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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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Driver Who Killed Cyclist Hector Avalos Will Plead Guilty at Next Hearing

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Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the Avalos family.

At a court hearing last Thursday in the case against Robert Vais, the motorist who struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while allegedly drunk, the defense team announced that Vais plans to plead guilty at the next hearing.

On December 6, 2013, Avalos was biking back to the South Side from his job as a cook at a restaurant in River North. Vais, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., he was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside when he fatally struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park.

Vais was found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.118 percent, well above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. He was charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges. Vais recently asked Judge Nicholas Ford for a “402 conference,” a meeting between his defense team, the Cook County State’s Attorney, and the judge, which took place at Thursday’s hearing.

During the 402 conference, the parties met in the judge’s chambers and the prosecutor told Ford why the State’s Attorney’s office believes they would prevail if the case went to trial. The defense also stated their case to the judge. The judge then let the prosecution and defense know what his recommended sentence would be for Vais if he pleads guilty.

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Strong Turnout Needed for Tomorrow’s Hearing in the Hector Avalos Case

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Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the family

At a court hearing tomorrow morning, Judge Nicholas Ford will likely recommend a sentence for the driver who allegedly struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk. It’s crucial that there be a large turnout of Avalos family supporters in the courtroom to remind the judge that, if defendant Robert Vais is guilty, he must not be let off with a slap on the wrist.

On December 6, 2013, Avalos was biking back to the South Side from his job as a cook at a restaurant in River North. Vais, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., he was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside when he fatally struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park.

Vais was found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.118 percent, well above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. He was charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges. Vais recently asked Judge Ford for a “402 Conference,” a meeting between his lawyer, the Cook County State’s Attorney.

The 402 Conference is scheduled to take place at tomorrow’s hearing, according to Avalos family attorney Michael Keating of Keating Law Offices (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor). During the meeting, the prosecutor will tell Ford why the State’s Attorney’s office believes they would prevail if the case went to trial. The defense will also state their case to the judge.

The judge will then give a recommended sentence for Vais. “Whether or not the defense chooses to accept or reject it is their prerogative,” Keating said. If they reject the sentence, the case would proceed towards trial. If they accept the recommendation, and the sentence includes jail time, Vais would be subject to being taken into immediate custody, according to Keating.

Asked whether he would prefer to see Vais accept a plea agreement or have the case go to trial, Keating said, “My desire as an attorney is always to see justice done, one way or another.” He added that all of his employees will be at the hearing in support of their client, Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio.

Given that tomorrow is the day that Judge Ford will likely give the recommended sentence, it’s key that there be a big turnout from Avalos family supporters and bike advocates. If there is a strong showing from those who demand an appropriate sentence for the man who allegedly chose to drive drunk, taking another man’s life in the process, that’s sure to influence Ford’s decision.

The hearing takes place tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. at the Cook County Courthouse, 26th and California, room 702.

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Senior Fatally Struck on Halsted Street in Boystown

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The 3300 block of North Halsted, from the driver’s perspective. Image: Google Maps

An elderly man was struck and killed yesterday afternoon on the 3300 block of North Halsted Street in Lakeview’s Boystown district.

Around 3:15 p.m., a 78-year-old male “unexpectedly crossed in the middle of the street into traffic,” according to Officer José Estrada from Police News Affairs. The man was struck by a southbound driver, Estrada said.

The victim was transported in critical condition to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, according to Estrada. The Cook County medical examiner’s office identified the senior as Chisun Lee, of the 3200 block of North Halsted. An autopsy is pending.

An employee of a nearby Sherwin Williams paint store said the driver stayed on the scene and the vehicle was a van, adding that a stretch Halsted just north of Belmont Street was closed to traffic after the crash. The driver was not cited, Estrada said. Major Accidents is investigating.

Fatality Tracker: 2015 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths
Pedestrian: 24 (8 were hit-and-run crashes)
Bicyclist: 2 (both were hit-and-run crashes)

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Cities Lead the Way as U.S. Car Commuting Takes Historic Downturn

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Graph: U.S. Census Bureau

The decline is small in number, but in the scheme of things, it’s huge: New census data [PDF] out last week show car commuting among Americans is finally, after decades of growth, starting to reverse itself.

Driving to work is still the predominant mode to a depressing extent. Almost nine in 10 Americans get to work by car and about three in four drive alone. But those numbers are beginning to fall.

Since 1960, the percent of Americans driving to work rose from 64 percent to a high of 87.9 percent in 2000. Since then, it has declined slightly but meaningfully to 85.8 percent. The percent of the population commuting by car ticked down again in 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available.

