How Wasted Land on Logan Square’s MiCA Site Helped Fuel Anti-TOD Sentiment

The MiCA towers. Photo: Borna Khoshand
The MiCA towers. Photo: Borna Khoshand

The MiCA transit-oriented development towers, which were erected two years ago at Milwaukee and California (hence the name) near the California Blue Line station, gave Logan Square’s skyline a jolt. At 11 and 12 stories respectively, the buildings rise far above most other structures in the neighborhood and serve as one of the most striking examples of Chicago’s embrace of dense, parking-light, transit-friendly TOD.

During construction of the towers in 2016, affordable housing activists argued that the upscale apartments would drive up property values and housing costs in the neighborhood. Some went as far as to barricade the work site by locking themselves together in a human chain via PVC tubes and buckets of concrete. Some proponents asserted that adding additional market-rated housing in gentrifying neighborhoods takes pressure off the rental market, and noted that ten percent of the onsite units would be “affordable,” as defined by city ordinance. The activists countered that the rents for the discounted units still wouldn’t be within reach of local low-income and working-class residents.

Setting aside the debate over MiCA’s impact on gentrification and displacement, there’s a lot to like about the physical structure itself. The towers are definitely TODs: The developer built 216 units with only 59 parking spaces, operating under the assumption that most residents would use the ‘L’, nearby bus routes, ride-hailing, walking, and biking to get around, instead of driving. And, aesthetically, MiCA isn’t bad by any means. The black glass gives it a distinguished look, and the retail base meets the street well on Milwaukee Avenue, maintaining a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Yet future TODs should not model themselves after MiCA. The towers soar upwards, but most of the development’s lot is unbuilt – with only an underwhelming plaza on Milwaukee Avenue and a broad expanse of surface parking on the property to show for it. Chicago developers should learn from MiCA’s mistakes and strive for comparable density with less height by building out more of their properties. That way their buildings will fit more neatly into the context of their neighborhoods and avoid aggravating a development-weary public. The future viability of TODs in Chicago requires some degree of public approval (or, at a minimum, their tepid tolerance). But MiCA’s height is a factor in why many Logan Square residents dislike the project.

Most of MiCa’s parcel is unbuilt. Image: Google Maps
Most of MiCA’s parcel is unbuilt. Image: Google Maps

More than half of MiCA’s parcel remains untouched. The development plan originally called for a one-story retail strip along Milwaukee to connect the towers, but that was scrapped just before completion due to a perceived lack of demand for storefront space. In its place, Henry Street Partners added the rather uninspiring plaza.

The plaza’s wasted northern half, on left. At the base of the southern tower, on right, there is cafe seating and a fire installation. Photo: Borna Koshand
The plaza’s wasted northern half, on left. At the base of the southern tower, on right, there is cafe seating and a fire installation. Photo: Borna Khoshand

In effect, the plaza is a waste of developable land that doesn’t add much to the neighborhood. On its southern end, Colectivo Coffee has set up a pleasant seating area for patrons, and an adjacent fire installation adds some character. The rest of the plaza, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

Its northern half is just an empty concrete rectangle. The large rocks that were placed in the center of the plaza are tacky. There’s almost no green space, making it doubtful many people would want to hang out in the southwest-facing space, especially on hot days. An intimidating rock wall lines the back of the plaza. Behind it, the 59 surface parking spaces consume the rest of the lot.

Photo: 59 surface parking spots behind the towers. Photo: Borna Khoshand
Photo: The 59 surface parking spots behind the towers. Photo: Borna Khoshand

MiCA easily could have achieved comparable (or even greater) density at a shorter height, if it made full use of its lot. Instead of two large towers, there could have been three mid-sized ones, or any number of other configuration – it’s a large lot. A smaller plaza would have delivered the benefits of the current one, and the surface parking could have become more housing.

Building out versus building up

1968 N. Milwaukee Avenue offers a better example for TODs than MiCA. Image: Forum Studio
1968 N. Milwaukee Avenue offers a better example for TODs than MiCA. Image: Forum Studio

Just a stop down the Blue Line, an under-construction TOD, developed by Clayco, offers a better example for future development. At seven stories, Clayco’s new (currently nameless) apartments at 1968 N. Milwaukee combine height and bulk much better than MiCA. They pack in even greater density, and at seven stories, better fit the surroundings. Clayco built out the lot more fully and will offer fewer parking spaces. The development is next to the Western Blue Line station.

