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The Suburbanophile: Renn Praises Chicago Big-Boxes, Pans Ashland BRT

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Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal, writes the popular blog The Urbanophile, and sometimes his articles are right on the money. For example Streetblog NYC reporter Stephen Miller tells me Renn was justified in complaining about the high cost of New York infrastructure projects in a Daily News op-ed earlier this year.

However, the Chicago-centric piece that Renn published today in the urban planning site NewGeography.com, cofounded by pro-sprawl guru Joel Kotkin, is a real doozy. He argues that our city’s Ashland Bus Rapid Transit project is example of wrongheaded one-size-fits-all thinking by car-hating urbanists that’s about “actively making things worse for drivers.”

Renn, a former Chicagoan, actually makes some good points about the benefits of transit-oriented development and protected bike lanes in the article. I even agree with his assertion that, for many residents, the fact that Chicago offers numerous sustainable transportation options, as well as the ability to own, drive and park a car relatively cheaply and conveniently, represents “the best of both worlds.” He argues that, along with more affordable housing prices, the fact that it’s easy to live with or without with a car in Chicago is one of its main advantages over peer cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston.

However, the article goes south when the author, who currently lives in Manhattan, argues that big-box stores with vast parking moats are one of Chicago’s finest features. He tells a harrowing tale of trying to whip up a batch of artisanal mayonnaise, only to discover that his local grocery store in the Upper West Side didn’t stock the right kind of olive oil.

“I can assure you in my old place in Chicago, one quick trip to Jewel or any of the other plentiful supermarkets would have taken care of that,” he writes. “Stores like that, or like Sam’s Wine and Spirits and host of others, only exist because they are able to draw from a trade area served by the car, and because people can buy large quantities best transported by car.”

A more serious problem with Renn’s piece is his assertion that the Ashland BRT project would be a case of transit advocates intentionally “degrading the urban environment” for drivers, which would make Chicago a less livable city. The plan calls for converting two of the four travel lanes on Ashland Avenue to dedicated, center-running bus lanes, which would require the elimination of most left turns off of the street.

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Dense Thinking: CNT Staffers Discuss the TOD Reform Ordinance

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This TOD development at 2211 N. Milwaukee will have 120 units but only 60 parking spaces. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece also appears in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Believe it or not, back in the early nineties, ex-mayor Richard M. Daley was planning to tear out an entire branch of the El system. “The Lake Street branch of what’s now the Green Line had terrible slow zones and you could almost walk to Oak Park faster,” recalls Jacky Grimshaw, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s vice president for policy. “The mayor and the CTA president wanted to take it down.”

Grimshaw says this moment of crisis was the birth of Chicago’s transit-oriented development movement, a push to create dense, parking-light housing and retail near rapid-transit stations in order to reduce car dependency. CNT and the West Side community organization Bethel New Life teamed up to present the CTA with a plan for TOD near the Lake/Pulaski stop, but it fell on deaf ears.

However, after Grimshaw penned a “woodsman spare this tree” op-ed for the Tribune, Daley apparently took notice. Soon afterwards, she says, the CTA managed to find $364 million in funding from leftover projects to pay for rehabbing the Lake Street branch, according to Grimshaw.

Chicago’s TOD movement has picked up steam over the past couple years. In 2013, City Council passed its first TOD ordinance, sponsored by First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno. The city’s zoning code generally mandates a one-to-one ratio of parking spots to housing units in new or rehabbed buildings. However, the 2013 law cuts that requirement in half for parcels within 600 feet of a rapid-transit stop, 1,200 feet on a designated Pedestrian Street, and allows higher density within these districts.

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State Transportation Department Is Refusing to Provide Crash Data to Citizens

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Ghost bike memorial to Blanca Ocasio who was fatally struck in 2007 while cycling at Kedzie and Armitage. Six months later, Amanda Annis was killed while biking at the same intersection. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Crash data from the Illinois Department of Transportation is important for the work we do here at Streetsblog Chicago. For example, we recently looked up statistics from IDOT’s Illinois Safety Data Mart crash database in order to investigate the Chicago Department of Transportation’s claim that they intend to close a street in Jefferson Park due to safety concerns. Although the database website has been offline for a while, Streetsblog’s Steven Vance requests the data from the state each year and uses it to update his website the Chicago Crash Browser.

