Small Ideas for (Mostly) Big Roads

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster, and I’ve taken a couple steps back from this blog to focus my attention on family and personal matters. I do have a couple longer pieces in the works that I hope to share with you in coming weeks — maybe even days — but for now, I have something a little bit easier to digest.

Several weeks back, I published a piece on making our neighborhood “stroads” —  those are dangerous hybrids of streets and roads — safer by thinking about them more as places where people walk, bike and linger in addition to drive rather than just as thoroughfares for high-speed motor vehicle traffic. It’s something that is probably easier to visualize than to describe, so through the magic of Google Maps, which I use almost daily to “travel” around the world and get a sense of how other places work, I decided to compare some of our worst offenders with better alternatives, some more local than others. The idea here isn’t to completely reinvent any street (hence the “small ideas” title). I’m not proposing we completely pedestrianize Western Avenue, run light rail down 95th Street or pretend we have the population density and access to transit that allow many European cities to close off large sections of their city centers to automobiles. Maybe someday that can happen, but right now, we are what we are. What I’d rather do is to look at how some of our streets currently function and look to other similar streets that we could emulate.

Feel free to explore the street view images below. Try to experience what it might be like to be on one of these streets. What I hope is that through these examples, we residents can visualize our community’s public realm differently and demand change in order to strengthen our economic and social capital. Perhaps we start by working toward the “better alternatives” with an ultimate goal of developing these places to be more like the “even better alternatives.” Any of these alternatives, however, would be better than what we have and ultimately #GoodForThe19thWard.

Case #1

Local Example: 95th Street, Beverly, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Boulevard Broadway, Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Canada

 

Even Better Alternative: Lancaster Boulevard, Lancaster, California

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #2

Local Example: Western Avenue, Morgan Park, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Edgewater Drive, Orlando, Florida

 

Even Better Alternative: Lawrence Avenue, Chicago

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #3

Local Example: 111th Street, Morgan Park, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Hillsborough Street, Raleigh, North Carolina

 

Even Better Alternative: Mt. Desert Street, Bar Harbor, Maine

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #4

Local Example: Walden Parkway, Beverly, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: River Street, Batavia, Illinois

 

Even Better Alternative: Jay Street, Schenectady, New York

Jay St copy

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #5

Local Example: 111th Street, Mount Greenwood, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: South 1100 East, Salt Lake City, Utah

 

Even Better Alternative: Main Street, Dallas, Texas

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #6

Local Example: Western Avenue, Beverly, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Lincoln Avenue, San Jose, California

 

Even Better Alternative: Nevada Way, Boulder City, Nevada

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #7

Local Example: Kedzie Avenue, Mount Greenwood, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Shelby Street, Indianapolis, Indiana

 

Even Better Alternative: 12th Avenue, Denver, Colorado

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #8

Local Example: 103rd Street, Beverly, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Grand Boulevard, Vancouver, Washington

 

Even Better Alternative: Harrison Boulevard, Boise, Idaho

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #9

Local Example: 111th Street, Mount Greenwood, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

 

Even Better Alternative: Kimberly Avenue, Asheville, North Carolina

 

* * * * * * * * * *

Case #10

Local Example: Western Avenue, Beverly, Chicago

 

Better Alternative: Sacramento Drive, Chicago

 

Even Better Alternative: Queen Elizabeth Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Advertisements

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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 7.27.37 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 8.10.12 PM
Western Avenue (Google Streetview)
Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 8.04.11 PM
Western Avenue (Google Streetview)
Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 7.53.22 PM
95th Street (Google Streetview)
Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 7.29.27 PM
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.

20150725_091138
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.

Street 1 111h
111th Street in Mount Greenwood. A classic street. (Google Streetview)
Street 2 53rd
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.

Stroad 1 Western Avenue
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.

Road Diet 1 Lawrence
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.

20150725_083331
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.
20150725_083416
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.

city speed chart
(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?

#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:

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 12.16.00 PM

From another neighborhood:

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 12.16.12 PM

From another city:

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 12.16.26 PM

 

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.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 10.13.24 AM
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

Andersonville,_Chicago
“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.

