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


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Case #2

Local Example: Western Avenue, Morgan Park, Chicago


Better Alternative: Edgewater Drive, Orlando, Florida


Even Better Alternative: Lawrence Avenue, Chicago


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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


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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


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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


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Case #6

Local Example: Western Avenue, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: Lincoln Avenue, San Jose, California


Even Better Alternative: Nevada Way, Boulder City, Nevada


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Case #7

Local Example: Kedzie Avenue, Mount Greenwood, Chicago


Better Alternative: Shelby Street, Indianapolis, Indiana


Even Better Alternative: 12th Avenue, Denver, Colorado


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Case #8

Local Example: 103rd Street, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: Grand Boulevard, Vancouver, Washington


Even Better Alternative: Harrison Boulevard, Boise, Idaho


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Case #9

Local Example: 111th Street, Mount Greenwood, Chicago


Better Alternative: Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana


Even Better Alternative: Kimberly Avenue, Asheville, North Carolina


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Case #10

Local Example: Western Avenue, Beverly, Chicago


Better Alternative: Sacramento Drive, Chicago


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


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.

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.

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.
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?


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!

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.

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


(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 — 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.

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.

“Xenia Tornado Marker” by Gbauer8946 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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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.

An Urban Village and Village Urbanism

107th Street mixed-use: City? Or village?

Residents of the Beverly area often refer to the community as a “village in the city,” and with its shady streets, quaint train stations and overall feeling of neighborliness, the moniker is often fitting. But how does our community stack up to an honest-to-God village? Over the weekend, my wife, a couple friends and I visited the rural tourist town of Galena where my wife once lived, and as we walked the streets, I couldn’t help but make comparisons.

Incorporated in 1841 but settled even earlier, Galena boomed as a major exporter of lead, and to this day, the signs of its early wealth are evident, from the succession of brick buildings that line Main Street to hilltop mansions to beautiful civic buildings, which continue to be used to this day either in their original capacity or by new inhabitants.

An old school in the downtown area is now condos.

When the lead industry declined, so too did the town until its 20th century revival as a tourist destination. Today, Galena’s population of 3,400 is far from its peak of 14,000 during the boom years, but due to the virtue of being laid out in an era before automobiles, the town’s design enables the city (yes, Galena is technically incorporated as a city, although it is more characteristic of a village) to function well for residents and visitors alike.

Galena’s greatest virtue might be its compactness, which came about both because of its pre-automobile build-up and its geography in the so-called “driftless region” of northwest Illinois. Eons ago, glaciers flattened most of the Midwest but missed the area where Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin meet at the Mississippi River. As a result, the topography of this region is dramatic by Midwestern standards, and Galena is nestled among the scenic hills. Sprawling development in such a location would have been unthinkable and impractical when Galena was founded.

What we are left with today is a stellar example of city-building done well. The village is centered around a gently curving Main Street that is enclosed by simple, narrow brick buildings of two to four stories. At the base of each is a storefront that opens to the sidewalk, and many include either additional commercial space or apartments on the upper floors. Today, we would look at this traditional design and call it “New Urbanism,” but over a century ago, it had no catchy name — it was just the way things were done.

Nothing new about this urbanism.
Timeless design works just as well with buildings made of other materials in different architectural styles.

Since World War II, building another town like Galena — especially its Main Street — would be next to impossible, if not downright illegal in some areas. Many communities have effectively zoned this type of development out of existence in favor or single-use “pods” for residential, commercial, civic and industrial uses. Even in the Beverly area, our pockets of walkable development that most closely resemble Main Street Galena are outnumbered by the acres of post-World War II, auto-oriented corridors. Even our more traditionally designed areas still show the visible scars of overplanning for motorists.

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95th Street, just two blocks from the Metra station. This should be a highly-walkable area with an intensity of different uses. Obviously, cars rule now. Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area.

In many communities across the country, civic leaders are trying to find out how to recreate the type of development that came naturally in Galena’s early years. Because of the lack of memorable, walkable places in the United States, I would argue that the walkability of towns like Galena are their main draws for both locals and tourists. Probably the No. 1 activity for Galena visitors is simply strolling through the downtown and shopping, an activity that is probably not high on the to-do list for those who live near Beverly’s Western Avenue. Even on a Sunday morning, Main Street Galena is buzzing with activity.

People, people everywhere.

Western Avenue, not so much.

Anybody home?

