Mount Greenwood’s main shopping district, centered around 111th Street, might be one of the best designed and most pedestrian-friendly in the area. But it’s also a place where properties and businesses in the more walkable sections subsidize encroaching sprawl through taxes.
On the northwest corner of 111th and Kedzie Avenue sits a newer Walgreens, part of a long-term plan for redevelopment of the area. Like other examples of the ubiquitous drug store chain, the Mount Greenwood store sits back from the street, surrounded by a sea of parking that never seems to be as full as envisioned. In a highly walkable, mixed-use area, where the typical building is built to the lot line, includes a storefront that opens to the sidewalk and has minimal — if any — on-site parking, the presence of the sprawling Walgreens and adjoining parking lot is almost confounding.
The only indication that the Walgreens development was intended for pedestrian use is a small seating area and brick archway on the corner, doing a less-than-admiral job of screening the parking lot. I’ll get back to this in a minute.
Auto-Orientation Is in the Plan
The development is almost exactly what the neighborhood’s revitalization plan calls for (additional auto-oriented developments on adjacent sites are still unrealized). In 1997, the former Mount Greenwood Local Redevelopment Corporation — now the Mount Greenwood Community and Business Association — worked with the firm Camiros to devise a new vision for the neighborhood. (Camiros is also behind plans that called for such sprawling developments as the 95th Street Borders.) Implementing this plan included a number of steps, including the purchase and demolition of several properties in the area, along with the creation of a tax increment financing, or TIF, district and a special service area, or SSA, to direct tax dollars toward improvements.
The new, 13,650-square foot Walgreens — with its parking lot and a drive-thru — replaced an older Walgreens, a vacant hair salon and a smaller parking lot. Despite the corner parking lot, the former buildings were built in a more walkable fashion, much like the other buildings in the area, with entrances actually facing the public way.
The new Walgreens was a $10.9 million project that included $1.5 million in TIF money plus the city-owned parking lot, which was sold for $1. The TIF money was intended for the purchase of public rights-of-way, “buying private property, demolition and relocating utilities,” according to the Chicago Tribune. For those unfamiliar, here’s what happens in a TIF district. The level of property taxes for public services, from the city to the schools, is frozen for more than two decades. Bonds help cover the up-front cost of major improvement projects in the district, and as property values within the district increase, the incremental tax dollars collected as a result of that growth are captured and put into a special fund help repay the bonds or pay for ongoing projects. The city, school district and other taxing bodies continue to collect the amount established at the creation of the district, while the additional amounts are earmarked for everything from streetscaping to new constriction incentives.
(It’s also worth noting that in order for a TIF district to be established, “blight” conditions must be proven. The definition of “blight” is pretty ambiguous. In a neighborhood with one of the highest median incomes in Chicago and many thriving businesses, I’d argue that a few vacancies hardly constitute “blight. In fact, former 19th Ward Ald. Virginia Rugai’s chief of staff told the Tribune in 2009 — in the thick of the economic downturn — that the area really isn’t in too bad of shape: “This is a conservation TIF. It’s a different type of TIF. The argument is, ‘Why wait until the area is completely depressed, why wait to build it back?'”)
You Get What You Pay For
So what are 111th Street businesses and property owners paying for in the case of Walgreens? Aside from a new building, they are getting the elimination of one storefront that could have housed another small business, a massive parking lot for Walgreens (that deadens the public realm) and access to drive-thrus for both the Walgreens and a neighboring Dunkin’ Donuts. Who won here? Sounds like mostly Walgreens. And a little bit like Dunkin’ Donuts.
Oh, the district also got that sitting area and brick archway. Now, I’m the first person you will hear advocating for good public gathering places. In the right location, public squares, small parks and other nooks can add tremendous value to the area. Just look at the grand public squares of European cities or smaller public spots in places like Lincoln Square and Elmhurst. These spaces and their surrounding buildings strengthen each other. Restaurants open their doors to these squares, creating spaces for patrons to dine. Residents have a place to spontaneously bump into a friend — or stranger — and have a pleasant interaction. These spaces thrive on the foot traffic created by the surrounding uses, and the surrounding businesses benefit from a strong public realm.
Now, let’s look again at that seating area at 111th and Kedzie.
The backdrop is a parking lot. On either side are driveways that cut across the sidewalk, allowing cars to access said parking lot. Only two nearby corners have what could be considered to be pedestrian friendly design. The other has another parking lot. This public space fails on almost all accounts. We don’t see that synergy of public space and private use that creates such vibrant places in other cities and other neighborhoods.