Screen Shot 2018-04-13 at 4.11.09 PM

Of course, comparing two developments with unique offerings is difficult, and this general category of “units” does not capture the whole density picture. Moreover, it’s unclear if First Ward alderman Joe Moreno’s office granted Henry Street Partners the regulatory flexibility to reduce MiCA’s parking below the 59 spaces. MiCA was approved as a Planned Development, giving the developers some leeway with zoning in exchange for greater community benefits. Given the controversy MiCA stirred in Logan Square, it’s possible the off-street parking was part of the compromise between developers and the alderman. But, no matter whose decision it was, the outcome is unfortunate – for Logan Square, and, potentially, for future development prospects in the neighborhood.

Preserving Public Support for Development

Development has quickly become a dominant issue in Logan Square. Successive waves of gentrification have moved up the Blue Line and newcomers are pouring into the neighborhood. Many longtime residents have grown averse to new construction projects that they fear will accelerate Logan Square’s transformation and push them out.

This sentiment is clear in the controversies surrounding future development, and in policy moves from local representatives. Last year, 35th Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa announced his intention of downzoning the 0.4-mile stretch of Milwaukee Avenue from Kimball to Central Park in Avondale, restricting how much density developers can build on those parcels. Under Chicago’s system of aldermanic prerogative, aldermen wield immense power over development in their wards. By downzoning, Ramirez-Rosa would gain greater leverage over future projects: Developers would have to ask him for a rezoning to build denser projects. This would slow down development and makes it more costly. According to Block Club reporter Mina Bloom, who has been tracking the proposal, the ordinance is currently stalled in committee at City Council.

The downzoned stretch of Milwaukee in Logan Square. Image: Google Street View
The stretch of Milwaukee in Avondale. Image: Google Street View

Ultimately, downzowning isn’t a longterm solution for keeping Logan Square, or the rest of Chicago, affordable. Our city desperately needs more housing. Subsidized housing is essential, but even more so, the city needs to maintain healthy growth in the number of market-rate housing units.

When the housing supply in a neighborhood doesn’t keep up with the demand, home prices and rents can skyrocket. If neighborhoods like Lincoln Park hadn’t blocked so much development in the past, raising housing costs, it’s far less likely that places like Wicker Park and Logan Square would be facing such significant housing pressures today.

Unfortunately, MiCA’s overly tall design sets back the cause of development in Chicago by clashing so sharply with its neighborhood. Of course, that’s not to say that more context-sensitive development eliminates any backlash to new construction. Nothing will, and 1968 N. Milwaukee had opposition, too. But better-designed development stands a better chance of limiting blowback. Hopefully, this approach will help Chicago’s housing supply keep up with demand.

  • Another aspect that should be mentioned here is that Logan Square as a community area has among the lowest amounts of park space per capita. Avondale has the same problem, if not worse. The green spaces we do have along the boulevards are also used as pseudo expressways and parking lots on Sundays with a seemingly primary use as moving a lot of cars at fast speeds rather than its intended function as a park and as “the lungs of the city”. Milwaukee already was a concrete jungle and this ‘plaza’ and the unfinished concrete on the building only exacerbates it. The planning document that the 606 came from (the Logan Square Open Space Plan) had some other good suggestions that have come to fruition but most of the large spaces left around Logan Square are owned by the CTA who don’t employ a landscape architect at all as far as I know and have never attempted to build anything but more expanses of pavement and have shown zero regard for the best use of land. Even the 606 has its detractors still somehow. Any investment in the neighborhood becomes controversial when people’s housing is made precarious. The MICA plaza is basically just there to hide their parking lot but make sure nobody gets too comfortable. It’s a pretty hostile space actually. All of this puts stress on the parks we do have while people jostle for their preferred use and crowd them.

  • Oh and BTW the trees they did plant at MICA are lombardy poplars, they don’t live very long, are prone to disease, are ugly and are primarily used for temporary screening while you wait for something else to grow in.

  • Carter O’Brien

    This is a good piece. But it needs (apparently) to be repeated over and over again that there is no such thing as a homogenous demand for housing. People attracted to luxury development are not out there trying to squeeze into garden in-law units with multiple small bedrooms and ancient appliances.

  • Jacob Wilson

    While the infill of 1968 N. Milwaukee is great the design is really unforgivable.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Another criticism of the current batch of TODs is that they provide very homogenous styles of housing that attract very homogenous types of resident. The largest units in most of these buildings are small two bedrooms, with many units being one bedroom or studios. That means the housing is attracting singles and a few couples with professional incomes.

