Ghost Parcels Show How Urban Highways Squandered Valuable Land


Here’s a great illustration of how incredibly destructive and wasteful it is to run elevated highways through cities. New York City-based artist and planning consultant Neil Freeman, who grew up in Chicago, put together these haunting images of Cook County land parcel maps superimposed over aerials of expressway interchanges in the West Loop, River West, Bridgeport and Chinatown.

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The Jane Byrne Interchange in the West Loop, currently being expanded. Image: Neil Freeman

The visuals are a byproduct of a research project Freeman is doing on housing typologies. The base layer is from Bing satellite images, and the parcels are from the Cook County assessor’s office. “Love that Cook County still keeps track of the parcels under the expressways punched through Chicago,” Freeman tweeted.So why does the county still maintain records of property lines that haven’t had meaning since the Richard J. Daley era?

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The Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressway interchange in Bridgeport/Chinatown. Image: Neil Freeman

“The reason these parcels under the expressways aren’t just shown as one continuous polygon is because [the Illinois Department of Transportation] never dedicated the parcels as right-of way,” a source at the county told me. “It’s most likely because, like all government agencies nowadays, they’re short-staffed. It’s not a priority task because parcels under elevated highways usually don’t generate any tax revenue.”

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The Ohio Feeder and the Kennedy Expressway in River West. Image: Neil Freeman

Think about how much money in property and sales taxes were generated by the homes and businesses that formerly stood on these parcels before they fell victim to the wrecking ball so that high-speed roadways could be shoved through the urban fabric. Equally important, think of all the lives that were uprooted in the name of “progress.”

  • rohmen

    There’s some pretty interesting history on how Daley Sr. basically destroyed the near west side neighborhood and greektown through the interchange—which I always understood was one of the more integrated neighborhoods in the City before the redlining started. Some of the old-school Maxwell Street Market people talk about it.

    Someone knows more than me on the history, likely, but I also recall that he pushed through the circle interchange after essentially promising residents it wouldn’t happen, which in turn had caused people to continue to invest in property that was razed only a year or two later.

  • The book “American Pharaoh” tells that story, as well as other tales of neighborhood destruction by Richard J.

  • Roland Solinski

    The tactics of urban renewal were fascinating. Probably, Daley deflected on questions about building UIC(C) so that connected speculators wouldn’t come in and buy land to resell at an inflated price to the government. Or actually, Daley being Daley, he probably only wanted his friends with inside knowledge to quietly buy land in the university footprint.

    Or the famous story of how Dan Rostenkowski forced IDOT to shift the path of the Kennedy around St. Stan’s. This required moving the tracks of the C&NW to make room for the highway – there must have been a lot of arm-twisting to get the powerful railroad to buy into that.

  • Something I’d like to know is how much of this value that was lost was actually shifted to farther away locations. There’s no doubt that these interchanges, and the rest of the highway corridor itself, depreciate (and eliminate) land value in their immediate vicinity, but what do they do to it once you’re outside the noise-shed?

    When they were first built the goal of these highways was in no small part to empty out the cities, which were seen as hopelessly overcrowded, whether that’s actually a valid argument or not. So by creating a high-speed connection out to the suburbs, it increased the value of the land out in those more far-flung locales. So the “trade off” was a localized severe reduction in values for a broader but more modest increase in values elsewhere.

    In the preexisting city itself, but away from the highway, I suspect it’s an even more difficult question to answer. The increased traffic in general is certainly not a benefit to residents, but probably is a benefit to businesses. I can see the potential that highways might improve the value of the central business district, but at the same time the amount of parking garages, surface lots, and the traffic itself could still lead to a net negative benefit once all is said and done.

    Outside the CBD I’d say it’s still an overall loss, though not to the extent that it is right next to the highway. These inner core neighborhoods are some of the most bombed out ones we have, so they’re clearly not particularly desirable. Any commercial activity that’s drawn to the higher traffic counts (service stations, fast food, big box retail, strip malls) are supremely low-value enterprises that take up a lot of land and are worth much less than what they replace. So just because it might be shiny and new that doesn’t mean it’s actually good.

    So it would be interesting to see a more quantitative analysis, because it really is more complicated than it seems. There’s temporal issues to consider as well, in that during the depopulation phase of the latter half of the 20th century consideration must also be paid to the increased subsidizing of not just driving but suburban development itself, plus the effects of the destruction of streetcar and other transit systems, crime, schools, and other issues that are all layered on top of one another such that highway vs no highway is really not the only criteria that can be considered.

