Storage Wars

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“Self storage units” by Hankwang – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Self_storage_units.jpg#/media/File:Self_storage_units.jpg

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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111th Street in Mount Greenwood. A classic street. (Google Streetview)
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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(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?

Sole Food: A Journey on Foot

On July 16, I had the privilege of reading my work in front of a live audience at O’Rourke’s Office in Morgan Park as part of The Frunchroom reading series along with four other talented local writers. What follows is a longer version of the piece I read about why I choose to walk and the differences between being a pedestrian on the North Side of Chicago vs. the South Side. I’d like to thank the Beverly Arts Alliance and Scott Smith for organizing the event and inviting me to participate, along with O’Rourke’s for hosting. The Frunchroom, is truly #GoodForThe19thWard.

*****

“Argh!”

My fist pounds against my car’s empty passenger seat, the cushion dampening the sound of the blow but still absorbing the full force of my frustration. Another traffic jam on I-90 has drawn out my anger. When traffic crawls this slowly, nothing can make the experience enjoyable. Songs on the radio just add to the maddening cacophony of idling motors and blaring horns. Talk shows are as mind-numbing as staring in silence at the red brake lights in front of me. In the summer, air conditioning seems too cold, and in the winter, the heat creates a sauna effect that has me rolling down the window — only to let in an onslaught of noise and fumes. Even less comforting is knowing that somewhere else in the suburbs, my wife, Amy, is having the exact same experience in a different car, as we both try to make it back to our North Side home and escape the purgatory known as expressway commuting — at least for a few hours. Then, we get up and do it again the next day.

The experience I describe isn’t from a particular day. Rather, it is an amalgam of many different commutes I endured as a newspaper reporter living in Chicago but covering a massive swath of suburbia. For years, this was reality for me and Amy, a fellow reporter at the time. Though we made little money, we were essentially forced to own two cars just to do our jobs. Living closer to work wasn’t an option, because on any given day, we didn’t know where work would be. It could be at the office in Schaumburg, it could be at the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan, it could be at city hall in Lake Zurich, or it could be in all three places before 5 p.m. So when considering a place to live, we decided to put our off-hours comfort first. We settled in Uptown because we loved it. We figured that if we were chained to our cars during the day, we should live in a place where we didn’t need them for every after-work or weekend outing. We wanted a place that was walkable.

And walk we did! Restaurants, coffee shops, bars, the hardware store, the pharmacy, the bodega — from ice cream to tacos, Tylenol to nails, not much was outside of walking distance in our little corner of the world. And on the rare occasions when things were, we hopped on the bus or, yes, into our car and went for a ride.

I have no doubt this arrangement brought us closer to our community. The owner of the corner coffee shop lived literally across the hall from us in our building. We became regulars at the nearby taqueria, and when our carryout order was once mistaken for delivery, the mix-up was quickly sorted out due to the fact that we lived about 50 yards away. We loved the physical closeness of our neighborhood so much that when Amy and I both left our journalism jobs and her commute took her to the University of Chicago, we decided we would move to the South Side if we could find a similarly convenient neighborhood where we could afford to buy a house.

While we knew Beverly wasn’t quite as compact as our part of Uptown, it still seemed like a good fit. It was closer to work for my wife, yet I could still get downtown to my new job via the Metra Rock Island line. After we changed careers, we wasted no time in giving one of our two cars to my parents, and given the plethora of public transportation options we saw in the neighborhood, we envisioned living a mostly car-free lifestyle. We bought a house a couple blocks from 95th Street, and despite the vacancies, it was clear that it was a street that could blossom into a walker’s paradise. I had been impressed with the changes I read about and saw near the 103rd Street train station, which have made that district a friendlier environment for walking. I assumed that such improvements would become the norm throughout the neighborhood.

At first, walking through Beverly was wonderful! Each home I passed on my way to and from the train station was an architectural delight. The changes in topography, drastic for mostly-flat Chicago, made each walk a mini workout that left me feeling invigorated. And after six months, Amy took a new job downtown, meaning we would walk to and ride the train to work together. Our walks to the station continue to be the highlights of my week. It’s on these strolls we have some of our best conversations, learning more about each other day by day. Other times, we simply walk hand-in-hand enjoying each other’s company and the solitude.

