Traffic Aside, Does a Parking Garage Build Livable Neighborhoods?

Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago being demolished
The Shambhala house being demolished. Photo: Justin Haugens.

Colonel Jennifer Pritzker’s crews have demolished the attractive, 90-year-old house, formerly home to the Shambala meditation center, that stood on the Rogers Park lot where the billionaire plans to build a 250-car parking garage. The new structure would largely serve visitors to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Emil Bach House and residents at Farcroft by the Lake, an upscale apartment tower, both owned by Pritzker. Eighty-four spaces would be set aside for short- and long-term paid parking for the general public. However, the garage still requires the approval of the Chicago Plan Commission, which is on their October 17 meeting agenda.

There are two major problems with the garage, which opponents have dubbed the Lakefront Car Tower. The first, which we’ve discussed previously on Streetsblog, is the automobile traffic it will create. The developer’s traffic impact study says very little new traffic will be generated. However, the study doesn’t take into account how the estimated 2 percent increase in traffic, along with the garage’s entrance and exit driveways, will degrade conditions for walking and biking.

It’s also likely the 2 percent figure is overly optimistic. Every neighborhood “gets precisely as much traffic as space would allow,” according to architect Jan Gehl, known for helping New York City reclaim asphalt for public space, walking and biking.

The second problem is that this parking garage will be paid for twice. The first cost is the $150 per month community members will pay to park here (hourly rates will also be available). The second cost is the decrease in quality of life for Rogers Park residents. While the proposed design is about as attractive as any structure can be whose sole purpose is to warehouse cars, an entire block filled with a four-story structure with no ground-level retail is a boring vista for pedestrians. The garage will prevent the block being used to create more interesting places for residents to look at and and patronize, which would also generate more tax revenue.

Other downsides for pedestrians include the beeping noise when a car is exiting the garage, the signs that tell them to watch out for cars, and cars blocking the walking path. The developer’s traffic study predicts that 103 cars will enter and exit between 5 and 6 p.m., the same time people are walking home from the Red Line or bus, and taking their dogs out for a walk.

image640x480
23,000 square feet that can't be used for housing, retail, or parks.

Lastly, while the garage’s vast rooftop will include some landscaping, it will mostly be occupied by parking spaces, which means a net increase in the block’s non-permeable surfaces. That will lead to more storm water being dumped into the city’s sewer system, contributing to backups, and releases into Lake Michigan. That’s yet another aspect of the garage that fails the requirements of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, whose intent is to “maintain and improve the purity and quality of the waters of Lake Michigan.”

John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, called “Pritzker’s garage…way, way out of scale” against the backdrop of the natural landscape and urban skyline of Rogers Park, adding that it might be appropriate in the Loop or Schaumburg, “but not in a city neighborhood.”

Some neighbors have called the extra parking spaces a benefit to Rogers Park, but it comes at too high a cost. If parking is so valuable, why haven’t we set up a reasonable system to capture that value? Chicago has tens of thousands of curbside parking spots that are free to motorists and costly to the public, due to to pollution and maintenance costs. But because of the parking meter contract, the city can’t earn revenues from metered spaces. It will get some tax revenues from the garage spaces, but not nearly as much money as the garage’s owner will make. Residential parking permit fees – $25 annually where they’re in place, but are not applied to either block near the structure – could be increased. Additional revenues could be captured and used for a local parking benefit district to fund parkway and sidewalk maintenance, transit, and other initiatives to improve the mobility options for the neighborhood.

It’s a problem that new developments are empirically judged on their impact on car traffic and not their possible impacts on neighborhood livability. Rogers Park residents are essentially getting the equivalent of a self-storage locker facility, but one that will bring more auto traffic. The neighborhood deserves better.

  • Car traffic is quantifiable, “livability” isn’t really, which I suppose is why nobody really looks at projects that way. I remember doing a “neighborhood livability audit” as part of a very introductory urban planning course once. Maybe 3 pages of criteria. I’d like to see something like that transparent and available. But even things like that invite themselves to corruption and, well, lying, kind of like LEED certifications, which have been applied to parking garages…

  • Fred

    Doesn’t WalkScore attempt to at least partially quantify livability?