  • Scott Jones

    A lot of time the increased property values “further out” were in different municipalities altogether. These parasite towns fed off of federal highway subsidies and racism (white flight). At least that’s how it was in my hometown of St. Louis.

  • Not only are these parcels wasted, but these highways have created border vacuums that destroy nearby vitality as well.

  • dr

    Good comment. I had the same reaction. Identifying the parcels underneath freeways strikes me as an uncompelling criticism that distracts from the actual systemic effects – both positive and negative. The same criticism can be made of any public use, and obfuscates what’s actually unique about interchanges.

  • High_n_Dry

    So if the parcels are still on the books then maybe one day they can be of use again? One can dream. (I mean, flying cars, right? We all know Elon is on it.)

  • dr

    I’d never heard that story. Now I will always think about it when I see the meandering path of the Kennedy on a map!

  • Indeed, that makes it all the much more perverse. Even in cities that were able to annex the new suburbs, the thinning out of the core just leads to increased service and infrastructure liabilities with a lessened tax base to boot. A double-whammy even those new suburbs won’t be able to escape since most of them build city-level infrastructure and have city-level services to support.

  • cjlane

    “Or actually, Daley being Daley, he probably only wanted his friends with inside knowledge to quietly buy land in the university footprint.”

    Of course, this is about 1×10^10000000000000000000 more likely than the GooGoo theory in your prior sentence.

  • cjlane

    “It’s most likely because, like all government agencies nowadays, they’re short-staffed”

    The reason that lots weren’t vacated 50 years ago is because the Agencies are short staffed now??? That makes no sense.

  • Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this has never been a priority for IDOT, since this generally isn’t tax-producing land, but even if we pointed out the issue to them now, it’s especially unlikely IDOT would do anything about it now.

  • cjlane

    More likely they’d say something like “why do you care? all of that land was legally obtained, who cares if it’s described as lots 1-10,000 of Blocks A & B, or one huge lot of vacated IDOT land. What practical difference does it make to anyone?”

  • You’re probably right.

  • cjlane

    It’s definitely interesting, in a “weird minutiae of Chicago” way, and too bad it’s not more plainly documented why it was done that way, but, as with most weird minutiae here, I presume that somebody somebody sent though that there was some advantage to be gained either at the time ot sometime in the future by doing it that way instead of the “normal” way.

    Wouldn’t be surprised if it *partly* had to do with the reversionary interests of the owners at the time of the taking for the road if the land ever ceased to be used by the “state” for a road, and someone’s (not incorrect) idea that preserving the parcels would make figuring that out in the future easier.

  • Archibaldo Hope Sánchez Mejora

    That is the típical response by a bureaucrat

  • Archibaldo Hope Sánchez Mejora

    That has been the biggest damage to the city

  • Archibaldo Hope Sánchez Mejora

    Polititians are a corrupt bunch anywhere on earth. Daley was pretty much ahead in the Chicago bunch, and surely he had inventes in land Bouvet cheap in the áreas where the expressways were heading to.

  • Mcass777

    The 50’s and 60’s version of climate change – governments around the world thru endless tax money at big urban projects. Literally this was happening across the globe. Now we look and back and say, ehh.

  • Cincinnati is the same in not bothering to re-parcel its highways, or even street widenings for the most part. I always figured it was just an unnecessary extra step.

  • cjlane

    Can’t remember–it central Cincy on the Torrens system? I know that part are. If it is, then it’s slightly more complicated than it would be if not Torrens.

  • Mcass777

    I think you are missing something in your discussion. Take the photo of the Byrne interchange and zoom out. The areas to the north, west south and east are expanding like crazy. Mariano’s, new apartment buildings, cutting edge restaurants and clubs, lofts – it’s HOT HIGH VALUE!! Reading your comment and the comments of others made me wonder if anyone had actually visited this area. back in the 1970’s, this discussion was dead on but now? Additionally, look at the growth of new buildings along, adjacent, and really close to the Kennedy, even a new NEIU campus – that is revenue. The south side has seen growth alog the Dan Ryan. Thanks to a new red line and the removal of mass public housing.
    The area that Daley tore down to make UIC was one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. Not integrated but filled with pockets of immigrants. It was rough. Jane Addams started Hull House in 1889 because of the horrible conditions immigrants faced in the neighborhood. This is from the Hull House site:
    “In the1890s, Hull-House was located in the midst of a densely populated urban neighborhood peopled by Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Bohemian, and Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. During the 1920s, African Americans and Mexicans began to put down roots in the neighborhood and joined the clubs and activities at Hull-House. Hull-House became not only a cultural center with music, art, and theater offerings, but also a safe haven and a place where the immigrants living on Chicago’s Near West Side could find companionship and support and the assistance they needed for coping with the modern city.”

