[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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
From another neighborhood:
From another city:
Don’t just say what you want in our neighborhood — show it. Let’s make this go viral!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
First off, sorry for the long spans between posts in the past month. I’ve been dealing with some family matters, and of course family comes first. But much of the hectic stuff is behind me, so I can get back to some more regular posting.
Now that all of that is out of the way, I’d like to have a discussion about population density. Yes, the infamous “D” Word that people like to toss around when both opposing a project (“It’s too dense! We aren’t New York!”) or supporting new development (“We need this to increase our neighborhood’s density and foot traffic!”). It’s a phrase that has come up a fair amount both since I started this blog and since my last post about the proposed auto part store for the site adjacent to the 95th Street Metra station. The common refrain seems to be, “Jeff, I agree that we need a more walkable community, but we just don’t have the density of other neighborhoods to support this concept.”
It’s true that the Beverly area is not as densely populated as, say, Edgewater (one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Chicago).
But in having this discussion, I think we need to first get some definitions out of the way. In the simplest terms, population density is the ratio that illustrates the number of people concentrated in a given space. Typically, this is exhibited as the number of people per square-mile, or even the number of people per acre.
Population density can be a valuable component of good urbanism — the “U” Word in this piece’s title — and a definition of one requires a definition of the other. Urbanism, what I write about on this blog, concerns the relationship between people and place. It is about how the built environment shapes our social interactions and fosters economic activity. In other words, it’s about how place shapes community, and vice versa.
That said, let me provide a very simplistic example of how the two are related. Say there’s a village in the middle of nowhere. It contains 50 houses in a space that is about one-eighth of a square mile (approximately the size of a Chicago city block) with a general store at the center of town where everyone shops. Say each of these houses contains a different type of living situation. Some house families, others house single people and a few are just roommates living together to save money. On average, there are three people per house. That gives you a population density of about 1,200 per square mile.
That’s a pretty low population density, even by Beverly standards (Beverly’s population density is about 8,200 people per square mile, while Chicago’s overall is 11,900). However, the fact that all of these people live in a compact space, they can all easily access the general store — and friends’ homes — on foot, meaning there is little need to build excess places to park cars in the neighborhood. Although this place has a low population density, it has good urbanism in that the built environment is conducive to a lifestyle in which people have more choices for how they get around. Most will probably walk, but some will probably ride bikes. A few might even drive to that store and park on the street to pick up an extremely large order.
Now, imagine someone builds a cluster of apartment buildings five miles from this town. This is a tightly packed space, and its population density reaches close to Edgewater’s of 33,600 people per square mile. The hook, though, is that the developer didn’t build any commercial space, and each resident must travel to the nearby town’s general store for daily needs. The town is outside a comfortable walking radius, so many people buy cars, necessitating expansive parking lots that make for vast spaces between buildings. What we have here is density without urbanism. We crammed a lot of people into a small space, and although they are ready to walk somewhere, there is nowhere to go. Plus, there are added challenges for the small town like how to deal with the influx of out-of-town shoppers. Do they widen roads and add more infrastructure to accommodate people who don’t live in the community? Can they even afford to do that, since the visitors don’t pay property taxes?
Yes, I realize this scenario is somewhat preposterous, and the real world is much more nuanced than what I describe. But I do believe it represents the type of built environment we should strive for as our neighborhood develops. It also represents the reason why I tend to stop short of saying we desperately need to add population density to our neighborhood — or any neighborhood — to support businesses and civic life. Instead, I tend to support good urbanism. A better way to think about this might be in terms of A) proximity — bringing residential, commercial and civic components closer together, and B) connectivity — making sure that all of these uses are laid out in a compact, interconnected network of streets, sidewalks and trails that supports a wide range of transportation options with a focus on walking. Population density comes about as an offshoot of these principles. As a place becomes more desireable, people will want to live closer to it, and we should accommodate them by gradually increasing the number of residential units in that given location. This should happen in a way that enhances the place’s urbanism and makes us more like the hypothetical small town rather than the faraway cluster of apartments.
This is why talking about density in relation to a single issue — single-use vs. mixed-use adjacent to our train station — is somewhat futile. What we need is to have a larger conversation about how to physically get people on and walking around our main corridors like 95th Street and Western Avenue. This will require a vision for all of our community’s corridors, from 95th to 115th, Western to Pulaski, that is decidedly different from the same-old, same old, because in many places with a large number of vacancies, that is clearly not helping. Saying that 95th Street is currently a high-speed commercial street and should just remain that way doesn’t get to the heart of its troubles.
In other words, yes, plopping a mixed-use building next to the 95th Street will add density, but it probably would only have a marginal effect on walkability in the short term. That doesn’t mean we don’t need a mixed-use building. On the contrary. We need many. We need good urbanism to create good places. We need a plan that lays out what we want the future of our streets to be and that sends a clear message to developers about what we want built in our backyard. And we need to pair this with the necessary infrastructure to support walking and biking. That means calming traffic and putting the focus first on people — people who live here — rather than how many cars we can attract from neighboring communities.
