An Appeal for a Better 95th Street

I have good news, and I have bad news.

The bad news (at least what I see as bad news — others in the neighborhood might not see it that way) is that the residential and neighborhood business zoning designations adjacent to the 95th Street Metra station have been officially changed by the Chicago City Council, making way for the construction of a single-story building and 20-car parking lot that will serve a proposed Advance Auto Parts store. After some emailing with an employee in the city’s Department of Planning and Zoning, it seems that there is no opportunity to formally appeal the decision. The best option seems to be to get the ear of our local leadership and make the case for what we want — and what we don’t.

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The property in question. (Google Streetview)

That’s where the good news comes in. This acceptance of a single-use, auto-oriented development in what should be the pedestrian-focused heart of our neighborhood has the potential to do for development in the 19th Ward what the demolition of Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange and Garrick Theatre buildings did for the city’s historic preservation movement: Mobilize the community and kick off a new era of smart decisions.

That said, I’d like to offer what would have been my appeal against the zoning change and hope that it presents a clear-eyed view of what 95th Street should look like in the future and why developments like the auto-oriented auto parts store (the building, at least) should not be part of a plan for the street.

1.  There Already Is a Plan

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

Well, there sort of is a plan. Last year, the city of Chicago and the Regional Transportation Authority commissioned a study of the neighborhoods surrounding Metra stations within the city limits to determine how they currently function and how they can be improved over time. The study, prepared by Teska Associates, Fish Transportation Group and OKW Architects, involved community input from across the city. In October, the Chicago Plan Commission adopted the plan.

I’ll let you read over the nitty gritty of the study and the plan for yourself, and I’ll get right to the section that concerns 95th Street. The area around the train station is categorized as an “urban neighborhood” and characterized as such:

An Urban Neighborhood (UN) serves an established neighborhood, but ridership varies in intensity.

The UN typology designation is applied to 28 existing Metra stations, with the proposed Auburn Park (79th Street) station bringing the total up to 29. Of all nine Metra typologies, the UN designation is applied to the most stations in the City of Chicago (29 out of 79). A UN neighborhood is generally served by CTA or Pace bus, with only a few UNs having CTA rail stations nearby. Land use is primarily residential, but many UNs have commercial districts. About half of riders either walk, bike, or take transit to Metra and the other half drive to the station. Density around a UN station is moderate, then tapers off away from the station, generally to low-density residential.

In other words, it’s a fairly mixed-use district where people use a variety of transportation modes. The report identifies numerous recommendations for strengthening the area, including:

  • Ensuring infrastructure (parking lots, sidewalks, etc.) is geared toward pedestrians first.
  • Encouraging multi-family and mixed-use developments nearby.
  • Improving pedestrian access to nearby attractions.
  • Encouraging architectural detailing and massing that supports a pleasant pedestrian experience.

Given those guidelines, it seems as if the first opportunity to redevelop a parcel near the 95th Street station is a failure on pretty much all accounts. There is little about the proposed building that has the pedestrian interest in mind: A large parking lot will encourage more driving, a dearth of doors along the sidewalk will have a negative effect of streetlife, lack of a mixed-use design means no new people will be added to the streets or the transit system. I could go on, but why not just look at the environment around the other auto part stores nearby.

Now, just because we have the city/RTA study doesn’t mean we don’t need a comprehensive plan for 95th Street. We absolutely do. And we need to draft it soon to ensure something like this does not happen again.

2.  Walkability and a Mix of Uses Enhance Property Values

Studies consistently show that by improving walkability — both in terms of safety for pedestrians and in convenience of nearby amenities — also raises property values in the surrounding neighborhood. Here is the conclusion reached in a 2009 study conducted for the organization CEOs for Cities:

More than just a pleasant amenity, the walkability of cities translates directly into increases in home values. Homes located in more walkable neighborhoods—those with a mix of common daily shopping and social destinations within a short distance—command a price premium over otherwise similar homes in less walkable areas. Houses with the above- average levels of walkability command a premium of about $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in the typical metropolitan areas studied.

Here’s another case study from Lancaster, Calif., a small-ish town that has since become part of Los Angeles’ amoeba-like collection of exurban communities. It primarily developed in a sprawling fashion and was hit particularly hard by the economic crash of 2008. Yet in the downtown, something extraordinary happened. The powers that be focused on fostering a walkable, mixed-use district and property values in the heart of the city actually increased by 9.5 percent. Newer developments also are taking on a more traditional, pedestrian-oriented form. You can read all about the project and the benefits it has had here and here.

Finally, take a look at a 2013 study by Active Living Research, which draws the connections from walkability to increases in office space rent, property values and business activity, along with a decrease in vacancy rates. With all of the evidence of the economic benefits of walkability, the vision of a walkable future for 95th Street should be a no-brainer. Instead of saying “not in my backyard” to developments that enhance walkability and convenience, we should generally be saying, “How can we make this happen?”

3.  Mixed-Use Development Is Better for Our Tax Base

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.

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

Do the Math Screen Shot

What we see is that the group of buildings developed in a traditional context — structures built to the lot lines, storefronts opening to the street, etc. — are more valuable on almost every level.

  • The traditional buildings yielded more than $7,600 in additional property taxes over the KFC property, which occupies a slightly larger area. That is 23 percent more than the KFC property.
  • The assessed value of the traditional buildings is 36 percent greater than the auto-centric KFC.
  • On a per square foot basis, the traditional buildings are more valuable in terms of both assessed value and property tax yield.
  • The most valuable traditional building (the home of Chuck’s Pizza) has a per square foot assessed value 91 percent greater than the KFC. Also on a per square foot basis, it generates 92 percent more property tax dollars than the KFC.

To top it off, the traditional block of buildings benefits from multiple owners and multiple tenants. If one business fails or one building burns down, there are others to help pick up the slack until something can fill the gap. If the KFC disappears for one reason or another, you have a bit more of a problem on your hands (see: Borders on 95th Street).

Summary

The historic character of 95th Street is one of pedestrian-oriented design and a mix of uses. That history is visible as you walk in either direction from the Metra station. But you can also see how that fabric has been chipped away by years of bad decisions, which have given us prominent parking lots, drive-thru businesses, high-speed traffic, a lack of safe crosswalks, blank walls facing the sidewalks and vacant storefronts. The addition of the Advance Auto Parts building — the structure, mind you, not the business itself — will only hurt 95th Street more in the long term unless we clearly lay out a vision for a renewed walkable, mixed-use district. We cannot keep going down the auto-centric development road. The cost is too great.

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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.

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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.

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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.