    Today the area is so much more than it was 100 or even 30 years ago. Not to say highways create barriers and obstructions to established neighborhoods, but don’t new opportunities emerge? If we left the area “as is” from say 1930 or 1940, would the area or city be better, worse, or the same today? And wouldn’t change happen anyway in these areas? Companies move, people leave replaced by a new wave of people. Also, how do we explain the reverse migration of empty-nesters coming back to the city that is seeing now? Your comments do not explain that trend if in fact these neighborhoods are bombed out and are filled with parking spaces.

    Lastly, I invite everyone to check out NETR. Your can find historical aerials of Chicago back to the 30’s. You can see the concentration of heavy industry right next to heavily populated neighborhoods. The look back in time shows you where the highways were cut, how the rail lines were moved, where factories were and have since left – even after the highways were built.

    The NETR site is here and is really cool:

    http://www.historicaerials.com/?javascript=&

  • It was, when it was bulldozed, largely a dense, vibrant, multigenerational source of wealth creation for working-class families. Between 1950 and 1970, a lot of local families got up the capital to buy their own houses — but Daley paid them the same rock-bottom demolition rates the area’s remaining slumlords asked for, destroying many familes’ attempt to bootstrap into the middle class.

    It has been for decades (and is finally stopping to be, in some spots) either a sterile, high-income-only “tourist area” with very little residential, or a lot of bulldozed land surrounding a few public housing developments, the private portions mostly owned by people who live in the suburbs.

    Yes, many people think upscale expensive condos are a much better use of land than a dense warren of immigrants pulling together to help each other get ahead. But it is not a value shared universally by everyone, and an entire city cannot ALL be that.

    If you destroy (as the Daleys have, repeatedly; I grew up at North and Clybourn and what was done there in the name of “development” was obscene) those working-class dense engines of wealth growth, you end up with permanent poor underclasses who keep having all their attempts at stability and upward motion taken away from them.

  • I think you’re misrepresenting correlation for causation. What development is going on along the Kennedy corridor and others is happening DESPITE the highway, not because of it. You said yourself that redevelopment near the Dan Ryan is in part because of the Red Line and demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes, not the Dan Ryan itself. There’s some fairly nice houses that have sprung up in the ganglion of railroad approaches to the Metra terminals as well (in fact, many within spitting distance of the Ohio Street interchange), but like all the other examples, it’s not because of the highways or railroad tracks, but the hot neighborhoods they’re adjacent to or proximity to downtown or ‘L’ stations.

  • Mcass777

    I made no connection to the highway, just saying that you forgot to mention that there IS growth. I am not saying if growth is good or bad, but it is there and there is revenue collected on the property that 20 and 30 years ago was not there. Your post stated several times that the highways depreciated and eliminated land value. You now agree with me. There was no discussion for the reverse migration, but now you admit is happening. Your argument is flawed that’s all.

  • Mcass777

    I made no apologies or did I applaud the Daleys for what was done just pointed out what was not in the post, that growth has taken place in a big way next to a highway. You can see it right? This was not part of the op’s comments. It needed to be clarified.

  • How do you know there wouldn’t be even greater growth if it’d been left to multiply on its own? For one thing, every parcel UNDER the highway is a dead loss, and they all used to make property tax. Not much, but give it thirty or forty years of remodeling and some piecemeal rebuilding and you have … well, you have Bucktown and Wicker Park. Which are even more lucrative for the city than Little Italy.

    Our city (and many others) has a nasty habit of deciding certain people are Trash People and just bulldozing everything they have to build things meant for the benefit of everyone else.

    I’m not saying “never build new infrastructure.” I’m saying, “recognize that one person’s upscale Progress has a real, human cost on actual lives.”

  • Mcass777

    I’ll play a game of counter factual “what if “and ask if these areas were never torn down, would there be a huge revival of gentrification? And what if there was gentrification now, would you or some other group fight that gentrification with cries of “there goes the neighborhood?” That is exactly what has happened in Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville, Wicker Park, Bucktown, etc. but now many of the readers of this blog call them home. Are we (I used to live in gentrified DePaul) the same thing as a wrecking ball by renting or buying into a changing neighborhood? I don’t know. I guess I am saying is that we all need to think about the complete picture. Many of the comments by posters (but not in the original article) disregarded and ignored present value, looked back and intimated that there is nothing of value there now. That’s just not true.
    What if those parcels under the highway had been cleared to create a huge park? A multi purpose stadium? A cutting edge cancer treatment hospital? An intermodal freight facility? A casino? A high speed rail hub to O’hare? A coal fired power plant? A research hub? I bet some of these would be huge assets to the city and some of these would really suck. Playing “what if” is silly because, there are plenty of bad things that could have gone down too. But it didn’t. It is what it is.