But solitude and pretty houses alone don’t support a fully functioning neighborhood, and I’ve quickly learned that once a person steps away from our leafy residential streets and onto our commercial corridors, the pedestrian experience becomes dicier. There is tragic irony in the fact that the parkways of our residential streets are peppered with signs urging drivers to slow down for children yet we simultaneously allow for the constant, unimpeded flow of fast moving traffic on most of our main corridors, as if these places are somehow exempt from standards of walkability. To be a pedestrian among the automobiles on Western Avenue is to be like a solitary swimmer trying to traverse a rushing river. You might make it to the other side, but the experience won’t be particularly enjoyable. Our neighborhood has countless positive qualities, from the deep roots of our community institutions to the hard-working and kind-hearted people who reside here, but walking most of our main streets is like taking a tour of the neighborhood’s negative aspects all at once.

Prior to moving to Beverly, I had delved into the writings of Jane Jacobs, a journalist-turned-urban thinker whose keen observations about the inner workings of cities in the 1950s and ’60s helped bring about today’s New Urbanism movement. Jacobs turned her eye to her own neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York for inspiration. Where planners of the day looked at the narrow, labyrinthine streets and saw chaos that needed to be tamed, Jacobs saw a human ecosystem as fine-grained and complex as a rainforest that fostered social and economic interactions. In her writings, particularly the book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she described the common acts of daily life as a ballet that played out not on a stage but rather on her neighborhood’s streets and sidewalks, and in its stores and homes. Each person’s movement was a step in an intricate dance. If Jacobs looked at the streets of Greenwich Village and saw poetry in motion, I can only imaging how she would describe a place like Beverly’s 95th Street or Western Avenue, where the only dance that seems to occur is the one with death each time a pedestrian attempts to cross the roadway.

Our neighborhood is often described as “tight-knit,” a place where longtime residents develop relationships that last generations. But it also has been described to me as a place newcomers can feel as though breaking into the community’s social circles is like trying to dig through concrete with a spoon. It can seem as though these tight-knit groups are hidden behind closed doors and a new resident such as myself must choose the right one to open.

I can’t help but feel like the lack of street life — and the anemic physical neighborhood structure to foster it — contributes to this challenge. Simply walking down our main streets can yield few interactions with others. While drivers can easily speed down Western Avenue, the sidewalks often are deserted. Cars dominate the landscape. From our extra-wide roadways to our many parking lots, the environment can can seem hostile to anyone who chooses to travel on foot. When living on the North Side, my wife and I would frequently walk miles from our apartment through the bustling Andersonville neighborhood without giving a second thought to the distance we had traveled. The atmosphere was constantly stimulating. Everything from the scale of the buildings to the width of the streets and sidewalks indicated that although driving was permitted, the priority was the safety and convenience of the pedestrian. While many of these walks were to a restaurant or particular shop, the true destination was the journey itself. The place was all around us.

When it comes to walkability — not to mention a plethora of other social and economic matters — much of the South Side has not fared as well as the North. The history of urban renewal on the South Side is well documented. Planners just like those eyeing Jacobs’ Greenwich Village saw messy and quote-unquote blighted communities where streets teemed with people, and they decided to level the neighborhoods. In place of the traditional buildings, these communities got vacant lots or isolating housing projects. In place of narrow, walkable streets, they got wide, over-engineered roads designed to funnel cars as quickly as possible through these once thriving neighborhoods. Mostly, these changes disproportionately impacted poor and minority communities, displacing many while leaving those who remained to live among a scarred landscape not conducive to walking farther than the front door.