KFC Screen Shot
KFC, 10423 S. Western Ave. (Google Maps)
Western Bldgs Screen Shot
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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mix It Up: More Housing Options Would Strengthen Our Neighborhood

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.

20150519_072035
Houses in North Beverly are plentiful. Apartments, townhouses and condos … not so much.

20150519_072044

(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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 9.03.21 AM
On Bryn Mawr Avenue in Edgewater, multi-family and single-family homes exist side-by-side. Image from Google Streetview. Click to explore.

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.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 9.16.35 AM
On Western Avenue, some might see a vacant building and parking lot. I see the potential for mixed-use buildings. Across the street from a grocery store, no less! How convenient for future residents! Image from Google Streetview. Click to explore.

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.

Belmont Central
The busy intersection of Belmont and Central avenues on the far Northwest Side. A bustling district of shops, restaurants and apartments…
Belmont Central Homes
…surrounded by a mix of single- and multi- family housing.

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.

Thing 1 and Thing 2

On a recent evening, I had to travel to Bridgeport, and as I left Beverly, Thing 1 and Thing 2 served as two of my primary routes there and back. Of course, the Things in question here are roads, but I want to discuss them as more than roads. I want to talk about them as places, because we have a lot we can learn about what Thing 1 does poorly and what Thing 2 does well.

Thing 1: Ashland Avenue

I drove Ashland Avenue north to Bridgeport, since it is one of the more direct routes to the neighborhood. Ashland serves as a main commercial artery for a few neighborhoods along the way, including Auburn Gresham, Englewood and West Englewood, meaning that it contains a mix of uses, from retail space to apartments. In recent decades, many buildings along this route have fallen to the wrecking ball, leaving countless vacant lots along the way. The development that is occurring is typically of an auto-oriented nature. In other words, lots of single-use buildings with massive off-street parking lots, which leave many of the on-street parking spaces empty.

Of course, many of the off-street spaces are empty, too. There’s just way too much parking to serve the needs of this area. Car ownership in these neighborhoods is below the city average, as is household income. These are places where running errands on foot or by taking public transportation is common, and given the number of people I saw walking the sidewalks, it was clear the needs of the pedestrian are definitely not being met along Ashland. As I passed lot after lot of empty off-street parking spaces and block after block of empty on-street parking spaces, I saw a sign advertising a vacant lot for sale — that is zoned for 22 parking spaces. Because who doesn’t need more parking, right?

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 6.35.27 PM
Click the image, and you tell me if a lack of parking spaces is the main issue here. Image from Google Streetview.

Oh, and Ashland is pretty much designed like a highway. Two northbound travel lanes. Two southbound travel lanes. A center turn lane no stop signs — only precision-timed traffic signals to ensure there is no lag in travel times. Streetlights look like they belong on a high-speed road, not one with a speed limit of 35 mph. Not that anyone actually travels 35. Everything about this road says “drive 55,” and if you’re adhering to the speed limit, most other drivers will maneuver around you. Large electronic signs suspended over the street remind motorists to buckle up and drive the speed limit, a sure signal that this is a poorly designed roadway.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 6.34.09 PM
“Buckle up, slow down & drive safely”: The sign says one thing, but the street design says another. Image from Google Streetview. Click to explore.

It was this design that almost caused a terrible situation on my drive. A woman was crossing Ashland at a marked crosswalk somewhere between signaled intersections (near 69th Street, if my memory serves me).

She had made it to the center lane and needed to cross the other half of the road. Since it’s the law to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, and because I don’t want to cause great bodily harm, I stopped and waived her across. As I did this, the woman pointed to the other side of the street. I thought, Yes, I know you need to cross — please do so! But then I realized she wasn’t pointing to her destination. She was pointing to the other travel lane. The driver behind me had no patience for a person in the crosswalk and zoomed around me. Had the woman continued to cross, as she was legally protected to do, she could have been killed.

Thing 2: Pershing Road

Like Ashland Avenue, Pershing Road is a major thoroughfare for drivers traveling across the city, which is why when leaving Bridgeport, I decided to take it to Western Avenue. It cuts through a variety of areas, from industrial sectors to commercial districts to residential neighborhoods. From Halsted Street to Ashland Avenue, it’s pretty much your standard highway-like city road: Fast moving and likely dangerous to anyone not encased in steel. But west of Ashland, something interesting happens. Pershing goes on a road diet.