The same goes for 95th Street on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s not a great sign for our main drag when the only person on the street is the guy taking pictures of the absence of people on the street.

Galenans take great pride in their historic downtown. In the 1960s, residents successfully fought plans that would have demolished significant portions of the downtown in order to accommodate a shopping mall and parking. Instead, most Galena buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and today, it reaps the benefits of traditional neighborhood design. Meanwhile, back home, the Beverly area’s retail corridors that were developed around cars are struggling while a focus on traditional neighborhood development in places like 103rd Street is helping bring about gradual revitalization.

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Newer development on 103rd Street will help intensify use of the street and enhance the sense of place. Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area.

Let’s not forget that Galena is not currently served by passenger rail. All out-of-towners arrive by car. Yet even with an abundance of cars on the streets, downtown continues to be a walker’s paradise. Few businesses have their own off-street parking lots. The vast majority of parking is shared among properties. Main Street is almost continuously lined with parked cars, while drivers navigate the narrow street at a slow pace.

Many civic leaders across the country today would look at Main Street Galena and see a series of hazards: Parked cars, jaywalkers, vehicular travel-lanes that are just 8 feet wide. But it is precisely these things that keep the street safe, since drivers are forced to be alert. By contrast, a wide, straight road with multiple 12-foot-wide travel lanes sends the signal that this is a place to speed, regardless of the posted limit.

Signs of parking and traffic problems? Or just a successful place?

In Galena, it simply is not possible for drivers to travel faster than about 20 mph through the downtown. Planners in Galena recognize that the street is a public asset intended to foster social and economic interactions rather than a means to quickly funnel vehicles to other locations. In other words, it is shared space.

Which leads me to another major asset: A mix of uses. In Galena, downtown isn’t just for shopping and sightseeing. It’s also where people live, go to church, go to work and visit for entertainment. It accommodates drivers, walkers and bicyclists. It is this very intensity of uses that enhances the downtown’s financial, cultural and social value.

It’s a place where you can be active…

Here, the place IS the destination. Everything else is just a pit stop.

Or just linger.

A loiterer? Or just a passive participant in the street scene?

Again, the Beverly area has parts that approach this intensity of uses, such as 103rd Street and 111th Street, but a general insistence on keeping things separate over the past 60 years has prevented our commercial corridors from developing in the way Galena’s did.

Near the 99th Street Metra station. We need more of this…
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…and less of this. 103rd Street and Western Avenue. Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area.

As I described in an earlier post about Mount Greenwood, we’ve even separated our gathering space from the public realm. In Galena, spaces where streets are not navigable to drivers have naturally become the types of successful public spaces that all of our planning here can’t seem to replicate.

Compare this…
…and this…
…with this.

Not only does Galena posses a mix of uses, it also has a variety of housing types that can support residents at different stages of life. On Main Street, apartments above the storefronts support people from young professionals to families. It was exactly this type of apartment that provided a home for my wife when she lived in Galena. She was able to live in an affordable place that enabled her to walk to work at the local newspaper as well as to dining and shopping.

If you work in the shops and restaurants, you could even live right upstairs.
Yes, even small villages embrace population density.
Signs of life on every floor.

In Beverly, we have some areas that resemble Main Street Galena, but we still tend to separate our multi-family housing from our shopping.

Some great affordable options on Artesian Avenue near 111th Street…
…and a few more…
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…but one street east is hardly a walkable or bike-able environment. In other words, if you live in one of the Artesian Avenue apartments, you’ll probably still need to spend a good chunk of change on a car. Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area.
Newer townhouses near the small 107th Street business district are nice, but there’s a missed opportunity to combine them with retail — perhaps a corner store?
Also on 107th Street: Lots of opportunity for people on the street, but very little nearby to walk to outside of Ellie’s Cafe and a dry cleaner.

In Galena, as people’s socioeconomic status improves or if their households grow, they can move to row houses also located in the downtown area or detached homes farther up the hills (but still generally within walking distance of Main Street).

Within walking distance of shopping and dining.
Homes across from shops and apartments. Under many zoning codes today, this would certainly be a no-no.
Still in the downtown area.
More options near Main Street.
Attached houses can be so cute.

The grand mansions of some of the town’s more well-to-do residents are still steps from the more affordable options — even if they do get some of the village’s best views.

Mansions on the hill.
This is what you can see if you live in a home here — or are just passing through on foot. The rich don’t own scenery.

