Chicago Can Do Much More to Legalize Transit-Oriented Development

The Home Bank & Trust Building, at Ashland/Division, steps from the Blue Line, wouldn't be allowed to be built today without a parking garage behind it. Under the proposed TOD ordinance, however, it would be legal.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance last Wednesday that would reduce some barriers to transit-oriented development in Chicago, lowering parking requirements and allowing more density near transit stations. While the proposal is a step forward, there’s much more the city can do to ensure that future growth leads to more walking and transit use, not more traffic and congestion.

Current rules discourage walkable growth in Chicago by forcing the construction of parking and limiting how much housing can be built, even in areas near transit stations. This pushes growth to places where people have fewer transportation options and have to drive. As highlighted in a recent report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Chicago is falling behind its peer cities when it comes to transit-oriented growth.

The new ordinance would loosen these restrictions, but it could do much more. Here’s a look at how it would work.

For residential developments within 600 feet of a CTA or Metra train station – or within 1,200 feet, if the area has been designated a “Pedestrian Street” – half as much parking would be required as in the rest of the zoning district. For non-residential developments in certain districts, no parking would be required, but developers would have to notify the local alderman if they plan to build less than 50 percent what’s required elsewhere in the district. Also, for both residential and non-residential projects, one bike parking space must be built for every car parking space that isn’t built, relative to the requirements in that district and that project’s use.

Developers who want to combine less parking with greater density would have to jump through hoops, taking the project through hearings at the Chicago Plan Commission and the city council’s zoning committee.

The ordinance should lead to more walkable development near transit, but there are a few ways it could be stronger. One would be to increase the area that the ordinance applies to. The CNT report recommended creating “transit-oriented development zones” within half a mile of train stations — more than four times the radius called for in this ordinance in areas that haven’t been designated a Pedestrian Street.

Chrissy Mancini Nichols at the Metropolitan Planning Council thinks parking requirements would remain too strict under the proposal. “Why limit to reducing parking by 50% residential and [50-100% for] non-residential?” she wrote in an email. “It should eliminate parking minimums and let the market decide.”

Then there’s the question of whether the ordinance would apply to areas near bus rapid transit stations. The Chicago Department of Transportation and Chicago Transit Authority will be building BRT on Ashland Avenue from Cortland Street to 31st Street, providing a transit option with more capacity than a normal bus route. That in turn will increase the development potential of areas near BRT stops.

Frank F. Fisher Studio Houses (1936)
The Frank Fisher Studio Houses building, built in 1936, would have been illegal to construct under today's zoning rules, which would require 20 parking spaces for it's 20 apartments. Photo: chicagogeek.

Benet Haller, the city’s chief planner in the Department of Housing and Economic Development, said he recognizes that BRT isn’t mentioned in the ordinance (which specifies “rail station”), but there’s a reason for that: “BRT stations don’t exist yet.” Despite the current language in the ordinance, the city does see how it could apply to areas near BRT.

Haller noted that DHED is going to be doing a land use study along the proposed Ashland and Western BRT routes, “with a specific focus on the phase 1 part between Cortland and 31st. The basic idea of the study is to discuss the implications of BRT stations [and it] would also look at how to modify the ordinance to support BRT.”

Aaron Joseph, deputy sustainability officer in the Mayor’s Office, added, “BRT was specifically contemplated. It’s in the design phase at this point so we can’t put it in the text of this amendment, but all along that is where we’re thinking the big impact will be.”

Nichols suggested the ordinance’s language could be changed to say “fixed guideway” transit station, or it could just include “BRT” and define it.

Joseph thinks it would be easy to amend the ordinance later on, saying that “rail station” could be redefined to include BRT stations. “When BRT enters the lexicon of the zoning ordinance, it can be called out or defined as a rail station, wherever ‘rail station’ is mentioned, so it can be treated as a rail station,” Joseph said.

  • The free market should decide.

    That’s not always the case and regulation has a place. But like I said before on here, why is there a government regulation for parking? If parking is so important that the government feels its necessary to compel buildings to have it (often more than what is necessary or desired), why don’t they also require that each residence be withinf a certain distance of a bus stop? Or a grocery store? I mean, so many people live in food deserts and can’t easily access affordable, nutritious food. We have an obesity epidemic yet there’s no requirement that people be able to easily get good food.

    The ultimate step would be a parking moratorium. There can’t possibly be demand for even more parking. Or the city should incentivize not building parking, or allowing developers and landowners to build over their parking lots.

  • “If parking is so important…”

    To finish that sentence on a diverging line of thought, businesses would provide it without the visible hand of the government.

  • Ted King

    Thank you for the photo of the Home Bank & Trust Bldg. [A] It’s a handsome building and [B] the CVS pharmacy signs cover the range from benign to obnoxious. The one above the entrance is okay, the eyebrow one (top left) is marginal, and the corner one is a carbuncle. That one cries out for a replacement, perhaps with a steampunk flavor (brass framed, curlicues, 3-D lettering, etc.).

  • Joseph Musco

    Any update on the move to change the Pedestrian Street designation of that parcel in Uptown near the Lawrence stop? With all the Uptown entertainment district development chatter you’d think the Pedestrian Street designation would be a boon to development and TOD near the Red Line, not an obstacle.

  • Anonymous

    I assume that “new buildings must have parking” requirements stem from the (right or wrong, I know not) sense that incumbent residents fear that they will lose their ability to park in the neighborhood if a big high-rise gets put in with no parking. So, one can understand, at least, where the political pressure comes from.

  • That’s mostly the case (IMO). People are worried about losing their ability to park.

