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Montrose Green TOD Actually Fits Its Neighborhood Just Fine

Montrose Green

A year-old city ordinance could allow a neighborhood restaurant, not car parking spaces, to face the ‘L’ station entrance.

Developer David Brown wants to bring a neighborhood restaurant to a site right outside the the Chicago Transit Authority’s Montrose Brown Line station, along with 24 apartments, a small office space, and 10 car parking spaces. The city’s zoning ordinance would ordinarily require him to fill the entire ground floor of his proposed five-story Montrose Green building with 24 parking spaces. However, Brown has requested that 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar change the site’s zoning to permit more housing and less parking, under what the city terms transit-oriented development.

A meeting last week hosted by Brown and Pawar drew some of the usual complaints about the neighborhood having too many cars and too little on-street parking. For example, DNAinfo quoted Kristina Stevens saying, “Most of these people, I believe, are going to have cars and park on our streets. Taking the train does not mean you don’t own a car.”

In fact, many of Montrose Green’s neighbors in North Center take the train (and bus) and don’t own cars — and the new building would help even more make car-lite choices, and accelerate a neighborhood-wide (and nationwide) trend towards less driving.

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Montrose Green actually provides more car parking spaces per resident (but fewer per unit) than current zoning requirements. Image: David Brown

42 percent of households in the building will be able to store a car behind the building, a percentage that nearly matches the 46 percent of households in nearby Census tracts who own one car. Even fewer residents own cars in the tracts closest to the Brown Line.

Not only are there fewer cars than one might expect in the neighborhood, there’s also less vehicle traffic — and even less with every passing year. Vehicle counts on Montrose, between Western and Ashland, show 42 percent fewer cars (5,000 cars per day) between 2006 and 2010, the most recent data available. Car traffic also declined by 23 percent, or 2,400 cars, on Damen across Montrose. Since then, citywide miles driven people have continued to fall, dropping by 4.4 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Meanwhile, transit use in North Center has gone up across the board, even though the surrounding Census tracts have shown minimal population growth. Brown Line boardings at Montrose increased by nearly 20 percent between 2010 and 2013, across both weekdays and weekends — a sign that people aren’t just using transit for work, but also for errands and social trips. (Fully 47.5 percent of local residents do take transit to work.) Bus ridership on the #78 Montrose bus increased by over 10 percent over the same period, as well.

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City Has 83 Miles of Better Bike Lanes, Will Surpass 100 Mile Goal in 2015

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Crews stripe Kinzie Street, Chicago’s first protected bike lane, three and a half years ago. Photo: Brandon Souba

The Chicago Department of Transportation has nearly reached Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s much-ballyhooed goal of building 100 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes during his first term. CDOT staff at last week’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting said that they’ve striped 83 miles of the better bike lanes so far, and plan to surpass the 100-mile mark next spring.

2014 saw substantial progress made on building out the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. 34 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes were striped this year, and now such lanes exist in 38 of the city’s 50 wards. As in prior years, almost all of these bike lanes have been buffered, rather than fully protected: This year, 30.75 miles of buffered lanes, and only 3.25 miles of protected lanes, were installed. Another nine miles of streets saw sharrows or conventional bike lanes added in 2014.

An additional 31.5 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes have been designed, and are planned for installation by the end of spring 2015 — giving the city a grand total of 114.5 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes.

Additional greenways, curb separated bikeways, and other safety improvements continue to be coordinated with the city’s ongoing street resurfacing projects. Yet work on some street could always be coordinated better, as with the recently repaved stretch of Garfield Boulevard between King Drive and the Dan Ryan Expressway. That project also included bulb-outs and improved pedestrian crossings, but bike lanes remain only a future possibility. Garfield, from Western Avenue to King Drive, is marked as a “Crosstown Bike Route” in the Streets for Cycling Plan.

A neighborhood greenway is being studied along 97th Street, west of the Dan Ryan and the Red Line’s 95th Street station. If it’s completed, the greenway would include a contraflow bike lane along Lafayette, between 95th and 97th, to link the bikeway to the busy station.

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Could Rauner Stop the Illiana Boondoggle? Sure. But Will He?

Rich guy Bruce Rauner running for Illinois governor

Rauner says he needs to “see the studies” on the Illiana before making a decision on whether it should continue.

The Illiana Tollway, a joint proposal by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation to build a 47-mile highway through thinly populated farmland about 40 miles south of Chicago, rolled over another hurdle yesterday when the Federal Highway Administration approved the project’s environmental impact study. FHWA’s approval allows IDOT and InDOT to proceed with soliciting bids for the highway.