The good news is that we already have the foundation of a great, walkable place. The pieces were handed down from our ancestors in the form of a street grid, public transportation and existing buildings that have a strong relationship to the public realm. If we build on this gradually, we can strengthen the places in our community that need a boost, including 95th Street. As I have written before, no single project is a magic bullet that can turn around our struggling places, and that includes increasing population density. But each project can be an incremental step toward building something better.
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.
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…
Oh, 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.
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.
After the DNA Info article about Main Street Beverly was published last month, I received a number of insightful, thoughtful comments and messages, but one in particular spoke strongly to the future of our neighborhoods.
Through the blog’s Facebook page, a woman reached out to say that at age 24, after being born and raised in the area, she was preparing to move away to a North Side neighborhood where she could easily walk to shopping and dining, a place where the sheer number of people out and about doing the same would practically guarantee she would meet new people. Our area, she said, just isn’t supporting the lifestyle she wants.
Her comments have a lot in common with data showing that millennials — and people in other age groups — are increasingly looking for walkable communities, often in large cities rather than suburbs.
Many see the conventional components of the American Dream, such as a single-family home and two cars, as burdens — constrains, even — to living a fulfilling life. And in places like Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood, you often have few options besides those conventions due to restrictions we have placed on development in the area and our choices for shaping our transportation networks.
We live in a very attractive part of town where crime rates are low, parents can send their children to good schools and downtown workers can access the Loop easily and affordably via the Metra Rock Island train line. However, we have few reasonable housing options for people who want access to all our neighborhood offers but might not be in the position — or simply not want to — purchase a single family home. Despite the presence of some multi-family housing, such as apartments, townhouses and condos, our neighborhoods are overwhelmingly zoned for detached, single-family homes. In other words, without jumping through hoops with the city and working with neighbors to receive a zoning variance, a builder could not go to most parts of our neighborhoods and build anything other than a conventional house.
In the zip codes that primarily make up our corner of the city, detached, single-family houses are overwhelmingly the only options available for people who want to live here. U.S. Census data shows 79 to 88 percent of residents in our area living in this type of home (citywide, only about 28 percent of people live in detached, single-family houses). It also shows that our housing stock was mostly built pre-1979, suggesting that we have been doing very little to diversify our offerings.
(Chicago blogger Daniel Kay Hertz, a master’s student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, writes about this phenomenon often. In many Chicago neighborhoods, zoning, he argues, has actually led to a decrease in population in many neighborhoods over the past 65 years, even in those places that we hear are booming today. Even as a neighborhood becomes more attractive, the city does not allow for an appropriate influx of new development to keep up with demand. Instead of building multi-family housing, which is either illegal or fought tooth and nail by neighbors, the only development that ends up making financial sense is luxury single-family homes. The results are areas of expensive housing that are only accessible to the very-well-to-do. While Hertz is primarily talking about “hot” North Side neighborhoods like Lakeview and Wicker Park, I believe that some of the characteristics he mentions apply to places like Beverly, as well. We might not get brand new luxury homes like Lincoln Park gets, but we do get house flippers. I highly recommend reading this piece. And this one.)
What does that all mean? Well, if you are a 24-year-old who was born and raised here and want a place in the neighborhood to live affordably, you settle for an apartment that is likely outside of walking distance of most amenities. That means you’ll probably have to buy a car just to run daily errands, which will eat away at the money you are saving by living in a modest apartment. This is the reason transit-rich neighborhoods like Logan Square look so attractive to younger people. Given the train, bus, biking and walking options in Logan Square, there is less need to own a car if you live there. It’s also the reason why a place like Logan Square — or Lakeview, Edgewater or a number of other neighborhoods — looks attractive to older people who don’t want to be chained to an automobile or have a mortgage.
What has happened in places like the Beverly area is that we have constrained our housing supply so much that the vast majority of people who do move here are primarily those who can afford a $240,000 house (the median price in Beverly, according to real estate sire Trulia.com — the average listing price recently was $356,000) and at least one car that will cost about $7,000 to $11,000 per year (according to AAA — depends on the type of vehicle), once you factor in monthly payments, gas, insurance and maintenance. While our median home prices in Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood are below the citywide average, other neighborhoods offer other, more affordable housing options beyond their expensive single-family homes. Aside from a handful of blocks, non-single-family houses are scarce around here.
Throughout history, as neighborhoods have grow in popularity, they have grown in population through the construction of a variety of different housing types. All those courtyard apartment buildings you see around Chicago? Many of those were built in the 1920s as communities from Uptown to Hyde Park became fashionable. There was a demand for housing, and it was supplied. Today, those apartments offer affordable alternatives to single-family homes. They also house a population that can support the types of shops, restaurants and amenities we want to see in our own community — the types of businesses that one can walk to conveniently and are owned by our neighbors. Even though a University of Chicago student cannot afford a house in Hyde Park, he or she can still live in an apartment (maybe with a roommate) near campus and all of the shopping and dining options the neighborhood offers. Plus, many of the buildings are just gorgeous.