The crash data is also crucial for transportation professionals in the private sector, since it’s a core component in analyzing any transportation network. For example, it’s next-to-impossible to create a quality pedestrian or bike plan without being able to identify crash hotspots. It’s also important for citizens to be able to find out circumstances around crashes in their communities, or find out how safe their streets are.

However, a source tells us that the state is no longer fulfilling crash data requests from nongovernmental entities – including planning firms and advocacy organizations – or the general public, and the state doesn’t plan to bring the Safety Data Mart website back online. “The thing is, in the past, we’ve gotten really good customer service from IDOT, with a fast turnaround,” the source said. “And the Data Mart was really useful – you could type in the location and types of crashes you were looking for and it would populate a map for you, or you could ask them to send you a spreadsheet with the data.”

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How the New TOD Ordinance Could Save a Rejected Jeff Park Development

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Rendering of the proposed development.

Last Tuesday, the city’s Community Development Commission put the brakes on Mega Realty’s plan to build a housing and retail development on two vacant lots located a five-minute walk from the Jefferson Park Transit Center. One of the parcels is city-owned, and the commission voted against a proposal to give the land, valued at $530,000, to the developer free of charge.

The plan for the lots at 5161 and 5201 W. Lawrence Ave. calls for a four-story structure with 39 rental apartments and 11 storefronts. The project would include 62 parking spots: 41 for tenants and 21 for the commercial uses, so the ratio of housing units to residential parking spaces would be slightly higher than the 1:1 ratio required at this location by the city’s current zoning code.

It’s unclear exactly why the CDC rejected the proposal, which was championed by 45th Ward Alderman John Arena, who said the development would serve as a “grand gateway” for Jefferson Park. Arena has argued that it makes sense for the city to give the land to Mega Realty, because the parcel has sat vacant for 13 years and the development would generate an estimated $175,000 a year in property taxes.

The alderman told DNAinfo he is looking into to the reasons why the commission voted against the land transfer, and investigating ways to salvage the project.”Make no mistake, I am not giving up on this initiative, which would help revitalize the downtown Jefferson Park commercial district,” he said.

Time is running out before a new ordinance takes effect on October 13, which would require the developer to include on-site affordable housing units, or else pay $500,000 into the city’s affordable housing fund — the current “in lieu” fee is only $400,000. Mega Realty and Arena have said missing this deadline would make the project financially unfeasible.

Map of proposed mixed-use development on Lawrence Ave

The site is less than three blocks from a major transit center and local shopping.

However, City Council may also be approving an expansion of Chicago’s 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance, as early as September 24. If this legislation passes, it might be possible for Mega Realty to add affordable units in order to comply with the new housing ordinance, yet still maintain an acceptable profit margin.

The 2013 TOD ordinance halves the parking requirements for residential developments within 600 feet of rapid transit stations, and provides density bonuses for some projects within this zone. On designated Pedestrian Streets, the TOD district is expanded to 1,200 feet.

Last fall, Arena was successful in his effort to have this stretch of Lawrence, and other sections of Lawrence and Milwaukee Avenue in Jefferson Park designated as P-Streets. The alderman deserves credit for this move, since the designation requires that new developments promote a walkable environment, and bans new auto-centric land uses like strip malls and drive-throughs.

Since 5161 and 5201 W. Lawrence Ave. have been fallow for so long, the path of least resistance would have been for Arena to allow a developer build any kind of tax-generating project on the site, even if it was a car-focused land use that degraded the pedestrian environment. Instead, the alderman pushed for walkable development, which is much more appropriate for this transit-friendly location.

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Will the Return of the Ashland Express Bus Lay the Groundwork for Full BRT?

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A sign for the old X49 Western Express. Photo: John Dunlevy

This morning Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CTA President Dorval Carter announced the return of the #X9 Ashland Express and #X49 Western Express buses. These limited-stop, morning through evening routes formerly paralleled the #9 Ashland and #49 Western local bus lines. While the stops for the local routes are generally spaced a mere one-eighth of a mile apart, the express buses only stopped every half-mile or so, for a roughly 75-percent reduction in stops.