  • Ryan Lakes

    I would like to see restrictions imposed on parking structures that require them to have flat floor slabs, isolated auto ramps and more generous floor to floor heights so that they can be easily retrofitted into something useful in the future.

    Then, the questionable wisdom of building these structures could give way as soon as the potential for increased revenue through retail and other uses is realized.

    If I had my druthers I would also require that the facade be significantly varied/broken up at least visually along the length of the building, and that any pre-existing alleyways be preserved or brought back.

  • jared.kachelmeyer

    I thought it just gave you a walk score based on distance to nearby destinations.

  • Does walkscore also lessen the points if you have to cross busy roads to get to those places? Just wondering if it’s really a great measure of livability and quality of the walk versus just being in close proximity to places.

  • Anonymous

    “Residential parking permit fees – $25 annually where they’re in place, but are not applied to either block near the structure – could be increased.”

    Honest question(s):

    Do you actually favor permit parking?

    For it to work properly, don’t 100% of the spots anywhere near (at least w/in .5 mile) congested areas have to be either metered (or otherwise time-limited and actively monitored) or subject to permit (at least at high demand times)?

    Is that really better than a parking garage (not that the design of this one isn’t a dog, that could be much better)?

    ps: I hate free street parking even tho I use it. Would be fine if overnight street parking (in neighborhoods) required a second permit (in addition to city sticker) that was $100+/year, and that guest permits were $5+ each. But that (1) has unresolved externalities, and (2) isn’t politically feasible.

  • Ryan Lakes

    It’s ironic that such a massive structure is being built to, in part, serve as parking for the FLW Emil Bach House visitors which so beautifully relates to the proportions of its users and surrounding landscape (or did at the time of construction).

  • Charlie Short

    As someone who worked and lived in Rogers Park for quite a while, I’m mixed on this. As a proponent of Active Transportation, I would agree that bringing more parking will just bring more traffic. I also think that this structure will be WAY out of place, especially on that stretch of road. On the other hand, few landlords or developers offer parking solutions (of ANY kind) when they develop in Rogers Park, much less provide this level of support to the buildings they own. I’m not saying any solution is better than none (cause everyone would be great if they all just rode bikes,) but it’s a good sign when a landlord actually thinks about providing for it’s tenants, especially in RP. I’d guess a lot people who live there will feel as mixed as I do, it would be nice to hear about residents perspective.

  • R.A. Stewart

    “It’s a problem that new developments are empirically judged on their impact on car traffic …”

    And in Chicago, on the clout and wealth of the developer. Mustn’t forget the most important factor.

  • Chevanston

    Let’s ask Evanston what they think about their awful car towers. They seem to be doing just fine with the “overwhelming” traffic in their downtown. They also seem to be just fine raking in all the dough as well.

  • Charlie Short

    I think downtown Evanston is a case of “anything is better than what we had.” Downtown Evanston was a virtual ghost town 10-15 years ago and all of the development in those years has changed the downtown business district significantly. I wouldn’t draw a parallel to this RP development though, because so much of that Evanston garage space is used by commuters, particularly at the Benson/Davis garage. This RP development serves only the immediate area. Whether either is good though might be a separate discussion. To be very clear, I’m not sure the development in Evanston is good, I’m just saying it’s different.

  • Chevanston

    Yes its different, ofcourse it is. Alot of the parking downtown is also for people who live there. Condo towers on top of pedestals. All those condo dwellers have to live somewhere.

    I dont think downtown Evanston is anything is better than before.

    My point is, is that if its good enough for ultraliberal Evanston its good enough for RP in my book. And Evanston is definitely thriving. Rogers Park could use the money that the car drivers who park there (either visitors or people living here) have to spend.

  • Charlie Short

    I lived close to that location in RP, and unfortunately, anyone who knows parking there is going to be positive about this development. My sister just moved from RP because she and her husband had to park at least 3 blocks from their apartment. When I lived there, parking often meant walking 4 city blocks or more at night. It was the pits.

  • Anonymous

    God forbid anyone walk anywhere.

  • Chevanston

    @ Alex H, people will park their cars there and then walk. It will increase positive foot traffic to 7301 N Sheridan, the FLW and Farcroft and to Jarvis and Greenview.

  • m.

    So many people would like to live that close to the lake on such a nice street.

  • dbekken

    Walking after dark in Rogers Park is not recommended for most

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