most days, virtually every resident of Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood is a pedestrian. Even those who drive to most destinations likely encounter the public realm on foot, however briefly. Knowing this, it is essential to consider how we want people interacting with the built environment as they walk from place to place. Are they more likely to have a pleasant experience navigating parking lots or passing storefronts? Will they enjoy strolling our shopping districts if they have to cross wide stroads carrying high-speed traffic or narrower corridors that tame vehicular traffic and provide safe crossings?

From this perspective, we should also consider pedestrians to be key drivers of activity and commerce and think about ways that we can enable them to move around as such. It’s easy to get lost in traffic counts and the number of vehicles per household and come to the conclusion that driving (of the high-speed, high-volume variety) must be accommodated and eased at all hours, and it might be easy to say, “Well, people just don’t walk here.” But that would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Create an environment that fosters walking and change the game. And part of doing this requires us to…

If you have to push a button for the "OK" to cross the street, you know something is wrong with your pedestrian environment. What if drivers had to push a button to get a green light?
If you have to push a button for the “OK” to cross the street, you know something is wrong with your pedestrian environment. What if drivers had to push a button to get a green light?

Think of business activity as a consequence or function of a well designed neighborhood rather than a driver of revitalization. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? But it’s something I’ve thought a lot about in the past year every time I hear about a new business moving in that residents wish was something else (i.e. a dollar store or an auto parts store) or a business that residents want to attract to the neighborhood (i.e. Trader Joe’s). Essentially, you get what you design for. While some chain/big box stores have begun adapting their exurban, auto-oriented models for older urban neighborhoods, most are looking to move to a fringe suburb where they can build cheaply, not an established neighborhood like ours with smaller buildings and lots that must be acquired through extensive negotiations with multiple owners.

However, many parts of our neighborhood don’t fit the model for smaller businesses and start-ups, either. The stroad environments of Western Avenue and the like, in their current state, don’t really lend themselves to the foot traffic that small and specialty businesses thrive on. In other words, I’m not really surprised that a dollar store filled the former Ace Hardware building on Western Avenue in Morgan Park as opposed to something more “desireable.” (For the record, I have no problem with a dollar store moving in.) The built environment along that stretch of road is like economic purgatory: Too auto-oriented and too large a space to be attractive to a smaller business yet too fine-grained to draw large national chains. At the same time, it would serve us well to not think about “scoring” certain types of businesses in hopes that their mere presence will trickle down to the surrounding area. Borders may have been a nice place to hang out while it existed — a so-called “third-place” for neighborhood residents — but it didn’t exactly turn 95th Street into the next State Street.

Instead, we should think about what makes for an attractive, well functioning neighborhood and take inexpensive, incremental steps toward creating it. Let’s look to a wonderful example in Lakeview: Business and property owners around Lincoln and Wellington avenues voted to impose a slight tax on themselves to fund street markings designed to calm unruly vehicle traffic and make the area more attractive for pedestrians. This is a fantastic example, because it is incremental. Right now, the project is in the pilot stage. Maybe it’s tweaked before it becomes permanent; maybe it doesn’t become permanent at all. But it allows for people to experience the change firsthand, while an innovative funding mechanism helps add value at a minimal cost. Let’s follow this lead and work to make our neighborhood attractive to people and businesses, because they will take notice. And as we become more attractive, we will hopefully…

New condos and storefronts near the Ravenswood Metra station, a model for growth.

Get more — and different — residents. Right now, we do a great job of attracting families, particularly those who want and can afford a detached house. It’s mostly what we offer, and a detached, single-family house isn’t a bad thing. But we are also missing out on other types of people who can help our business districts and institutions thrive, from single, young professionals not yet ready to take the plunge and buy a house but looking for a smaller apartment near public transportation to get them to their job downtown, to empty-nesters and retirees who want to sell the large house where they raised three kids but also stay in their longtime neighborhood. (Bonus: Both of these demographics have disposable income to spend at local businesses.) We have ample room to accommodate apartments, condos, live-work spaces and other housing types that aren’t single family homes along our main corridors and near our transit hubs. (You can read more about this issue, often described as the “missing middle,” as it concerns housing options that fall on the spectrum between single-family homes and large apartment towers, at the excellent City Observatory.) This helps diversify our population, add pedestrians to our sidewalks and create walkable, mixed-use environments without drastically altering the character of our neighborhood. By diversifying our housing options, we open our neighborhood to people at various stages of life and provide the ability for people to cycle through different types of living arrangements accordingly — without having to move out of the neighborhood. But to truly set ourselves on a good path for the future, we have to do one thing:

