The Auto Zone: A Proposal for 95th Street Is a Blow to Walkability

While walking to the 95th Street Metra station the other day, I caught a glimpse of a red and white sign hanging in the window of one of the vacant storefronts just to the west. “Public notice,” it read.

20150520_140015
Please direct your attention to the building on the right.

My interest was piqued. Could it be that something exciting would soon be happening here? Maybe someone was proposing condos or apartments with storefronts on the ground floor. Perhaps the space could someday house a coffee shop or restaurant where people walking to and from the train could stop for a bite. Maybe…

20150520_135839Oh, never mind. The notice was for a proposal to change the zoning to “community shopping district” (often code for “auto-oriented sprawl”) to make was for a single-story auto parts store. My balloon had been popped.

With a prime location directly next to a busy train station, is a single-use, single -story building truly the so-called highest and best use for this property? What the notice does not say is that this proposed building would also have an off-street lot with 20 parking spaces. Off-street parking is typical in this type of zone and for this type of use (see O’Reilly on Western Avenue and 92nd Place and AutoZone at Ashland Avenue and 89th Street), which it is why I can’t say I’m thrilled to see it proposed at this location.

Incentivizing driving through off-street parking will only further add to the vehicular traffic nightmare that recurs daily on this street and reduce the appeal of this area as a pedestrian destination. (Chicago’s zoning code specifically refers to “community shopping districts” — or B3 zoning — as auto-oriented: “Development in B3 districts will generally be destination-oriented, with a large percentage of customers arriving by automobile. Therefore, the supply of off-street parking will tend to be higher in B3 districts than in B1 and B2 districts.” It is odd language to me, because it suggests that pedestrian-oriented areas are not destinations and that destinations are not places where people walk. People drive to Clark Street in Andersonville, too, and that is a destination with very little off-street parking.)

As I have written before, the Metra station could be the key to 95th Street’s revival. This is the heart of our community where people should be strolling, shopping, working, living. Are we really going to turn it into one big parking lot?

We already have the foundation of a solid, walkable community. Just look at what is across the street.

20150520_140029
An existing mix of uses on 95th Street.

Multiply those buildings, and I would see an attractive place where people might want to linger, a place that maybe could serve as the backdrop of neighborhood events. I would see a place that the community values deeply and prides as a symbol our shared values. Will we take pride in another parking lot? Businesses can still thrive without off-street parking, especially when they are in a location that already draws a significant amount of foot traffic — say, next to a train station.

If symbolic value isn’t your thing, how about monetary value? The return on auto-oriented investments is low compared to what we see with more traditional building types, particularly those that mixes uses like residential and commercial. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating each time we see more development in our neighborhood that puts cars before people.

The proposal is another disheartening step toward the erosion of 95th Street’s pedestrian environment. Just a couple blocks west we are seeing a storage warehouse, complete with drive-up loading area, being built along our main drag, and neighbors are asking the city to close off access to their side street to cars in conjunction with the project.

Between that development and this, it is hard to blame them — and others whose streets have already been closed — for wanting to do such a thing. Our prime public space is being turned over to cars: Fast-moving traffic on 95th, frequent turns across our sidewalks to access parking lots, no mixed-use development to foster street life. I don’t think it is that people want to cut off their neighborhood from our main street, but we increasingly feel like we have to, because what it is becoming is certainly not a place for people.

Two 19th Ward committees — Design Review and Local Zoning Advisory — have already given their approval to auto part store request, and the next stop is the Chicago City Council’s zoning committee. I have to urge our elected officials to not approve this zoning change. Not all development proposals are created equal, and we need one here that represents the future of our neighborhood, a future in which our main street, 95th Street, is a vibrant place where people want to be 24 hours a day. This proposal would lead to none of that, and should it be approved, we would have to live with the result for years to come.

I also feel that this one issue is symptomatic of deeper problems with 95th Street. I am confident that increasing the amount of mixed use development that occurs on this major corridor can help it thrive long into the future. While other city neighborhoods and even many suburbs have welcomed a mix of uses into their communities and have benefitted from doing so, it is not occurring in our neighborhood.

Is the problem the design of the street? That’s likely part of it. It is, after all, a place where the four travel lanes carry brisk traffic that can be off-putting to pedestrians, to say the least. It it an unwillingness among residents to support mixed-use development? Maybe, to some extent. We are a neighborhood of primarily single-family homes, and there could be reluctance among some to accept something different. Is it the alcohol ban? It certainly does limit the pool of potential tenants who could occupy ground-floor commercial space, making some projects seem less viable than others.

If we want anything other than the same old, same old, we have to address major, underlying issues that perpetuate this pattern. It might require thinking differently an accepting a different paradigm for our neighborhood, one in which we embrace a mix of different uses in key areas rather than a separation of them.

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23 thoughts on “The Auto Zone: A Proposal for 95th Street Is a Blow to Walkability

  1. Thanks for writing this. This feels like a moment not dissimilar to one that existed in the Prairie District in the South Loop around 2005. There developers wanted to put up a building that was very out of character with the neighborhood. A group mobilized to fight it and was successful (but in truth, helped enormously by the real estate bust). That group became what’s now a strong neighborhood association, the Prairie District Neighborhood Association. I am relatively new to Beverly, therefore very naive to all the politics behind this decision, but I also feel strongly that this would be a bad decision for the community. If a community group forms to fight this, I would be eager to be a part of it. I share the vision you have of 95th street, and this would be an opportunity wasted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree, Beverly’s retail stretches both on 95th and Western seem to be at a major crossroad (so to speak). Just a couple more of these short sighted car-centric development decisions like the self storage, the border’s debacle and this new proposal could push it both into a black hole for a long, long time. I am somewhat new to the area as well, but would be willing to do what I can to help.

