Where is Main Street Beverly?

Western Avenue. 103rd Street. 95th Street. 99th Street. Which on is Beverly’s “true” main street?

It’s a question I’m asked frequently by readers of this blog and others who learn about it through our conversations. Many people insist on labeling 103rd or Western as the neighborhood’s main street. Or, they assume that since I live near 95th and often write about it that I’m anointed that thoroughfare as Beverly’s main street. I’ve probably even referred to some of these from time to time as our main street.

But if I am being true to the spirit of this blog and the mission I laid out three years ago when I started it, the answer to the question, “Where is Main Street Beverly?” is, “Everywhere.”

You see, Main Street Beverly isn’t a place — it’s an idea, an ethos, a philosophy about what a community is, how it looks, how it functions, and how it supports the people who call it home. It’s also the inverse. It’s about the people who shape it — the residents, business owners, civic leaders, and policy makers.

The underlying philosophy of this blog and every piece posted on it has always been that the traditional pattern of development, the one you see when you look at Main Street, U.S.A., or any pre-World War II city throughout the world, provides a strong foundation for building and sustaining a healthy, productive, and stable community of diverse people. It is a place that is fiscally sound and supports a strong social and civic fabric.

When we break down the components of the traditional development pattern, we see common elements that include, but are not limited to:

  • Walkability (pedestrian safety and comfort; convenience and accessibility of destinations)
  • Adaptability
  • Incremental growth
  • Diverse uses, mixed together

All the other neighborhood components people love to wring their hands over, from population density and building height to public transit and bike-friendliness, stem from those foundational elements.

And the best way to lay a solid foundation — or in the case of many communities, stabilize a damaged foundation — is through policy and legislation. That means substantial change will come by tackling zoning, financing, and other forms of regulation.

You could almost say Main Street Beverly is more about policy than place. Or at least it’s about the policy of place.

But remember how I also said Main Street Beverly is also about the people? They just might be the most important elements in this whole philosophy. Improvement comes from the bottom up, not the top down.

A community’s physical character, as well as the laws that govern that character, should reflect the values of all the people who live and work there, not the will of a powerful few.

Main Street Beverly is a philosophy that either lives and prospers or shrivels and dies based on people’s willingness to not just consider it but also better it. In that sense, it has the potential to be bigger than just one particular street. It could shape the entire neighborhood if we want.

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‘It’s Your Own Fault’

Quick post today. I have some more detailed, analytical pieces planned, but it’s just a matter of finding the time in my hectic schedule to sit down and write them. I was walking to work and thinking about a piece I read that morning on “beg buttons,” those buttons at intersections pedestrians must press in order for a walk signal to appear. They commonly appear in places that would otherwise be inhospitable to pedestrians, and if the place already seems dangerous and/or unpleasant for those on foot, they arguably don’t improve the situation much.

The argument for them is that they are needed to protect pedestrians — and drivers — because one errant step could mean certain doom. Yes, that means supporters of the buttons feel that, in these places, pedestrians are the problem.

I get a big smile on my face anytime a real life scenario aligns with a gag from “The Simpsons,” and thinking about this argument reminded me a bit of this classic:

Bart: On my way, I’m gonna be doing this [swings arms in circles as he walks]. And if you get hit, it’s your own fault.

Lisa: OK, then I’m gonna start kicking air like this. And if any part of you should fill that air, it’s YOUR own fault.

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Are there beg buttons here? Take a wild guess.

The arguments for and against beg buttons would be moot if we just designed a better street. For decades, oversized roadways that carry high-speed traffic have been rammed through the hearts of our neighborhoods, the places where people have long walked, shopped and lingered. But, if you get hit by that traffic, well, like the Simpsons kids say, it’s your own fault. Beg buttons are symptoms, not causes, of an inhospitable environment. They are primarily located in places that serve to move many cars quickly — usually stroads. Pedestrian activity was an afterthought long before the buttons were installed.