  • Yes, valuable land has been squandered and those photos look quite ghostly. But, I believe the main reason those property lines are still on file is that when the right-of-way is abandoned, the property won’t have to be re-platted. (That’s not to say it won’t have to be re-surveyed.) We see this all the time, more commonly with railroads, but also with streets, alleys, easements and highways.

    John, I’d suggest talking to someone at a title company to confirm (and probably get the real reason on the off chance I’m wrong).

  • Mason Wallace

    The Jackson Freeway in Charlotte almost ran through Plaza Midwood, now one of Charlotte’s strongest districts.

  • If Georgia’s old highway department had its way, the now thriving neighborhoods of the NE side would have been decimated by two freeways–the e-w Stone Mountain Freeway and the extenstion of Georgia 400 south to Morningside, Virginia Highland, Little Five Points and points south all the way to where I-675 intersects with I-285. Not saying those neighborhoods wouldn’t have come back, but it would have been in spite of some really damaging projects. Many homes were torn down and now most of this is great urban parkland (and the Carter Center which was used as an excuse for a scaled back Stone Mountain Freeway extension).

  • This is revival in spite of these freeways not because of them.

  • Concerned Vegas Citizen

    Close, it is just not worth the cost to remove the parcel lines (resurvey, new parcel map and descriptions, recording the new maps). This is typical in all jurisdictions.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Is the argument that Chicago would have been better off had it thumbed its nose back in the 1950s at any industry needing truck access? The city is situated at the tip of a Great Lake. Cross-country traffic can either go through Chicago, enriching its businesses, or it can be forced to skirt it on the Tri-State, creating suburban industrial parks.

  • Other cities without highways cutting through their urban cores are successful.

    Many cities went through the same highway-building “rampage” but decided to keep them out of the urban core.

    It could have been done.

    Even Eisenhower, the interstate system’s namesake, didn’t like that the highways ripped up our city centers.

  • Brandon

    The property and sales tax revenue provided by those “ghost parcels” are nowhere near the economic benefits provided by the highways that sit on them now.

    Urban cores and highway infrastructure can coexist when urban planning is properly done. As developed economies move from manufacturing to service-based, how many people you can serve is the primary function of how successful your local economy will be.

    The goal should be to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-vehicle traffic locally, while using engineering to keep high-speed vehicle traffic out of the way (while still making the infrastructure available).

  • Dennis McClendon

    Which North American cities retained their industry without highways? Vancouver? San Francisco? Both cities saw their port activities—and the associated industrial areas—move elsewhere, to places with better highway access. Chicago didn’t have the luxury of waiting 50 years for Chinese immigration or Silicon Valley workers to come to its rescue. It was already fighting a losing battle to keep industry within the city limits.

    As for Eisenhower, neither he nor any member of his administration did any of the heavy lifting in getting past the congressional impasse during the three-year gestation period of the 1956 Highway Act. Even years later, Eisenhower seemed to have no idea what it called for, convening the Bragdon committee in 1959 and claiming that he had never seen a Yellow Book.

  • Mcass777

    What cities?

  • William Church

    Dennis I have read your responses and there is no doubt that you know exactly what you are talking about. This is not the issue. The overarching question is: Is there another way to live? Yes sounds idealistic doesn’t it but I am really a 68 year old retired military intel analyst. Not a hippie. Our population is going to grown significantly in the next hundred years. We need to ask questions. Can we live in less urban like clusters of development? Where will put all the waste generated by a large urban area? Do we manufacture and grow food more local so there is less need for large transport structures? Finally, what is the best use for all land? Dennis obviously you are brillant on this subject so try to look at it differently. We need your brains!!

  • neroden

    Boston retained the industry it retained without the aid of highways through the core.

    Highways to the ports are not the same as highways *through* the core. Chicago built very few highways through the core, actually — only one, really…

    I think you’re not quite understanding the proposal for getting rid of “urban core” highways.

    Look at it this way: in Chicago, you want to keep the beltway and all of the radial highways — European cities have beltways and radial highways too.

    The problem highway is actually I-90 from Ogden/Milwaukee (exit 50B) through Chinatown (exit 53C). The through traffic is minimal, and it’s squatting on *very* valuable land.