Even the residential areas are highly walkable, and it’s here that the traditional village and our urban village become more similar. Houses are generally placed close to the lot line with front doors, porches and stoops that are just steps from the sidewalk. Even if no one is outside, there are still signs of life in these neighborhoods, and the street-facing windows help put watchful eyes on the street. Yards exist, but for the most part, they are located in the rear of the homes.

Man, I love a good stoop.
Backyard: Galena-style.
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Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area. The 1700 block of West Beverly Glen Parkway…
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…and the 102000 block of South Seeley Avenue are perfectly pleasant areas to explore on foot, thanks to narrower than usual roads. Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area.

Like in Beverly, cars are often parked on the street in Galena’s residential areas, helping calm traffic that does pass through. It’s not uncommon for one driver to wait patiently while an oncoming vehicle passes. As on Main Street, this (combined with some steep hills) helps ensure that vehicles don’t speed through areas where children play and adults stroll.

Buffer cars.
Just try speeding here — I dare you.
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The end of the school day might be the best time to be a pedestrian around Beverly. Sure, there are a lot of cars around, but their presence parked on the streets ensures that none of them will be moving too fast. Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area.

Where the two communities differ, though, is that Galena’s residential areas also contain some non-residential uses, bringing some daily essentials even closer to people’s home’s. Interspersed among some homes are businesses from a dry cleaner to a bar to art galleries run out of people’s garages. In newer communities, including Beverly and other Chicago neighborhoods, zoning laws have relegated these “corner store” uses to designated business districts. And while some cities like Washington, D.C., are looking to make these corner shops legal to build again, most communities still have a ways to go.

Imagine the NIMBY reaction!

Perhaps what fascinates me most about Galena, though, is how much it gets “wrong” from a New Urbanism perspective. Sidewalks are relatively narrow. Much of Main Street is only for one-way traffic. The downtown street grid is disconnected in many places due to hills that are accessible by pedestrians only. It has no on-street bike lanes. These days, when we talk about building a thriving mixed-use district, we think of two-lane streets for maximum visibility (and safety); wide sidewalks for plenty of walkers, cafes and other amenities; and bike lanes to ensure those on two wheels are not flattened by people on four. But these are standards we are applying to places where roads have been widened and overengineered for maximum traffic flow. In many of our cities, we are thinking about ways to correct mistakes of the past. In a village like Galena, though, the original town planners got so much right about creating a successful place that even “deficiencies” like narrow sidewalks don’t make it any less walkable, vibrant and valuable.

I make it sound like Galena is an urbanist utopia, but the town does have its flaws. More day-to-day businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies and healthcare services have moved out of the increasingly tourist-oriented downtown for a sprawling section of development on the outskirts of town that is as unwalkable as the downtown is walkable. This type of development all but ensures that the car is a costly requirement for daily needs. In a town where residents prize their pedestrian-oriented downtown — and that downtown is so overwhelmingly valuable — it is curious that sprawl is allowed to proliferate.

That’s not to say these other uses are incompatible with a walkable environment, even in small towns. For instance, the quirky, rural village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where my wife and I spent some time last year has a downtown that incorporates a small grocery store that is frequented by walkers and bicyclists, as well as drivers.

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Tom’s Market in Yellow Springs (center left, with the green awning) helps ensure the downtown caters to locals as well as visitors. Image from Google Maps. Click to explore the area.

But for the most part, Galena is an example not just of a well-functioning traditional village but also of solid principles of good urbanism that any place, including our own “village in the city” could learn from. It has largely stayed true to its historic form, eschewing much of the outward suburban growth that other villages embraced in recent decades. Today, it is that suburban growth that is in decline around the country and proving prohibitively expensive to maintain, while traditional neighborhoods are prized by those seeking the conveniences they offer.

As I was preparing to write this piece, my wife, who has a much more intimate knowledge of Galena than I, advised me that Galena’s revitalization did not happen overnight. It took years and years of planning. I could not agree more, and it is wise advice for residents of our community to heed, as well. Today, I don’t think anyone in Galena would think trading such incremental growth for a quick buck from shopping center development would have been a wise decision, and moving forward, I suggest that we approach redevelopment of our community with a similar mindset.

And Now, A Word or Two About Parking

Free off-street parking that abuts the public realm: The enemy of walkability.

When I was a reporter, I often covered stories about suburbs working to revitalize their downtowns. In one of those communities, downtown consisted of about a block and a half of walkable, mixed-use development surrounded by acres and acres of parking.