In a press release, IDOT called the FHWA’s “record of decision” an endorsement of the project and process. IDOT, of course, is reading too much into this: FHWA didn’t endorse the project by awarding it a huge grant. Instead, FHWA merely acknowledged that the Illiana meets the federal government’s minimum justification standard for highways. Even though the Illiana might meet that bare minimum, the FHWA isn’t putting its own money on the line. Rather, FHWA has simply said that Illinois is now free to waste its own money on the project.

This monstrous boondoggle – one of the most wasteful road projects in the entire country – surely won’t be stopped by IDOT or by any agency, like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, dependent on IDOT. The federal government’s involvement concluded with the EIS review, so it’s now out of the picture. It’s up to governor-elect Bruce Rauner to put an an end to this travesty.

Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently told the Better Government Association that Rauner “has the authority to shelve [Illiana]. He doesn’t have to ask anyone.” Schlickman added that, because the Illiana is “moving so rapidly,” Rauner will need to act quickly and decisively. IDOT is just weeks, or months, away from formally issuing a Request for Proposals to its short list of bidders, and award contracts soon afterwards.

Rauner told the Tribune’s editorial board in September that he didn’t know if the Illiana should be built, and that he’d “have to see the studies” before making that decision. In the past, he’s hedged on the issue – both saying that the project “may have the potential to be an economic development engine,” but also that IDOT’s public-private partnership shouldn’t leave taxpayers “holding the bag.”

If Rauner does take a close look at the studies, he’ll find that the Illiana’s economic development “potential” lies entirely in Indiana, and that the state’s $1.3 billion would create just 940 jobs through 2040. The editorial board directly asked Rauner if he had seen the studies, and wrote then that “there is no upside” to the road.

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CDOT Tweaks Randolph/Michigan, But It’s Still Dysfunctional for Pedestrians

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The new right turn signal at Randolph/Michigan. Photo: John Greenfield

When you build a fabulous new attraction in the center of a bustling metropolis, you obviously want to maximize pedestrian access to make it easy for large numbers of people to walk there, right? That’s not what happened with Millennium Park.

A month after the music and art venue opened in the summer of 2004, drawing big crowds of pedestrians, the city actually took steps that made it more difficult to access the park on foot. After observing many conflicts between pedestrians crossing Michigan and motorists turning left onto the avenue, city traffic engineers solved the problem – by eliminating the pedestrians.

The Chicago Department of Transportation ground out crosswalks and barricaded corners at several intersections. Most egregiously, they removed the crosswalk at the south leg of Michigan/Randolph. At the time, a CDOT spokesman told me it was done because of safety concerns. Conveniently for motorists, however, eliminating this pedestrian movement also facilitated southbound turns onto Michigan by drivers heading west on Randolph.

The city spent $51,000 to install bollards and chains at the southwest and southeast corners of this intersection, deterring people from walking directly from the Chicago Cultural Center (which houses the city’s main visitor info center) to Millennium Park. Instead, pedestrians are now expected to cross the street three times to make the same move: north across Randolph, east across Michigan, then south across Randolph again. In addition to creating a major detour across 19 lanes of traffic, this made the remaining crosswalks more crowded.

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Formerly you could cross directly between the southwest corner and the southeast. Now it takes three crossings to make the same trip.

When the Emanuel administration took over in 2011, the appointment of forward-thinking transportation commissioner Gabe Klein suggested that this kind of cars-first planning might be a thing of the past. Shortly after he started at CDOT, I asked Klein if for his take on the Michigan Avenue situation, and the fact that the city had also taken out the midblock crosswalk between Buckingham Fountain and the lakefront in 2004.

“The Randolph/Michigan issue is interesting,” he said. “I don’t like it, from the standpoint that I would like to give priority to the pedestrians that we’re relying on to populate the park. Having said that, if the crosswalk was taken out because of safety concerns, then we really have to look at Michigan Avenue, which I think is just a problem.”

Klein added that he would like to reinstall the Buckingham crosswalk, and a few months later, CDOT did just that. Last summer, the department restriped the crossing at the north leg of Washington/Michigan, the main entrance to the park.

However, the Randolph/Michigan intersection has remained unchanged – until this fall. In October, CDOT installed a new right-turn arrow signal for drivers heading west on Randolph and turning north on Michigan. A recent newsletter from 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, who bankrolled the project with ward money, claimed the new dedicated right-turn phase is reducing congestion.