    Suppose you terminate I-90 from the north at exit 50B — you can get off at Ogden, cross the river to the River North, or get off at Grand.

    The city streets can handle the traffic from there, and you free up large quantities of *very* valuable land. The trucks headed from outside Chicago to the south side are taking the beltway anyway. Traffic headed to downtown has to get on the surface streets anyway.

    Rip out this strip of I-90 running through the West Loop — which has numerous substandard dangerous exit and entrance ramps — and turn the Jane Byrne interchange into a simple Halstead St. exit on I-290.

    The interchange only serves a function for people coming in on I-290 and heading right back out on I-90 — and *nobody should be doing that* — they should either be on the Beltway, or they should be taking the local streets which go direct rather than going into downtown and back out. If these “Archer Heights to Chatham” drivers take the local streets, traffic diffuses over a large network and there’s better use of the street capacity.

    I assert that the economic benefits of *this particular stretch* of I-90 from Chinatown to Grand Avenue are *nonexistent*. Through traffic should be using the beltway; “in and out” traffic should be taking surface streets and staying out of downtown; and the bulk of traffic, traffic to the Loop, has to get on surface streets anyway.

    Look at your average European city; they have a beltway and they have expressways which head from the beltway towards downtown and let out onto the streets before they get to downtown. The extra strip of expressway through the middle of downtown is unncessary and counterproductive and this is the ONLY piece of expressway which Streetsblog is arguing for the removal of.

  • neroden

    Yes, they can coexist. The point made here is specifically that “through” highways slicing through the downtown core are not a proper part of urban planning. They fail to serve highway purposes and they damage all other purposes too.

  • neroden

    You’re making a mistaken conflation between two different types of highways.

    Sure, the Kennedy CORRIDOR may help. Sure, the Dan Ryan CORRIDOR (south of Chinatown) may help.

    These interchanges in the West Loop have no value whatsoever. Terminate the Dan Ryan at Chinatown, delete the part of I-90 through the West Loop, you still get all the benefit of the long highway *corridors*, but without the “blasted empty zone” caused by the *downtown* highways.

  • BlueFairlane

    Check out the route of Interstate 93. It’s hard to come up with a definition of “urban core” that doesn’t have I-93 passing through it in Boston.

  • neroden

    True, but look up the history of the useless, worthless Central Artery. I assert that the elevated, weight-limited, truck-restricted highway through the urban core provided precisely zero aid to the port traffic. Which is really kind of my point.

  • neroden

    Actually, there’s a major point to be made here — it’s not about freeways, it’s about *interchanges*.

    What is the function of the Jane Byrne / Circle Interchange? IT HAS NO FUNCTION.

    It’s only useful for people speeding into the core on one expressway and then speeding out on a different expressway — and *nobody should be doing that*. They should be taking the Beltway, or if they live further inside the Beltway, they should be taking the surface streets. If you’re taking a highway all the way into the West Loop, you should at the very least be going to the West Loop, Loop, or nearby areas, not heading back out again. Anything else is adding traffic to the most congested area for no reason.

    Also, while highways use up a lot of land, interchanges use up FAR MORE land. If I-290 ran straight through, with a normal exit ramp and no interchange, *half* of those parcels on the photo would become buildable lots.

  • BlueFairlane

    Maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t. That fact is, though, that it’s there, and you can’t draw any real conclusions about what might have happened in Boston without it.

  • neroden

    Cross-country traffic is of two sorts:
    (1) Through traffic which drives through without stopping. YES, you want that traffic to go on the Tri-State Beltway. NO, that does not create any industrial parks anywhere.
    (2) LOCAL traffic which actually stops somewhere. Those trucks have to get off the highway, you know. There’s no reason for them to travel across a highway right through the middle of town.

    The old structure involved industrial parks on the south side serving traffic headed both east and west, and industrial parks on the north side serving the much smaller traffic headed north. I don’t see the problem with that. Those industrial parks have very little reason to drive directly from one side of downtown to the other on their way out of the state, and even less reason to take the *interchanges* in downtown.

  • neroden

    Well, what actually happened was a decline in port traffic due to business moving to the west coast, and a further decline due to lack of decent railroad routes out of Boston causing a shift in traffic to New Jersey. The north-south highway is demonstrably irrelevant to the direction of the freight flows from Boston Harbor.

  • BlueFairlane

    All of which may or may not have had a connection to the highway. Who knows? But there’s no control for this sort of thing, no second Boston sitting around you can point to and say “This is Boston without that highway.”

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