We aren’t talking about climbing Mt. Everest, the type of activity that inherently carries a significant amount of life-threatening risk. We are talking about walking across the street in our own neighborhood, which should carry risk that is or is extremely close to zero. I’m not suggesting that we forget about being aware of our surroundings as pedestrians — “look both ways” is still a helpful rule. But it’s also important to create environments where drivers must be hyper-aware, and that’s just not possible at 40-plus mph on a four- to six-lane roadway. Beg buttons are just one more way that we attempt to remove “impediments” (humans, in this case) from the driver’s milieu, enabling the very high-speed traffic that poses a danger.

A healthy street is not one where pedestrians are at odds with cars zipping through the neighborhood. A healthy street fosters activity. You don’t have to press a button to participate — you just show up on your own two feet.

We Know Where to Walk — And It’s Not Always Where We’re Told

We haven’t had much snow this winter, but what has fallen on our neighborhood has spoken volumes about the way we transport ourselves from one place to another.

I snapped the photo above in January, but the story of what you see dates back months prior. Last fall, People’s Gas performed extensive infrastructure work in my neighborhood (and elsewhere in the area), and this required that portions of our sidewalks, parkways, and lawns be torn apart. After the work was complete, crews replaced the sections of missing sidewalk and sodded over the missing patches of grass. For the most part, everything went back to looking as it had before — except for the corner of 92nd and Leavitt streets.

Long before People’s Gas came to the neighborhood, the sidewalks along of 92nd extended all the way to the curb, where the street dead-ended at Leavitt. The crossing was never completely “official” — the curbs were not graded to be wheelchair accessible and on the west side of Leavitt, driveways served as unofficial crossing points. Still, given that these two streets border Kellogg School and serve as heavily trafficked routes to Christ the King and the 91st Street Metra station, the crossing points have always seen a good amount of pedestrian activity.

While walking down the street somewhere, I saw a sidewalk that wasn't there...
While walking down the street somewhere, I saw a sidewalk that wasn’t there…

To complete their work, People’s Gas crews removed the sidewalk portions that extended to Leavitt. But when it came time to replace them, the neighborhood got patches of sod instead, effectively removing any semblance of a crossing for walkers.

In the weeks and months after, though, something interesting happened: No one changed their behavior. People still crossed where the sidewalk used to be, as it likely felt safer than walking in the street and around the corner to get to the next accessible section. This became even more evident after snow fell around the holidays, as the slushy, muddy footprints left by pedestrians clearly marked where their familiar sidewalk was. In the photo above, you can see the tracks left in the snow and the damage to the freshly laid sod after the snow melted.

...It wasn't there again today. Why on earth did it go away?
…It wasn’t there again today. Why on earth did it go away?

This got me thinking about how people actually navigate the public realm versus how engineers, planners and the like expect people to navigate it. I cannot say for certain what happened on the corner in question — maybe it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to force pedestrians to change their behavior, but it could be a case of cutting corners, no pun intended. But what is clear is that pedestrians aren’t stupid. They know the best way to get from point A to point B, and it isn’t always the path that engineers and planners want them to take. As a society, we need to make better observations about how people walk around their own neighborhoods and design our infrastructure accordingly to make sure the walk is safe and pleasant.

At the 91st Street Metra Station, off in the distance, people take the most convenient route to the platform.
At the 91st Street Metra Station, off in the distance, people take the most convenient route to the platform.

Last spring, a short story appeared on the site of the organization Strong Towns (which I know I refer to a lot on this blog, but it’s only because they are one of the only organizations I’ve come across that truly knows how communities function) that relates a story about Walt Disney. The tale goes that one day, Disney noticed some workers erecting a fence at Disneyland. When he asked why, the workers told him it was because people were taking a shortcut and trampling the grass. Disney’s reply: If that’s where people are walking, they need a path, not a barricade. The workers removed the fence and rerouted the path.

Now, the 19th Ward isn’t completely dominated by “barricades,” but it is overwhelmed by partial “paths,” or places that appear on the surface like they are accommodating of pedestrians but fail miserably when actually put into practice. Crossing five-lane Western Avenue, for instance, is a harrowing experience, even if you’re using a crosswalk. White stripes on the pavement don’t protect you from 45 mph traffic that won’t stop or slow for pedestrians. We’ve told people “walk here” but scared them away from ever wanting to actually do so. (Let’s be thankful we don’t have to deal with many situations like our suburban neighbors Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn, where 95th Street becomes seven lanes at some points, dividing neighborhoods with crosswalks striped only every third-mile or so.)

