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Policies and Politics, Not TODs, Are to Blame for Affordable Housing Crunch

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Logan Square’s “The L” transit-oriented development under construction last month. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday the Tribune’s Mary Wisniewski further explored a topic Streetsblog’s John Greenfield covered two weeks ago for the Reader. Virtually all of Chicago’s new transit-oriented development projects are upscale buildings in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods. TOD advocates argue that adding housing in these communities will take pressure off the rental market. But some Logan Square residents say soon-to-open TOD towers in the neighborhood will encourage other landlords to jack up rents.

The rents at the Twin Towers and “The L” developments near the California Blue Line station will start at $1,400 for a studio. Activist groups like Somos (“We Are”) Logan Square and Lifted Voices recently blockaded Milwaukee Avenue in front of the Twin Towers to make the argument that the buildings will speed the pace of gentrification and displacement.

The city’s TOD ordinance, first passed in 2013 and beefed up in 2015, has fueled the city’s recent building boom by reducing and then eliminating parking requirements for new buildings near rapid transit, as well as allowing for more density. For example, Rob Buono, the developer of the two towers in Logan Square, told John that he probably wouldn’t have built the apartments if the ordinance hadn’t passed.

The towers are big, conspicuous buildings, so it’s understandable that some people blame them for rising rents elsewhere in the neighborhood. But the TOD ordinance and the resulting increase in the number of housing units near the Blue Line aren’t to blame for the community’s displacement problem. Rather, prior to the ordinance’s passage, the number of allowable units near train stations was constrained by politics and growth-inhibiting policy.

TOD experts Wisniewski interviewed said that the trend towards dense housing near stations is a return to sensible pre-1950s city planning. A 2013 study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that Chicago actually lags behind peer cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco when it comes to development near transit. The article also noted that the Chicago Housing Authority demolished 6,000 affordable housing units that were near transit stations.

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Amtrak’s Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee Is Launching Roll-On Bike Service

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Biking into Milwaukee on the scenic Oak Leaf Trail is fun, but it will be great to have the option of easily taking a bike on Amtrak. Photo: John Greenfield

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It just keeps getting easier to combine bike and train trips in Chicago. Last month, after years of lobbying by advocates (including Streetsblog’s Steven Vance) the South Shore Line, which runs between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, finally launched a bikes-on-board pilot.

Now Amtrak, which already allows unboxed bikes on all routes within Illinois (reservations required, $10 surcharge), is introducing roll-on service on its Hiawatha Servicee between Chicago and Milwaukee with a mere $5 charge. The service starts this Wednesday.

The Hiawatha Service is the busiest Amtrak corridor in the Midwest, with about 800,000 passengers in 2015. It offers seven round-trips a day Monday through Saturday, with six on Sundays. This relatively frequent service is partly funded by the Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation.

The news is a welcome surprise, and the resolution of a longtime pet peeve of mine. Boxing a bike for the short Amtrak trip to Cream City has always seemed like an unnecessary hassle. Not only did you have to drag a bike box to Union Station or purchase one at from the ticket agent, you had to take an elevator to the basement, dissemble your bike, box it, and check it as baggage, reversing the steps in Milwaukee.

I’m reminded of a particularly aggravating bike-and-transit experience I had after I pedaled across the Cheddar Curtain with New Belgium Brewing Company staffers after they staged the Tour de Fat in Chicago’s Palmer Square. After we caught a show at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, it was too late for me to catch the Hiawatha back to Chicago, so I tried to buy a bike box from an Amtrak agent in order to take a midnight Megabus run. He refused to sell me a box to use for a competing transit service.

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Big Marsh could be a terrific bike park, but it’s not yet safe to pedal there

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A winter Slow Roll ride to Big Marsh. Photo: Slow Roll Chicago

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Last week I rode the Red Line to 95th Street with my cruiser bike in tow, then pedaled about six miles to the future site of Big Marsh Bike Park, just east of Lake Calumet. Boosters say it will be a world-class, family-friendly venue for BMX riding, mountain biking, and cyclocross racing that will also provide recreational and economic opportunities for residents of low-income southeast- side neighborhoods near the park.