Despite the abundance of parking lots, one of the common refrains from residents was that downtown had a parking problem. When I mentioned this to a village official, the response I got was, “Downtown doesn’t have a parking problem — it has a walking problem.”

Professionally, I had to accept this as one person’s opinion, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Of course! Suburban residents are just accustomed to parking right in front of their destinations.”

Today, though, I think the village official was partially correct and partially off the mark. That suburb, like our neighborhood, doesn’t have “a walking problem,” it has a “walkability problem.” In planning sessions, residents made their voices clear that they wanted a walkable downtown — they just didn’t have one. If you couldn’t park within one block of the businesses you wanted to visit, your walk was pretty dull. You were only surrounded by more parking lots rather than interesting sights, such as other businesses.

In a recent post on his StreetSmart blog, urban designer Patrick Kennedy of Dallas made exactly this observation:

“The distance people are willing to walk (without complaining) is commensurate to the quality of place they’re walking to. And the experience of that walk should be a pleasant and safe one. The more things to see, do, and experience (as well as meet others), the more people are compelled to walk further. Even if there is no particular destination in mind. A city should be designed in a way where the ‘stroll’ is the destination and experience in and of itself.

“If every place is a big box store, that isn’t a place nor experience worth walking to. Therefore, we want to park as close as possible to the front door. Then we have drive-thrus where there isn’t even a need to park. There’s your measure of the quality of place. How far are people willing to walk to get there? And if the experience of the walk is so great, do they even know how far they’re walking? Do it right, they’re not complaining. They’re enjoying it. This is how we have to design and build our streets and communities.”

For all the concerns I hear about parking in Beverly and surrounding neighborhoods, we seem to have an abundance of it — on-street and off-street, paid and free, public and private. Just walk around at any time on any given day and see how many spaces are open, both on the street and in our many lots (don’t forget that despite our cul-de-sacs, some side-street parking is open to non-residents). Here’s a look at 95th Street from the air.

Parking 2
Click to view this in Google Maps for more detail.

And here is the same view with off-street parking highlighted in green.

Parking 1
Pardon my crude Photoshop job. Click to see this larger.

Consider how much of it faces the public realm and then think about Kennedy’s message. Does this make for a pleasurable walk?

Also consider how much of this parking is reserved for specific businesses (and Metra). That all but guarantees that drivers who park in this area will not be patronizing any other shops. This is the argument I made about the massive Walgreens parking lot in Mount Greenwood. Not only are we incentivizing driving to the area at the expense of our public realm, we are ensuring that only certain businesses benefit from that incentive. In fact, most of our commercial corridors are zoned in a way that requires developers to build off-street parking for specific amounts of retail and residential space.

So we have a ton of parking, perceptions of a parking problem and a lack of walking. What do we do? Well, if we want to follow the lead of that suburb I mentioned above, we take a holistic approach to parking.

Planner Jeff Speck outlines such an approach in his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, an essential (and brisk) read for anyone interested in revitalizing his or her community. Actually, Speck’s approach to parking made me reconsider most of my philosophy about the role cars play in walkable, mixed-use districts.

Speck’s third step in his 10-step method to creating walkable places is “Get the Parking Right.” This section is a lot about the real costs of parking and the fact that in most places, it is created on a massive scale at great expense and then offered to users for free.

“Like roadways in general,” he writes, “all this free and underpriced parking contributes to a circumstance in which a massive segment of our national economy has been disconnected from the free market, such that individuals are no longer able to act rationally. Or, more accurately, in acting rationally, individuals are acting against their own self interest.”

Parking, Speck concludes, should be priced in a way that is responsive to demand. On-street spaces close to stores are more in demand and should carry a premium price. This ensures a frequent turnover in spaces that are closest to businesses’ front doors. Those who don’t want to pay the higher price could park in a shared public lot, which is often less convenient, and pay a lower rate.

In some areas, we are partially there. In others, there’s a lot of work to do. On and around 95th Street, for example, we have paid on-street parking but also a lot of free off-street parking. On Western Avenue, pretty much everything is free. (Plus, as I mentioned earlier, off-street parking is mandated through zoning for much new development, throwing off the balance even more.)

Free off-street parking and a drive-thru. A double-whammy against walkability.

Those who prefer none of the paid options can choose to walk, bike or take public transit. Meanwhile, our zoning code should be changed so that developers and businesses are not required to provide off-street parking, allowing them to create more space for the services that actually bring in money. Instead, developers interested in offering some parking for businesses can pay a fee that supports those shared municipal lots.