    Of course, they park for free, so they really can’t complain if it isn’t available. Or people think that buying a permit (what do they cost, like $25) entitles them to park on the street. No, it does not, it entitles you to park on a street others can’t park on, but it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a spot. It’s like, I pay for a Zipcar membership, but I’m not guaranteed a car whenever I want one. It’s a shared car, so if I can’t get one, tough luck.

  • Anonymous

    “Minimum parking requirements in zoning ordinances subsidize cars, increase vehicle travel, encourage sprawl, worsen air pollution, raise housing costs, degrade urban design, preclude walkability, and exclude poor people.”

    Donald Shoup, Introduction to Richard Willson’s new book Parking Reform Made Easy

  • Pat

    The idea of letting the free market decide is great, but it would take a lot of pain to get there. A long slog until developers finally realize that tons of parking isn’t the best use of their budgets and land.

    On the other hand:

    How often do we see developers want to put in massive parking structures, or more parking than necessary? I mean, they are putting up a new garage in relatively dense area of Rogers Park that is 3-4 blocks from an L station. Look at what parking garages and lots have done to some downtowns in a “free market” environment. However, in a city like Denver, they created policies that allowed for no new parking lots and it helped refill their downtown.

    I think instead of “free market” you mean to abolish minimums and to cap parking maximums. Unfortunately, its hard to call for the City Council to stay out of it on some instances, but intervene in others. Not that I don’t agree with the article, but that position smacks of hypocrisy. Free market is how we got here and developers wanting to put in the less than the minimum seems to be the exception to the rule… for now.

  • Andrew

    How can we influence this– should we contact our alderman / when are they voting on it?

    This ordinance needs to do more:

    1) 600 feet is nothing, it’s only 0.11 miles! It barely gets you a few buildings down from a train stop. 0.25 (about 1300 ft) or 0.5 miles (approx 2600 ft) should be the minimum distance this ordinance considers. Plus how many streets in Chicago are even designated a P-street anyway? They should do away with that part or make it 0.5 miles for P streets and .25 miles for everywhere else.

    2) If they make it hard to achieve (having to get approvals from the alderman, going to the planning commission, etc) less developers will do it. They should get rid of those parts and just make it a black and white rule where possible.

    3) Get rid of the 50% reduction thing– just eliminate the minimums completely within the above distances. If they decide parking is needed then the market and developer can decide and build it.

  • It’s classic “I got mine” gatekeeping behavior. Instead of paying their own money to ensure that they can park near their house (by, say, paving part of their yard or renting a space somewhere), they’d rather force newcomers to foot the entire estimated bill for any future use caused by the new development. The NIMBYs get to (or, rather, try to; they don’t always succeed) keep their freeloading status quo with no further payment on their part, while making it harder and harder for people who get in after them to take advantage of the same privilege.

  • Adam Herstein

    This is tricky when a third of ‘L’ stations are in highway medians.

  • Adam Herstein

    Build more parking and more cars will come to fill it.

  • Yes, there is a place for regulation, and in this case it is parking maximums. Developers might not want parking at all or they may want too much.

    Too much parking just leads people to drive and causes more traffic. That’s why there should be a cap, because if you build a garage that can hold 1,000 cars, suddenly the streets around it will be carrying an extra 1,000 cars every day (or nearly).

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the Chrissy’s comments and the general gist of this article, but I have to acknowledge that this is a step in the right direction. The aldermen don’t really get how parking affects their neighborhood. They only hear from people complaining that there’s not enough parking. Please contact your aldermen! I’ve created a shareable doc called “Parking Myths” with the goal of reaching aldermen and the general public. Please feel free to use it, share it, hand it out at public meetings, etc. It’s here:

  • 1. Several streets are designated as Pedestrian Streets. You can see the list in the zoning code.

    2. The ordinance allows developers of parcels within 600 feet of train stations (or 1,200 feet if parcel is on a Pedestrian Street) to reduce the number of parking without having to obtain any approval.

    3. I agree.

  • This ordinance is definitely a pretty big step in the right direction.

  • “Massive parking structures” is a highly unrelated phenomenon as far as how the zoning code treats them.

    The structure in Rogers Park is a “non-accessory, off-site parking” development that the developer is building because they have the right to. It’s not an accessory to another parcel, or required by a parking minimum, hence its name “non-accessory”.

    Non-accessory parking is “permitted by right” in all B and C districts. It’s also permitted by right in RT4, RM4.5, RM5-5.5, and RM6-6.5 districts.

    If you’re curious about what uses are typical in these districts, check out Second City Zoning.

  • I don’t think it was the free market that got us in this position, but the fear that people would drive to their destination and not be able to find a parking space, thus causing congestion while they look for one.

  • There hasn’t been any movement on that ordinance.

  • It should go to the Zoning Committee, which meets next in September. It could be voted on by the city council in October.

    Asking your alderman to vote for this, or expand it, is appropriate.

  • Andrew

    Great idea Lindsay, thanks!

  • Lee Crandell

    I agree – we need to recognize this as really great progress, and then continue to work for further progress. I also think there are some really great aspects to this ordinance that were overlooked in this article. For example — it doesn’t just allow more density near transit stations; it only allows more density *for developments that reduce their parking.* That increased density will serve as a huge incentive for developers to reduce parking. It would be ideal to have parking maximums instead of minimums, but I think giving incentives to reduce parking is still a pretty big deal.

  • Justin

    How would this affect a project such as the proposed Tower of Jewel? Increased height, reduced giant podium? Considering it sits on top of a major red line stop, it should be allowed to have as many units as they want. The site is very large and could easily support a huge increase in size. There should also be a one way connection from the sub basement of the tower to the red line to really promote the red line usage. The only thing you would have to worry about are the ridiculous neighborhood NIMBYs. I live close to the site and have unfortunately had the displeasure of dealing with those anti-development folks.


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