How Do We Ensure Residents Can Stay in Their Communities to Benefit From the Paseo?

Byron Sigcho, Veronica Gonzalez, and Nelson Cheung. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Byron Sigcho, Veronica Gonzalez, and Nelson Cheung. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Ever since Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement in early 2016 of plans to build the Paseo trail connecting Pilsen and Little Village along 4 miles of disused rail corridor, there has been endless speculation about the construction timeline and potential impacts on housing affordability, particularly in gentrifying Pilsen. The proposed multi-purpose Paseo would start at 16th Street and Sangamon Street, reach Cermak Road and follow Blue Island Avenue and 26th southwest to Central Park Avenue.

Concerns about the Paseo have partly been fueled by comparisons to the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, the 2.7-mile elevated trail running through Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park, and Bucktown. Three year’s after the trail’s groundbreaking in late 2013, housing prices near the Bloomingdale west of Western Avenue had increased by 48.2 percent, according to data released by the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University in late 2016.

To discuss some of the concerns and questions about the trail, the American Planning Association’s Illinois chapter organized “Bike-Ped Trails and Affordability: El Paseo Panel and Garden Tour.”

The panel included Nelson Chueng, coordinating planner at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Veronica Gonzalez, vice president of real estate development at The Resurrection Project, and Byron Sigcho, director of the Pilsen Alliance (currently on leave while he runs for 25th Ward alderman.) Dr. John-Jairo Betancur, a professor at UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, moderated the discussion.

Betancur kicked off the discussion. “There is a perception that the idea of the Paseo came from City Hall. How did the planning involve the community and other stakeholders? If there was no involvement, how do we improve?”

Chueng compared the Bloomingdale to the Paseo and said he sees the latter being “much more community-driven.” One issue he brought up is that the corridor for the Paseo is still owned by BNSF Railway. “We have to be the ones that get it first,” he said.

A map of the Paseo route connecting Little Village and Pilsen. Image: Steven Vance
A map of the Paseo route connecting Little Village and Pilsen. Image: Steven Vance

Gonzalez recalled first hearing about the Paseo in the Little Village Quality of Life Plan in 2005. “This was about the lack of green space and the need to reclaim any plot of land and convert it to active parks,” she said. “These conversations were happening 12 years ago.”

One of the key differences Gonzalez sees between the Bloomingdale and the Paseo is that the former had an active grassroots organization backing it and pushing for its design, acquisition, and implementation, Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail. “The Paseo doesn’t have that,” she said. “You have actors reacting to what seems to be a disconcerted effort. There’s no central place driving it.”

Sigcho stressed that there needs to be a plan to avoid potential housing displacement along the trail, which he says is a main concern of residents he’s interacted with. “We need to have a plan to create safety nets. Amenities have externalities,” he said. “When a project is coming from the community, you will have the community backing it.” Sigcho added that he’s not opposed to the project, but rather that he wants to ensure that there is a transparent planning process, with residents’ concerns addressed in the plans.

Chueng agreed that community conversations need to happen to prepare for the Paseo. “El Paseo right now is just a rail track, but there’s no [detailed] plan. Having a dialogue right now is important.”

Gonzalez also emphasized the need to consider the environmental factors around the Paseo and potential impacts.“If we are going to do this, what are the mitigating impacts? What are the impacts of it being around industry?” she asked, particularly referring to the proximity of the Little Village stretch of the Paseo to the neighborhood’s industrial corridor.

Betancur posed another question about whose interests the Paseo will serve. “The 606, which started as an idea of an asset, became a very expensive amenity for tourists,” he argued. “I want to hear each of you discuss how a project like the Paseo, even the idea of a project like this, can affect a community teetering on the edge of gentrification when there are more pressing concerns,” he said. “At the end of the day, even [proposing] the Paseo, isn’t that encouraging gentrification?”