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MPC Hopes “Transportation Woes” Survey Will Get Lawmakers’ Attention

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CTA bus bunching: A transportation frustration everybody loves to hate. Photo: Argonne National Laboratories

Have you had it up to here with crumbling sidewalks and faded crosswalks? Are you sick of pedaling over lousy pavement, or barely visible bike lanes? Fed up with CTA bus routes that have already stopped running by the time you need a lift home, or Metra trains that never seem to run on time? Frustrated that there aren’t more east-west and north-south rapid transit lines, instead of just spoke routes?

Don’t get mad, get involved with the “Illinois Transportation Woes” survey. Yesterday, the Metropolitan Planning Council launched the new questionnaire for Chicago and Illinois residents, to find out what people’s top transportation frustrations are and what they would be willing to pay to overcome those challenges. They plan to use the survey results, along with photo and video documentation provided by participants, to let legislators know their constituents are upset about the current state of transportation in Illinois, and that they support increasing taxes and fees to fund better infrastructure

“With all the issues state lawmakers are facing, transportation hasn’t really risen to the top of their concerns,” MPC spokeswoman Mandy Burrell Booth said. “But we think there’s a big pent-up demand for better Illinois transportation options. We want to inform our legislators about this during their January session. There’s a growing consensus among civic groups that our leaders need to hear this.”

The survey isn’t directly related to the Active Transportation Alliance and Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Transit Future revenue campaign, or the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Fund 2040 proposal to raise money for smart infrastructure investments. However, all of these groups, plus the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Automobile Association, are teaming up with MPC to get the word out about the questionnaire.

Booth hopes that several hundred people will fill out the first half of they survey, which asks about participants’ transportation habits, their level of satisfaction with their commute, and their understanding of how state transportation improvements are funded. The survey then notes that the state gas tax is currently 19 cents per gallon, and only costs the average Illinoisan $8.25 a month. Respondents are asked if they’d be willing to pay more in gas tax in order to fund transportation enhancements and, if so, how much.

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Logan Square NIMBYs Don’t Understand the Value of Housing Density

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Save Our Boulevards’ unintentionally hilarious flyer.

There must be something in the water along Milwaukee Avenue, since lately Logan Square NIMBYs have been giving their Jefferson Park counterparts a run for their money. Exhibit A is an unintentionally hilarious flyer protesting plans for transit-oriented development in Logan, circulated by the local group Save Our Boulevards.

As reported by DNAinfo, the handout, headlined “1,500 Units Coming to You,” warns residents that fixie-pedaling, Sazerac-sipping “hipsters” will be moving into the parking-lite buildings. SOB insists that, even though these hypothetical bohemians will bike everywhere, they’ll simultaneously create a car-parking crunch and clog the roads.

The flyer cites an October 28 Curbed Chicago article reporting that nearly new 1,500 apartment units are currently planned for Milwaukee between Grand and Diversey. The development boom is in response to the demand for housing along the Blue Line, largely from young adults who want a convenient commute to downtown jobs. It’s worth noting that only about a third of this 4.5-mile stretch lies within Logan Square.

“Many of these [apartment buildings] have little or no parking,” the handout states. “Parking space is important to most of us. Most of us don’t ride our bikes to work. Most of us think density and congestion adversely affect our quality of life.”

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This man is not coming to steal your car-parking spot. Photo John Greenfield

SOB scolds 1st Ward Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno for paving the way for more density, since he supported the city’s 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance. The new law makes it easier for developers to build relatively tall buildings near transit stops, and halves the number of required parking spaces.

“Tell [Moreno] to stop representing the hipsters who don’t live here, but want to move her [sic], drink fancy cocktails for a few years, and then move to the suburbs because it’s too congested and their friends can’t find a place to park,” the flyer exhorts. Obviously, this is pretty scrambled logic.

Ironically, SOB was formed in 2011 as an anti-parking group. Back then, 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón introduced an ordinance that legalized the longstanding practice of church parishioners parking in the travel lanes of Logan Square boulevards on Sundays. It also permitted weekend parking on the lanes by drivers patronizing local businesses. The neighborhood group argued that this practice detracted from the historic character of the boulevard system.

Nowadays, SOB is particularly upset about a plan to build two 11- and 15-story towers on vacant lots at 2293 North Milwaukee, just southeast of the California/Milwaukee intersection and the California Blue stop. The development would have 250 housing units, but only 72 parking spaces, as opposed to the standard 1:1 ratio.