The bike park will lie within Big Marsh, a 278-acre expanse of open space that the Chicago Park District acquired in 2011. Environmental remediation is currently under way, since the area was formerly a slag-dumping site for steel mills, and the Park District expects the facility will open in late fall.

But my ride from the el station would have been traumatizing for novice cyclists. It was comfortable at first—a bike lane led south on State Street, then another took me east on 103rd. But after I passed under the Metra Electric tracks at Cottage Grove, the bike lane disappeared and 103rd ballooned into a four-lane highway with fast traffic, including several 18-wheelers.

Next I rode south on Stony Island toward Lake Calumet, but things weren’t much better on that stretch of road. Although Stony and Doty, the two streets that circle the lake, offer scenic views of the remediated landfill, with its tallgrass, ponds, and a variety of wild birds, they’re also frequented by fast-moving trucks headed to and from industrial businesses. I got spooked by a huge gas tanker thundering by even though I spent six years of my life working as a bike messenger on the mean streets of the Loop.

Getting to Big Marsh is equally arduous if you’re coming from the Roseland and Pullman communities to the west, the East Side, South Deering, and Hegewisch neighborhoods to the east, or the Altgeld Gardens housing project to the south. There is no direct transit access to the park, although several CTA bus lines terminate at a bus garage a 2.5-mile bike ride from the park.

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Shop by Bike and Win Prizes During the “Ride & Seek Lakeview” Promotion

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This sticker in a shop’s window means they offer a discount to cyclists.

Smart community leaders brainstorm ways to get more butts on bicycles. After all, more people traveling in the neighborhood on two wheels instead of four means less traffic congestions and pollution. And when more shoppers access retail strips by bikes instead of cars, there are similar (or even better) economic benefits for the area, with less need for car parking. Plus, when people travel at slower speeds, they’re more likely to notice local storefronts and consider patronizing the businesses.

Accordingly, the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers of commerce are partnering this year on a Bike-Friendly Business District program that promotes shopping local and helps promote the Lakeview neighborhood as a great place to shop by bike. The Lakeview chamber originally launched the initiative in 2014 through a partnership with the West Town Chamber of Commerce and the Active Transportation Alliance. The program includes improved cycling infrastructure, promotional materials and bike maps, plus educational and encouragement activities like workshops and rides, plus a discount program for customers arriving by bicycle.

Both the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers have installed dozens of branded bike racks on their business strips featuring the names of the neighborhoods, paid for with Special Service Area funds. The Lakeview East racks have temporarily been removed for refurbishing.

Last year the Lakeview chamber installed a fix-it station at the Southport Brown Line station with a pump and tools for simple repairs. Unlike the fix-it stations that West Town Bikes recently installed on the Bloomingdale Trail, which sadly were vandalized soon after installation, the Southport facility hasn’t seen major tool theft problems, according to SSA 27 manager Dillon Goodson.

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Indiana Will Fund Rewriting Faulty Illiana Environmental Impact Statement

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The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

The Illiana Tollway, a proposed highway boondoggle that would run through land south of the Chicago metro area, is the project that just won’t die. The tollway would be a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments and cost Illinois taxpayers a minimum of $500 million. That’s $500 million that might otherwise be spent on necessary and financially viable projects like rebuilding the North Red Line, constructing the Ashland bus rapid transit route, and building Pace’s transitways.

Greg Hinz recently eported in Crain’s that it appears the two states have reached an agreement that Indiana will spend money to rewrite the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which a federal judge ruled invalid last June. This federally-required document was supposed to explain why the tollway is needed, and how all impacts – to people and their property, flora and fauna – would be mitigated. Since the Illinois still hasn’t passed a state budget, it’s unable to pay for updating the EIS. We don’t know how much Indiana would spend on this.

Last year, the Environmental Law & Policy Center represented Openlands and the Midewin Heritage Association in a lawsuit against the Illiana and won by pointing out that the original EIS used circular logic. The document argued the tollway was needed in order to provide transportation access new residential and industrial development. However, its projections were based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, and would therefore induce new development in an area of farmland and nature preserves.