Gonzalez stated that she doesn’t believe that green infrastructure by itself drives investment, and emphasized that the Bloomingdale was built in an already-gentrifying neighborhood. She argued that families in Little Village and Pilsen deserve nice places to walk and bike. She added that the Paseo can be an opportunity to fortify the communities’ Mexican identities. “The name for the Paseo is taken from El Paseo de la Reforma, a street in Mexico City running through both rich and poor areas,” she said. “This is opportunity to reclaim and reshape.”

Sigcho agreed that it’s important to reclaim spaces, but asserted that these communities have more pressing concerns. “The first thing we have to do is talk about how we keep residents here, how we keep the Mexican families that are here,” he said. He offered solutions like property tax freezes and rent control, which he added are citywide issues. (Rent control would also require statewide legislation.)

Chueng said the concerns the concerns about the Paseo could ultimately be beneficial. “If the Paseo is a force to make us look at these serious housing issues, it’s a good thing.”

Gonzalez said one important step to have these conversations is to organize a campaign to spread the word about the Paseo. “We need to go to las lavanderías, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc.,” she said. “We need to stop talking to each other as professionals and get out to speak to residents.”

When panelists were asked about the timeline of the Paseo construction, Chueng said it’s unclear. “When we first conceived of The 606, it took 11 years to actually do it,” he said “The Paseo is going to take time. Maybe time is good for us.”

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  • rohmen

    Looking back at Logan Square and Pilsen in the early 2000s, I always thought Pilsen would end up taking the lead on gentrification given how much closer it is to the loop. The difference has seemed to be the fact that Pilsen has a lot more Mexican community home ownership.

    If the City and Alderman are serious about wanting to combat gentrification (and at least the Alderman seems to be), yet still give the community a much-deserved amenity, this seems like a situation where you can help by freezing demolition and down-zoning permits, and by designing a system that gives property tax relief/incentives to residents in the area that see spikes once the trail goes in and property values climb so they can stay. Also, if we encourage these projects across the City, at some point you take away the “scarcity of resources” situation that drives much of the gentrification explosion when parkland is built.

    Heartened to hear the drive now seems to be how to protect long time residents against externalizes of the project, rather than a push to kill the project period. Hopefully the path forward on this continues to develop that way.

  • ohsweetnothing

    “Betancur posed another question about whose interests the Paseo will serve. “The 606, which started as an idea of an asset, became a very expensive amenity for tourists,””

    Is this conventional wisdom re: the 606? Because tbh it’s the first I’ve heard someone describe the 606 like this. Seems like quite a statement to make without additional evidence, but maybe I’ve missed something.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Packaging the Bloomingdale Trail as this colossal connected park system aka the 606, it quickly became a darling amenity of the real estate and development crowd. And it’s understandable why it’s so appealing, but I think the solution is not to try and stop these projects, but rather to ensure that we have them in every community so that any individual one is unlikely to be used as part of a property speculator gold rush. I feel the same way about L stops and lines.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Agreed on all points.

    I’m still baffled by the claim that the 606 has become “a very expensive amenity for tourists”. I’ll even go a step further now and say even if it has, so what?? It’s still very popular (and USEFUL) for residents too.

  • Sam K

    I’m not all that familiar with the different anti-gentrification measures, so bear with me. How would it work if a homeowner in the vicinity gets property tax relief? They pay a reduced tax bill and then get to sell their house for $5 million in a few years? That seems like a huge, disproportionate boon to current property owners and unlikely to preserve the community fabric over the long term (which is the stated aim of these measures).

    Are there examples of other cities doing this? How have they worked out?

  • rohmen

    There’s examples of taxing bodies doing property tax relief/abatement tied to historic districts in Illinois, so there’s conceivable models to build off even in this state. Also, while I’m not an expert, I know these sort of plans have been discussed (and I believe even implemented) in other areas of the country facing gentrification issues.

    The devil is in the details with regards to how you design these programs. But, if they’re structured in a way that can’t be gamed by developers, and are actually designed to benefit people below a certain income threshold that have owned homes for a certain period of time (say for 10 years or longer), I think they could deal with some of the problems that occurred around the 606 (i.e., where people were forced to sell due to property taxes) and help preserve the community fabric.