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City Writing New Rules of the Road to Allow Shared Space on Argyle Street

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A rendering of the new street configuration on Argyle.

The Chicago Department of Transportation is currently hashing out an ordinance to regulate how motorists will behave on the Argyle “shared street” [PDF], a pedestrian-priority zone slated for construction next year. The streetscape project — the first of its kind in Chicago — will create a plaza-like feel along Argyle from Broadway to Sheridan, by raising the street level and eliminating curbs. Slow motorized traffic and car parking will still be permitted on the street, but pedestrians will rule the space.

In late August, 48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman released the final designs for the street, which will be lined with pavers from building line to building line. Two or three different colors of pavers, as well as trees and other street furniture, will be used to differentiate between travel lanes, parking lanes, and a pedestrian-only zone.

The speed limit will be lowered to 10 mph, which will allow pedestrians to safely cross the street throughout the block — not just at crosswalks — and make it make it comfortable for cyclists to ride in the center of the travel lanes. Other features will include wider pedestrian-only spaces to make room for outdoor cafes, plus permeable pavers, and bioswales. A colorful pillar, emblazoned with the word “Argyle,” will stand in a median at the Broadway intersection, complementing the strip’s existing “Asia on Argyle” sign.

Work to replace gas and water lines on Argyle will take place in January and February, respectively, according to Osterman’s assistant Sara Dinges. The streetscape construction is scheduled to begin in April and wrap up by the end of 2015. “We want to emphasize that Argyle businesses will be open during the construction, so we want people to continue to support them,” she said.

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The border between the pedestrian-only area and parking will undulate, creating a gentle chicane.

The merchants will likely be rewarded for their patience during construction with a boost in sales after the work is finished. Studies from London found that economic activity increased on streets after shared spaces were built. Meanwhile, traffic injuries and deaths decreased by 43 percent, and drivers became 14 percent more likely to stop for pedestrians.

At a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting last month, CDOT Complete Streets Director Janet Attarian noted that Chicago’s municipal code currently doesn’t allow for speed limits to be reduced below 20 mph. The code also only gives pedestrians the right-of-way within designated crosswalks on roadways.

Therefore, the department is working on an ordinance to define shared streets, designating them as locations where a lower speed limit is permissible and where drivers must stop for pedestrians anywhere along the corridor, Attarian said. Once the ordinance is drafted, Osterman will introduce it to City Council, according to Dinges.

Cambridge, Massachusetts [PDF] has built successful shared streets on Winthrop and Palmer streets, two narrow streets around historic Harvard Square. In conjunction with this, the city added language to its vehicular code mandating that that all vehicle operators, including cyclists, must yield to pedestrians on shared streets. The ordinance also states that operators must travel at a speed that ensures pedestrian safety, and that speeds over 10 mph on shared streets are “considered hazardous.”

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KaBOOM Promotes Placemaking as a Way to Encourage Play

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Detail from a sketch of “The Playable City of the Future,” brainstormed during the summit in Pilsen.

Active, creative, and social play has a number of benefits for children, especially those in low-income, urban communities. However, nowadays many kids don’t get enough opportunities for healthy play, according to staffer Janine Kacprzak from the nonprofit KaBOOM. The organization has helped build over 2,500 playgrounds across the country, including hundreds in Chicago, Kacprzak said.

KaBOOM recently shifted its focus from simply building playgrounds to encouraging cities to provide “corner stores of play” — opportunities for children to recreate close to home. At the Playful City USA Summit in Chicago last month, leaders from around the country took a tour of the Pilsen neighborhood, brainstorming play-friendly placemaking ideas that could work in any community.

One of the main reasons why many kids don’t engage in healthy play as often as they should is the issue of proximity, Kacprzak said. A park or playground can feel far away because a family has to drive or take transit to access it, or walk to a different part of the neighborhood.

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Kacprzak points out faded murals along the 16th Street rail embankment that could be refurbished to brighten up the block. Photo: John Greenfield

Unsafe or unpleasant conditions for walking or biking, including poor street design, crumbling infrastructure, or concerns about crime, exacerbate the problem. As a result, the majority of low-income families KaBOOM surveyed tend to take their kids out to play on weekends, sometimes for several hours at a time.

If this kind of play is the equivalent of a weekly trip to the supermarket, the nonprofit proposes creating “corner stores of play” through placemaking – activating underused public spaces. “The idea is to make smaller play areas throughout the city, so it’s not this huge hassle of getting kids ready for an outing, but something nearby,” Kacprzak said. She added that cities who use this approach in all kinds of neighborhoods, and prioritize investing in parks and play in general, benefit economically by attracting and retaining families and businesses.