The old #X9 and #X49 routes had good ridership because they offered modest savings in travel times compared to the locals. For example, the CTA estimates that the Ashland express bus traveled an average of 10.3 mph during rush hour, including stops, compared to the 8.7 mph local buses. However, the Ashland and Western express bus routes were eliminated due to funding shortfalls back in 2010, along with nearly every other Chicago express route, save for the Lake Shore Drive lines.

The city plans to make the new #x9 and #x49, as well as the locals, run somewhat faster than before by adding a bus rapid transit-style feature on Western and Ashland. Transit-signal priority will be implemented on these streets, so that stoplights will turn green earlier or change to red later to keep all buses from being delayed. Fewer stops plus TSP means express bus riders will save up to 22 minutes on trips along each route, compared to the current local service, according to the CTA.

The #9 Ashland is currently the CTA’s highest-ridership bus line, while the #49 Western has the third-highest ridership, after the #79 bus on 79th Street. The agency predicts that the new express service will lead to a four-percent increase in ridership on the Ashland route, according to its application for a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant, which will help bankroll the TSP features.

Of course, an express bus ride that’s, say, seven minutes shorter than traveling the same stretch on a local bus doesn’t save you any time if you wait ten minutes longer to catch the express. Hopefully, the #X9 and #X49 will have short headways to maximize the time savings for customers. Otherwise, it might make more sense for riders to simply board the first bus that shows up, rather than wait longer for an express.

Meanwhile, the CTA also plans to speed up the local bus service on these streets by eliminating some of the least-used stops, a strategy that the agency says could save #9 and #49 riders up to 12 minutes per trip. The CTA will undertake a community input process this fall to solicit feedback about the stop consolidation plan.

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No Bike or Walking Goals in Rahm’s New Transition Plan, But TOD Is a Priority

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Construction has started on a new TOD project at the former site of the “Punkin’ Donuts” at Belmont and Clark. Photo: John Greenfield

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago 2011 Transition Plan set several bold goals for sustainable transportation, many of which have already been achieved. Emanuel’s first transition team included a number of heavy-hitters from the local transportation advocacy scene, including representatives of the Active Transportation Alliance, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and the SRAM Cycling Fund. Their influence was evident in the document’s big plans for transit, walking, and biking.

As promised in the 2011 transition plan, the CTA overhauled the South Red Line within Emanuel’s first term. The agency launched the Jeffery Jump express bus service, began the Loop Link downtown bus rapid transit project, and started the planning process for BRT on Ashland Avenue. The Chicago Department of Transportation published the city’s first pedestrian plan and introduced a number of pedestrian safety initiatives. And, as outlined in the transition plan, CDOT launched the Divvy bike-share system, built the Bloomingdale Trail, and came close to achieving the goal of installing 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within four years.

In contrast, when Emanuel appointed his second-term transition team last April, it didn’t include any transportation experts, except for then-CTA president Forrest Claypool. The mayor asked the team to focus on ideas for strengthening City Hall’s public engagement process, driving economic growth in the neighborhoods, and expanding early-childhood education. As a result, the committee’s report on priority policy recommendations, released this morning, has relatively little transportation content.

The main transportation-related initiative in the new document is a call for expanding transit-oriented development as a way to foster economic growth in the neighborhoods. The 2011 transition plan called for supporting “development near transit stations, including zoning changes to enable transit-oriented development.”

In 2013, those changes became a reality, when City Council passed Chicago’s first TOD ordinance. In general, it halved the parking requirements for residential developments within 600 feet of rapid transit stations, 1,200 feet on designated Pedestrian Streets, as well as providing density bonuses for some developments.

Last month, Emanuel introduced a reform ordinance that would eliminate the parking requirement altogether within the TOD districts, which would be expanded to within a quarter-mile of stations, and a half-mile on P-Streets. The new report lists Emanuel’s first-term public transportation accomplishments and argues that promoting more TOD is a way to capitalize on these:

To maximize the economic value created by this investment, the City should promote greater density and development near transit locations. Transit-Oriented Development reduces costly car congestion by promoting walkable streets and commuting by public transit. It also promotes healthy commercial corridors that offer the amenities needed to keep families in Chicago.