There are many reasons why building the Illiana would be a bad idea. For starters, most American roads don’t even pay for their own maintenance, let alone construction. Illinois’ transportation infrastructure network already has a $43 billion maintenance backlog.

Additionally, construction of the tollway would be funded through an extremely dubious public-private partnership scheme, requiring the state to compensate the concessionaire if the highway doesn’t generate a certain amount of profits. Since the plan calls for high tolls, many motorists were predicted to use alternative routes, so the Illiana would see relatively little traffic and not be a money-maker, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the revenue shortfall.

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How Friends of the Parks Saved a Parking Lot and Killed the Lucas Museum

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The original Lucas Museum plan called for building on Soldier Field’s south lot. Photo: Chris Riha, Chicago Reader

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

As a sustainable ransportation advocate, I’m jazzed whenever land that’s been unnecessarily earmarked for moving or storing automobiles is put to more productive use.

So when Mayor Emanuel first proposed bringing the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts to Chicago two years ago, one of the potential benefits that most excited me was the prospect of replacing a 1,500-car parking lot with a world-class cultural amenity, plus four acres of new green space.

The ugly expanse of asphalt where the museum would have gone is Soldier Field’s south lot, located on prime lakefront real estate between the football stadium and McCormick Place’s monolithic Lakeside Center.

Granted, this blacktop blemish also serves as a spot for tailgating, an age-old Chicago Bears tradition. In addition, it accommodates other special events that generate revenue for the city. But the Lucas plan would have largely moved the surface parking off the lakefront, while providing new tailgating opportunities in other locations.

So I was bummed when the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks launched a legal battle against the south lot proposal. While the group said it supports bringing the Lucas facility to our city, it argued that building it on the parking lot site would violate the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which states that “in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

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Eyes on the Street: Loop Link Lane Scofflaws Continue to Be a Problem

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A cab driver blocks a bus in the Loop Link lane.

It’s been four months since the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor launched downtown, but it seems like there are still some bugs to be worked out of the system.

The two main issues I’m aware of are bus speeds and private vehicles using the red lanes, which are marked “CTA Bus Only.” The city projected that the system, which also includes raised boarding platforms, and white “queue jump” traffic signals to give buses a head-start at lights, would double cross-Loop speeds from the previous, glacial rush-hour average of 3 mph to 6 mph.

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A private car blocks one of the red lanes.

However, not long after the launch, bus speeds still averaged about 3 mph, largely due to a rule requiring the operators to approach the stations at that speed in order to avoid crashing into the platforms or creaming passengers with their rear-view mirrors. The speeds seemed to improve a bit in subsequent weeks, although CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman told me today that the 3 mph platform restriction is still in place.

“Performance and ridership are trending in the right direction but we still don’t have enough data to draw meaningful conclusions,” Tolman added.

The fact that private bus lines, motorists and taxis drivers sometimes drive or stop in the lanes can’t be helping Loop Link speeds either. This is particularly common with the charter bus lines that ferry office workers to and from Metra stations. When I talked to staff from The Free Enterprise System and Aries Charter Transportation last month, they were fairly unapologetic, arguing that their drivers don’t have much choice but to use the lanes for pick-ups and drop-offs.

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What Could Chicagoans Learn About Rail Transportation From a Trip to Japan?

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A Streetcar in Hiroshima. Photo: Rick Harnish

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is hosting a train-focused tour of Japan that should offer Chicago residents a fascinating window on what’s like to live with truly world-class transit and railroad service. The trip, which takes place between September 27 and October 9, is an opportunity to check out how fast, frequent, and dependable trains help create vibrant communities.

MHSRA president Rick Harnish has previously led rail-focused tours of Spain, France, Germany and China. Highlights of the Japan trip will include riding the Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka – the world’s first and busiest high-speed line. Participants will tour a maintenance facility for JR Central, which runs the line.

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The Nagoya Railway Museum. Photo: Rick Harnish

They’ll also check out a Nippon Sharyo railcar factory – In 2012 the company opened a branch in Roselle, Illinois, to fulfill a contract for 160 “Highliner” railcars for Metra Electric Line service, plus orders for other American rail lines. The group will travel to a number of other Japanese cities by rail, including Kyoto, Hakodate, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, visiting various rail museums and cultural attractions and, of course, riding the local Metro systems.