212 municipalities of all sizes are participating in KaBOOM’s Playful City USA program by using play as a strategy to address challenges in their communities. Representatives of 12 of the cities convened at Blue 1647, a tech incubator space at 1647 South Blue Island in Pilsen, for the summit.

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Effective “Stop For Pedestrians” Signs Worth The Minimal Replacement Cost

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A city crew installs a “Stop for Pedestrians” sign on Diversey Parkway in 2012.

An article in Monday’s Tribune confirmed what we already knew: Chicago’s “Stop for Pedestrians” signs have been taking a beating from careless drivers. In 2012, the city began installing the placards by crosswalks at unsignalized intersections. The Trib reported that 78 percent of the 344 signs installed have been replaced after motorists crashed into them.

The Chicago Department of Transportation estimates that a total of $265,000 has been spent so far to install and replace signs. Material and labor for replacing a sign at one location costs $550. Usually, two are replaced at the same time, which costs $920. Even so, the amount the city has spent on sign replacement comes out to roughly five cents per Chicagoan.

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld told the Trib that this minimal expense is worthwhile. “The signs have gone a long way in increasing driver awareness of the four-year-old state law” requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians, she said.

Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton said the same thing at a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council Meeting earlier this month: “I think it’s worth $920 to put them out there, even at the frequency of every 6-12 months.”

The price tag for installing and replacing the signs pales in comparison to the price of losing life and limb to crashes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that pedestrian fatalities cost the Illinois economy $168 million in 2005. CDOT estimates the social and economic cost of each crash as $53,000 per injury, or $3.8 million per death [PDF].

48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman endorsed the value of the placards, telling the Trib that his ward has “replaced our fair share of these signs, but people are slowing down and stopping” as a result. An Active Transportation Alliance study confirmed that signs are working. The report found that three times as many drivers stopped for pedestrians at Cook County crosswalks with the signs than at crosswalks without them.

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Montrose Green Planner: The Time Is Right for Transit-Oriented Development

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Rendering of Montrose Green, a proposed mixed-use, parking-lite development by the Brown Line.

Montrose Green is a new mixed-use, parking-lite building proposed for a vacant lot at 1819 West Montrose in Ravenswood. The location has all the transit access you could ask for in a development. The parcel sits just west of the Brown Line’s Montrose station, and is served by the #78 Montrose and #50 Damen buses. There’s a Divvy station across the street, and Metra’s Ravenswood stop is three blocks north. The lot sits on a bustling pedestrian-oriented retail strip, full of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes.

Developer Harrington Brown plans to take advantage of the prime location, and Chicago’s 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance, to build a five-story building with 24 rental units and 10 parking spaces. That’s far below the city’s standard requirement of a 1:1 ratio. “People are seeking opportunities to live, work, shop, and dine near transit hubs,” said Harrington Brown owner David Brown. “This approach reflects where we are as a society — not every single renter has a car or needs a car.”

The building would mostly be made up of one-bedroom apartments, with a few two-bedroom units. The 5,300 square-foot ground floor space would likely be leased to a restaurant. A 3,000 square-foot, penthouse-like structure on the 5th floor is planned as office space for tech startups and other innovative small businesses. The developer hopes to start construction next spring.

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The development would be in a transit- and retail-rich location. Image: Google Streetview

Harrington Brown purchased the land during a CTA auction five years ago, during the depths of the Great Recession, and Brown said it was his intention to hold onto the property until the real estate market improved. In the meantime, the space has housed the Montrose Green community garden, as well as events like an outdoor Irish Christmas market, held last December. “That turned out to be more of a Polar Vortex street party,” he joked.

Brown said he’s not a developer by trade, but comes from a public policy and urban planning background, and that his strategy for the new building reflects his planning philosophy. “What we’re finding in neighborhoods today is that the demand for parking among renters is much lower than what was previously perceived,” he said. “If we’re wrong about that, we won’t be successful in renting the apartments.”

Typically, Chicago parking requirements mandate the construction of at least one parking spot per residence. The city’s TOD ordinance relaxes the rules near transit, requiring developers to provide one parking spot for every two housing units in buildings within one full block of a transit station, or within a two-block radius on designated Pedestrian Streets. Harrington Brown is also taking advantage of a provision that allows developers to apply for a variance to reduce the number of spots by an additional 20 percent. The 10 spaces would be located behind the building.

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