We all know why the chicken crossed the road, but why did the chicken ride its bicycle on the sidewalk?
I’ll take a stab at that one: Because the street wasn’t safe.
By now, many 19th Ward residents have seen or heard about the new dockless bike share systems that have launched in our Divvy-starved neighborhood. These bikes — many bright green or white — dot the areas of our community that tend to see the most activity: Metra stations, busy shopping corridors, major intersections.
Personally, I’ve already seen a good number of people riding them. I’ve seen young teens riding them for after-school transportation; I’ve seen older adults riding them for what appeared to be errands (or just out of curiosity).
What I suspect (and this is just based on anecdotal evidence) is that we are noticing what a number of people in the neighborhood have already expressed — that there is a latent demand for bike sharing in many parts of the South Side, including Beverly, Morgan Park, and Mount Greenwood.
But after seeing these bikes in action around the neighborhood, one thing has stood out to me: Everyone I have seen on one of these bikes has been riding it on the sidewalk. And I can tell you why.
If you’ve never ridden a bicycle on one of our main thorough like Western Avenue, 111th Street, or 95th Street, you probably don’t know what it’s like to take your life into your own hands just to run to the store, or come home from the Metra station, or have a leisurely ride on a Saturday morning.
Or, maybe you do know what that’s like because you know how unsafe many or our streets can be for people who aren’t in cars. Maybe you’ve seen some close calls and decided for yourself, “I will never ride a bike on one of these streets.”
To go back to the joke about the chicken, it’s completely logical that a person would come to that conclusion. Heck, I advocate for bicycling and even I can come to that conclusion.
But the demand for something different than the status quo, for something other than a neighborhood where a car trip for every outing feels like the only option, is so strong that people want to hop on these new bikes anyway, even if it means riding on the sidewalk where, theoretically, they could receive a citation from police.
It makes me think of another chicken-related adage: What came first, the chicken or the egg?
What came first, bicycles or safe streets?
Do we need the bikes to spur changes that make our neighborhood streets safer? Or, would we see more people using the bikes — or riding them on the sidewalks — if we implemented some traffic calming measures?
As we have seen with Divvy, the greatest successes occur in the neighborhoods with the infrastructure and design needed to support a robust bicycling culture. On the other hand, Divvy struggles in areas where barriers — both physical and cultural — hinder its use.
I worry about what happens when the novelty of our neighborhood’s dockless bike share network wears off and we come face to face with its practicality.
Don’t get me wrong — I fully support this initiative and think it has the potential to be a positive for the 19th Ward. But I think that as we marvel at the people using it (or use it ourselves) we need to pay close attention to the behaviors we see on the streets and try to understand what they are telling us about the design of our community.
My hope is that the bike share system does lead to positive changes in the neighborhood, not because I want to make sure the system benefits but rather because I want to make sure our neighborhood as a whole benefits.
Since the system launched, it’s gotten a good amount of positive press. The rest of the city is watching. Let’s make sure they continue to see something good taking shape.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Local Example: 95th Street, Beverly, Chicago
Better Alternative: Boulevard Broadway, Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Canada
Even Better Alternative: Lancaster Boulevard, Lancaster, California
* * * * * * * * * *
Local Example: Western Avenue, Morgan Park, Chicago
When I lived on the North Side, I would frequently pass by a storefront that always seemed to be home to a different business. This wasn’t particularly unusual. After all, every community has one of these “revolving door” spaces. One month it’s a restaurant, the next it’s a law office, then it’s a coffee shop, and so on. So, when I saw a news story recently about a new business moving into the storefront in my old neighborhood, I didn’t think much of it until I read a description of the space:
“After failing to thrive as Wolcott’s, Troquet or the short-lived Mangal, the storefront at 1834 W. Montrose Ave. has gained something of a reputation for being cursed.”