Although Beverly was spared some of the demolition that came with urban renewal, its growth was certainly shaped by the same modernist planning principles that created the South Side we know today. In most places, our shops and restaurants — the gathering places of any great community — are kept separate from our homes. Physical barriers like high-speed roads and dead-end streets hinder inter- and intra-neighborhood connections. Aside from a few pockets of walkable districts, the public realm is a place that repels lingering and foot traffic instead of encouraging these activities. Our built environment is spread across distances that can seem as vast as the open prairies beyond Chicago. The same walks Amy and I took on the North Side can seem endless here, even when they cover the same distance. Given the design of our neighborhood, traveling by car can feel like the only option for getting around easily. The auto, once seen as a symbol of freedom of mobility, is more like a shackle when the place you live has been created with few other options in mind.

Ironically, with just one car in our household and two monthly train tickets to get to work, the bulk of our commuting today is not done by automobile. In fact, the amount of walking I do just getting around for my job — most of it downtown — is far more than I did in my days as a reporter, and I’m convinced that if I were to be offered my dream job in a location that required a four-hour, round-trip car ride, I’d have to seriously consider whether it was actually my dream job. Still, that doesn’t mean seemingly invisible forces don’t try to nudge me into a car when I need to get around the neighborhood for simple errands. The closest grocery store to my home, for instance, is just three blocks away. However, it is across Western Avenue in Evergreen Park, and the last time my wife and I attempted to walk there, we were almost run down in the crosswalk. One of my favorite places in Chicago to dig for vinyl — Beverly Records at 116th and Western — would be a short bus ride away in many other neighborhoods, but Pace operates so infrequently along this route that a quick jaunt can turn into a logistical nightmare. Not long after moving here, I bought my first bike in years solely for short trips. I love riding it, but the same conditions that make walking dangerous and inconvenient work against bicyclists, too.

But regardless of where I live now and at any other point in the future, walking will always be my favorite mode of transportation. After all, the cost — nothing — is appealing. Plus, it’s healthy for the body and for the community. Show me a neighborhood bustling with pedestrians, and I will show you a successful place. All those little details that make a place beautiful — from the craftsmanship of the buildings to the smiles on the faces of passersby — are little more than vague impressions when behind the wheel. But to see them up close, on foot, is to truly feel the pulse of humanity. Removing the barriers to a safe, pleasant and convenient walk can help people rebuild bonds between each other and allow them to truly feel the life that surges through the community. In other words, walking is good for the soul. I’ve never felt compelled to slam my fist against an inanimate object in frustration as a walker. Mostly, I feel nourished. A good walk affirms connections with your surroundings and makes you feel as if you belong. It is probably one of life’s simplest pleasures. But it’s also one of the most rewarding.

Affordability? Vibrancy? Think Multi-Family.

After reading so many stories in the past week about people attacking proposed multi-family rental housing — from opposition among West Loop residents to an apartment building to people in New Lennox objecting to a “transit-oriented” development near their Metra station — it was refreshing to come across news in another region where leaders are taking a sensible approach to housing affordability.

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“Space Needle002”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Space_Needle002.jpg#/media/File:Space_Needle002.jpg

That, of course, is Seattle, a city where a committee is considering whether doing away zoning in certain areas that solely permits single-family homes would help increase its housing supply and help make affordable living within reach of more people. It’s a noble — albeit politically tricky — goal that I believe our neighborhood and our city should aim for, as well.

[Editor’s note: Shortly after publishing this, I saw that the official recommendation in Seattle is a bit different than what had previously been discussed. There’s still seems to be much to like, including the proposal that the zoning would change for single-family areas adjacent to more densely populated neighborhoods, but I still think the conversation about a broader change to exclusively single-family zoning is worth having.]

The theory is this: Developers will build what is most economically feasible. Often, this would be multi-family or mixed use. Think townhouses, low-rise courtyard apartments or three-flats. Where land is expensive, this type of construction makes sense, as it would provide a solid return on the investment while also increasing the neighborhood’s tax base with more residents. However, in many neighborhoods, this type of construction, long a staple of cities, is outlawed by zoning that only permits single-family homes. The only thing that makes economic sense to build, then, is pricy single-family homes, the proliferation of which gradually makes a community less affordable to average people. It’s simple economics: A low supply of housing and high demand will cause prices to increase, not to mention force fewer people to shoulder more of the tax burden.