    In the end, you’re not really talking about losing all that much property tax revenue if we’re discussing a small number of houses directly next to the trail, so I’m less worried about homeowners getting some sort of “windfall.” It’s not like the credit would transfer, so the owners only really benefit from the freeze if they stay. Also, the City/County already gets its cut of any spikes in value by way of the transfer tax during a sale, and I’m not suggesting owners get exempted from that.

  • ohsweetnothing

    “In the end, you’re not really talking about losing all that much property tax revenue…”

    Well, that’s one of the issues. You’re not talking about losing ANY property tax revenue, because the levy is the levy is the levy. The amount of $ that property owners benefitting from a freeze/relief would otherwise have to pay would be made up by other property owners paying more. So if I lived in the same neighborhood, but not close enough to the Paseo to qualify for some sort of relief, my property tax bill would increase via assessed value AND via picking up the levy amount that the qualifying properties aren’t paying (assuming it’s in the same township).

    And yes, they’ll probably still get to sell their home for a greatly increased price down the line.

  • rohmen

    I get the levy issue, but we grant a variety of exemptions to people for a variety of things, and municipalities granting exemptions (or even freezes) based on economic factors in an area is not unheard of (or even uncommon). We do tax incentives (including on property taxes) all the time to spur commercial development, and hardly anyone even bats an eye, though I guarantee the tax breaks we’ve given to commercial landowners pales in comparison to anything we’ll ever do for private homeowners to address gentrification concerns in terms of impact as to what we all pay at the end of the day.

    Sure, if someone pays marginally less, others will (quite likely) pay marginally more. Not to be flippant, but that’s how the world works. “But X will pay more if we help Y with government funds or reduce what X has to pay” can literally be said about almost any social safety net program. The question is with that understood, does the need to address an issue justify the impact.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Well for starters, commercial landowners generally pay far more than private homeowners in property taxes, both in rate and as a whole. I also think those incentives could benefit from more scrutiny as well tbh.

    I’m not saying that property tax relief of some sort should be a non-starter, and I don’t think your response is flippant at all. But I am generally doubtful that it would be the best way to address displacement concerns. Because my point is two homeowning families in the same neighborhood could make the same amount of money…and one will be effectively subsidizing the other’s property taxes because they live 1/4 mile further from the trail. THEN should the family closer to the trail decide to sell (and here’s where I’d be very interested to see a study of why homeowners leave gentrifying areas, because they can’t afford the taxes…or they can’t say no to the prices their property now fetches) they benefit from that windfall as well. And yes, that’s how the world works…but that doesn’t make it good policy.

    I think there are better, more direct ways to address displacement fears. I just don’t think they have the initial ring that “take care of their property taxes and they’ll stay” does.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    how about building a lot more housing along the paseo? so that more people of all different types and colors can live there? unless we are trying to make each neighborhood a segregated ethnostate…

  • rohmen

    I agree you need to add density rather than just try to hold the flood gates of new residents closed. That said, “building” around these projects is a double-edged sword. Though the demand is there, people aren’t constructing things on the “affordable” target end of rent on the market-rate scale. They’re building luxury units to rent at market-rate for luxury units.

    That may not be a big deal if we’re talking about using vacant lots or underutilized commercial property, and I think it can still help by taking the pressure off current housing stock. But, when you start seeing developers turn what were affordable rental units and buildings into luxury condos and rentals, or de-convert two and three flats into SFHs to take advantage of the demand for SFH housing stock, building that sort of housing fuels the gentrification push pretty fast.

    If you want to help the current community that can’t afford to stay because of gentrification impacts, that’s an equity concern, and there isn’t going to be a pure market solution (such as just build more) because the market could give a rat’s ass about equity.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    Pilsen requires developers who want to build more than 8 units to set aside 21 percent of those for affordable housing. Opposing new development increases gentrification. It’s a supply and demand issue

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