When our planners and engineers don’t design for pedestrian safety, the consequences can be fatal. Just the other day, for example, a pedestrian was killed in Lakeview, one of Chicago’s most walkable neighborhoods, while crossing at an unstriped corner that nevertheless is a common spot for pedestrians to get to their shopping destinations on the other side of the street.

In a tragic incident in suburban Atlanta several years ago, a child was struck and killed by a driver after exiting a bus with his mother and siblings and walking across the street to his apartment building. The mother was convicted of vehicular homicide, despite being on foot, and at one point faced jail time. At the intersection where the crash occurred, there is no crosswalk — or any type of safety control — despite the presence of a bus stop and residences. The nearest crosswalk is three blocks away.

A safe crossing for a busy street.
A safe crossing for a busy street.

Now, take a look at how a frequently congested part of The Loop was handled. This scene is on the west side of City Hall, obviously a major destination. Workers come and go throughout the day. Citizens stop by to pay their water bills. I’m sure that in the past, pedestrians would take any route possible to get there, even if it meant avoiding controlled intersections. The city could have put an end to this by putting a median down the entirety of LaSalle Street, forcing pedestrians in other directions. Instead, the city obviously encouraged mid-block crossing by striping a crosswalk. Now, even when traffic is at its worst, people can cross safely by City Hall.

This post isn’t a call to have the sidewalk in my neighborhood replaced (although that would be nice), and it isn’t a call to further segregate walkers from drivers. It’s a call for all of us to be more cognizant of how people actually use the streets in our neighborhood and what purpose those streets serve. Yes, there will continue to be a need to circulate vehicular traffic — but we can’t do that at the expense of our pedestrians’ safety. People on foot say a lot with each step they take. It’s time we paid attention.

Try a Diet: Calm Traffic, Get People

While walking to the store this past spring, my wife and I were almost killed.

On a rare free weekend, we decided to tackle a house project that had been long-delayed: Purchasing mini-blinds for our den. So we set off for the closest hardware/housewares store, which happens to be Menards in Evergreen Park, to do some shopping. Now, the Menards development is hardly what anyone would consider “walkable.” It is in a shopping center with a massive parking lot on a road designed to funnel massive numbers of automobiles. But it’s still just three blocks from our house, and to me, that distance hardly ever justifies staring up the car.

As we approached Western Avenue at 92nd Street, we did everything we were “supposed” to do: We pressed the button for the walk signal (a device derisively called a “beg button”) and waited for the light to change from the orange hand to the white pedestrian. Even after it changed, we didn’t rush into the street. We proceeded with caution, only to be met by a driver making a left turn into the northbound lanes on Western who came within a few feet of striking us before slamming on the brakes. Of course, there were blaring horns; words were shouted. Then, we finished crossing, our legs a little weaker from the scare.

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The scene of the almost-crime. There’s a crosswalk in there somewhere.

This is not an uncommon occurrence on our roads. When I talk about our main thoroughfares creating environments hostile to pedestrians, this is what I mean. Who wants to walk to the store when doing so can feel life-threatening? If we want high-quality development in our ward, if we want the type of foot traffic businesses thrive on, we have to think creatively about calming traffic.

It’s a ‘Stroad’ World, After All

Right now, the primary thoroughfares in Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood are what have come to be called “stroads.” The stroad — a term whose origin is linked to the Strong Towns organization — is the unholy alliance of a street and a road that has become one of the most ubiquitous pieces of transportation infrastructure in suburban (and often urban) America. Let’s break it down: A road in and of itself is generally a high-speed connector between two places. It has few access points and little to no development along it. These are the characteristics that make it effective, as it can provide a convenient travel environment for longer distances. They also are the characteristics that make it safe.