By changing the zoning, single-familiy homes would not have to become illegal; it would just make the path toward building multi-family housing easier. In many cases, the type of housing that would be permitted would be the type of low- to mid-rise construction I described above, helping prevent a neighborhood from becoming skyscraper city overnight (a fear of many people when they hear terms like “multi-family” and “population density”) and preserving the existing character of the area. Most importantly, though, it would open up neighborhoods to people who may have not been able to previously afford them due to the multitude of housing types at different price points.

I’ve written before about how I believe the Beverly area could benefit from diversifying its housing stock, and the steps similar to those Seattle is considering taking would be worth pursuing here — as well as in most other American cities, where single-family zoning has drastically limited the type of new housing built in the past half-century.

In our community, the areas with the most potential for this type of zoning would be near key centers of activity — Metra stations, intersecting bus routes and any area that we typically think of as a place where people tend to congregate.

In particular, we need this along struggling corridors like 95th Street, 111th Street and Western Avenue. And we need it to be paired with retail in order to create vibrant, mixed-use districts that support foot traffic and business activity.

Think about 95th Street for a moment. On most of this street, our zoning permits ground floor retail with a minimal residential component above (the B1-1 zone that exists generally will yield low-density development). This is hardly the type of construction that makes financial sense to developers who might take an interest in the area. And if residents object to anything with more housing units, more floors, etc., the only remaining option is what we are getting adjacent to the Metra station: A single-use building with a large off-street parking lot that only a chain retailer can afford to occupy. It’s the commercial equivalent of putting a luxury house on a large residential lot.

On the other hand, if we had allowed mixed-use, multi-family development by law, we would have eventually gotten a building that would have diversified our commercial space and our housing stock, bringing more people to the area who would walk our streets, visit our businesses and ride our train line.

The same goes for areas of single-family homes surrounding our business districts. While many of these properties will likely remain single-family homes for a long time, dilapidated and outdated houses along with vacant lots could potentially be redeveloped as low-rise apartment/condo buildings and townhouses, bringing more people to our community to help keep it vibrant. Businesses will locate where the foot traffic is, so let’s generate it. Meanwhile, people who either cannot afford a single-family house or are not in a position where a single-family house makes sense for them can find good housing in a friendly, safe and (hopefully) thriving area.

This is why the single-family and low-intensity business zoning designations that cover most of our neighborhood need to disappear and be replaced with something that allows our community to grow more naturally. The constraints we put on development will only hurt us in the long run. And for a community that prides itself on a history of inclusiveness when it comes to housing, taking steps to ensure the neighborhood remains affordable and accessible to people of all type should be a no-brainer.

What’s Good?

I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of support the #GoodForThe19thWard campaign has received in its beginning days. The announcement on Facebook has reached more than 4,600 people, while the blog post has been read by hundreds. People have been sharing their thoughts and images on Twitter and Instagram. Honestly, this makes me want to pump my fist in celebration. I’m proud to live in a place where so many people care about the future of their community and want to lift their voices to say that the status quo is not enough.

So what do people actually want?

Divvy bikes have been getting a lot of love, and with good reason. When the announcement came out recently that the bike share program would be expanding across the South Side, many 19th Ward residents were understandably disappointed that the rollout did not reach our community. (I’ve been told that additional grant money is needed to continue expanding the network. Obviously, our neighborhood is considerably farther away from the center of the city than others that have already received stations, so patience — and persistence, of course — is necessary.)

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While Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood don’t have the concentration of residents and commuters that some of the areas where Divvy has been successful, that doesn’t mean it can’t work here. I would even go as far as saying that our network of streets and trails coupled with the existing transit options available to residents makes us particularly well positioned for bike sharing.

For the most part, our historic street grid means disparate parts of our neighborhoods are well connected, but there are few options beyond driving for getting around in a pinch. Buses are infrequent, and they don’t connect major activity centers like the mixed-use districts around our Metra stations. Walking is always an option, but while these hubs of activity are physically close, there is generally not enough stimuli between them to compel people to hoof it from one to another. To top it off, the Metra Rock Island Line, in its current state, is useless as a mode of rapid transit that could take people easily between, say, 95th Street and 111th Street.