Even solo car commuting is down from its high in 2010 of 76.6 percent. Despite a precipitous decline in carpooling, solo car commuting was down to 76.4 percent in 2013, after two decades of rapid growth.

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Declines in car commuting for the 10 cities with the highest transit commuting rates by age. Table: U.S. Census

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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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Judge in Bobby Cann Case Didn’t Grant SA’s Request to Freeze Proceedings

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A man rides by the memorial to Bobby Cann in a new curb-protected bike lane on Clybourn. Photo: John Greenfield

At a hearing this morning in the case against the driver who killed cyclist Bobby Cann, the judge didn’t grant a motion by the prosecutor to put all court proceedings on hold until the Illinois Appellate Court decides whether homicide charges against the defendant were valid.

On the evening of May 29, 2013, Cann, 26, was biking at the intersection of Clybourn Avenue and Larabee Street when Ryne San Hamel, 28, fatally struck him while allegedly drunk and speeding. San Hamel was charged with reckless homicide and aggravated DUI, as well as misdemeanor DUI, reckless driving, and failure to stay in the lane.

At a hearing last month, Judge William Hooks dismissed the homicide charge, agreeing with defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. that the wording of the charge in the indictment was too vague for San Hamel’s team to adequately prepare his defense. However, Hooks dismissed the charge “without prejudice,” which means the Cook County State’s Attorney can potentially re-indict San Hamel with more specificity in the future. Moreover, the aggravated DUI charge carries a potentially stiffer sentence.

At a hearing on Tuesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Maria Augustus told Hooks that the State’s Attorneys Office had filed an appeal of his decision to dismiss the homicide charge. The appeal will be heard by the Illinois Appellate Court. The ASA also told the judge that they had filed a motion to halt all other business relating to the case until the appellate court makes its decision.

At this morning’s hearing, the judge didn’t authorize the stay of business that the State’s Attorney’s Office had requested, according to Active Transportation Alliance education specialist Jason Jenkins, who attended. He added that six Cann family supporters were present. The next hearing was scheduled for Monday, September 21, at 10 a.m. at at the Cook County criminal courts, 2650 South California, in room 301.

The questions remains as to why the State’s Attorney’s Office is appealing Hooks’ decision to dismiss the homicide charge, rather than re-filing charge, and why they have moved to freeze the proceedings. It appears that these motions would delay the case from heading to trial. When I asked about the State’s Attorney’s strategy this afternoon, spokewoman Tandra Simonton said, “We won’t comment on a pending case, except to say that we’re moving forward with it.”

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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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Prosecutor Appealing the Decision to Dismiss Homicide Charge in Cann Case

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A recent photo of the ghost bike memorial to Bobby Cann at the crash site. Photo: John Greenfield

At a packed courtroom hearing this morning, Assistant State’s Attorney Maria Augustus told the judge she has filed an appeal regarding his decision to dismiss reckless homicide charges against the driver who struck and killed cyclist Bobby Cann.

On the evening of May 29, 2013, Cann, 26, was biking from work when Ryne San Hamel, 28, fatally struck him at the intersection of Clybourn Avenue and Larabee Street in Old Town. According to police, San Hamel was driving in excess of 50 mph and had a blood-alcohol content of 0.127, well above the legal limit of 0.08. He was charged with reckless homicide and aggravated DUI, as well as misdemeanor DUI, reckless driving, and failure to stay in the lane.

At a hearing last month, Judge William Hooks dismissed the homicide charge, agreeing with defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. that the wording of the charge in the indictment was too vague for San Hamel’s team to adequately prepare his defense. However, Hooks dismissed the charge “without prejudice,” which means the State’s Attorney can potentially re-indict San Hamel with more specificity in the future. Moreover, the aggravated DUI charge carries a potentially stiffer sentence.

Last week, a staffer from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Victim-Witness Program said today’s hearing would be crucial, and requested that as many people attend as possible, according to a source. Active Transportation Alliance education specialist Jason Jenkins emailed Cann supporters and urged them to show up. He said there was reason to believe a motion to quash the search warrant used by police to have San Hamel’s blood tested for alcohol content might be on the agenda.

“33 advocates showed up this morning, which pretty much filled up the courtroom,” Jenkins told me after today’s hearing. Three of Cann’s family members came in from out of state to attend. “The judge acknowledged the strong turnout. Bobby’s family appreciated it and [Active Trans] did as well.”

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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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