Strike the phrase “That won’t work here” from our collective vocabulary. There’s a story I love from urbanism history about New York City’s West Side Highway. In the 1970s, the elevated freeway in Manhattan was in need of repairs when a truck carrying asphalt to do the work crashed through it. Suddenly, a road that carried 140,000 cars per day was closed and carmageddon was predicted. But after a brief period of traffic backups, something amazing happened: The gridlock simply disappeared. People found new ways to get around the city. Last year, reporter Peter Simek wrote a piece for his audience in Dallas, a city that was having its own freeway debates, about the New York event:

“After decades of political wrangling, in the 1990s, New York decided to tear down the West Side Highway and replace it with a boulevard. The neighborhoods formerly divided by the road boomed and blossomed.”

I can only imagine the conversations in New York at the time: “You can’t tear down a highway here — it just won’t work! Too many people rely on that road! The city can’t function without it!” I bring up this story because I routinely hear the “it won’t work here, we’re different” argument when it comes to rethinking the status quo in relation to the way our neighborhood is designed. And to be fair, it’s not unique to our neighborhood. The status quo is familiar and change is scary. But people are pretty amazing creatures. They adapt very well when faced with changes, and often they like the new arrangement because it brings opportunities that previously eluded them.

So if we, say, put Western Avenue on a road diet, would the neighborhood collapse? If we put mixed use buildings on the parking lots near the 95th Street train station, would chaos ensue? At first, I can bet that things would be a little hairy as people worked to navigate the new arrangement. But I have no doubt our future would be brighter as a result.

Small Ideas for (Mostly) Big Roads

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster, and I’ve taken a couple steps back from this blog to focus my attention on family and personal matters. I do have a couple longer pieces in the works that I hope to share with you in coming weeks — maybe even days — but for now, I have something a little bit easier to digest.

Several weeks back, I published a piece on making our neighborhood “stroads” —  those are dangerous hybrids of streets and roads — safer by thinking about them more as places where people walk, bike and linger in addition to drive rather than just as thoroughfares for high-speed motor vehicle traffic. It’s something that is probably easier to visualize than to describe, so through the magic of Google Maps, which I use almost daily to “travel” around the world and get a sense of how other places work, I decided to compare some of our worst offenders with better alternatives, some more local than others. The idea here isn’t to completely reinvent any street (hence the “small ideas” title). I’m not proposing we completely pedestrianize Western Avenue, run light rail down 95th Street or pretend we have the population density and access to transit that allow many European cities to close off large sections of their city centers to automobiles. Maybe someday that can happen, but right now, we are what we are. What I’d rather do is to look at how some of our streets currently function and look to other similar streets that we could emulate.

Feel free to explore the street view images below. Try to experience what it might be like to be on one of these streets. What I hope is that through these examples, we residents can visualize our community’s public realm differently and demand change in order to strengthen our economic and social capital. Perhaps we start by working toward the “better alternatives” with an ultimate goal of developing these places to be more like the “even better alternatives.” Any of these alternatives, however, would be better than what we have and ultimately #GoodForThe19thWard.