Strategically placed Divvy stations have the potential to fill significant gaps in our neighborhood’s transit network. The service would offer an affordable ($75 for a yearly membership) alternative to automobile transportation that would be useful for short trips, connections between home and Metra and general recreation. Plus, I would hope that having it in our community would inspire our leaders to take action — or at the very least have a serious conversation — about making our major corridors safer for transportation modes other than cars.

(If you haven’t seen it, take a look at this petition circulating online asking for Divvy to be extended to Beverly and Morgan Park. I have no personal involvement with it, but I would recommend signing it — I did!)

The 95th Street farmers market also got a shout-out.

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More than anything else happening on 95th Street, whether it be streetscaping or new businesses, the market has the most potential to bring about change — or at least change people’s perceptions about the function of 95th. For half the year, people are all but guaranteed to visit 95th Street, and I would venture to guess that many of these people have no reason to visit at any other time. In other words, the market makes the street function like a street, a platform that supports spontaneous social and economic interactions.

As much as I love the market — my wife and I are regular shoppers — I actually think it has the potential to be better. Currently, the market is confined to a single parking lot: The vendors are fenced into the same space where people park their cars, meaning there is little spillover to the surrounding area. This is not a good thing. Essentially, the set-up of the farmers market reinforces the prevailing notion that everything that occurs on 95th Street must be self-contained. However, on a properly functioning street, everything mixes.

Here is an aerial view of our farmers market location:

95th St Farmers Market Outline
Google Maps

Now, let’s contrast this with a different take on a farmers market. Over the weekend, I visited the market in Dubuque, Iowa, and I decided to take some photos to help illustrate how it contrasts with ours. The Dubuque market literally takes over several blocks in the heart of downtown. Vendors set up along the sidewalks rather than in the parking lots. In some cases, streets are closed, but many remain open, allowing all forms of traffic to circulate amid the activity. It might look chaotic, but it’s the highly organized form of “chaos,” the same kind of intricacy you see in ecosystems of all sorts.

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No cars, but lots and lots of people — and this is 10 minutes before closing time!
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People visiting the farmers market can wander in and out of other businesses downtown. The bar located in the building in the background even opened its doors before noon.
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Vendors line the streets; they aren’t confined to the parking lots.
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Even where parking lots exist, the vendors still stay along the sidewalk, enabling foot traffic.
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This was one of the streets closed to vehicular traffic, although many of the intersecting streets were still open.
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Although the Dubuque market is significantly larger than the 95th Street market, we can imitate its layout to help encourage activity along 95th.
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I actually thought this was funny: Even though the street was closed, people still stuck to the sidewalks! Old habits…
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Well, some people ventured into the middle of the street.
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This was one of the streets still open to vehicular traffic. The vendors along here still got plenty of foot traffic, especially from the people who parallel parked nearby.

The market enlivens downtown Dubuque. To use a slightly jargony term, it “activates” the streets. Neighborhood businesses that choose to open benefit from the critical mass of pedestrians that both live in the area and descend on it from other places. Like the 95th Street market, it is located in a part of town that is underutilized — the Dubuque’s downtown revitalization seems to be working from the south to the north, and the market is in the later — but it provides a real-time, real-world example of what a vital neighborhood looks and feels like. The 95th Street market, on the other hand, does not enliven the street. All of the bustle is corralled.

If we brought the 95th Street market out of the parking lot and onto the street, it could have the same impact as the Dubuque market. OK, so the Dubuque market is many times larger than the 95th Street market, but we can still work under the same philosophy. In fact, this is how markets in other Chicago neighborhoods work. The Andersonville farmers market, for instance, is set up along a single block of Berwyn Avenue between Clark Street and Ashland Avenue.

Andersonville Farmers Market Outline
Google Maps.