Whoa. “Cursed” seems a bit hyperbolic. True, we are talking about a space that I would say has housed at least five different businesses since I lived there, which dates back to 2005. But when you think about it, isn’t this exactly what is supposed to happen? A business moves in, it closes, and another comes in right on its heels. That’s how the market works.
What’s missing from this story is the narrative about this particular stretch of Montrose Avenue. It is a thriving place with a healthy mix of day-to-day businesses, such as a convenience store and a salon, and specialty businesses, such as boutiques and bars. Restaurants set up sidewalk cafes, foot traffic is plentiful — thanks in part to the nearby Brown Line station — and the on-street parking spaces are constantly turning over. The street runs through a neighborhood of single-family homes, condos and apartments, and there are even plans to build a new, parking-light apartment building right in the thick of all this activity. All of these housing options in close proximity put additional feet on the street.
By all appearances, this is one of the most healthy streets I’ve seen. The fact that it’s so healthy actually helps ensure that while the storefront in question might change hands frequently, it will never be vacant for long. And its small size is a virtue. This is a perfect location for a startup business that can upgrade to a larger space as it becomes more successful.
Contrast this part of Ravenswood with a place like 95th Street or Western Avenue in Beverly and Morgan Park. Both 95th and Western are dotted with long-empty storefronts, vacant sites, surface parking lots and hulking relics like the former Borders building and the Chesterfield Federal Savings/MidAmerica/National City bank. These streets — or stroads, I should say — contain little in the way of mixed-use buildings (business on the ground, residence above) and are surrounded almost exclusively by lower-density neighborhoods of single family homes. Little by little, roadways that once carried pedestrians, streetcars/buses, automobiles and bicycles were turned over cars, which today dominate our main streets.
What we thought would help the neighborhood thrive is slowly killing it. For the past half-century or more, we’ve sought vehicle traffic as a way to bring people to the neighborhood and shop at our stores, but we never stopped to think what would happen when all those drivers found a more convenient place to go. In a healthy community, there is no reason for a building to stay vacant for five years like Borders. There is no reason the sidewalks of the main streets should be virtually empty at all times of day. There is no reason to give tax increment financing money to private businesses to build drive-thrus and parking lots. In fact, there is no reason to give incentives to any business in a healthy community. A healthy community is self-sustaining.
No building or storefront is “cursed,” least of all one that is located on such a successful street like Montrose. The places that truly are doomed are the ones that fail to recognize flawed development patterns or refuse to adjust.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
[Editor’s note: Shortly after publishing this, I saw that the official recommendation in Seattle is a bit different than what had previously been discussed. There’s still seems to be much to like, including the proposal that the zoning would change for single-family areas adjacent to more densely populated neighborhoods, but I still think the conversation about a broader change to exclusively single-family zoning is worth having.]
The theory is this: Developers will build what is most economically feasible. Often, this would be multi-family or mixed use. Think townhouses, low-rise courtyard apartments or three-flats. Where land is expensive, this type of construction makes sense, as it would provide a solid return on the investment while also increasing the neighborhood’s tax base with more residents. However, in many neighborhoods, this type of construction, long a staple of cities, is outlawed by zoning that only permits single-family homes. The only thing that makes economic sense to build, then, is pricy single-family homes, the proliferation of which gradually makes a community less affordable to average people. It’s simple economics: A low supply of housing and high demand will cause prices to increase, not to mention force fewer people to shoulder more of the tax burden.
By changing the zoning, single-familiy homes would not have to become illegal; it would just make the path toward building multi-family housing easier. In many cases, the type of housing that would be permitted would be the type of low- to mid-rise construction I described above, helping prevent a neighborhood from becoming skyscraper city overnight (a fear of many people when they hear terms like “multi-family” and “population density”) and preserving the existing character of the area. Most importantly, though, it would open up neighborhoods to people who may have not been able to previously afford them due to the multitude of housing types at different price points.
I’ve written before about how I believe the Beverly area could benefit from diversifying its housing stock, and the steps similar to those Seattle is considering taking would be worth pursuing here — as well as in most other American cities, where single-family zoning has drastically limited the type of new housing built in the past half-century.
In our community, the areas with the most potential for this type of zoning would be near key centers of activity — Metra stations, intersecting bus routes and any area that we typically think of as a place where people tend to congregate.
In particular, we need this along struggling corridors like 95th Street, 111th Street and Western Avenue. And we need it to be paired with retail in order to create vibrant, mixed-use districts that support foot traffic and business activity.
Think about 95th Street for a moment. On most of this street, our zoning permits ground floor retail with a minimal residential component above (the B1-1 zone that exists generally will yield low-density development). This is hardly the type of construction that makes financial sense to developers who might take an interest in the area. And if residents object to anything with more housing units, more floors, etc., the only remaining option is what we are getting adjacent to the Metra station: A single-use building with a large off-street parking lot that only a chain retailer can afford to occupy. It’s the commercial equivalent of putting a luxury house on a large residential lot.
On the other hand, if we had allowed mixed-use, multi-family development by law, we would have eventually gotten a building that would have diversified our commercial space and our housing stock, bringing more people to the area who would walk our streets, visit our businesses and ride our train line.
The same goes for areas of single-family homes surrounding our business districts. While many of these properties will likely remain single-family homes for a long time, dilapidated and outdated houses along with vacant lots could potentially be redeveloped as low-rise apartment/condo buildings and townhouses, bringing more people to our community to help keep it vibrant. Businesses will locate where the foot traffic is, so let’s generate it. Meanwhile, people who either cannot afford a single-family house or are not in a position where a single-family house makes sense for them can find good housing in a friendly, safe and (hopefully) thriving area.
This is why the single-family and low-intensity business zoning designations that cover most of our neighborhood need to disappear and be replaced with something that allows our community to grow more naturally. The constraints we put on development will only hurt us in the long run. And for a community that prides itself on a history of inclusiveness when it comes to housing, taking steps to ensure the neighborhood remains affordable and accessible to people of all type should be a no-brainer.
The bad news (at least what I see as bad news — others in the neighborhood might not see it that way) is that the residential and neighborhood business zoning designations adjacent to the 95th Street Metra station have been officially changed by the Chicago City Council, making way for the construction of a single-story building and 20-car parking lot that will serve a proposed Advance Auto Parts store. After some emailing with an employee in the city’s Department of Planning and Zoning, it seems that there is no opportunity to formally appeal the decision. The best option seems to be to get the ear of our local leadership and make the case for what we want — and what we don’t.
That’s where the good news comes in. This acceptance of a single-use, auto-oriented development in what should be the pedestrian-focused heart of our neighborhood has the potential to do for development in the 19th Ward what the demolition of Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange and Garrick Theatre buildings did for the city’s historic preservation movement: Mobilize the community and kick off a new era of smart decisions.
That said, I’d like to offer what would have been my appeal against the zoning change and hope that it presents a clear-eyed view of what 95th Street should look like in the future and why developments like the auto-oriented auto parts store (the building, at least) should not be part of a plan for the street.
1. There Already Is a Plan
Well, there sort of is a plan. Last year, the city of Chicago and the Regional Transportation Authority commissioned a study of the neighborhoods surrounding Metra stations within the city limits to determine how they currently function and how they can be improved over time. The study, prepared by Teska Associates, Fish Transportation Group and OKW Architects, involved community input from across the city. In October, the Chicago Plan Commission adopted the plan.
I’ll let you read over the nitty gritty of the study and the plan for yourself, and I’ll get right to the section that concerns 95th Street. The area around the train station is categorized as an “urban neighborhood” and characterized as such:
An Urban Neighborhood (UN) serves an established neighborhood, but ridership varies in intensity.
The UN typology designation is applied to 28 existing Metra stations, with the proposed Auburn Park (79th Street) station bringing the total up to 29. Of all nine Metra typologies, the UN designation is applied to the most stations in the City of Chicago (29 out of 79). A UN neighborhood is generally served by CTA or Pace bus, with only a few UNs having CTA rail stations nearby. Land use is primarily residential, but many UNs have commercial districts. About half of riders either walk, bike, or take transit to Metra and the other half drive to the station. Density around a UN station is moderate, then tapers off away from the station, generally to low-density residential.
In other words, it’s a fairly mixed-use district where people use a variety of transportation modes. The report identifies numerous recommendations for strengthening the area, including:
Encouraging multi-family and mixed-use developments nearby.
Improving pedestrian access to nearby attractions.
Encouraging architectural detailing and massing that supports a pleasant pedestrian experience.
Given those guidelines, it seems as if the first opportunity to redevelop a parcel near the 95th Street station is a failure on pretty much all accounts. There is little about the proposed building that has the pedestrian interest in mind: A large parking lot will encourage more driving, a dearth of doors along the sidewalk will have a negative effect of streetlife, lack of a mixed-use design means no new people will be added to the streets or the transit system. I could go on, but why not just look at the environment around the other auto part stores nearby.
Now, just because we have the city/RTA study doesn’t mean we don’t need a comprehensive plan for 95th Street. We absolutely do. And we need to draft it soon to ensure something like this does not happen again.
2. Walkability and a Mix of Uses Enhance Property Values
Studies consistently show that by improving walkability — both in terms of safety for pedestrians and in convenience of nearby amenities — also raises property values in the surrounding neighborhood. Here is the conclusion reached in a 2009 study conducted for the organization CEOs for Cities:
More than just a pleasant amenity, the walkability of cities translates directly into increases in home values. Homes located in more walkable neighborhoods—those with a mix of common daily shopping and social destinations within a short distance—command a price premium over otherwise similar homes in less walkable areas. Houses with the above- average levels of walkability command a premium of about $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in the typical metropolitan areas studied.
Here’s another case study from Lancaster, Calif., a small-ish town that has since become part of Los Angeles’ amoeba-like collection of exurban communities. It primarily developed in a sprawling fashion and was hit particularly hard by the economic crash of 2008. Yet in the downtown, something extraordinary happened. The powers that be focused on fostering a walkable, mixed-use district and property values in the heart of the city actually increased by 9.5 percent. Newer developments also are taking on a more traditional, pedestrian-oriented form. You can read all about the project and the benefits it has had here and here.
Finally, take a look at a 2013 study by Active Living Research, which draws the connections from walkability to increases in office space rent, property values and business activity, along with a decrease in vacancy rates. With all of the evidence of the economic benefits of walkability, the vision of a walkable future for 95th Street should be a no-brainer. Instead of saying “not in my backyard” to developments that enhance walkability and convenience, we should generally be saying, “How can we make this happen?”
3. Mixed-Use Development Is Better for Our Tax Base
Our alderman has been quoted as saying that the proposed auto-oriented development is better than a vacant structure because it will add to our tax base in a way that an empty building can’t. First, let me say, “Of course.” That’s because the building in question is vacant. Occupied, buildings in the traditional development pattern (small storefronts facing the sidewalk with minimal or no on-site parking) are more valuable than their car-centric counterparts.
The work of the firm Urban 3 goes a long way toward explaining and mapping the value of different types of development patterns. Essentially, what the people at Urban 3 have found in city after city is that the traditionally developed, compact, walkable neighborhoods carry a far greater value for a community’s tax base than sprawling, car-focused places. It is information the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns has called attention to many times.
We can play this game closer to home, too. I used publically available records from the Cook County Assessor to look at the value of a fast food restaurant on Western Avenue, KFC, that was designed in an auto-centric format and compare it with a similarly sized block of more traditionally-built buildings nearby. The KFC is a single-use building surrounded by parking. The other block contains seven buildings, all but one of which are one story tall. These buildings contain minimal, if any, on-site parking and contain a variety of businesses, from a pizza shop to offices. They all sit on lots that are exactly the same footprint.
What we see is that the group of buildings developed in a traditional context — structures built to the lot lines, storefronts opening to the street, etc. — are more valuable on almost every level.
The traditional buildings yielded more than $7,600 in additional property taxes over the KFC property, which occupies a slightly larger area. That is 23 percent more than the KFC property.
The assessed value of the traditional buildings is 36 percent greater than the auto-centric KFC.
On a per square foot basis, the traditional buildings are more valuable in terms of both assessed value and property tax yield.
The most valuable traditional building (the home of Chuck’s Pizza) has a per square foot assessed value 91 percent greater than the KFC. Also on a per square foot basis, it generates 92 percent more property tax dollars than the KFC.
To top it off, the traditional block of buildings benefits from multiple owners and multiple tenants. If one business fails or one building burns down, there are others to help pick up the slack until something can fill the gap. If the KFC disappears for one reason or another, you have a bit more of a problem on your hands (see: Borders on 95th Street).
The historic character of 95th Street is one of pedestrian-oriented design and a mix of uses. That history is visible as you walk in either direction from the Metra station. But you can also see how that fabric has been chipped away by years of bad decisions, which have given us prominent parking lots, drive-thru businesses, high-speed traffic, a lack of safe crosswalks, blank walls facing the sidewalks and vacant storefronts. The addition of the Advance Auto Parts building — the structure, mind you, not the business itself — will only hurt 95th Street more in the long term unless we clearly lay out a vision for a renewed walkable, mixed-use district. We cannot keep going down the auto-centric development road. The cost is too great.
First off, sorry for the long spans between posts in the past month. I’ve been dealing with some family matters, and of course family comes first. But much of the hectic stuff is behind me, so I can get back to some more regular posting.
Now that all of that is out of the way, I’d like to have a discussion about population density. Yes, the infamous “D” Word that people like to toss around when both opposing a project (“It’s too dense! We aren’t New York!”) or supporting new development (“We need this to increase our neighborhood’s density and foot traffic!”). It’s a phrase that has come up a fair amount both since I started this blog and since my last post about the proposed auto part store for the site adjacent to the 95th Street Metra station. The common refrain seems to be, “Jeff, I agree that we need a more walkable community, but we just don’t have the density of other neighborhoods to support this concept.”
It’s true that the Beverly area is not as densely populated as, say, Edgewater (one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Chicago).
But in having this discussion, I think we need to first get some definitions out of the way. In the simplest terms, population density is the ratio that illustrates the number of people concentrated in a given space. Typically, this is exhibited as the number of people per square-mile, or even the number of people per acre.
Population density can be a valuable component of good urbanism — the “U” Word in this piece’s title — and a definition of one requires a definition of the other. Urbanism, what I write about on this blog, concerns the relationship between people and place. It is about how the built environment shapes our social interactions and fosters economic activity. In other words, it’s about how place shapes community, and vice versa.
That said, let me provide a very simplistic example of how the two are related. Say there’s a village in the middle of nowhere. It contains 50 houses in a space that is about one-eighth of a square mile (approximately the size of a Chicago city block) with a general store at the center of town where everyone shops. Say each of these houses contains a different type of living situation. Some house families, others house single people and a few are just roommates living together to save money. On average, there are three people per house. That gives you a population density of about 1,200 per square mile.
That’s a pretty low population density, even by Beverly standards (Beverly’s population density is about 8,200 people per square mile, while Chicago’s overall is 11,900). However, the fact that all of these people live in a compact space, they can all easily access the general store — and friends’ homes — on foot, meaning there is little need to build excess places to park cars in the neighborhood. Although this place has a low population density, it has good urbanism in that the built environment is conducive to a lifestyle in which people have more choices for how they get around. Most will probably walk, but some will probably ride bikes. A few might even drive to that store and park on the street to pick up an extremely large order.
Now, imagine someone builds a cluster of apartment buildings five miles from this town. This is a tightly packed space, and its population density reaches close to Edgewater’s of 33,600 people per square mile. The hook, though, is that the developer didn’t build any commercial space, and each resident must travel to the nearby town’s general store for daily needs. The town is outside a comfortable walking radius, so many people buy cars, necessitating expansive parking lots that make for vast spaces between buildings. What we have here is density without urbanism. We crammed a lot of people into a small space, and although they are ready to walk somewhere, there is nowhere to go. Plus, there are added challenges for the small town like how to deal with the influx of out-of-town shoppers. Do they widen roads and add more infrastructure to accommodate people who don’t live in the community? Can they even afford to do that, since the visitors don’t pay property taxes?
Yes, I realize this scenario is somewhat preposterous, and the real world is much more nuanced than what I describe. But I do believe it represents the type of built environment we should strive for as our neighborhood develops. It also represents the reason why I tend to stop short of saying we desperately need to add population density to our neighborhood — or any neighborhood — to support businesses and civic life. Instead, I tend to support good urbanism. A better way to think about this might be in terms of A) proximity — bringing residential, commercial and civic components closer together, and B) connectivity — making sure that all of these uses are laid out in a compact, interconnected network of streets, sidewalks and trails that supports a wide range of transportation options with a focus on walking. Population density comes about as an offshoot of these principles. As a place becomes more desireable, people will want to live closer to it, and we should accommodate them by gradually increasing the number of residential units in that given location. This should happen in a way that enhances the place’s urbanism and makes us more like the hypothetical small town rather than the faraway cluster of apartments.
This is why talking about density in relation to a single issue — single-use vs. mixed-use adjacent to our train station — is somewhat futile. What we need is to have a larger conversation about how to physically get people on and walking around our main corridors like 95th Street and Western Avenue. This will require a vision for all of our community’s corridors, from 95th to 115th, Western to Pulaski, that is decidedly different from the same-old, same old, because in many places with a large number of vacancies, that is clearly not helping. Saying that 95th Street is currently a high-speed commercial street and should just remain that way doesn’t get to the heart of its troubles.
In other words, yes, plopping a mixed-use building next to the 95th Street will add density, but it probably would only have a marginal effect on walkability in the short term. That doesn’t mean we don’t need a mixed-use building. On the contrary. We need many. We need good urbanism to create good places. We need a plan that lays out what we want the future of our streets to be and that sends a clear message to developers about what we want built in our backyard. And we need to pair this with the necessary infrastructure to support walking and biking. That means calming traffic and putting the focus first on people — people who live here — rather than how many cars we can attract from neighboring communities.
The good news is that we already have the foundation of a great, walkable place. The pieces were handed down from our ancestors in the form of a street grid, public transportation and existing buildings that have a strong relationship to the public realm. If we build on this gradually, we can strengthen the places in our community that need a boost, including 95th Street. As I have written before, no single project is a magic bullet that can turn around our struggling places, and that includes increasing population density. But each project can be an incremental step toward building something better.
After the DNA Info article about Main Street Beverly was published last month, I received a number of insightful, thoughtful comments and messages, but one in particular spoke strongly to the future of our neighborhoods.
Through the blog’s Facebook page, a woman reached out to say that at age 24, after being born and raised in the area, she was preparing to move away to a North Side neighborhood where she could easily walk to shopping and dining, a place where the sheer number of people out and about doing the same would practically guarantee she would meet new people. Our area, she said, just isn’t supporting the lifestyle she wants.
Her comments have a lot in common with data showing that millennials — and people in other age groups — are increasingly looking for walkable communities, often in large cities rather than suburbs.
Many see the conventional components of the American Dream, such as a single-family home and two cars, as burdens — constrains, even — to living a fulfilling life. And in places like Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood, you often have few options besides those conventions due to restrictions we have placed on development in the area and our choices for shaping our transportation networks.
We live in a very attractive part of town where crime rates are low, parents can send their children to good schools and downtown workers can access the Loop easily and affordably via the Metra Rock Island train line. However, we have few reasonable housing options for people who want access to all our neighborhood offers but might not be in the position — or simply not want to — purchase a single family home. Despite the presence of some multi-family housing, such as apartments, townhouses and condos, our neighborhoods are overwhelmingly zoned for detached, single-family homes. In other words, without jumping through hoops with the city and working with neighbors to receive a zoning variance, a builder could not go to most parts of our neighborhoods and build anything other than a conventional house.
In the zip codes that primarily make up our corner of the city, detached, single-family houses are overwhelmingly the only options available for people who want to live here. U.S. Census data shows 79 to 88 percent of residents in our area living in this type of home (citywide, only about 28 percent of people live in detached, single-family houses). It also shows that our housing stock was mostly built pre-1979, suggesting that we have been doing very little to diversify our offerings.
(Chicago blogger Daniel Kay Hertz, a master’s student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, writes about this phenomenon often. In many Chicago neighborhoods, zoning, he argues, has actually led to a decrease in population in many neighborhoods over the past 65 years, even in those places that we hear are booming today. Even as a neighborhood becomes more attractive, the city does not allow for an appropriate influx of new development to keep up with demand. Instead of building multi-family housing, which is either illegal or fought tooth and nail by neighbors, the only development that ends up making financial sense is luxury single-family homes. The results are areas of expensive housing that are only accessible to the very-well-to-do. While Hertz is primarily talking about “hot” North Side neighborhoods like Lakeview and Wicker Park, I believe that some of the characteristics he mentions apply to places like Beverly, as well. We might not get brand new luxury homes like Lincoln Park gets, but we do get house flippers. I highly recommend reading this piece. And this one.)
What does that all mean? Well, if you are a 24-year-old who was born and raised here and want a place in the neighborhood to live affordably, you settle for an apartment that is likely outside of walking distance of most amenities. That means you’ll probably have to buy a car just to run daily errands, which will eat away at the money you are saving by living in a modest apartment. This is the reason transit-rich neighborhoods like Logan Square look so attractive to younger people. Given the train, bus, biking and walking options in Logan Square, there is less need to own a car if you live there. It’s also the reason why a place like Logan Square — or Lakeview, Edgewater or a number of other neighborhoods — looks attractive to older people who don’t want to be chained to an automobile or have a mortgage.
What has happened in places like the Beverly area is that we have constrained our housing supply so much that the vast majority of people who do move here are primarily those who can afford a $240,000 house (the median price in Beverly, according to real estate sire Trulia.com — the average listing price recently was $356,000) and at least one car that will cost about $7,000 to $11,000 per year (according to AAA — depends on the type of vehicle), once you factor in monthly payments, gas, insurance and maintenance. While our median home prices in Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood are below the citywide average, other neighborhoods offer other, more affordable housing options beyond their expensive single-family homes. Aside from a handful of blocks, non-single-family houses are scarce around here.
Throughout history, as neighborhoods have grow in popularity, they have grown in population through the construction of a variety of different housing types. All those courtyard apartment buildings you see around Chicago? Many of those were built in the 1920s as communities from Uptown to Hyde Park became fashionable. There was a demand for housing, and it was supplied. Today, those apartments offer affordable alternatives to single-family homes. They also house a population that can support the types of shops, restaurants and amenities we want to see in our own community — the types of businesses that one can walk to conveniently and are owned by our neighbors. Even though a University of Chicago student cannot afford a house in Hyde Park, he or she can still live in an apartment (maybe with a roommate) near campus and all of the shopping and dining options the neighborhood offers. Plus, many of the buildings are just gorgeous.
By excluding multi-family housing from much of our community, we are cutting out valuable populations of people, from the recent college graduate just starting out in the workforce, to the single parent who wants a safe neighborhood with good schools, to the senior who wants to downsize and live in a place where daily needs can be met on foot (some call this “aging in place”).
Our community’s population is getting older. In the 60655 zip code, which encompasses Mount Greenwood, the population of 20- to 49-year-olds declined by 13 percent between 2000 and 2013, while the population of people 50 and older increased 18.5 percent. In 60643, which encompasses much of Beverly and Morgan Park, the 20- to 49-year-old population declined by 12.1 percent in that same period, while the 50-plus population increased by 25.6 percent. Given our demographic changes, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of community do we want to be? I believe our growth should reflect people’s increasing interest in walkable communities while also serving the needs of those who might be driving less frequently as they grow older. We would more fully cater to a range of age groups as people choose to live here for the convenience it offers at all stages of life.
One thing that strikes me as an overwhelming positive for our neighborhood is the strong ties people have to it. Many people talk about how they grew up here and moved back. Others talk about never having left. But what also strikes me is the number of people I hear who say they’d like to move here — someday. That “someday” is usually a point when they can afford one of the homes here or they have children. In other words, as lovely of a community as we have, it does not offer something for everyone. Not all people want a single-family home, but everyone does want to live in a community with the types of positive attributes that the Beverly area has. If we can offer more housing options, we can attract the types of people who want to make the neighborhood their home now, and we will afford them the opportunity to live here comfortably through different stages of their lives.
So how do we accomplish this? First, change the zoning. That doesn’t mean we replace everyone’s single-family home with a high-rise apartment building. What it means is that when obsolete properties do go on the market, a new owner could decide to renovate the building and keep it a single-family home or build a new structure on the property that perhaps adds two to five more units to the neighborhood. Maybe an obsolete house is combined with a vacant lot, and we get a contemporary variation on the classic Chicago courtyard building — some of which can be seen on some blocks in our neighborhood already, sitting side-by-side with single-family homes. By changing what we allow, we send a message to developers about how we want our neighborhood to evolve so there are fewer hoops to jump through when someone does want to redevelop.
We don’t even need to apply this type of zoning to every place in the neighborhood, at least not right now. Start where there is the most opportunity for infill (vacant parcels and parking lots) and where this type of housing would be most effective: Along our commercial corridors and near our transit hubs. Multi family housing should certainly be permitted within at least a quarter-mile of Metra stations. (A half-mile is even better, but I suspect that a quarter-mile is more likely to have broad support. One step at a time.) Every additional person we have living near the stations is one more potential rider for Metra.
Second, where appropriate, this type of development should occur in the form of mixed-use buildings: Commercial space on the first floor and residences on the floors above. This would make the most sense near our Metra stations as well as on commercial corridors like Western Avenue and 111th Street. In encouraging this type of development, we build an environment where the pedestrian’s needs come first and put potential customers right within walking distance of shopping and dining. We start to build a neighborhood where daily needs can be met by traveling on foot rather than by car.
(To some extent, this set-up already exists near some Metra stations, but we can do better by extending the multi-family zoning to a slightly greater radius and encouraging more mixed-use development. The new condos at 103rd Street and Hale Avenue are a step in the right direction. There’s a lot of potential for similar development on 95th Street and even along Western Avenue.)
This is a common development pattern we see across Chicago, even in lower density neighborhoods in the Bungalow Belt and inner-ring suburbs. Some streets are still lined with single-family homes, but multi-family housing is located at key places where you need a higher intensity of activity, such as along commercial corridors, near high-volume bus stops and adjacent to train stations. Many of these locations also include commercial, office and civic space, and when you throw all of these ingredients together — with properly scaled streets, of course — you get a healthy, pedestrian friendly environment.
This strategy goes beyond simply attracting specific demographics (i.e. Millennials) and the amenities they seek (i.e. hip bars and organic grocers) to our neighborhood. It’s about creating a place that thrives because it is accessible to a wide variety of people and is designed in a way that the automobile is one of many ways people can get around easily rather than the default way.