Case #1

Local Example: 95th Street, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: Boulevard Broadway, Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Canada


Even Better Alternative: Lancaster Boulevard, Lancaster, California


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #2

Local Example: Western Avenue, Morgan Park, Chicago


Better Alternative: Edgewater Drive, Orlando, Florida


Even Better Alternative: Lawrence Avenue, Chicago


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #3

Local Example: 111th Street, Morgan Park, Chicago


Better Alternative: Hillsborough Street, Raleigh, North Carolina


Even Better Alternative: Mt. Desert Street, Bar Harbor, Maine


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #4

Local Example: Walden Parkway, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: River Street, Batavia, Illinois


Even Better Alternative: Jay Street, Schenectady, New York

Jay St copy


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #5

Local Example: 111th Street, Mount Greenwood, Chicago


Better Alternative: South 1100 East, Salt Lake City, Utah


Even Better Alternative: Main Street, Dallas, Texas


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #6

Local Example: Western Avenue, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: Lincoln Avenue, San Jose, California


Even Better Alternative: Nevada Way, Boulder City, Nevada


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #7

Local Example: Kedzie Avenue, Mount Greenwood, Chicago


Better Alternative: Shelby Street, Indianapolis, Indiana


Even Better Alternative: 12th Avenue, Denver, Colorado


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #8

Local Example: 103rd Street, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: Grand Boulevard, Vancouver, Washington


Even Better Alternative: Harrison Boulevard, Boise, Idaho


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #9

Local Example: 111th Street, Mount Greenwood, Chicago


Better Alternative: Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana


Even Better Alternative: Kimberly Avenue, Asheville, North Carolina


* * * * * * * * * *

Case #10

Local Example: Western Avenue, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: Sacramento Drive, Chicago


Even Better Alternative: Queen Elizabeth Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Storage Wars

“Self storage units” by Hankwang – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Can a storage facility be a good neighbor?

That’s the debate playing out in Mount Greenwood as the community weighs the pros and cons of a proposal for a storage facility on a vacant parcel along 111th Street in Mount Greenwood. Reactions seem to range from “Not in my backyard” to “It’s better than nothing,” and I find myself leaning toward the latter.

I certainly understand some of the opposition. No, this wouldn’t exactly bring additional life to one of our community’s main streets, but as far as storage facilities go, it doesn’t get much better than this.

More problematic, and what I see as the story hidden within the story, is that residents’ opposition seems to have thwarted a proposal from the developer to include a retail or restaurant component, which would have made the development significantly more beneficial to the community. More on that in a minute. First, some thoughts on the storage component.

Storage facilities and warehouses, designed well, are hardly incompatible in mixed-use districts. After all, the purpose of mixing residential, commercial, office and even light industrial uses is to make a variety of everyday services convenient for people in the neighborhood. A storage facility is simply one more such use. What we have here is a building that appears to makes decent use of the footprint of its lot. Of course, I’d rather see a series of narrower buildings with a succession of storefronts that open to the street, but at the same time, we aren’t getting a development that is 70 percent surface parking. The building, as they say, completes the street. The renderings even show the possibility of a corner entrance off the sidewalk, which would bring a bit of human scale to the building.

That leads to my second point — this is an infill project. In other words, it is a new building that will occupy a vacant space in an otherwise built-out area. This is a good thing. Our walkable mixed-use corridors, are our most productive, and the more compatible development that occurs in them, the better. It’s a good thing when we intensify offerings in well-traveled places. While this segment of 111th Street isn’t as vibrant as the area several blocks to the east, it still has the potential to serve the neighborhood in a similar capacity.

This proposal not analogous to other many other single-use developments in the ward, such as the Advance Auto Parts proposed for the site of the 95th Street Metra station or the poorly planned Borders, which could finally be coming back to life after a long vacancy. Both of those developments are cases of single-use buildings and parking lots replacing existing urban fabric. They take steps backward by lessening the intensity of uses in areas that for all intents and purposes should be bustling with pedestrian activity. They reduce the value of their places. They are more like urban renewal, where the 111th Street storage facility is urban infill. Big difference.

Finally, a storage facility is hardly a noxious use that deserves to be placed far from people’s homes or even banned outright. Storage facilities don’t emit toxic fumes, they don’t generate much loud noise and they don’t even generate much vehicular traffic the way that, say, a single-story drive-thru would. The president of the company even says his facilities only see about 20 visitors a day.

This isn’t first time we are seeing a storage company interested in moving to the 19th Ward. Another facility is being built on 95th Street, and as in this case, I find myself underwhelmed but not outraged.