Our farmers market could easily be set up in the space created by one of our residential street blockades and then spill out onto the sidewalk along 95th. People who dive to the market would have to walk along 95th to access it, creating more synergy with the surrounding areas. Such a simple move could help change the relationship pedestrians have with 95th Street.

95th St Farmers Market 2 Outline
Google Maps.

Please, everyone, continue to post photos to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and tag them #GoodForThe19thWard. This campaign has helped raise the voice of the people, and it sends a clear message about how we want our neighborhood to develop. Thank you to everyone who has gotten on board, and I can’t wait to see what else the residents of our community come up with.

#GoodForThe19thWard

Since I started this blog, I always said I wanted it to create a dialogue in the neighborhoods of the 19th Ward — Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood — about how we want our neighborhood to develop. What shape do we want it to take? What do we want it to support? What changes to we need to make to enable the type of growth we want?

That’s why today I am launching an ongoing social media campaign that I hope will spread throughout the neighborhood and send a message to our officials about what we want our community to look like. I’m calling it, simply, #GoodForThe19thWard.

In your travels, snap photos of what are, to you, examples of good development, good growth, good urbanism and healthy neighborhoods. This can be in our own community, another Chicago neighborhood or even another city. Maybe it’s an underutilized property that you see as having potential for positive development. Maybe it’s people riding their bikes. Maybe it’s a bustling sidewalk scene. Maybe it’s a collection of buildings that have a striking presence.

Post your photos on Facebook, Instagam or Twitter with a description of what you photographed and why you think it would be good for our neighborhood. Then, tag it with #GoodForThe19thWard. You can then keep track of all the posts that carry the same hashtag and make sure the right people are seeing them. Also, feel free to post them on the Main Street Beverly Facebook page. Every now and then, I will highlight some of the posts on the blog.

Here are a few examples to get started:

From our neighborhood:

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From another neighborhood:

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From another city:

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Don’t just say what you want in our neighborhood — show it. Let’s make this go viral!

An Appeal for a Better 95th Street

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.

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The property in question. (Google Streetview)

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

Metra_(RI)_95th_Beverly_Hills_Station
“Metra (RI) 95th Beverly Hills Station” by Hied5 03:16, 19 March 2008 (UTC) – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metra_(RI)_95th_Beverly_Hills_Station.JPG#/media/File:Metra_(RI)_95th_Beverly_Hills_Station.JPG

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

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“Andersonville, Chicago” by Zagalejo – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andersonville,_Chicago.JPG#/media/File:Andersonville,_Chicago.JPG

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.

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.

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KFC, 10423 S. Western Ave. (Google Maps)
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10115-10133 S. Western Ave. (Google Maps)

Do the Math Screen Shot

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).

Summary

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.

Don’t Plan Around Dream Businesses

I’ve got a piece in the works for later this week, but after reading this story on DNA Info, I just had to make time for a quick post. Yes, I’m happy we could be getting a tenant for the former Borders building. We’d likely still be stuck with a site that still impedes pedestrian activity in the neighborhood (large parking lot, blank walls facing the sidewalk, etc.), but I’ll cross my fingers that patrons of a medical practice would venture off-site for a bit to eat.

What is more concerning to me is our alderman’s comments that seem to point to the direction planning is going to take in our neighborhood. For instance, saying we are going to wait for a “committed high-end user” for a vacant site on 95th Street before we start discussing the alcohol ban seems backward. First of all, what “high-end” user would commit to a site knowing that his or her business hinges on the repeal of an ordinance? Shouldn’t we want to repeal the ordinance regardless to ensure that our neighborhood is attractive to potential investors?

Second, I’m not sure why we are making our planning decisions around our dream businesses, which seem to be chain stores. I’ve got nothing against a chain store wanting to move to our neighborhood per se, but they often operate on business models that are more suited to suburban/exurban shopping centers. I would rather see us make plans for our neighborhood that are good for its long-term health rather take this approach where we make decisions in a piecemeal fashion. The latter doesn’t exactly send a clear signal to anyone who wants to open a business here or build a new development.