A road diet occurs when a thoroughfare is restriped in order to reduce the number of travel lanes, usually from five to three (one lane in each direction, plus a center turn lane). It also often involves restoring on-street parking, which acts as a buffer between vehicle traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk, and, in the case of Pershing, adding bike lanes. Federal government studies have found that these conversions reduce the number of traffic fatalities and slow speeds, yet often don’t have a significant impact of travel times. Basically, they correct the design of streets that had been over-engineered and enabled reckless driving.

What’s most fascinating about Pershing is that unlike Ashland, it is not the commercial heart of the neighborhood, at least between Ashland and Western. Along this stretch, it passes warehouses and homes, and it also serves as the southern border of McKinley Park (the green space, but the neighborhood, as well).

Yet, it seems as if the road diet has made people more comfortable with being pedestrians in an area of the city that you wouldn’t typically think of as a hotbed of pedestrian activity. I’ve traveled this same rout several times, and I have seen a healthy mix of people on foot, on bike and in cars — all interacting in a way that is significantly safer than what I see on Ashland. When I stop for a person in the crosswalk on Pershing, I have assurance that the drivers behind me will stop, too.

Think Local

Back home in the Beverly area, we have a lot of “Ashlands” and too few “Pershings.” On every roadway, our priority should be to think about how to make conditions safer for pedestrians. We should do this before we approve one more on-street parking lot, discuss removing on-street parking or consider road widenings. Accommodating more vehicles should be the last thing on our minds, as that is a job that is never finished. Instead, road diets should always be on the table. We should always think about what it would be like as a pedestrian or a bicyclist on our streets, because not only does each of those people remove one automobile from the roadway, each of those people is also the most vulnerable type of commuter.

I’d like to close with another brief anecdote. I road my bike the other day to Horse Thief Hollow to meet up with a couple folks after work. My primary route was Leavitt Street, because it seemed like one of the safest options. But I overshot my final turn. 104th Street would have probably been the cross street to take, but I went to 105th. So, I approached the stop sign at Western Avenue and waited for an opening to turn. Cars were moving pretty fast, but I felt comfortable backtracking only a block. Plus, I was visible. I was wearing a bright yellow helmet and utilizing a headlight and a blinking red taillight.

I got my opening and made the turn. Soon enough, though, cars were barreling down on me. I was as far right as I could be without scraping against the couple cars parked on the street. Then, one driver decided that instead of slowing down to at least the speed limit and passing me, he or she would rather blast the horn and speed by. The driver even attempted to swerve a bit, nearly crossing the dotted line and sideswiping another northbound vehicle. I was shaken, so I pulled off the road and walked my bike on the sidewalk.

I was using the street legally like so many other bicyclists and pedestrians, yet I was made to feel like I didn’t belong. I was on Western to patronize a business in my own neighborhood. I was preventing one more car from being on the street. I was reminded of why I don’t bike on Western Avenue, and that’s a shame because when bicyclists use residential streets, they are less apt to be aware of the businesses and amenities on our main thoroughfares, just as pedestrians aren’t going to spontaneously stop into a shop if they don’t feel safe walking on those streets.

We are doing ourselves a disservice if we adhere to the Ashland Avenue model. Instead, we should try to emulate Pershing Road, because once we do, many people will feel empowered to walk through their own community. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Recovering Place

In South Asia, more than 5,000 people are dead, and the toll seems to rise daily. Parts of an historic city center — the hub of daily life for thousands of people — have been reduced to piles of rubble. In Kathmandu and the surrounding region, people are without food. Words cannot do justice to such an insurmountable tragedy. The only antidote to this type of loss is resilience.

Like others around the world, I have read of the horrific destruction caused by the recent massive earthquake that struck Nepal, its epicenter near the capital city of Kathmandu. The first reaction is shock, especially when the numbers truly sink in. Five thousand. As of Wednesday, the death toll is equal to the populations of entire Chicago suburbs, from Willow Springs to Northfield.