In general, both of these buildings could be adaptable to future uses. There is a long history in Chicago and other cities of warehouses being converted into residences, offices and retail spaces, and there is no reason we couldn’t see the same thing happen with both of these in the future.

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River North wouldn’t be what it is today if the warehouses weren’t there first. (Google Streetview)

Before my wife and I moved to Beverly, we lived in a four-story auto-part warehouse that had been converted into apartments. Some of the units even served as live-work spaces. Besides us, our building housed a family, single residents, an insurance office, a security company, a photo studio and a recording studio. Any one of those spaces could become something different in the future. Adaptability the sign of good development. Even if it isn’t what we want today, it could turn into what we want tomorrow.

But back to that proposed retail space. According to the DNA Info story I linked to above, residents seem to have killed that component because of a common knee-jerk reaction — here and in countless other communities across the county — to assume that any addition to the neighborhood is going to cause a traffic nightmare. While I don’t want this to turn into an extended post about the parking-shortage fallacy that seems to grip neighborhoods across the county, as I have written about this before in more detail, I must say that I’m a bit confounded by these objections. In a ward where one of the chief complaints among residents is that we need more retail and restaurant options, we just turned down a proposal that could have brought something new, because parking.

In a nutshell, a collection of small businesses in a district with a limited amount of free, off-street parking actually creates a healthy business climate where on-street parking spaces routinely turn over, supporting a place that actually has a good amount of foot traffic. Providing an abundance of free, off-street parking as a solution to fighting congestion is counter-intuitive. This leads to more people driving in the neighborhood, more traffic and less pedestrian activity. Long story short, the small retail space the developer proposed would have been one more step to bringing vitality to our business districts. Both storage warehouse developments in the ward could use more ground-level retail space to liven up the street. (I highly recommend reading the works of so-called parking guru Donald Shoup and planner Jeff Speck for a more thorough explanation of the role of parking.)

In light of these developments, though, I do hope residents of our neighborhoods ask why we aren’t seeing the type of growth we do want. Why is a new storage facility the development that makes news? I strongly urge residents to consider what types of developments are zoning allows or even encourages (low-intensity, auto-centric) and who our public realm is primarily designed for (drivers). These are two neighborhood characteristics that can be altered with very little money yet would have a tremendous impact on the value of our public spaces. Taking these steps would also send a clear message to developers and business owners of what we want.

Storage warehouses? They aren’t aren’t going to bring the foot traffic, but they’re fine for what they are. Let’s just make sure that they don’t represent the best of what’s to come for our neighborhood.

The ‘Curse’ of Bad Planning

When I lived on the North Side, I would frequently pass by a storefront that always seemed to be home to a different business. This wasn’t particularly unusual. After all, every community has one of these “revolving door” spaces. One month it’s a restaurant, the next it’s a law office, then it’s a coffee shop, and so on. So, when I saw a news story recently about a new business moving into the storefront in my old neighborhood, I didn’t think much of it until I read a description of the space:

“After failing to thrive as Wolcott’s, Troquet or the short-lived Mangal, the storefront at 1834 W. Montrose Ave. has gained something of a reputation for being cursed.”

Whoa. “Cursed” seems a bit hyperbolic. True, we are talking about a space that I would say has housed at least five different businesses since I lived there, which dates back to 2005. But when you think about it, isn’t this exactly what is supposed to happen? A business moves in, it closes, and another comes in right on its heels. That’s how the market works.

What’s missing from this story is the narrative about this particular stretch of Montrose Avenue. It is a thriving place with a healthy mix of day-to-day businesses, such as a convenience store and a salon, and specialty businesses, such as boutiques and bars. Restaurants set up sidewalk cafes, foot traffic is plentiful — thanks in part to the nearby Brown Line station — and the on-street parking spaces are constantly turning over. The street runs through a neighborhood of single-family homes, condos and apartments, and there are even plans to build a new, parking-light apartment building right in the thick of all this activity. All of these housing options in close proximity put additional feet on the street.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 7.27.37 PM

By all appearances, this is one of the most healthy streets I’ve seen. The fact that it’s so healthy actually helps ensure that while the storefront in question might change hands frequently, it will never be vacant for long. And its small size is a virtue. This is a perfect location for a startup business that can upgrade to a larger space as it becomes more successful.