Those shared lots should be as unobtrusive to the public realm as possible. While underground parking is nice, it’s also expensive to build. Shared lots should either be located behind buildings or interspersed within the neighborhood. Even highly-walkable Lincoln Square has public lots, but they are by no means the dominant sights in the neighborhood.

A lot of this seems counterintuitive, but Speck cites case studies in which charging for parking actually had the desired effect: More walking and more business activity. In Pasadena, Calif., for example, parking meters were installed downtown, and sales tax revenue soared.

By taking an holistic approach to how parking is provided — and recognizing that parking is just one part of making a place successful — cities have been able to address both perceived parking problems and walkability problems. In the Beverly area, we could learn a lot if we really take a hard look at the parking we have and what it accomplishes, and then consider how to move forward in a way that enhances the pedestrian experience and improves the condition of our business districts.

(For the record, Speck also mentions Chicago and its parking meter lease in this section. While the lease has brought parking fees closer to market rate, led to more turnover in spaces and gotten people to think about alternative modes of transportation, the fact that the funds go to Morgan Stanley means we won’t be able to use revenue from parking fees to make other improvements in our neighborhoods as some cities have done. “In the short term,” Speck writes, “this strategy could perhaps be described as the wrong path to the right result. Greedy investors are pulling off what the city couldn’t do, which is bring the price of curbside parking in line with its value.”)

In Service of Sprawl: How the Walkable Funds the Unwalkable

Car-dependent development moves into the heart of historically walkable Mount Greenwood with support from the taxes of the surrounding pedestrian-oriented properties.

Mount Greenwood’s main shopping district, centered around 111th Street, might be one of the best designed and most pedestrian-friendly in the area. But it’s also a place where properties and businesses in the more walkable sections subsidize encroaching sprawl through taxes.

On the northwest corner of 111th and Kedzie Avenue sits a newer Walgreens, part of a long-term plan for redevelopment of the area. Like other examples of the ubiquitous drug store chain, the Mount Greenwood store sits back from the street, surrounded by a sea of parking that never seems to be as full as envisioned. In a highly walkable, mixed-use area, where the typical building is built to the lot line, includes a storefront that opens to the sidewalk and has minimal — if any — on-site parking, the presence of the sprawling Walgreens and adjoining parking lot is almost confounding.

Most of the neighborhood looks more like this.
And this.

The only indication that the Walgreens development was intended for pedestrian use is a small seating area and brick archway on the corner, doing a less-than-admiral job of screening the parking lot. I’ll get back to this in a minute.

Public space.

Auto-Orientation Is in the Plan

The development is almost exactly what the neighborhood’s revitalization plan calls for (additional auto-oriented developments on adjacent sites are still unrealized). In 1997, the former Mount Greenwood Local Redevelopment Corporation — now the Mount Greenwood Community and Business Association — worked with the firm Camiros to devise a new vision for the neighborhood. (Camiros is also behind plans that called for such sprawling developments as the 95th Street Borders.) Implementing this plan included a number of steps, including the purchase and demolition of several properties in the area, along with the creation of a tax increment financing, or TIF, district and a special service area, or SSA, to direct tax dollars toward improvements.

The new, 13,650-square foot Walgreens — with its parking lot and a drive-thru — replaced an older Walgreens, a vacant hair salon and a smaller parking lot. Despite the corner parking lot, the former buildings were built in a more walkable fashion, much like the other buildings in the area, with entrances actually facing the public way.

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Retro vision: Google Streetview 2007. Click the image to explore the past.

The new Walgreens was a $10.9 million project that included $1.5 million in TIF money plus the city-owned parking lot, which was sold for $1. The TIF money was intended for the purchase of public rights-of-way, “buying private property, demolition and relocating utilities,” according to the Chicago Tribune. For those unfamiliar, here’s what happens in a TIF district. The level of property taxes for public services, from the city to the schools, is frozen for more than two decades. Bonds help cover the up-front cost of major improvement projects in the district, and as property values within the district increase, the incremental tax dollars collected as a result of that growth are captured and put into a special fund help repay the bonds or pay for ongoing projects. The city, school district and other taxing bodies continue to collect the amount established at the creation of the district, while the additional amounts are earmarked for everything from streetscaping to new constriction incentives.