The next reaction is to think of the recovery. What we are now seeing is people coming together to clean up the massive amounts of debris and pay respect to the people who were lost. As I’ve read the news, the stories from locals reacting to the human toll have been heartbreaking. But I’ve also been struck by the comments about the loss of buildings and landmarks.

On Sunday, The Telegraph reported that “Nepali journalist and author Shiwani Neupane tweeted: ‘The sadness is sinking in. We have lost our temples, our history, the places we grew up.’”

The New York Times, meanwhile, ran before-and-after photos of the historic sites that were leveled. Seeing these images side by side, it’s easy to understand why people are grieving. These places are beyond beautiful, beyond inspiring. They have untold amounts of cultural and historical meaning.

Nepal’s cities, especially Kathmandu, have survived centuries. These places are not just world treasures — some are UNESCO World Heritage sites — they are also homes, centers of civic activity and places of business. The connection to these places is so deep among the Nepali people that they are being mourned as if they were flesh and blood.

It has made me think about our own neighborhood and how our residents would respond to such tragedy in our own backyard. The ties people have to our neighborhood are strong. Many people were born and raised here, while others like myself moved here specifically because of the attachment that people develop to the community. I have no doubt that we would grieve for both the loss of lives and livelihoods. And I have no doubt our residents would be on the streets immediately sifting through the rubble.

My thoughts have kept wandering back to the Nepali people’s reactions to the loss of place. They lived in a place designed in a way that reflected their shared values, that brought people together socially, economically and spiritually, and now much of it is gone. I’ve asked myself: “If a tornado were to touch down on 87th Street, traveled south along Western Avenue all the way to 119th Street, and wiped away a significant portion of the buildings along the way, how would we respond after we mourned the loss of life?”

Our neighborhood has many special places. Our religious institutions and schools, for instance, help make up the backbone of our community, and the fact that they are situated within our neighborhoods — next to and across from our homes — rather than on the fringes is indicative of their importance. Many of the structures that house these institutions are among the most historically significant in our community. If we lost those, I am positive the rebuilding efforts would begin immediately, because we couldn’t bear to be without them.

We also have historic landmark districts full of homes that represent high standards of residential design. We have train stations that are so unique they look as if they were flown into Chicago from a small town in the country. These are places I can’t imagine our neighborhood without. It would be less beautiful.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 3.16.14 PM
103rd Street is increasingly becoming a more memorable public space. Image from Google Streetview. Click to explore.

Still, many streets that make up our public realm, the areas where we simply walk to the store, ride our bikes to work, wait for the bus or meet friends on the way to a restaurant, are not in the kind of state where a person could do any of the aforementioned activities pleasantly (or safely). Yes, we find friendly faces in the shops. We find people who take pride in their customers and businesses, sprucing up their storefronts to make them as welcoming as possible. We find customers who are happy to shop somewhere they know the person behind the counter. But on the street and sidewalk, the space that is framed and shaped by the built environment around it, a memorable sense of place is more difficult to come by. Shouldn’t these locations inspire in the same way as our churches, schools and tree-lined residential streets? Many of our major corridors might be near the edge of the city proper, but they also represent the heart of our neighborhood.

Is a street like Western Avenue a place that instills the same kind of deep connection in our residents as the historic center of Kathmandu instills in its? If it were destroyed, would we rebuild the acres of strip malls? Would we pave over our land and re-establish our parking lots? Would we widen our street so future generations could drive at higher speeds and zip through our neighborhood a few minutes more quickly?

Or would we take a different approach? Would we enhance our public realm to ensure we had a place that could foster street life? Would we make the focus on the people? Would we construct a place that reflected our values of family and community?

This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered this topic. During school lessons about World War II, I read about the near total destruction of Warsaw’s Old Town and how after the war, the city center was rebuilt according to its original plan. It made me think about how the people of Warsaw had such a deep love for their city that even the devastation of war could not keep their beloved civic spaces from becoming mere memories.