    Meanwhile in many popular neighborhoods two flats are being converted to single family homes, eliminating the neighborhood’s larger rental units once occupied by families. The result of these two trends is that families feeling a housing pinch. There are very few three bedroom units being built anywhere in the city, pushing many families to the suburbs. Adding some larger units to denser developments would help families stay in the city

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Apparently this building (MICA) does have some 3 bedroom units though at $3400 a month I don’t think its going to be the same people renting in 100 year old three flats.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Is the space wasted or a placeholder to build a third or
    fourth building after the political winds change when the agitators move out
    and more pro-density folks move in? After
    all the protests, this is what can be built now. In five, 10 or 15 years, I
    would not be surprised that more buildings are proposed for the space. Chicago
    really needs more housing and a couple of hundred more units would be of benefit
    to the city and the neighborhood. From the article, Logan Square residents are
    uncomfortable with the look but can tolerate the height. This is in contrast to
    Lakeview, where residents are insistent about keeping tall buildings near the
    Lakefront. Community members there work to keep the neighborhood from looking
    like Lincoln Park or Uptown.

  • It’s kind of understandable why they didn’t put retail in. The amount of empty storefronts in that area is staggering. That particular stretch also doesn’t seem to have much foot traffic either, there are a bunch of large stores with parking lots, then a bunch of empty storefronts, then entire blocks with totally empty ground floors like the Congress Theater’s block.

  • planetshwoop

    I think three bedrooms are being built, but through an indirect method. These bigger, headline grabbing projects don’t have larger apartments. But plenty of smaller scale condos do have multiple bedrooms.

    How many of those are being bought with the intention of being rented I don’t know — probably not a ton given the more luxury appointments being built.

    But as a way of expanding family housing, more affordable condos that are turned into rentals isn’t a bad solution. It probably has a bit of “friction” in terms of hurdles making it harder to do (get approval from the condo board, incentivize people to take this risk in the first place, build more condos that aren’t $500k, etc.)

  • ardecila

    Of course not, but it’s a continuum. The guy living in MiCa might have lived in a large renovated unit on Logan Blvd, for example. When you ban new development (which often focuses on the higher end of the market) everybody gets pushed down to their next-best housing option, and the people on the bottom get squeezed out entirely.

    Remember, units aren’t static, they’re always depreciating and getting older/cheaper before being renovated in minor or major ways. If a landlord isn’t getting much money (or any money) out of their garden unit with tiny bedrooms and ancient appliances, then he/she will invest in a renovation that can command higher rents. Landlords are more incentivized to do this when there is less competition in the marketplace.

  • ardecila

    I’ve seen plenty of lombardy poplars last a long time. There’s a spectacular one on Clybourn that’s 6-7 stories tall. I assume the designers were hoping for some height that would better match the scale of the buildings.

  • ardecila

    The Colectivo end of the plaza is great. The coffee shop just opened in December, so it hasn’t even seen a single summer yet. Give it a chance, every outdoor space in Chicago feels dead in the cold. Likewise, I assume the north end of the plaza will also become pretty vibrant once the retail space finds a tenant.

    As for the parking lot, I’m not sure there’s much the developer could do with that space. Zoning requires a 30′ rear setback. You can put enclosed parking back there, or a one-story extension of the building, but not dwelling units. The original plan was to cover that surface parking with a roof deck, but eventually they decided it was cheaper to just put outdoor space on top of the towers themselves.

  • Affordable housing is only one of the missing elements needed to create a Jane Jacobs / Mr Rogers / Sesame Street neighborhood. Affordable commercial spaces with an abundance of small and even ultra-small sizes beneath the affordable housing is needed as well. As well as comfortable free street hangout spaces and parks and parklets. And then decent transit between the affordable neighborhoods that are partly affordable because you don’t need a car.

    So in all those senses it is too late for Logan Square and Wicker Park to become affordable neighborhoods. So where are the next affordable neighborhoods in Chicago? Ah the $64,000 gentrification-displacement question.

    No where! They cannot be born in the climate I call the plutocratic oligarchic corporate run austerity driven neo-liberal-style Capitalist economics. If you get my drift.

    Wicker park and Logan Square and Pilson had their renaissance roots planted in the 70s at the end of the more prosperity driven FDR-style Keynesian economic regime. Granted that was also the birthtime of automobile driven corporate economics as well.

