I have good news, and I have bad news.
The bad news (at least what I see as bad news — others in the neighborhood might not see it that way) is that the residential and neighborhood business zoning designations adjacent to the 95th Street Metra station have been officially changed by the Chicago City Council, making way for the construction of a single-story building and 20-car parking lot that will serve a proposed Advance Auto Parts store. After some emailing with an employee in the city’s Department of Planning and Zoning, it seems that there is no opportunity to formally appeal the decision. The best option seems to be to get the ear of our local leadership and make the case for what we want — and what we don’t.
That’s where the good news comes in. This acceptance of a single-use, auto-oriented development in what should be the pedestrian-focused heart of our neighborhood has the potential to do for development in the 19th Ward what the demolition of Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange and Garrick Theatre buildings did for the city’s historic preservation movement: Mobilize the community and kick off a new era of smart decisions.
That said, I’d like to offer what would have been my appeal against the zoning change and hope that it presents a clear-eyed view of what 95th Street should look like in the future and why developments like the auto-oriented auto parts store (the building, at least) should not be part of a plan for the street.
1. There Already Is a Plan
Well, there sort of is a plan. Last year, the city of Chicago and the Regional Transportation Authority commissioned a study of the neighborhoods surrounding Metra stations within the city limits to determine how they currently function and how they can be improved over time. The study, prepared by Teska Associates, Fish Transportation Group and OKW Architects, involved community input from across the city. In October, the Chicago Plan Commission adopted the plan.
I’ll let you read over the nitty gritty of the study and the plan for yourself, and I’ll get right to the section that concerns 95th Street. The area around the train station is categorized as an “urban neighborhood” and characterized as such:
An Urban Neighborhood (UN) serves an established neighborhood, but ridership varies in intensity.
The UN typology designation is applied to 28 existing Metra stations, with the proposed Auburn Park (79th Street) station bringing the total up to 29. Of all nine Metra typologies, the UN designation is applied to the most stations in the City of Chicago (29 out of 79). A UN neighborhood is generally served by CTA or Pace bus, with only a few UNs having CTA rail stations nearby. Land use is primarily residential, but many UNs have commercial districts. About half of riders either walk, bike, or take transit to Metra and the other half drive to the station. Density around a UN station is moderate, then tapers off away from the station, generally to low-density residential.
In other words, it’s a fairly mixed-use district where people use a variety of transportation modes. The report identifies numerous recommendations for strengthening the area, including:
- Ensuring infrastructure (parking lots, sidewalks, etc.) is geared toward pedestrians first.
- Encouraging multi-family and mixed-use developments nearby.
- Improving pedestrian access to nearby attractions.
- Encouraging architectural detailing and massing that supports a pleasant pedestrian experience.
Given those guidelines, it seems as if the first opportunity to redevelop a parcel near the 95th Street station is a failure on pretty much all accounts. There is little about the proposed building that has the pedestrian interest in mind: A large parking lot will encourage more driving, a dearth of doors along the sidewalk will have a negative effect of streetlife, lack of a mixed-use design means no new people will be added to the streets or the transit system. I could go on, but why not just look at the environment around the other auto part stores nearby.
Now, just because we have the city/RTA study doesn’t mean we don’t need a comprehensive plan for 95th Street. We absolutely do. And we need to draft it soon to ensure something like this does not happen again.
2. Walkability and a Mix of Uses Enhance Property Values
Studies consistently show that by improving walkability — both in terms of safety for pedestrians and in convenience of nearby amenities — also raises property values in the surrounding neighborhood. Here is the conclusion reached in a 2009 study conducted for the organization CEOs for Cities:
More than just a pleasant amenity, the walkability of cities translates directly into increases in home values. Homes located in more walkable neighborhoods—those with a mix of common daily shopping and social destinations within a short distance—command a price premium over otherwise similar homes in less walkable areas. Houses with the above- average levels of walkability command a premium of about $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in the typical metropolitan areas studied.
Here’s another case study from Lancaster, Calif., a small-ish town that has since become part of Los Angeles’ amoeba-like collection of exurban communities. It primarily developed in a sprawling fashion and was hit particularly hard by the economic crash of 2008. Yet in the downtown, something extraordinary happened. The powers that be focused on fostering a walkable, mixed-use district and property values in the heart of the city actually increased by 9.5 percent. Newer developments also are taking on a more traditional, pedestrian-oriented form. You can read all about the project and the benefits it has had here and here.
Finally, take a look at a 2013 study by Active Living Research, which draws the connections from walkability to increases in office space rent, property values and business activity, along with a decrease in vacancy rates. With all of the evidence of the economic benefits of walkability, the vision of a walkable future for 95th Street should be a no-brainer. Instead of saying “not in my backyard” to developments that enhance walkability and convenience, we should generally be saying, “How can we make this happen?”
3. Mixed-Use Development Is Better for Our Tax Base
Our alderman has been quoted as saying that the proposed auto-oriented development is better than a vacant structure because it will add to our tax base in a way that an empty building can’t. First, let me say, “Of course.” That’s because the building in question is vacant. Occupied, buildings in the traditional development pattern (small storefronts facing the sidewalk with minimal or no on-site parking) are more valuable than their car-centric counterparts.
The work of the firm Urban 3 goes a long way toward explaining and mapping the value of different types of development patterns. Essentially, what the people at Urban 3 have found in city after city is that the traditionally developed, compact, walkable neighborhoods carry a far greater value for a community’s tax base than sprawling, car-focused places. It is information the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns has called attention to many times.
- “Do the Math”
- “The Classic Case”
- “Mapping the Dollars and Sense of Land Use Patterns”
- “The Cost of Auto Orientation”
We can play this game closer to home, too. I used publically available records from the Cook County Assessor to look at the value of a fast food restaurant on Western Avenue, KFC, that was designed in an auto-centric format and compare it with a similarly sized block of more traditionally-built buildings nearby. The KFC is a single-use building surrounded by parking. The other block contains seven buildings, all but one of which are one story tall. These buildings contain minimal, if any, on-site parking and contain a variety of businesses, from a pizza shop to offices. They all sit on lots that are exactly the same footprint.
What we see is that the group of buildings developed in a traditional context — structures built to the lot lines, storefronts opening to the street, etc. — are more valuable on almost every level.
- The traditional buildings yielded more than $7,600 in additional property taxes over the KFC property, which occupies a slightly larger area. That is 23 percent more than the KFC property.
- The assessed value of the traditional buildings is 36 percent greater than the auto-centric KFC.
- On a per square foot basis, the traditional buildings are more valuable in terms of both assessed value and property tax yield.
- The most valuable traditional building (the home of Chuck’s Pizza) has a per square foot assessed value 91 percent greater than the KFC. Also on a per square foot basis, it generates 92 percent more property tax dollars than the KFC.
To top it off, the traditional block of buildings benefits from multiple owners and multiple tenants. If one business fails or one building burns down, there are others to help pick up the slack until something can fill the gap. If the KFC disappears for one reason or another, you have a bit more of a problem on your hands (see: Borders on 95th Street).
The historic character of 95th Street is one of pedestrian-oriented design and a mix of uses. That history is visible as you walk in either direction from the Metra station. But you can also see how that fabric has been chipped away by years of bad decisions, which have given us prominent parking lots, drive-thru businesses, high-speed traffic, a lack of safe crosswalks, blank walls facing the sidewalks and vacant storefronts. The addition of the Advance Auto Parts building — the structure, mind you, not the business itself — will only hurt 95th Street more in the long term unless we clearly lay out a vision for a renewed walkable, mixed-use district. We cannot keep going down the auto-centric development road. The cost is too great.