Contrast this part of Ravenswood with a place like 95th Street or Western Avenue in Beverly and Morgan Park. Both 95th and Western are dotted with long-empty storefronts, vacant sites, surface parking lots and hulking relics like the former Borders building and the Chesterfield Federal Savings/MidAmerica/National City bank. These streets — or stroads, I should say — contain little in the way of mixed-use buildings (business on the ground, residence above) and are surrounded almost exclusively by lower-density neighborhoods of single family homes. Little by little, roadways that once carried pedestrians, streetcars/buses, automobiles and bicycles were turned over cars, which today dominate our main streets.

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Western Avenue (Google Streetview)
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Western Avenue (Google Streetview)
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95th Street (Google Streetview)
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95th Street (Google Streetview)

What we thought would help the neighborhood thrive is slowly killing it. For the past half-century or more, we’ve sought vehicle traffic as a way to bring people to the neighborhood and shop at our stores, but we never stopped to think what would happen when all those drivers found a more convenient place to go. In a healthy community, there is no reason for a building to stay vacant for five years like Borders. There is no reason the sidewalks of the main streets should be virtually empty at all times of day. There is no reason to give tax increment financing money to private businesses to build drive-thrus and parking lots. In fact, there is no reason to give incentives to any business in a healthy community. A healthy community is self-sustaining.

No building or storefront is “cursed,” least of all one that is located on such a successful street like Montrose. The places that truly are doomed are the ones that fail to recognize flawed development patterns or refuse to adjust.

Try a Diet: Calm Traffic, Get People

While walking to the store this past spring, my wife and I were almost killed.

On a rare free weekend, we decided to tackle a house project that had been long-delayed: Purchasing mini-blinds for our den. So we set off for the closest hardware/housewares store, which happens to be Menards in Evergreen Park, to do some shopping. Now, the Menards development is hardly what anyone would consider “walkable.” It is in a shopping center with a massive parking lot on a road designed to funnel massive numbers of automobiles. But it’s still just three blocks from our house, and to me, that distance hardly ever justifies staring up the car.

As we approached Western Avenue at 92nd Street, we did everything we were “supposed” to do: We pressed the button for the walk signal (a device derisively called a “beg button”) and waited for the light to change from the orange hand to the white pedestrian. Even after it changed, we didn’t rush into the street. We proceeded with caution, only to be met by a driver making a left turn into the northbound lanes on Western who came within a few feet of striking us before slamming on the brakes. Of course, there were blaring horns; words were shouted. Then, we finished crossing, our legs a little weaker from the scare.

The scene of the almost-crime. There’s a crosswalk in there somewhere.

This is not an uncommon occurrence on our roads. When I talk about our main thoroughfares creating environments hostile to pedestrians, this is what I mean. Who wants to walk to the store when doing so can feel life-threatening? If we want high-quality development in our ward, if we want the type of foot traffic businesses thrive on, we have to think creatively about calming traffic.

It’s a ‘Stroad’ World, After All

Right now, the primary thoroughfares in Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood are what have come to be called “stroads.” The stroad — a term whose origin is linked to the Strong Towns organization — is the unholy alliance of a street and a road that has become one of the most ubiquitous pieces of transportation infrastructure in suburban (and often urban) America. Let’s break it down: A road in and of itself is generally a high-speed connector between two places. It has few access points and little to no development along it. These are the characteristics that make it effective, as it can provide a convenient travel environment for longer distances. They also are the characteristics that make it safe.