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Yes, Lakeview Needs More Transit-Oriented Development

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Brown Line commuters pass by a TOD construction site next to the Paulina station. Photo: John Greenfield

At a panel discussion hosted Wednesday night by the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and Lake View Citizens’ Council, two local urban planners and a small business owner explained why they’re supporting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed TOD reform ordinance. The new legislation, which City Council could vote on as early as September 24, would dramatically expand the zones around rapid transit stations in which developers are freed from the city’s usual parking minimums and can build at a higher density. This would make it easier for Chicago to grow its population while maximizing the number of residents who have access to low cost transportation.

At the forum, titled “Does Lakeview Need More TOD?,” Center for Neighborhood Technology planner Kyle Smith told the audience that there are two different ways to define TOD. First, there’s the wonk’s definition of TOD as building higher-density, parking-lite development close to train stations. However, he said a better way to think about TOD is “communities built for people, not for cars, so that you can live your life without having to own a car.”

Peter Skosey, executive vice president at the Metropolitan Planning Council, noted that Chicago lost 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010. “TOD is a great way to provide options in urban places,” he said, adding that it can help Chicago regain its lost population.

Panel member Lisa Santos has owned Southport Grocery at 3552 N. Southport Ave. for 12 years. She said her store and other local businesses need a bigger and more diverse clientele in order to maintain and grow sales. She said that more TOD will help “develop a neighborhood for the next generation.”

Earlier this year, the chamber and CNT produced a report about housing and population changes near the Brown Line’s Southport and Paulina stations in West Lakeview. It found that the number of nearby housing units within a half mile of each ‘L’ stop decreased by 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively, from 2000 to 2011. The number of small apartments – studios and one-bedrooms – dropped by 33 percent. “Younger folks choose these apartments,” Smith said, adding that if compact units aren’t available, it’s harder for them to afford living in Lakeview.

Skosey mentioned that Chicago’s population is growing at one-fifth the rate of Minneapolis, “so it’s not the weather” that’s holding Chicago back. Building more housing near train stations is a way Chicago can leverage our relatively robust transit system to encourage growth.

However, at community meetings about proposed TOD projects in Chicago, many neighbors seem to view additional density as a problem. They appear to be more worried about preserving their own access to free on-street parking than reversing our city’s population loss. Read more…

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Eyes on the Street: The New Normal on Clybourn Avenue

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Bicycle rush hour on a new curb-protected lane on Clybourn. Photo: John Greenfield

The Lakefront Trail. Milwaukee Avenue. The 606. And Clybourn Avenue?

The first three Chicago routes are known for having massive amounts of bicycle traffic during rush hours, and anytime the weather is nice. With the advent of its new curb-protected bike lanes, it looks like Clybourn is joining this elite club.

The Illinois Department of Transportation began building this new bikeway in May, with assistance from the Chicago Department of Transportation. It includes Clybourn from Hasted Street to Division Street, and Division from Clybourn to Orleans Street. Read more details about the project here.

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Photo: John Greenfield

The fact that the state is building it is particularly notable because IDOT previously blocked CDOT from installing protected bike lanes on state jurisdiction roads within the city of Chicago. After cyclist Bobby Cann was fatally struck by an allegedly drunk, speeding driver at Clybourn and Larrabee Street, the state announced they would pilot the curb-protected lanes at this location.

The curbs are already largely completed on Division and the northwest-bound side of Clybourn. The southeast-bound bike lane is partially finished. IDOT plans to wrap up the entire bikeway this month, according to a press release.

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Eyes on the Street: Checking Out the “Mistake by the Lake” Parking Garage

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Photo: John Greenfield

I have a confession to make. When I wrote Monday’s post about the brand new parking garage that billionaire developer Jennifer Pritzker opened at Sheridan Road and Sherwin Avenue in Roger Park, I hadn’t actually checked it out in person.