Illinois Highway 38 heading west toward DeKalb. A classic road. (Google Streetview)
Illinois Highway 38 heading west toward DeKalb. A classic road.
Illinois Highway 59 between Wauconda and Volo. A road (but definitely taking on highway characteristics). (Google Streetview)
Illinois Highway 59 between Wauconda and Volo. A road (but definitely taking on highway characteristics). (Google Streetview)

A street is a low-speed place for travel that accommodates a variety of types of transportation, including foot, bicycle and car. Development along it is usually traditional in nature — storefronts that open to the sidewalk, residential stoops, large windows. A street has many signs of life along it, and in this sense, it is a sort of platform for sociability and economic exchanges. The street provides the skeleton on which the rest of the city sits. Like the road, it is a safe environment by virtue of the low-speed travel that occurs along it.

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.

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Pedestrian islands are nice, but once you get to the middle of the road, you still have to contend with two more lanes of fast-moving traffic.
20150725_083416
Clearly-marked crosswalks are definitely a step in the right direction, but what are the chances all vehicles in these four lanes will actually stop?

In the past, people have suggested to me that 95th Street and other similar neighborhood roadways aren’t known for having many vehicle-pedestrian crashes, but I have to disagree after looking at the numbers. The Chicago Crash Browser is a handy tool for checking out historical crash data across the city (although the most recent information available is for 2012). Using it, we can see that 18 crashes between vehicles and pedestrians and five crashes between motor vehicles and bicycles occurred along 95th Street in Beverly between 2005 and 2012, all of them resulting in injuries. Granted, there has been a steady decline in the number of such crashes, but any number of pedestrians injured by cars is too many, especially because there are roadway designs that can help reduce them.

Residents know the conditions of our thoroughfares, and they know that these are places to avoid on foot. It’s not uncommon for drivers on 95th Street or Western Avenue to zip along at 45 mph or swerve around another driver traveling the speed limit. Think about this: The risk of a pedestrian dying from injuries in an automobile crash rises exponentially when vehicle speeds are greater than 25 mph.

city speed chart
(World Resources Institute)

In addition, a driver’s field of vision  narrows with faster speeds. With that information, and knowing that the speed limit on most of Chicago’s main roadways is 30 mph, ask yourself if you want to be walking around these places in their current condition.

Does It Work?

The only way to make pedestrians feel more comfortable is to make drivers feel less comfortable. That doesn’t mean making driving completely inconvenient — it just means ensuring that drivers can’t make risky maneuvers by designing a more complex environment. In the past, the prevailing notion among traffic engineers was that in order to make pedestrians safer, there had to be a strict separation between them and vehicle traffic. Today, though, the numbers don’t bear this out, as vehicle crashes become a leading cause of death. Planners and engineers are now realizing that if a driver is surrounded by a lot of pedestrian activity, he or she will have no choice but to exercise caution, because danger is perceived. A driver will also move slower if there are more barriers to high speeds, such as narrower travel lanes and adjacent bike lanes.

These are the principles that have made road diets so effective. And lest you think this is just hyperbole, a 2013 study for the Federal Highway Administration found that in rural areas, road diets reduced the total number of crashes by 47 percent, while they reduced crashes by 19 percent in suburban areas. Combined, that’s a 29 percent decrease.

But I know there are two burning questions on many people’s minds. The first is, “How can we afford this? Chicago is broke.” One of the things I love about road diets is that they are relatively inexpensive yet return so much to the city in the form of increased tax revenue, which I will get to later. To put things in perspective, the residents of Jefferson Park recently voted to have bike lanes striped on Milwaukee Avenue. The cost? Just $60,000.

The other question is, “Won’t this cause congestion?” It’s a fair point, although I would argue that it shouldn’t be the main consideration. The 2013 study notes that on roads carrying more than 20,000 cars per day, a road diet could cause congestion. Since I looked at 95th Street for crash data, I’ll go back to it for vehicle counts. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, 95th Street carries 29,800 vehicles per day between Ashland Avenue (in Chicago) and Kedzie Avenue (in Evergreen Park). This made me a little skeptical, as these figures include a very auto-oriented segment of Evergreen Park west of Western Avenue. The Chicago Department of Transportation breaks down the numbers a little more, and we see that around 95th and Damen, that figure drops to around 25,000. If congestion were to ensue, could we live with it if it means a safer environment for pedestrians?