    The important point being that affordable neighborhoods are created bottom/small up/bigger. Naturally. And they are difficult to develop as in developer-style.

    Had Harold Washington, just as a for instance, finished his barely begun second term and finished a third term and mentored a successor we might have three or four or many other “gentrifiable” affordable neighborhoods by now.

    Mayors like Rahm and Richie and maybe even Richard know what a quality neighborhood looks like, but not how to get there.

    In my humble opinion.

  • Yes, exceptions test the rule.

  • JacobEPeters

    Having gone to all of the public meetings for these buildings, what you’re describing was exactly what I had been pushing for. The tallest portion at the Belden/Milwaukee corner, stepping down to Washtenaw (potentially w/ duplexes or townhomes on the Belden & Washtenaw frontages further towards mid block. The towers were pushed because the initial complaints from immediate neighbors were about wanting to reduce the extent of shadows, & the entire project suffered due to these concerns from a handful of property owners.

    The plaza between the towers was in the plan far in advance, it was not added last minute. Although it’s final design changed last minute, but that was because the parking lot was originally supposed to be screened from the plaza by a planted berm & capped w/ a dog run/amenity deck.

  • Carter O’Brien

    There are almost certainly a thousand different ways housing dynamics play out for individuals, but over the long term we are still just likely to see lower and lower middle class people squeezed out. You can see the comment above confirming that many people are actively rooting for that.

    Until the City induced demand for luxury apartment housing in *this* area by incentivizing it with these kind of buildings, it didn’t exist. What is at least as likely to happen in your scenario is the guy who moves to MiCa in his mid-to-late 20s at some point decides being a 5m walking distance from a bunch of bars and the Blue Line stop isn’t as important as getting more space for his dollar, having a yard for a dog, or a kid, etc. So he then decides to move deeper into a residential area that he otherwise wouldn’t have even known existed. This is what happened (and continues to happen) in the Lakefront neighborhoods, after college you move some place like Wrigleyville, then when it’s time to raise the family you’re heading to North Center, Roscoe Village or the burbs.

    I’m not a doom-and-gloomer, you’re right that there are cycles for this. In the old days we saw more people using the two flat model as a ticket to economic advancement. You lived in one unit, the other remained a relatively affordable rental. After you built some equity perhaps you got a SFH, or perhaps you rehabbed and duplexed the owners unit up into the attic, etc. But I don’t see much evidence of landlords investing in this manner in units (much less garden units) these days in any case. I see multi unit buildings being deconverted, if not torn down altogether. Higher density is one thing, there are some issues, but I think lots of people can rally behind the positives. But the problem here is we are just seeing the luxury development, which if it goes the way of Lincoln Park will ultimately mean less people and less density. That impacts school populations, the health of your retail sector, etc.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Hegewisch?

    “So where are the next affordable neighborhoods in Chicago?”

  • Cameron Puetz

    There’s no official policy against building three bedroom units, but alderman have been known to block zoning change requests for projects that included three bedroom units. Pawar was rightfully criticized for having a stated policy that he wouldn’t above any zoning changes for three bedroom units. I don’t know if any other alderman went on went on the record, but three bedroom units are perceived as harder to build. Since TODs always require aldermanic approval, and often face opposition, developers are hesitant to do anything that rocks the boat.

  • I think this is a bit behind because rich yuppies are already in the areas surrounding Logan. I know a bunch of 30s-ish people in banking, tech, etc. who have bought in Avondale for example.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I was on the Dill Pickle’s finance committee in 2012 – 2013 when we were looking at expansion site possibilities, and it was much to our great surprise that although there lots of seemingly vacant storefronts in the area, none of them were available.

    The property owners on this stretch seem to have made the call after the housing crash of 08 that it wasn’t worth the effort to fix their buildings up or to commit to long term leases, and they were better off just holding out for zoning bonuses and the big Wicker Park money to march up Milwaukee. So in one sense they were smart. In another sense, this stretch was basically held hostage for all of those intervening years.

  • Carter O’Brien

    If by behind you mean “too late,” to a large degree I agree with you. I grew up in Lake View and Logan Square and have lived in Avondale for 16 years, the blocks within 1/4 mile of the Blue Line and Milwaukee Ave were always likely to get snapped up. It remains to be seen how far away from the Blue Line the gentrification will really take on the western edge. But at least on Belmont, interest is moving further west with little end in sight. Sleeping Village all by itself is probably going to introduce thousands of people to Avondale.

