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Belmont-Clark Tower Still Has Too Much Parking for a Walkable City

The previous design and the current one, with one less floor.

There’s some mildly encouraging news about the mixed-use development proposed for the “Punkin’ Donuts” site at the northwest corner of Belmont and Clark. The latest design calls for fewer car parking spaces and more housing units.

DNAinfo reports that the third revision of the plan for the $50 million tower shortens the structure from 11 stories to ten, but boosts the number of rental apartments from 100 to 110, while reducing the number of offstreet parking spaces from 116 to 74. The original design called for three floors of retail, anchored by a grocery store, on the lower levels; the current design has only two floors or commercial space.

The site is located on a bustling pedestrian retail strip full of boutiques, restaurants and clubs, a stone’s throw from the Belmont ‘L’ stop and several bus lines. The developer, BlitzLake Capital Partners, had touted the original design as a transit-oriented development because it took advantage of Chicago’s 2013 TOD ordinance by only providing 50 residential parking spaces. In a location farther from transit, where the TOD ordinance doesn't apply, the city’s zoning rules would require a 1:1 ratio of parking spots to housing units, 100 in the case of the original design.

However, as Streetsblog contributor Shaun Jacobsen pointed out back in November on his blog Transitized, it would be absurd to call BlitzLake’s previous design TOD, since it included an additional 66 parking spots for the retail space. Under the TOD ordinance, developers who build on designated pedestrian streets ("P-streets") can get an "administrative adjustment" exempting them from providing any commercial parking spaces. Reps from BlitzLake told Jacobsen they were including commercial parking because they felt they couldn't attract retail tenants without it. In effect, the company was choosing to build more than twice as much parking as required.

The removal of 42 car spaces from the current design means that less motorized traffic will be generated to slow down buses and degrade the pedestrian environment of this thriving business district. The developer did not return my call, and 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney’s office is closed for Pulaski Day, but presumably the number of commercial parking spaces was lowered because the amount of retail space was reduced.

Still, when you look at what's happening elsewhere in Chicago, not to mention our peer cities, 74 car parking spaces is a high number for a 110-unit building at a location with excellent transit access. A new building next to the Blue Line’s Division station features 99 rental units and zero residential parking spaces, and a proposed development by the Brown Line’s Paulina stop would have 31 to 48 apartments with only nine parking spaces.

Meanwhile, New York City, which has parking maximums in the downtown core and minimums elsewhere, has taken some modest steps to reform parking mandates that still go farther than Chicago's TOD rules. Recently, the city cut parking minimums from a 40-percent ratio to a 20-percent ratio in downtown Brooklyn -- significantly lower than the ratios mandated even in some of Chicago's TOD zones. Even car-centric Los Angeles eliminated parking minimums as part of a new land-use plan along a rail line.

Although it now has fewer parking spaces, the Belmont-Clark tower proposal shows why Chicago’s TOD ordinance needs to go further. Rather than reducing parking mandates at transit-accessible sites, we should do away with the minimums altogether. In some areas, it may make sense to impose maximums, like New York, Boston, and Portland did in order to limit traffic and improve air quality in their downtowns. There’s no reason to devote so much space to car storage near ‘L’ stops.

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