Through out the trip, there will be opportunities for rail experts and enthusiasts to discuss what they’re seeing and relate them to potential American high-speed rail systems, such as proposed lines from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. “Every time I have ridden high-speed trains in other cities, I’ve gone, ‘Oh, I get it,’” Harnish says. “So we’re trying to get more people to see these things up close and see how they can work.”

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Eyes on the Street: Restaurants Make Room for Customers Instead of Cars

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The former parking lot and dumpster zone at Gino’s East in Lakeview is now a seating area. Photos: Google Street View, John Greenfield

It’s encouraging to see that more and more business owners have come to understand that accommodating people, rather than automobiles, is good for the bottom line.

This summer we should see the city’s first “Curbside Cafes,” outdoor seating areas where it’s restaurants and bars may serve food and drinks, located in the parking lane on streets where the sidewalk is too narrow for sidewalk cafes. Although the new ordinance that legalized this practice is overly restrictive — Curbside Cafes are only allowed on designated Pedestrian Streets where the sidewalk is narrower than eight feet — two of the cafes are planned for East Lakeview.

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What was once parking for 13 cars at the Golden Angel is now seating for dozens of customers at Lou Malnatti’s. Photos: Google Street View

When Lou Malnatti’s Pizzeria purchased the Golden Angel diner, 4344 North Lincoln in North Center, they originally proposed reducing the number of parking lot spaces from 13 to seven to make room for outdoor seating and additional greenery. In the end, they decided to go for the gusto and eliminate all of the off-street parking, as well as both of the curb cuts, which improves the pedestrian environment. The result: Lots more space for customers to enjoy their Jon Stewart-endorsed deep-dish.

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Retiring Messenger Mike Morell Discusses the State of the Local Courier Biz

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When Time Out Chicago still ran in print, Morell (center) distributed hundreds of pounds of magazines via trailer. Also shown: Jim Freeman and Bob Matter, now with the bike-focused firm FK Law (a Streetsblog sponsor). Photo: T.C. O’Rourke

Imagine how much better Chicago’s central business district would work if all the deliveries that don’t require motor vehicles were made by bicycle instead.

While the traditional bike messenger industry, based around moving envelopes and small packages, has been steadily shrinking with the rise of digital media, it’s still alive and kicking. Meanwhile, human power is becoming an increasingly common way to transport larger items and, especially, food.

Last week Mike Morell, 39, a 15-year veteran of the courier business and a mainstay of the local messenger scene, announced he was retiring to “explore some other pursuits.” Morell is known as a cofounder of 4 Star Courier Collective, Chicago’s first cooperatively owned messenger company.

Morell is also a seasoned racer. He won the title of Chicago’s fastest bike messenger as the top-ranked local competitor in the 2012 Cycle Messenger World Championships, held in the south parking lot of Soldier Field (originally proposed as the site for the Lucas Museum). I caught up with him to get his take on how the local courier biz has evolved over the years.

Morell founded 4 Star with friends in September 2005. “We all had our gripes with most of the companies out there, although we really liked the job,” he said. “It was a last-gasp effort to continue to do the job we loved.”

The company is no longer purely a collective. “Unfortunately, one of the tricky things was to find an equitable way to have owners come and go,” Morell said. “The owners still do deliveries nowadays, but they make a little bit more.” However, he says the bike messengers and car couriers who work as employees for the company are still paid fairly. “The focus is making sure everyone is still making a living.”

Although Morell will no longer be riding or dispatching for 4 Star, he will continue to help out behind the scenes for some time. The remaining owners are Tom Willett and Al Pearson.

Morell says that while there is much less traditional messenger work in Chicago than when he started, the number of companies has also greatly decreased, so 4 Star is still doing well. “Our share of the market has grown as companies with a more top-heavy management structure folded,” he explained.

There are about 12 traditional companies left downtown, and about a third as many bike couriers as there were a decade ago, Morell estimates. “It used to be that you would run into people you knew all the time,” he recalled. “You still do, but it’s more of a novel occurrence.”

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