Illinois Highway 38 heading west toward DeKalb. A classic road. (Google Streetview)
Illinois Highway 38 heading west toward DeKalb. A classic road.
Illinois Highway 59 between Wauconda and Volo. A road (but definitely taking on highway characteristics). (Google Streetview)
Illinois Highway 59 between Wauconda and Volo. A road (but definitely taking on highway characteristics). (Google Streetview)

A street is a low-speed place for travel that accommodates a variety of types of transportation, including foot, bicycle and car. Development along it is usually traditional in nature — storefronts that open to the sidewalk, residential stoops, large windows. A street has many signs of life along it, and in this sense, it is a sort of platform for sociability and economic exchanges. The street provides the skeleton on which the rest of the city sits. Like the road, it is a safe environment by virtue of the low-speed travel that occurs along it.

Street 1 111h
111th Street in Mount Greenwood. A classic street. (Google Streetview)
Street 2 53rd
53rd Street in Hyde Park. Another classic street. (Google Streetview)

A stroad, on the other hand, is what engineers designed when they tried to combine the high-speed and convenience of the road with a veneer of walkability. Vehicles tend to travel in about 40 mph spurts before stopping at a light a mile or so away. They usually have four lanes or more, even though they frequently don’t need them. They have sidewalks, but they don’t carry many people. New development is designed solely for cars in the form of shopping centers, while any traditional development that pre-dates “stroad-ification” either withers or is uncomfortably incorporated into the new environment with driveways and parking lots. Western Avenue is a stroad. 95th Street is a stroad. 111th Street in Morgan Park is a stroad. They don’t need to be. We can work toward un-stroading them.

Stroad 1 Western Avenue
Western Avenue, a stroad in the hearts of Beverly and Morgan Park. (Google Streetview)
Stroad 2 Pulaski
Pulaski Road, a stroad between Mount Greenwood and Oak Lawn. (Google Streetview)

Slimming Down

Creating a safe pedestrian street these days can entail a road diet, or so-called right-sizing of a roadway. Typically, this means that on overly wide roads, a travel lane in each direction is removed. The remaining lanes are narrowed, while bike lanes are added, sidewalks are widened and other measures are taken to make the area more inviting for non-motorists while car traffic can still move smoothly.

Road Diet 1 Lawrence
Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square was once a four-lane stroad. Now, it has two travel lanes and two bike lanes, plus pedestrian islands and, in some places, a center turn lane. (Google Streetview)

Here is how the discussion about road diets is playing out in Oak Park:

“Trustees voted in April to focus the village’s attention on a stretch of Madison that runs from Oak Park to East avenues. The plan includes a so-called road diet that would reduce that stretch of Madison from five lanes of traffic to three and add a bike lane.

“The road diet will slow down traffic, making it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the street, and reduce automobile collisions.”

A road diet is not streetscaping, although streetscaping can be part of it. For example, 95th Street is undergoing a streetscaping project right now, which is freshening up the medians and adding decorative crosswalks. Although the project includes a nice safety feature — pedestrian islands so people walking across the street can find refuge — it is more of a Band-Aid than a cure for a disease. Pleasant-looking medians and other decorative features alone won’t get me out and walking, but make me feel like I won’t die just strolling over to Top Notch for a Beefburger — well, that’s a different story. Giving pedestrians a sense of safety and comfort can go a long way to turning around a foundering business district.

Pedestrian islands are nice, but once you get to the middle of the road, you still have to contend with two more lanes of fast-moving traffic.
Clearly-marked crosswalks are definitely a step in the right direction, but what are the chances all vehicles in these four lanes will actually stop?

In the past, people have suggested to me that 95th Street and other similar neighborhood roadways aren’t known for having many vehicle-pedestrian crashes, but I have to disagree after looking at the numbers. The Chicago Crash Browser is a handy tool for checking out historical crash data across the city (although the most recent information available is for 2012). Using it, we can see that 18 crashes between vehicles and pedestrians and five crashes between motor vehicles and bicycles occurred along 95th Street in Beverly between 2005 and 2012, all of them resulting in injuries. Granted, there has been a steady decline in the number of such crashes, but any number of pedestrians injured by cars is too many, especially because there are roadway designs that can help reduce them.