Still, there is no given that our neighborhood would become caught up in a traffic nightmare. After all, one of Chicago’s many beautiful features it its grid network of streets, which is designed to disperse heavy traffic in many directions. Plus, some short trips that are now done by car will likely become trips done on foot or bike if the conditions have improved. It’s also worth looking to other cities to see how their road diets impacted congestion. In Austin, Texas, for instance, 37 streets accounting for more than 26 miles were “right-sized” since 1999. A recent report by that city noted that “motor vehicle travel time is either maintained or in some cases even reduced and motor vehicle volumes remain comparable before and after the project.”

People Will Spend Time and Money in a Safe Place

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: There is no magic bullet to solving the problems that plague parts of our neighborhoods. But making our streets more hospitable to pedestrians would go a long way to helping restore foot traffic on once-thriving streets. Calming traffic must be a key part of our strategy moving forward to revitalize our commercial corridors.

In closing, I’d like to revisit an anecdote I shared in a previous post. The city of Lancaster, California, an exurb of Los Angeles, fell on hard times after the housing bubble burst. Its downtown, divided by a stroad not unlike those you find around here, struggled to attract economic development. Desperate for a change, the municipality drastically rethought what its city center could be and set about turning it into a pedestrian mecca. Part of this plan involved putting its main street on sort of an extreme, heavily streetscaped road diet. The results? Fifty new businesses, a 117 percent increase in revenue, $130 million in private investment, 1,900 jobs and a 9.5 percent increase in property values. Of course, the road diet didn’t do all of this. But click the link above and look at those pictures. Can you imagine everything that happened occurring on a typical suburban stroad? Would you even feel safe there?

An Appeal for a Better 95th Street

I have good news, and I have bad news.

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

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 10.13.24 AM
The property in question. (Google Streetview)

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

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

1.  There Already Is a Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.  Walkability and a Mix of Uses Enhance Property Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our alderman has been quoted as saying that the proposed auto-oriented development is better than a vacant structure because it will add to our tax base in a way that an empty building can’t. First, let me say, “Of course.” That’s because the building in question is vacant. Occupied, buildings in the traditional development pattern (small storefronts facing the sidewalk with minimal or no on-site parking) are more valuable than their car-centric counterparts.

The work of the firm Urban 3 goes a long way toward explaining and mapping the value of different types of development patterns. Essentially, what the people at Urban 3 have found in city after city is that the traditionally developed, compact, walkable neighborhoods carry a far greater value for a community’s tax base than sprawling, car-focused places. It is information the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns has called attention to many times.

We can play this game closer to home, too. I used publically available records from the Cook County Assessor to look at the value of a fast food restaurant on Western Avenue, KFC, that was designed in an auto-centric format and compare it with a similarly sized block of more traditionally-built buildings nearby. The KFC is a single-use building surrounded by parking. The other block contains seven buildings, all but one of which are one story tall. These buildings contain minimal, if any, on-site parking and contain a variety of businesses, from a pizza shop to offices. They all sit on lots that are exactly the same footprint.

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

Do the Math Screen Shot

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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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.

And Now, A Word or Two About Parking

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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.

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Click to view this in Google Maps for more detail.

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

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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.)

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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.”)

Alcohol Bans and Walkability Don’t Always Mix

Humans can learn many lessons from pizza. Sure, the main takeaway is that the dairy, meat, dough and spices properly combined produce delicious results. But last weekend, pizza also taught me a lesson about community.

OK, so it wasn’t the pizza itself that taught me such a lesson. Rather, it was the journey to the pizza that got my mind working. Along the way, I determined that:

  • It is time to repeal our alcohol sale ban, and
  • The proximity of our dining and drinking establishments to people’s homes is key to making our neighborhood safe and successful.

