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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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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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Milwaukee Bike Lane Overhaul Includes Some Concrete Protection

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Concrete curbs will protect a section of the southbound bike lane on Milwaukee. Photo: John Greenfield

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

Note: Keating Law Offices, P.C. has generously agreed to sponsor two Streetsblog Chicago posts about bicycle safety topics per month. The firm’s support will help make Streetsblog Chicago a sustainable project.

Chicago’s busiest cycling street is receiving some safety improvements, including a segment of bike lanes with concrete protection. Milwaukee Avenue, nicknamed “The Hipster Highway” due to its high bike traffic, is currently getting upgrades between Elston Avenue and Division Street in River West and Noble Square.

In 2013, the Chicago Department of Transportation installed a combination of buffered and protected bike lanes on Milwaukee between Kinzie Street and Elston. The current project includes a similar mix of bikeway styles, plus a short stretch of curb-protected bike lane, as well as a parking-protected lane with concrete “parking caps.”

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Milwaukee from Division and Augusta has been upgraded to a double-buffered bike lane. Photo: John Greenfield

Contractors working for the Chicago Department of Transportation started construction last week and had completed a significant portion of the new bikeways by last Monday evening. From Division to Augusta Boulevard, existing conventional bike lanes have been upgraded to lanes with a striped buffer on each side. This help keep moving cars further away from bikes, and encourage cyclists to ride a few feet away from parked automobiles, so that they don’t get “doored.”

Previously, the bike lanes disappeared about 150 feet south of Division, but the buffered lanes go all the way to the intersection’s south crosswalk — a nice improvement. The new northbound section is located next to the curb, and drivers are currently parking in it, but adding “No Parking” signs should help solve that problem.

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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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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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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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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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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…