If we bend over backward to suit the needs of a business that wants to operate on the suburban shopping center model, we run the risk of another Borders situation where the development looks good in the short-term, but it doesn’t exactly help in the long-term when it closes up shop. We need to clearly plan for the future of our corridors and then follow through.

A Healthy Street

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California and Milwaukee avenues, Logan Square.

This past Saturday, my wife and I took public transit to Logan Square to meet up with some friends, and while we were waiting for them to arrive, we decided to grab a drink on the Logan Bar and Grill’s sidewalk patio. As we were talking, I realized something so common yet so amazing was happening right alongside us.

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The street was buzzing with activity!

In addition to the people dining and drinking on the sidewalk with us, there were people of all stripes passing on foot, en route to other destinations in the neighborhood. Bicyclists were riding by. Cars filled the roads in all directions. In one hour at our table, I probably saw more activity along a single block of California Avenue than I see on 95th Street in a week.

Full disclosure: There was a street fest taking place just around the corner, which was starting to kick into gear by 4 p.m. But I speak as a one-time Logan Square resident when I say this scene is not unusual. The intersection of Milwaukee and California avenues is a tremendously busy place. The California Blue Line station sees nearly 5,000 riders per day (1.5 million in a year), while Milwaukee and California combined carry about 28,000 cars per day (12,000 on Milwaukee and 16,000 on California).

What’s most significant about this part of town, though, is that it possesses a traditional neighborhood design that facilitates all this activity. First of all, the main streets are just one lane in each direction, meaning that the type of reckless driving — speeding, jockeying for position, etc. — you see on 95th Street, Western Avenue and other roadways in our neighborhood with four-plus lanes is a bit more difficult. These more predictable and calmer traffic patterns help support a healthy amount of foot traffic bicycle activity on the Logan Square streets, because people feel safer to be on them.

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California Avenue’s narrow roadway. (Google Streetview)

Second, these streets have a mix of uses, including bars, restaurants, professional offices and banks. Many of the buildings on Milwaukee and California also contain residences, which add even more potential pedestrians to the street. In the surrounding residential areas, you have a mix of single family homes, apartments, condos and civic institutions like churches and schools. This physical closeness means daily needs can be met on foot.

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A mix of uses on Milwaukee Avenue north of California Avenue. (Google Streetview)

Third, the parking that does exist is primarily in the form of on-street spaces. Most individual buildings don’t include their own off-street parking lots for visitors. This is crucial. The metered spaces enable frequent turnover, but they also enable foot traffic. If you park in an on-street space, you can visit multiple businesses in this area during the metered time before having to move in your car. Off-street spaces for individual businesses, on the other hand, all but ensure that a motorist is just visiting a single site in the neighborhood. (In the case of a Wilmette Dairy Queen, you risk being towed for visiting a different business.) Or, they mean a person is inconveniently moving the car any time he or she wants to go somewhere else.

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On-street parking on California Avenue. (Google Streetview)

Most importantly, Logan Square’s traditional urban design supports a diverse neighborhood population. For the most part, it remains unchanged from the community’s early days. This walkable format has supported everyone from the primarily blue collar residents who have long lived in the neighborhood to the artists who began moving to the area in the past 15 years to the even newer crop of yuppies. The traditional neighborhood is incredibly adaptable, which is more than can be said for large-scale, auto-oriented developments. Even newer developments in the area are taking a similar form.

If the Beverly area is to grow and develop a healthier business climate, we should be taking cues from neighborhoods where the built environment is clearly having an impact. That doesn’t necessarily mean turning our neighborhood into Logan Square, but it does mean thinking about what it is about that community’s — or a similar community’s — development pattern that supports the type of activity I observed on Saturday. True, we don’t have a train station that is quite as busy as the California Blue Line stop, but our 95th Street Metra station sees 1,013 boardings and alightings (people exiting the train)  every weekday. (The Rock Island Line overall has nearly 28,000 passenger trips per week.) That’s not to mention the nearly 50,000 people who live in the surrounding zip code, many of whom are within walking distance of this train station and others. In other words, we have the foundation for a great pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. We just have to ask ourselves whether we want to build on it or rip it up.