  • Cameron Puetz

    One of the problems with Chicago’s property market right now is that sections of the continuum are disappearing. In popular neighborhoods the large SFH, and luxury condo/apartment markets are both doing well. The problem is with the two flat down conversions to SFH the affordable garden units, and affordable larger rentals are disappearing, while new developments aren’t replacing the lost rentals. Developments like MiCa are facing the brunt of the criticism, but it’s two flat to SFH conversions that are really driving the loss of affordable housing.
    When a lot holds an owner occupied two flat with a garden unit, it provides housing for three households spanning the economic spectrum. The garden unit provides some of the most affordable rentals in the neighborhood, the rental flat provides a rental for a middle class family, and the owner’s flat allows an upper middle class family to use the rental income to buy a property that would otherwise be unaffordable. When that same lot is occupied by a massive SFH, it only provides housing for one upper class family.

  • Tooscrapps

    And don’t forget the the vacancy reduction!

  • Are you talking about the ones at Clybourn and Kenmore? Might want to take a closer look if that’s what you’re talking about.

  • I would think it’s mainly the housing prices coupled with the drop in crime plus hot bars more than anything – which realtors are using to their advantage and marketing the area to people who wouldn’t have considered it before. I see the same thing in Humboldt Park though that area is a little “rougher” the neighborhood group is now filling with white yuppies who got sold a cute bungalow for a great price and now want to shut the Puerto Rican parade down.

  • That makes sense to me. Also there is a tax incentive to do so that they tried to get rid of but it got stalled due to political infighting. https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20170522/gold-coast/vacant-storefronts-tax-break-state-senator-robert-martwick/

  • This is fascinating to me because in Ukrainian Village the alderman/neighborhood blocked a building (st. bonface) *because* it contained small rentals. The rationale was they wanted families. Large-ish condos were built instead. Seems the gap is the 2+ bedroom rentals though there are plenty of condos that size.

  • What are the transit options there? It would be an interesting change. Historically there has been a pretty direct path of progression starting from Old Town and spreading outward. Hegewisch would be a big jump.

    But that is exactly the progression that needs to happen. And not just Hegewisch but other community neighborhoods should be able to support cutting edge social/ethnic pockets of growth and prosperity in an affordable urban form.

    Carl Nyberg tried out Hegewisch for a while I believe.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I’m kidding, sort of. When Facebook first rolled out there was this hilarious “what Chicago neighborhood do you belong in?” quiz, and seemingly half the people I grew up with who were on FB got Hegewisch, which we had never heard of, but they made it sound good!

    And we need the Circle Line and/or a Western Ave subway so we can get out of this obsessed-with-L-stops-on-the-North Side development bottleneck. The bus is just never going to inspire people to invest in a neighborhood and put down roots the way an L stop does.

  • That’s why the Ashland BRT was so important. For transit users it’s about usability in the final analysis. Is it an effective travel mode and not is it cool. In some ways BRT may conceiveably be an affordable neighborhoods best friend. Effective at connecting you with the city but not so sexy as to overly attract quick buck developers.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think Ashland sells it too short, which is exactly the problem they had with the Circle Line. Initial discussions revolved around the need to connect the spokes far out from the hub/Loop, so with the western end being Pulaski, Kedzie or Western. Then people said that was too expensive, and once the discussion went to Ashland, it was like “Really? Ashland is no transit desert. Waste of money.”

    The big projects are crazy, but they are inspiring & thus get support. You do make a good point about affordability. I think the question is, would an L system like London’s with good coverage help spread development out so it didn’t end up being focused so much like a laser by the L stops on the North Side. Even with an L stop, I really don’t think you’d see the outlier neighborhoods even on the NW side like Cragin gentrifying any time soon.

  • Obesa Adipose

    You mean the property break they get for an unleased space?

  • Obesa Adipose

    I call them sacrificial plantings. I’ve don’t it with fast growing maples. Maybe that future something else is commercial space. Instead of Logan Square Preservation complaining about the height of these building they should have pressed to have that space activated. I could see a narrow bar or cafe ala’ the Matchbox along that plaza.

  • comi

    Like the Puerto Ricans shut down Riot Fest in Humboldt Park?

  • Gerald

    Like how the people who frequent the Puerto Rican parade shut Riot Fest down?

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