(It’s also worth noting that in order for a TIF district to be established, “blight” conditions must be proven. The definition of “blight” is pretty ambiguous. In a neighborhood with one of the highest median incomes in Chicago and many thriving businesses, I’d argue that a few vacancies hardly constitute “blight. In fact, former 19th Ward Ald. Virginia Rugai’s chief of staff told the Tribune in 2009 — in the thick of the economic downturn — that the area really isn’t in too bad of shape: “This is a conservation TIF. It’s a different type of TIF. The argument is, ‘Why wait until the area is completely depressed, why wait to build it back?'”)

You Get What You Pay For

So what are 111th Street businesses and property owners paying for in the case of Walgreens? Aside from a new building, they are getting the elimination of one storefront that could have housed another small business, a massive parking lot for Walgreens (that deadens the public realm) and access to drive-thrus for both the Walgreens and a neighboring Dunkin’ Donuts. Who won here? Sounds like mostly Walgreens. And a little bit like Dunkin’ Donuts.

Oh, the district also got that sitting area and brick archway. Now, I’m the first person you will hear advocating for good public gathering places. In the right location, public squares, small parks and other nooks can add tremendous value to the area. Just look at the grand public squares of European cities or smaller public spots in places like Lincoln Square and Elmhurst. These spaces and their surrounding buildings strengthen each other. Restaurants open their doors to these squares, creating spaces for patrons to dine. Residents have a place to spontaneously bump into a friend — or stranger — and have a pleasant interaction. These spaces thrive on the foot traffic created by the surrounding uses, and the surrounding businesses benefit from a strong public realm.

Successful plazas in downtown Chicago… (Magnificent Mile)
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…in the neighborhoods… (Lincoln Square)
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…and in the suburbs. (Elmhurst City Centre)

Now, let’s look again at that seating area at 111th and Kedzie.

Hello again.

The backdrop is a parking lot. On either side are driveways that cut across the sidewalk, allowing cars to access said parking lot. Only two nearby corners have what could be considered to be pedestrian friendly design. The other has another parking lot. This public space fails on almost all accounts. We don’t see that synergy of public space and private use that creates such vibrant places in other cities and other neighborhoods.


But back to the neighborhood improvement plan. Encompassing nearly the same area as the TIF district is an SSA, which differs slightly. In order for an SSA to be established, a majority of property owners must agree to it. If created, an additional tax is levied on properties within the boundaries to help fund improvement projects similar to those a TIF district supports. The Mount Greenwood SSA helps fund everything from commercial corridor studies to marketing to sidewalk maintenance.

More Valuable Walkability Funds More Sprawl

According to the Mount Greenwood SSA’s 2012 plan, the annual budget is estimated to be between $63,500 and $71,500 from 2013 through 2017. That five-year budget forecast, about $337,000, is just 22 percent of the entire one-time subsidy given to the sprawling Walgreens development. If the tiny budget allocated to aesthetic improvements increases property values as intended, what happens to that incremental growth? Because the SSA and TIF district overlap, that incremental tax revenue goes to the TIF fund to support more sprawl identified in the Camiros plan, which is in direct contrast to the welcoming pedestrian environment the area’s redevelopment plan purports to champion.

Some of you might be saying, “Jeff, what’s the problem here? We had a vacant building and a prominent parking lot; now we have a new shopping area.” First of all, we still have a parking lot in the same space — and now it’s larger. True, in a survey accompanying the SSA proposal, the third most pressing concern to respondents was parking — 16 percent of people said parking was their least favorite part of the district, and 17 percent of people said they would improve parking. However, they also indicated a desire to improve things that impact the pedestrian experience — more attractive storefronts and a better business mix were the top two improvements in the survey, while street and sidewalk beautification came in just behind parking. Traffic was a mild concern, but respondents indicated that improving parking was one of the least of their priorities.

Parking concerns are certainly understandable in a popular place. Like traffic, it’s a good problem to have. That means people want to come to the area. And people usually want to go to a place because of the vibrancy, the convenience and other attractive qualities that generally occur due to the fact that there isn’t an overemphasis on parking. Places worth caring about — and I would certainly consider Mount Greenwood one of those — don’t tear out their assets for abundant parking. Otherwise, those positive qualities — those public realms — begin to erode. Too much parking simply induces demand for driving. In addition, the Camiros plan also states “additional traffic lanes might be warranted” for the district in the future. With more people driving to an area due to more parking, possibly more travel lanes, and a general decrease in pedestrian focus, it’s only a matter of time before traffic concerns grow and we start looking for another way out of the mess.

