Buona Beef is coming to Beverly. The vacant garage near 107th Street and Western Avenue is being demolished, and a brand new restaurant will be built in its place.
And what red-blooded Chicagoan doesn’t want the ability to pick up a piping hot, dripping Italian beef sandwich in the neighborhood? I know I sure wouldn’t mind.
So why does reading about this development spoil my appetite?
Because as desperately as our neighborhood needs economic development, what is coming to Western Avenue is auto-oriented suburban sprawl of the highest order — the kind that seems just fine when it’s new but dramatically hurts the community in the long term.
Allow me to explain. I have nothing against Buona. They’re locally owned, which I think many people can agree is a good thing. When I worked in the western suburbs, I was even known to enjoy dining there from time to time.
But just for a moment let’s envision a place where Buona Beef isn’t located in a stand-alone building surrounded by a sea of 28 proposed parking spaces. Instead, imagine that it’s a ground-floor tenant of a pedestrian-oriented building that opens out to the sidewalk. Maybe the building includes a few residences above — you know, the type of traditional building that humans built thousands of across the city and millions of across the world before we looked to the automobile as the main driver of our economy.
What we would have is an addition to our neighborhood that can serve residents well for decades to come. The ground-floor retail space could easily change with little effort from a fast-casual restaurant to a boutique clothing store to office space to virtually anything else you can conceive. The residences above could turnover to new generations, perhaps people looking for a starter home in a safe neighborhood with solid schools that is close to the amenities they need and want.
And we would have a building that adds tangible, monetary value to the neighborhood.
The Building and the Benefit
Although I have long preferred a type of traditional, walkable urban neighborhood filled with buildings like the one I just described, it was previously hard for me to argue its merits without resorting to subjective statements: “Everything is so convenient!” “I can run my errands without a car!” “Look how quaint and neighborhoody everything seems!”
But after stumbling across a central Minnesota-based organization called Strong Towns and its related blog, I learned about how the traditionally developed neighborhood can be more resilient than the sprawling suburbs we built again and again and again after World War II.
A couple years ago, the organization’s founder, Charles Marohn, wrote a blog post in which he described how his town’s leaders identified an area of town built in the traditional style as ripe for redevelopment. One of the “successes” was a new auto-oriented, drive-thru restaurant that was celebrated in the name of economic development. Old buildings in the area had been seen as “old and blighted,” while the new restaurant was seen as a ray of hope for a struggling city.
So Marohn checked the numbers to see if the city’s plan was a wise investment. What he found was that the traditional buildings on the same stretch of road — those that included storefronts opening to the sidewalk and minimal parking on-site — were exponentially more valuable than the new fast food restaurant.
I knew he was onto something big, so I decided to do a little analysis of my own.
Doing the Math
Although the Buona Beef building hasn’t been constructed yet, I decided to look at the assessed values of some similar properties in the area. First, I looked at the KFC at 104th Street and Western Avenue, a typical auto-oriented building with a drive-thru, on-site parking and landscaping around some of the non-useable areas of the property. The 29,700-square foot parcel was assessed at $169,857. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
Then, I looked at a three-story, mixed-use building about a block away. Although completed recently, the building was built in a more traditional style, with a sidewalk-fronting retail space and residences above. It takes up a fraction of the space of the KFC building, 3,750 square feet, and has an assessed value of $67,182. That sounds like a lower-performing property than the KFC, right?
However, on a per-acre basis, the mixed-use building far outperforms the KFC in taxable value. The mixed-use building has a value of about $780,386 per acre ($17.92 per square foot) and generates. The KFC has a value of only $249,124 per acre ($5.72 per square foot). That means the mixed-use building has a per-acre value more than three times that of the KFC building.
In other words, imagine the amount of property taxes the city would collect if an acre of drive-thru restaurants on Western Avenue were replaced with an acre of mixed-use buildings.
I made a similar comparison on 95th Street, looking at the Taco Bell property near the Metra station and an aging, single story commercial building a few blocks away.
The 26-year-old Taco Bell property occupies 23,584 square feet and has an assessed value of $133,480, while the 120-year-old commercial building built in a traditional style (which is home to the Brock’s menswear store), occupies 8,760 square feet and has a value of $88,512.
That means the Taco Bell has a value of $246,540 per acre ($5.66 per square foot), while the Brock’s building has a value of $440,135 per acre ($10.10 per square foot), almost twice as much younger drive-thru property. Not bad for an old building. We could use more like it. A lot more.
I make these comparisons not to say one business is better to have in the neighborhood than another. A truly strong community includes a wide range of businesses. But we need to think about how we build our neighborhoods so they can be more resilient in the future. (The fact that the development is receiving $450,000 in tax increment financing money doesn’t exactly say to me that this stretch of Western Avenue is an attractive place for investors.)
We need a place that is welcoming to pedestrians so not every trip within the neighborhood must be made by car, saving our residents money that can be contributed to our economy in more productive ways. We need a built environment that generates sufficient property taxes to pay for our necessary infrastructure and relieve the burden on all residents and business owners.
We can do this by rethinking how our neighborhood develops. Part of this involves putting the proper zoning mechanisms in place that allow for a mix of uses and for older properties to redevelop vertically as they grow obsolete. Given the type of development we are seeing on Western Avenue, it is safe to say this isn’t happening.