But back to the neighborhood improvement plan. Encompassing nearly the same area as the TIF district is an SSA, which differs slightly. In order for an SSA to be established, a majority of property owners must agree to it. If created, an additional tax is levied on properties within the boundaries to help fund improvement projects similar to those a TIF district supports. The Mount Greenwood SSA helps fund everything from commercial corridor studies to marketing to sidewalk maintenance.
More Valuable Walkability Funds More Sprawl
According to the Mount Greenwood SSA’s 2012 plan, the annual budget is estimated to be between $63,500 and $71,500 from 2013 through 2017. That five-year budget forecast, about $337,000, is just 22 percent of the entire one-time subsidy given to the sprawling Walgreens development. If the tiny budget allocated to aesthetic improvements increases property values as intended, what happens to that incremental growth? Because the SSA and TIF district overlap, that incremental tax revenue goes to the TIF fund to support more sprawl identified in the Camiros plan, which is in direct contrast to the welcoming pedestrian environment the area’s redevelopment plan purports to champion.
Some of you might be saying, “Jeff, what’s the problem here? We had a vacant building and a prominent parking lot; now we have a new shopping area.” First of all, we still have a parking lot in the same space — and now it’s larger. True, in a survey accompanying the SSA proposal, the third most pressing concern to respondents was parking — 16 percent of people said parking was their least favorite part of the district, and 17 percent of people said they would improve parking. However, they also indicated a desire to improve things that impact the pedestrian experience — more attractive storefronts and a better business mix were the top two improvements in the survey, while street and sidewalk beautification came in just behind parking. Traffic was a mild concern, but respondents indicated that improving parking was one of the least of their priorities.
Parking concerns are certainly understandable in a popular place. Like traffic, it’s a good problem to have. That means people want to come to the area. And people usually want to go to a place because of the vibrancy, the convenience and other attractive qualities that generally occur due to the fact that there isn’t an overemphasis on parking. Places worth caring about — and I would certainly consider Mount Greenwood one of those — don’t tear out their assets for abundant parking. Otherwise, those positive qualities — those public realms — begin to erode. Too much parking simply induces demand for driving. In addition, the Camiros plan also states “additional traffic lanes might be warranted” for the district in the future. With more people driving to an area due to more parking, possibly more travel lanes, and a general decrease in pedestrian focus, it’s only a matter of time before traffic concerns grow and we start looking for another way out of the mess.
Second, as I’ve written in the past (here and here), sprawl is an investment with a low return rate. The more traditional development pattern is exponentially more valuable on a per-acre basis, expanding our tax base to support better services, infrastructure maintenance, schools, parks and anything else that property taxes fund. Our mixed-use corridors, like 111th Street, are the most valuable parts of our city. We should be looking to intensify uses there rather than spreading development thin.
Finally, surveys these days are indicating a growing desire to live in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, particularly among millennials. More pedestrian-oriented development could help make the neighborhood more attractive to younger people and others who crave walkability.
Moving forward, I’d suggest a counterproposal for any future development. If the local redevelopment organization and/or the city possess certain properties, then they should place more controls on what is built there. Subdivide the properties and work with multiple developers to build mixed-use on the parcels. If the parties feel that some parking is needed — and to reiterate, I don’t necessarily believe this is the case — collaborate to establish general public parking behind the buildings that can be used for any person visiting any place within in the district. Residences above the storefronts would help provide the foot traffic to support the businesses on the ground. And instead of a small seating area wedged between a parking lot and a street, develop a plaza where businesses could open their doors to the public realm.
The result would be a development that creates value in the community and is infinitely more pedestrian friendly than what we are currently getting. Mount Greenwood’s main business district is full of advantages, from a mix of housing types to narrower streets than we see elsewhere in the area. Those are assets we should be building on. All the streetscaping in the world won’t make an area more attractive if we destroy the public realm with auto-oriented development, and small businesses will have trouble competing if our subsidies favor sprawl.
(P.S.: The Walgreens development does include one very nice feature: A path is paved with bricks that honor police officers and firefighters, many of whom live in the neighborhood. I left this out of the main discussion, because I feel that it is a separate issue from the overall walkability of the development. While I feel that a walkway around a parking lot is hardly an example of pedestrian-friendly design, the commemorative bricks are a nice touch — the type of detail that speaks volumes about the people who live in the community.)