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Actually, Logan Square’s Neither Traffic-Choked Nor Overcrowded

Caption. Image: Wheeler Kearns Architects
Rendering of a proposed development near the California 'L' stop. Image: Wheeler Kearns Architects
Caption. Image: Wheeler Kearns Architects

Late last month, over 100 people crowded into a public presentation to hear about a proposed development of 254 housing units, plus 72 car parking spaces and retail, on what's now a vacant lot around the corner from the California Blue Line 'L' station in Logan Square. The number of parking spaces proposed is 182 fewer than the city's zoning would typically require, but recent changes to city laws make it possible for exceptions to be granted on sites near transit, and an adopted plan for this area encourages taller buildings with less parking.

Many attendees echoed the auto-centric concerns commonly heard at such meetings. Some said that the car parking proposed will prove completely insufficient, or that 300 or more new residents would result in unfathomable congestion. A flyer distributed door to door in the neighborhood sternly warned that in "High Rise City," "They will make it impossible to drive on California or Milwaukee."

Here's the rub, though: Traffic volumes on major streets near the development have dropped substantially, and so has the local population. If there are fewer people and fewer cars, how could it be that some perceive traffic congestion to be worse than ever?

Between 2006 and 2010 (the most recent year available), the Illinois Department of Transportation reports that the number of drivers on Milwaukee Avenue and California Avenue declined by 17.8 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively. Traffic volumes on both streets fell by thousands of cars per day: approximately 2,600 fewer cars on Milwaukee and 4,600 fewer cars on California.

Population loss in the area has also been dramatic, since household sizes are rapidly declining. The population in the area around this proposed development declined by over 3,000 people, or 16 percent, from 2000 to 2010. The number of housing units increased by 316, but that was more than offset by an average household size that dropped from 2.7 to 2.2. It's unlikely that the population trends have changed much since 2010: Census estimates project that the development's Census tract added fewer than 100 people from 2008 to 2012.

Logan Square towers density has decreased
Population density in the Census tract east of California, on both sides of Milwaukee, decreased from 2000 to 2010. Source: Census Bureau, via Daniel Hertz

A corridor plan to revitalize Milwaukee Avenue through eastern Logan Square was adopted in 2008 after an extensive public process. At that time, neighbors thought little of the area's many underused parking lots [PDF], and approved of the idea of replacing them with taller buildings of up to 11 stories. All of those same parking lots and "opportunity sites" remain today: this site, at Family Dollar across the street, at Cozy Corner after its breakfast rush, and in the strip mall housing Chase Bank and the Bubbleland laundry.

Developer Rob Buono expects that few of the new building's residents will want to own cars. Buono's earlier development at 1611 W. Division Street in Wicker Park includes 99 apartments and zero residential parking spaces. Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno had to pass an ordinance in 2012 to allow the building to forego parking, and the law was expanded in 2013 to apply to transit oriented developments citywide. As of May, over 90 percent of the units at 1611 W. Division had been rented, and yet it is not "impossible" to drive or park in its vicinity.

The area around the California 'L' stop already is less car-dependent than the norm: Over half of residents in the two Census tracts closest to the development commute car-free, and about one-third of households in the two tracts don't own cars. Meanwhile, broader national trends show that young people, the primary market for small apartments in this area, are less likely to own cars or obtain driver's licenses, and want to live in places that have transportation choices. A site 150 feet from the 24-hour Blue Line, two bus routes, and next to dozens of new businesses, offers plenty of ways for residents to fulfill their daily needs without driving.

New apartments here would also fix a mismatch in the neighborhood's housing stock. Over one-third of the residents within the Census tract are singles living alone, but only one-fifth of the housing units in the Census tract have zero or one bedroom. Streetsblog reader and local resident Jacob Peters pointed out at the meeting that new apartment buildings can help to meet the demand for smaller residences in this area, while keeping neighboring single-family houses and two- or three-flats intact.

The Blue Line's convenience is spurring reinvestment all across the Northwest Side, and as Chicago grows it should allow more people to have access to this important part of our transportation system. The Chicago Transit Authority's Your New Blue project is improving the line's capacity with redesigned stations that ease passenger flow, smooth new rails, and new rail signals that will allow trains to run more frequently and with fewer delays. CTA is already planning to add two more rush hour trains to the Blue Line in 2015, and is awaiting new or refurbished cars that will permit running even more trains.

And, falling traffic counts here and across Chicago means there's room on Milwaukee and California for buses, bikes, and even cars.

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