Second, as I’ve written in the past (here and here), sprawl is an investment with a low return rate. The more traditional development pattern is exponentially more valuable on a per-acre basis, expanding our tax base to support better services, infrastructure maintenance, schools, parks and anything else that property taxes fund. Our mixed-use corridors, like 111th Street, are the most valuable parts of our city. We should be looking to intensify uses there rather than spreading development thin.

Finally, surveys these days are indicating a growing desire to live in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, particularly among millennials. More pedestrian-oriented development could help make the neighborhood more attractive to younger people and others who crave walkability.

Residential and commercial currently sit side-by-side. Let’s start thinking about the benefits of stacking them.


Moving forward, I’d suggest a counterproposal for any future development. If the local redevelopment organization and/or the city possess certain properties, then they should place more controls on what is built there. Subdivide the properties and work with multiple developers to build mixed-use on the parcels. If the parties feel that some parking is needed — and to reiterate, I don’t necessarily believe this is the case — collaborate to establish general public parking behind the buildings that can be used for any person visiting any place within in the district. Residences above the storefronts would help provide the foot traffic to support the businesses on the ground. And instead of a small seating area wedged between a parking lot and a street, develop a plaza where businesses could open their doors to the public realm.

The result would be a development that creates value in the community and is infinitely more pedestrian friendly than what we are currently getting. Mount Greenwood’s main business district is full of advantages, from a mix of housing types to narrower streets than we see elsewhere in the area. Those are assets we should be building on. All the streetscaping in the world won’t make an area more attractive if we destroy the public realm with auto-oriented development, and small businesses will have trouble competing if our subsidies favor sprawl.

(P.S.: The Walgreens development does include one very nice feature: A path is paved with bricks that honor police officers and firefighters, many of whom live in the neighborhood. I left this out of the main discussion, because I feel that it is a separate issue from the overall walkability of the development. While I feel that a walkway around a parking lot is hardly an example of pedestrian-friendly design, the commemorative bricks are a nice touch — the type of detail that speaks volumes about the people who live in the community.)

Main Street Beverly: A Mission Statement

Think of a city or neighborhood you love that isn’t your own. Maybe it’s Paris with its grand boulevards and sidewalk cafes or a charming, narrow backstreet in Italy where locals congregate and dine. Perhaps it’s the old industrial neighborhood of a city that has been re-inhabited and repurposed or a quaint town in a corner of America that only you and a few others know about.

Think of what you love about that place — how it looks, how it is designed, how the people interact with each other. That is its sense of place, that certain something that inspires people from near and far to visit and for locals to put down roots and bring it to life.

Now, think of your neighborhood. Does it have that same spark? Does it inspire you and others in the same way as those other places?

Of course you love the neighborhood — or at the very least, parts of it — otherwise you would probably live somewhere else. Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood are aspirational neighborhoods, the kinds of places that are beloved for their beautiful homes, diverse population and good schools. But like all communities, our neighborhoods are not without their challenges, from vacant storefronts and parcels to underused parking lots. These things often either detract from that sense of place or prevent it from becoming fully realized like in those other cities and neighborhoods we love. With this blog, I hope to start discussions about ways we can enhance the sense of place in the Beverly area and bring about change that improve its economic well-being and quality of life.

Don’t get me wrong — I am first and foremost a booster for this community. I intend to celebrate the aspects of it I love, especially its people, businesses, organizations and culture. But as a boosters, I’m not afraid to give tough love when it is needed. It is my hope that the stories in this blog spark discussions about initiatives big and small that can make our already great neighborhoods even stronger and better.

Some ideas might prove to be popular. Others, I realize, might not be loved by everyone. However, I won’t shy away from informed and civilized debate. When it comes to economic development in this community, I will often challenge the status quo, because it is clear that in some cases the status quo is not working.

But I will never criticize in a way that isn’t constructive. I will present new ideas, drawing inspiration from other Chicago neighborhoods, other cities and, most importantly, the people in our own communities.

This blog is about place and all the components that come together to shape it: people, businesses development and culture. And it’s also about fostering that sense of place for the long-term, continuing to refine all the parts as everyone in this community strives to build the perfect neighborhood. The beautiful thing is that it will never be perfect. There will always be challenges. Those challenges give us, the people of Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood, the opportunity to band together to come up with solutions, strengthening our feeling of community in the process. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome.