Zoning Committee Passes Watered Down TOD Ordinance

Division Tower
Developers want to build it: the Division/Ashland apartment building has no parking.

Last Wednesday, the City Council zoning committee passed Mayor Emanuel’s proposed ordinance allowing more walkable, less car-oriented development near train stations. But before the vote, the legislation was watered down with an amendment that makes it harder to construct buildings with lower volumes of car parking.

Under the amendment [PDF], commercial developments that include less than 50 percent of the parking required in the zoning district must be on designated pedestrian streets (“P-streets”) and must go through the “administrative adjustment” process. As originally proposed, the ordinance allowed developers to construct parking-free commercial projects without having to meet either requirement. (Administrative adjustment entails the developer seeking “relief” from the zoning administrator and sending written notice to abutting property owners and the alderman, soliciting their comments. In 10 days, the zoning administrator reviews all the comments and approves or denies the developer’s proposal.)

The ordinance was a hot topic and the debate attracted some aldermen who don’t serve on the committee. Zoning Administration Administrator Patricia Scudiero said that the proposal came about because after reviewing the requests for relief that came into her department, “these were the requests that were most common.” She added: “[Parking required in] the zoning code is a lot higher than what their need is. Some of you believe that more parking is better, and some developers believe that. I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of transportation, offered CDOT’s perspective when asked if Mayor Emanuel was “thinking globally” with this ordinance. She said the trend in driving and car ownership is down: “People don’t necessarily want to be driving, but they want to be texting, getting work done, and transit is perfect for that.”

Alderman Brendan Reilly described the situation in the 42nd Ward, which covers a majority of the Loop and River North:

What I’ve learned downtown, allowing developers to develop surplus or code-mandated minimums, wasn’t just bad for the pedestrian experience, but also for transit. Big, blank, dead walls, making a canyonization effect. If you build it they will come. Traffic congestion is one of those top three issues our constituents are bringing up to us. I’ve been encouraging developers to voluntarily drop the number of parking spaces. We dramatically reduced parking at Wolf Point. And that’s without passing the ordinance before us.

First Ward Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno pointed out that the 99-unit rental apartment building at Division/Ashland offers zero parking spaces for tenants (and 15 for the adjacent bank and retail). This was made possible by an ordinance he drafted and passed last year, a small-scale predecessor for the current citywide proposal.

While the current proposal would let more walkable development take root in many parts of the city, it still only applies to a radius of 600 feet from rail stations — 1,200 feet in designated P-street zones. Scudiero said those limits were chosen to keep the less car-centric development on arterial streets and out of neighborhoods. But two advocates said the ordinance should go farther, by applying to a wider area and eliminating all barriers to reduced parking. Since the amendment was not published before the hearing, neither were aware the ordinance had been watered down when they testified.

Peter Skosey, vice president of Metropolitan Planning Council, testified in support and suggested strengthening the ordinance. The phrase “train station,” he said, should be replaced with “fixed guideway station,” to identify TOD areas that will be created with the upcoming bus rapid transit project on Ashland Avenue. Skosey also suggested that P-street development rules, which include restrictions on curb cuts and drive-throughs, should also apply to the TOD areas, since transit stations are by nature pedestrian destinations.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, said that 1,200 feet would barely cover City Hall’s distance to the Washington Blue Line station. The building’s entrance, not on a P-Street, is 850 feet away as the crow flies and 1,100 feet by walking. Grimshaw said that a “larger radius would better support transit-dependent neighborhoods like Woodlawn” and pointed out that a half-mile radius would cover an area 20 times larger than the current proposal.

Grimshaw also suggested eliminating parking minimums altogether around train stations. “They’re costly to developers,” she said, “[the costs are] rolled into housing prices, typically up to one-fifth the cost of the unit.” She added that these costs disproportionately affect lower-income residents because they can least afford it. In place of the parking, she said that developers could build more units.

“CNT encourages the committee to remove these various restrictions,” Grimshaw concluded in her testimony. Later she told me over the phone, “We should allow the elimination of parking minimums as a right for developers and to reduce the amount of additional approvals at every step along the way… Anything that makes it more difficult to develop in transit zones, we are not supportive of.” CNT has published additional critiques of the ordinance on its website, specifically noting that the current proposal provides little incentive for developers to build in places CNT has identified as “Priority Development Areas,” including around the Addison Brown Line station and Polk Pink Line station.

  • CL

    I like the idea of eliminating minimums near train stations. If developers thought that parking would be valuable for the business, they could still build it if they wanted — and businesses that don’t need it, like bars or bike shops or low income housing, would be free to build without additional parking.

  • HJ

    A big disappointment, especially with the crushing late-add amendment, but it is a start in the right direction.

  • No parking for that eyesore on Division/Ashland? Not only ugly but impractical too. Bad news for that neighborhood in terms of congestion and parking wars.

  • We’ll see what happens once leasing for the 99 rental units starts in October.

    Part of the “planned development” (PD) arrangement between the city and the developer includes disallowing the tenants from applying for and receiving neighborhood parking permits.

  • CNT and MPC were pushing for an expansion of the ordinance but the aldermen took it in a different direction.

  • Exactly. It’s all optional.

  • Speaking as an amateur architecture fan, that building (which I wouldn’t say I find beautiful by any means) has one big thing going for it compared to a lot of other new construction: it’s trying to look like SOMETHING, which I consider (even if I dislike the specific aesthetic) immeasurably preferable to trying very hard to look like nothing.

    An awful, awful lot of new residential construction tries its very hardest to look like nothing at all, with blank flush smooth one-color brick all over, usually not even with highlighting light blocks near windows or in stripes or whatever. Bland boring awfulness. Similarly, featurelessly smooth reflective ‘International’ glass-front
    buildings (even if there’s a slight bluish tint to the glass — daring!)
    are trying their very best to blend in and look like nothing at all. At least if I can point at something and dislike it (like the Harold Washington Library, which manages somehow to have insanely high ceilings AND be claustrophobic in its first floor entry hallways), it’s worth disliking, instead of just being ‘meh’.

    Your Opinions May Vary, of course. :->

  • Anonymous

    THANK YOU for putting into words what I have been trying for years to figure out about the problem with the new buildings you describe. Thank you.

  • HJ

    Do we know which alderman submitted the amendment? Some public shaming is in order.

  • HJ

    Which makes it all the more mind blowing that such tight restrictions were placed on it.

  • Matt Nardella

    Parking is routinely overbuilt, leading to those ‘stick on a podium’ buildings. We’ve been lobbying for a maximum parking ratio and to eliminate the minimum parking requirement. There are so many buildings in the city that could benefit from an increase in density (thereby increasing inventory for affordable rentals), however, the minimum parking requirements make it nearly impossible to add dwelling units to a building. Apart from reducing the dependence on automobiles, a non-watered down version of this ordinance would go a long way towards increasing the supply of affordable housing.

  • tg

    that’s an awesome proposal allowing more density. a larger area would be good but even some is cool

  • tg

    eliot mason makes a good comment on the division street building.

    the harold washington library is one of my favorite buildings inside and out.

    It’s a unique and amazing building. it’s bold and elegant. much like harold washington. the interior ground level is very tame. the escalator/stairway
    feels like a high school with school mascots and bulletins. the art is cool but has an unintentional subliminal message that everybody has looked at and said you know those two words shouldn’t be so close together. the upper floors have some character with a 60’s and 70’s ish vibe.

  • tg

    eliot mason makes a good comment on the division street building.

    the harold washington library is one of my favorite buildings inside and out.

    It’s a unique and amazing building. it’s bold and elegant. much like harold washington. the interior ground level is very tame. the escalator/stairway
    feels like a high school with school mascots and bulletins. the art is cool but has an unintentional subliminal message that everybody has looked at and said you know those two words shouldn’t be so close together. the upper floors have some character with a 60’s and 70’s ish vibe.

  • I have yet to become attracted to a building’s parking podium leading me to believe it’s not possible to build an attractive parking podium. The only attractive parking structure is the one you can’t see.

  • Like @Alex_H:disqus I understand what you’re saying.

  • Now to ensure that developers know about this and start taking advantage of it in their proposals….

  • Now it’s up to firms like yours to educate clients on the new possibilities this ordinance opens in allowing them to save money building fewer parking spaces and in some cases receiving a density bonus.

    +1 for the bike parking-car parking swap requirement for developers who take the density bonus.

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