After months of hearing from friends and locals about the wonders of Pizzeria Deepo, my wife and I decided to try it, capping off an exhausting week with some indulgent deep-dish. We live a little less than a mile and a half from the 99th Street restaurant, a measure we like to call walking distance. After all, who doesn’t feel the need to take a walk after consuming a big ol’ cheese pie?

The other appeal of the restaurant was the BYOB policy. As I mentioned, this was the end of a tiring workweek, and we wanted to relax with a couple adult beverages. Pizzeria Deepo, while an excellent dining establishment, is also one of the few options within walking distance where one can partake in the rituals of dining and drinking simultaneously, due to policy prohibiting the sale of alcohol in much of Beverly.

Guess which areas are dry? (Metra stations in red.)
Guess which areas are dry. (Metra stations in red.)

Here, I’d like to stress the fact that Pizzeria Deepo is within walking distance and also mention the quality of the walking experience. There are other establishments in different parts of the Southwest Side and suburbs that can legally sell alcohol, but the pedestrian experience often leaves much to be desired. Some of these places are not in the appropriate proximity for walking, and driving is often the most convenient option. Others are located on thoroughfares like Western Avenue, which, while seeming to throw a bone to walkers with crosswalks, is really an unsafe place for pedestrians.

The walk to Pizzeria Deepo, however, was pleasant, taking my wife and I on a scenic tour of the neighborhood on one of the warmer Friday nights we have experienced recently. And the area around the 99th Street Metra Station, although small, is one of the most adorable, walkable areas in Beverly.

Because we walked, we didn’t have to worry as much about the number of drinks we had — even though each of us had just two. But even if we had more, the generally safe route back home meant that a stray stumble most likely wouldn’t end our lives. Like all well-designed streets, the ones that took us home are forgiving to the unpredictable pedestrian — intoxicated or not — not the automobile driver.

In the days since I’ve thought about the impact our alcohol ban truly has on dangerous behaviors. People will find a way to drink, even if it means driving to do it. If we repeal our alcohol ban, we could allow for more establishments to open in our mixed-use districts and within walking distance of those who might otherwise get behind the wheel, drive outside the area to drink and put people’s lives at risk. A tipsy pedestrian is far less dangerous than a tipsy driver.

Overturning the ban can be an arduous process. Voters in the dry precincts must support a referendum for the question to be placed on an election ballot, and a majority of the people in the precinct must approve the change. I did not live in the neighborhood in 2008 or 2009, but I understand that an attempt at that time failed. I don’t know what the rhetoric was like or what went through people’s minds as they voted, but I hope that we can have a thoughtful, adult conversation about the issue until the time comes to petition for another referendum.

In the meantime, I’m gong to continue to take walks to Pizzeria Deepo, beer in tow, because I’ve fallen in love.

The Truth About Congestion

Thinking about 95th Street recently, I was reminded of a passage from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities about vehicular traffic:

Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves.

Wherever people are thinly settled, rather than densely concentrated, or wherever diverse uses occur infrequently, any specific attraction does cause traffic congestion. … Lack of wide range of concentrated diversity can put people into automobiles for almost all their needs. The spaces required for roads and for parking spread everything out still farther, and lead to still greater use of vehicles…

The more intensely various and close-grained the diversity in an area, the more walking. Even people who come into a lively, diverse area from outside, whether by car or by public transportation, walk when they get there.

The moral is simple: Plan for cars, get traffic. The neighborhoods that people prize in Chicago and elsewhere are those that put people first.

When we think about congestion, we should think of it like cholesterol: There’s a good kind and a bad kind. The bad kind comes from planning for cars and is experienced when you have long queues at stoplights and vehicles frequently entering and exiting parking lot driveways. This is an inhospitable environment for the pedestrian.

The good kind comes from not just putting people first but allowing for a mix of uses. Cars can still be part of the environment, but just one part. The congestion this creates is what we think of when we talk of a place’s “vibrancy.” A street bustling with people going from building to building is an incubator of economic activity and social interaction. As Jacobs writes, even the people who drive to the area end up in the mix.

While 95th Street often feels more like the former, thinking differently about the area can help it transform into the latter.