A few years ago, my wife (then my girlfriend) and I visited relatives in the German city of Cologne, a place where major portions of the urban landscape were also obliterated during World War II. Yet the people rebuilt. Scars from the war might have remained emotionally, but the people could still take pride in walking through an intact city that met their daily needs. They shaped their public spaces through traditional neighborhood design, building places for people to stroll, congregate and live rather than distributing people in a far-flung, suburban fashion and further eroding the community cohesion their city fostered for centuries.

Closer to home, the people of New Orleans similarly mourned the loss of some of their neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina. In that city, where my wife and I honeymooned, the people did not lose their city center, nor their popular tourist attractions like the French Quarter or the Garden District. They lost neighborhoods of housing for the poor and working-class. They mourned places made up of vernacular, but no less historic, architecture like shotgun-style houses and corner stores. This, too, is a public realm for which people carried strong emotions. In the years since, the conversation has largely been about rebuilding New Orleans’ neighborhoods in a similar fashion while continuing to strengthen the places that may have not shaped the public realm in such a positive way. There is an acknowledgement that what is to be rebuilt is not simply houses but rather a space that fosters feelings of community pride.

For contrast, we can look at a city like Xenia in southwestern Ohio, a place my wife and I passed through last year. In 1974, a tornado destroyed a large chunk of the city’s historic downtown and nearby neighborhoods. A visit to Xenia reveals that this is a place that locals have long loved. The 1974 tornado — and subsequent ones in 1989 — did not destroy some buildings like the historic courthouse, city hall, Collier Chapel and numerous mixed-use buildings in the downtown, and their timeless architecture, along with the way they shape the public realm, indicate decades of civic pride.

The damaged areas, however, were rebuilt in a typical, nondescript suburban fashion, and the juxtaposition of the traditional buildings with the auto-oriented strip malls is jarring. The anchor spaces in the strip mall are occupied by Kmart and Family Dollar, both of which make use of a large street-facing parking lot that, judging by photos, struggle to be even half-full. On the periphery of this parking lot are drive-thru banks and fast-food establishments, sending the message that downtown is not a place where you stay — it’s a place you pass through, maybe getting out of your car long enough to walk from the first couple rows of parking to the Kmart.

At least that’s the message it would send if the adjacent properties looked the same. While it seems vacancies appear to be an issue, it looks as if this is a type of built environment the city is looking to enhance. These areas are largely welcoming, with sidewalk seating, trees and, most importantly, people. The structures create a sense of place and a built environment that is adaptable to different uses. It’s the kind of place I would mourn if it, too, were destroyed, for I know what would likely appear in the aftermath: A strip mall, a parking lot and a plaque commemorating who and what were lost.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“Xenia Tornado Marker” by Gbauer8946 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 1.18.42 PM
Blocks of historic city fabric are now a parking lot. Image from Google Streetview. Click to explore.

So I ask: Do we have a public realm that we would be inspired rebuild to the exact detail of what was destroyed? If not, what would replace it if it were lost? Would these new places be as beloved as the last? How can we ensure that any new places we create reflect the values of our community and inspire generations upon generations of esteem and affection?

If the value of a community is in its people, then surely the way those people shape their environment will determine the community’s legacy. The public realm knits people together. It is a visual expression of our shared history and principles. It tells us where we’ve been and what we want our future to be. It should be beautiful. It should be worth rebuilding.

If You Build It, They Won’t Automatically Come

DSCF7011

This seems like a perfectly nice looking park on 95th Street. So why does no one ever use it?

Perhaps it has to do with the surroundings. Nothing around here is generating any significant amount of pedestrian activity that will lead to people lingering in this park.

The same goes for this one on Western Avenue.

The legendary Jane Jacobs, whose views on cities in the 1960s and beyond laid the foundation for today’s “New Urbanism,” had this to say about parks and green space in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”:

“In orthodox city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as a self-evident virtue, their incentives toward leaving More Open Space. Walk with a planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

“More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use cit open space just because it is there and just because city planners or designers wish they would.”

She could be talking about these two parks in Beverly (well, maybe the mugging part doesn’t apply). Before we start adding gathering space, we should think about how it will actually function in the current environment. If you have a lack of pedestrian activity in a place, your park will be perpetually vacant. A park alone does not make a place. Get the place right first, then think about enhancing it with a well placed park.