By excluding multi-family housing from much of our community, we are cutting out valuable populations of people, from the recent college graduate just starting out in the workforce, to the single parent who wants a safe neighborhood with good schools, to the senior who wants to downsize and live in a place where daily needs can be met on foot (some call this “aging in place”).
Our community’s population is getting older. In the 60655 zip code, which encompasses Mount Greenwood, the population of 20- to 49-year-olds declined by 13 percent between 2000 and 2013, while the population of people 50 and older increased 18.5 percent. In 60643, which encompasses much of Beverly and Morgan Park, the 20- to 49-year-old population declined by 12.1 percent in that same period, while the 50-plus population increased by 25.6 percent. Given our demographic changes, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of community do we want to be? I believe our growth should reflect people’s increasing interest in walkable communities while also serving the needs of those who might be driving less frequently as they grow older. We would more fully cater to a range of age groups as people choose to live here for the convenience it offers at all stages of life.
One thing that strikes me as an overwhelming positive for our neighborhood is the strong ties people have to it. Many people talk about how they grew up here and moved back. Others talk about never having left. But what also strikes me is the number of people I hear who say they’d like to move here — someday. That “someday” is usually a point when they can afford one of the homes here or they have children. In other words, as lovely of a community as we have, it does not offer something for everyone. Not all people want a single-family home, but everyone does want to live in a community with the types of positive attributes that the Beverly area has. If we can offer more housing options, we can attract the types of people who want to make the neighborhood their home now, and we will afford them the opportunity to live here comfortably through different stages of their lives.
So how do we accomplish this? First, change the zoning. That doesn’t mean we replace everyone’s single-family home with a high-rise apartment building. What it means is that when obsolete properties do go on the market, a new owner could decide to renovate the building and keep it a single-family home or build a new structure on the property that perhaps adds two to five more units to the neighborhood. Maybe an obsolete house is combined with a vacant lot, and we get a contemporary variation on the classic Chicago courtyard building — some of which can be seen on some blocks in our neighborhood already, sitting side-by-side with single-family homes. By changing what we allow, we send a message to developers about how we want our neighborhood to evolve so there are fewer hoops to jump through when someone does want to redevelop.
We don’t even need to apply this type of zoning to every place in the neighborhood, at least not right now. Start where there is the most opportunity for infill (vacant parcels and parking lots) and where this type of housing would be most effective: Along our commercial corridors and near our transit hubs. Multi family housing should certainly be permitted within at least a quarter-mile of Metra stations. (A half-mile is even better, but I suspect that a quarter-mile is more likely to have broad support. One step at a time.) Every additional person we have living near the stations is one more potential rider for Metra.
Second, where appropriate, this type of development should occur in the form of mixed-use buildings: Commercial space on the first floor and residences on the floors above. This would make the most sense near our Metra stations as well as on commercial corridors like Western Avenue and 111th Street. In encouraging this type of development, we build an environment where the pedestrian’s needs come first and put potential customers right within walking distance of shopping and dining. We start to build a neighborhood where daily needs can be met by traveling on foot rather than by car.
(To some extent, this set-up already exists near some Metra stations, but we can do better by extending the multi-family zoning to a slightly greater radius and encouraging more mixed-use development. The new condos at 103rd Street and Hale Avenue are a step in the right direction. There’s a lot of potential for similar development on 95th Street and even along Western Avenue.)
This is a common development pattern we see across Chicago, even in lower density neighborhoods in the Bungalow Belt and inner-ring suburbs. Some streets are still lined with single-family homes, but multi-family housing is located at key places where you need a higher intensity of activity, such as along commercial corridors, near high-volume bus stops and adjacent to train stations. Many of these locations also include commercial, office and civic space, and when you throw all of these ingredients together — with properly scaled streets, of course — you get a healthy, pedestrian friendly environment.
This strategy goes beyond simply attracting specific demographics (i.e. Millennials) and the amenities they seek (i.e. hip bars and organic grocers) to our neighborhood. It’s about creating a place that thrives because it is accessible to a wide variety of people and is designed in a way that the automobile is one of many ways people can get around easily rather than the default way.
May is both National Bike Month and National Historic Preservation Month, highlighting two causes near and dear to my heart: The need for bicycling to be a viable form of transportation in our communities and the need to protect our historic sites from demolition.
So I am offering an opportunity for readers to engage in these causes, too. I want you to tell me why these topics are important to you. Sometime this month, ride your bike to a place in the neighborhood that is of particular historical importance to you or the community, and share the story about your experience in the comments section of this post. Tell me what the ride was like and why you chose the place you did. Tell me about the environment you encountered along the way, tell me about why you like a building’s architecture, tell me a personal story about that place that makes it special. At the end of the month, I will republish some of the stories in a separate post.