Residents know the conditions of our thoroughfares, and they know that these are places to avoid on foot. It’s not uncommon for drivers on 95th Street or Western Avenue to zip along at 45 mph or swerve around another driver traveling the speed limit. Think about this: The risk of a pedestrian dying from injuries in an automobile crash rises exponentially when vehicle speeds are greater than 25 mph.

city speed chart
(World Resources Institute)

In addition, a driver’s field of vision  narrows with faster speeds. With that information, and knowing that the speed limit on most of Chicago’s main roadways is 30 mph, ask yourself if you want to be walking around these places in their current condition.

Does It Work?

The only way to make pedestrians feel more comfortable is to make drivers feel less comfortable. That doesn’t mean making driving completely inconvenient — it just means ensuring that drivers can’t make risky maneuvers by designing a more complex environment. In the past, the prevailing notion among traffic engineers was that in order to make pedestrians safer, there had to be a strict separation between them and vehicle traffic. Today, though, the numbers don’t bear this out, as vehicle crashes become a leading cause of death. Planners and engineers are now realizing that if a driver is surrounded by a lot of pedestrian activity, he or she will have no choice but to exercise caution, because danger is perceived. A driver will also move slower if there are more barriers to high speeds, such as narrower travel lanes and adjacent bike lanes.

These are the principles that have made road diets so effective. And lest you think this is just hyperbole, a 2013 study for the Federal Highway Administration found that in rural areas, road diets reduced the total number of crashes by 47 percent, while they reduced crashes by 19 percent in suburban areas. Combined, that’s a 29 percent decrease.

But I know there are two burning questions on many people’s minds. The first is, “How can we afford this? Chicago is broke.” One of the things I love about road diets is that they are relatively inexpensive yet return so much to the city in the form of increased tax revenue, which I will get to later. To put things in perspective, the residents of Jefferson Park recently voted to have bike lanes striped on Milwaukee Avenue. The cost? Just $60,000.

The other question is, “Won’t this cause congestion?” It’s a fair point, although I would argue that it shouldn’t be the main consideration. The 2013 study notes that on roads carrying more than 20,000 cars per day, a road diet could cause congestion. Since I looked at 95th Street for crash data, I’ll go back to it for vehicle counts. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, 95th Street carries 29,800 vehicles per day between Ashland Avenue (in Chicago) and Kedzie Avenue (in Evergreen Park). This made me a little skeptical, as these figures include a very auto-oriented segment of Evergreen Park west of Western Avenue. The Chicago Department of Transportation breaks down the numbers a little more, and we see that around 95th and Damen, that figure drops to around 25,000. If congestion were to ensue, could we live with it if it means a safer environment for pedestrians?

Still, there is no given that our neighborhood would become caught up in a traffic nightmare. After all, one of Chicago’s many beautiful features it its grid network of streets, which is designed to disperse heavy traffic in many directions. Plus, some short trips that are now done by car will likely become trips done on foot or bike if the conditions have improved. It’s also worth looking to other cities to see how their road diets impacted congestion. In Austin, Texas, for instance, 37 streets accounting for more than 26 miles were “right-sized” since 1999. A recent report by that city noted that “motor vehicle travel time is either maintained or in some cases even reduced and motor vehicle volumes remain comparable before and after the project.”

People Will Spend Time and Money in a Safe Place

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: There is no magic bullet to solving the problems that plague parts of our neighborhoods. But making our streets more hospitable to pedestrians would go a long way to helping restore foot traffic on once-thriving streets. Calming traffic must be a key part of our strategy moving forward to revitalize our commercial corridors.

In closing, I’d like to revisit an anecdote I shared in a previous post. The city of Lancaster, California, an exurb of Los Angeles, fell on hard times after the housing bubble burst. Its downtown, divided by a stroad not unlike those you find around here, struggled to attract economic development. Desperate for a change, the municipality drastically rethought what its city center could be and set about turning it into a pedestrian mecca. Part of this plan involved putting its main street on sort of an extreme, heavily streetscaped road diet. The results? Fifty new businesses, a 117 percent increase in revenue, $130 million in private investment, 1,900 jobs and a 9.5 percent increase in property values. Of course, the road diet didn’t do all of this. But click the link above and look at those pictures. Can you imagine everything that happened occurring on a typical suburban stroad? Would you even feel safe there?