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The house that the garage replaced. Photo: Kelly Loris

However, a visit yesterday during the evening rush confirmed most of the criticisms about the structure. The monolithic, 250-spot facility looks out of place alongside historic buildings on Sheridan. It replaces a colorful, 90-year-old house that formerly housed a meditation center, which had an attractive yard with several tall trees. Since the garage has zero retail and presents a blank face to pedestrians, it’s a much less interesting property to walk past.

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This streetscape isn’t awful, but it would be more interesting with retail. Photo: John Greenfield

The parking structure is a five-minute walk from the Red Line’s Jarvis stop, and a two-minute stroll to the beach, so it occupies valuable land that would have been much better utilized by housing. And the garage entrance and exit on Sherwin further degrades the pedestrian environment by forcing people on foot to watch out for cars crossing the sidewalk.

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Cars entering and leaving the garage will be a hazard for pedestrians. Photo: John Greenfield

It was hard to gauge how much impact the facility will have on traffic congestion in the neighborhood, since — probably due to its newness — the garage was mostly empty when I stopped by. But it’s safe to predict that the structure will encourage more tenants of the nearby, Pritzker-owned Farcroft by the Lake rental tower and visitors to Frank Llloyd Wright’s Emil Bach house to bring cars into the neighborhood. Other residents can rent monthly spaces for $125, which further promotes car ownership.

That said, seeing the facility with my own eyes also confirmed that it’s probably one the most attractive structures ever built that has no function whatsoever except to stack automobiles. The garage also gets points for its louvered green glass panels, which provide plenty of airflow, eliminating the need to use power for a ventilation system. And it’s certainly a good thing that the structure has spaces for car-sharing vehicles, plus an electric vehicle charging station.

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Moore OKed Pritzker Projects That Will Bring Hundreds of Cars to Rogers Park

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People walking on Sherwin now have to watch out for cars entering and leaving the new garage. Photo: 49th Ward

As I’ve written before, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore is one of the more progressive members of City Council, and he’s generally got a good record on walking, transit, and biking issues. However, Moore and billionaire real estate developer Jennifer Pritzker have become a dynamic duo when it comes to bringing auto-centric structures to Rogers Park. These buildings will only make the neighborhood more car-dependent.

Pritzker, too, deserves credit for being a historic preservationist and a bike advocate. But her development firm, Tawani Enterprises, recently completed a 250-spot parking garage a stone’s throw from the Lakefront and the Red Line’s Jarvis station. Her next project is a 45-unit rental complex with a whopping 75 car spots, virtually next door to the Morse ‘L’ stop. Moore has enabled Pritzker to move forward with both of these car-focused projects by approving the necessary zoning changes.

The alderman signed off on the garage in June of 2013. Located at the southeast corner of Sheridan Road and Sherwin Avenue, it replaced an attractive, 90-year-old home that formerly housed the Shambhala Meditation Center. The new structure will serve two nearby, Pritzker-owned buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Emil Bach House, and Farcroft by the Lake, an upscale rental tower. 60 parking spaces are reserved for Farcroft residents, 84 spaces are set aside for short- and long-term paid parking for the general public, and 106 spaces will be used during Bach House events, and will be available to the public at other times.

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While the garage isn’t hideous, it’s pretty boring to walk past.

Many local residents bitterly opposed the garage for several reasons. They argued that the monolithic structure would be out of place besides historic buildings on Sheridan and, with zero retail and a blank façade, it would make the business strip less lively. Worse, drivers entering and exiting the garage would endanger people walking on Sherwin.

Meanwhile, the hundreds of new parking spots would serve as a massive traffic generator. More cars in the neighborhood would make it harder for pedestrians to cross the street, and create traffic congestion for bus riders and more hazardous conditions for bicyclists.

In a message to constituents this morning, Moore heralded the recent opening of the parking structure. “This is not your run of the mill parking garage,” he wrote, touting its high-quality materials, roughly 5,000 square feet of ground-level green space and 800 square feet of greenery on the roof. While I don’t agree that the structure is “a stunning addition to Sheridan,” I’ll concede that it’s about as attractive as any building can be whose sole purpose is to warehouse autos.

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