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  2. I have mixed feelings. It would be good to get a business in there, as opposed to the string of vacant buildings that has been there, but I agree another auto parts store would not be my first choice. I know that much of the opposition is about creating an auto-centric location, but honestly, one of the reasons I don’t go over to 95th street and do more shopping is BECAUSE of the lack of off-street parking. The two times I’ve parked on 95th street proper, my car was sideswiped, and naturally all the surrounding areas are zone parking only. I, personally, would love to see something like they have in downtown LaGrange, where the main strip has a lot of small shops and restaurants, and there is a large (free!) parking garage conveniently located for those people who would want to visit but wouldn’t be able to simply walk over there.

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    • I don’t think eliminating ALL off street parking along 95th Street is the solution to making it less auto-centric, at least not in the short term. At this point, we don’t have the concentration of people/uses, frequent enough public transportation and solid pedestrian/bicycling infrastructure to completely do away with off-street parking. However, we can be smarter with what we have, which is what communities like LaGrange have done. Not every new business that moves in needs its own parking lot, especially given that we have large, public surface lots along this stretch. What we need is an environment that encourages walking from these lots and our on-street spaces to a series of buildings along the street. Even some of Chicago’s most densely-populated and walkable neighborhoods often have some form of this. But it is not the dominant feature in the neighborhood.

      What we need is a comprehensive vision for how to make 95th Street more walkable while increasing economic activity, and it can’t involve saying “no” to doing things a little differently. Just by looking at 95th Street, it’s clear that over time, it has gradually become more auto-oriented, and it’s also clear that this hasn’t exactly worked out for businesses on this stretch.

      Also, I can’t say that abundant free parking is part of the solution. Parking is a commodity that must be built and maintained over time, and providing it everywhere for free skews the market for it. My favorite quote about free parking is from the book “Suburban Nation”: “Of course there’s never enough parking! If you gave everyone free pizza, would there ever be enough pizza?”

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  3. There are a number of parking lots near that area – I counted three on my way home. Perhaps a good move would be to make one of them free for the first hour or two to encourage customers. In any case, Jeff you are 100% correct that a holistic plan should be in place before we cut up our existing street.

    I emailed our alderman about the plan – and he promptly replied (which I really appreciate). He mentioned that the building in its current form hugs the street like the existing building. He also mentioned that the building will have to adhere to Chicago’s urban design guidelines.

    I encourage all of you to email him so he is aware that we care about this issue. I wonder if we could convince the developer to move to a site that is vacant – like the lot for sale at Damen and 95th – rather than demo an existing building.

    Again, I care about this issue and am willing to join a group to help 95th street.

    I’d be interested to hear what the 95th street business association thinks.

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    • Would anyone be interested in meeting up in the near future to discuss some of these things? I think there are a good number of people on the same page, and you’re right — organizing something that really shows how people in the neighborhood feel might be appropriate.

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      • Yes! Absolutely! I have also emailed O’Shea and while he’s nice and well-meaning, I really get the feeling that a.) He’s grasping at straws and not quite sure what he’s doing b.) He’s frustrated and throwing in the towel. Thanks for the great thoughts, Jeff, and please do keep us all posted about how we can keep the conversation going.

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  4. Jeff – I would like to meet up to discuss. There are also some people on ‘Everyblock’ that might join.

    I called the zoning department today – looks like the zoning change was already approved. I hope there is still something of a design review required before demolition. Anyway, we should organize and see what we can do.

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  5. Hi Everyone,
    I emailed the alderman about this issue earlier this morning. I agree it is a step in the wrong direction. Proposed retail like this will send the street/ neighborhood into a downward spiral from which recovery may be even more challenging. My bigger concern is that it will adversely affect the future retail around it. I will be there when we decide to meet on this issue. And I will be sure to bring a few more people as well.

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      • I’m going to try to make it – unfortunately Thursday is very busy for me. I’ve mentioned it on the Everyblock post on the issue.

        Also, I’ve talked to The 95th street business association, and got a lot of helpful information on the history of the project. Among other things, they mentioned that it was possible that a meeting for the community to hear about the plan would be set up.

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  6. We went through this with the re-zoning of 95th ST back in the 90s, and the change in zoning limited several business types. Here is the opening quote from the ChiTrib on this matter: “Pool halls and funeral parlors can no longer set up shop on 95th Street between Ashland and Western Avenues under a new zoning ordinance. Neither can quick-food stops, car repair shops, thrift stores and cab companies.

    But it’s the ban on beauty salons that has so incensed some merchants along this congested strip and placed Beverly, a well-to-do enclave tucked away on the city’s Far South Side, at the center of controversy.”

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1996-03-07/news/9603070127_1_beauty-salons-car-repair-shops-zoning-ordinance

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    • Thanks for the input and the article, Ryan! The key to revitalizing this stretch of 95th, I think, is to not get so bogged down in the minutia — what types of businesses we want/don’t want, etc. — and focus on what types of broad changes to zoning, land use and road design can help bring about a mixed-use district naturally. I’d like to think that attitudes toward neighborhood development have changed in the almost 20 years since that issue came up.

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  7. Did you end up meeting? I didn’t see these comments and just liked the FB page so that I hopefully don’t miss a future meeting. Please count me in.

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    • Hi Emily. Yes, we did, but we are planning on getting together again soon, probably next week. You are more than welcome to join us. Send me a message through the Facebook page with your email address, and I will get you added to the Google Group we created.

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