Study: The 606 Shows the Downside of Having Parks Nonprofits Lead Infra Projects

The Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606. Photo: Jeff Zoline
The Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606. Photo: Jeff Zoline

In a recent study titled “’We’re not in the business of housing’: Environmental nonprofitization of green infrastructure projects” by Alessandro Rigolon, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in recreation, sport, and tourism; and Jeremy Nemeth, associate professor of urban planning and regional planning at the University of Colorado at Denver, the authors look at the impact of park nonprofits leading large green infrastructure projects (LGIPs) with a particular focus on Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606.

The authors found that when cities delegate the leadership of these projects to park nonprofits there can be benefits but it can also accelerate “environmental gentrification,” which they define as “the influx of wealthy residents to historically disenfranchised neighborhoods due to new green spaces.” This phenomenon has been under increased scrutiny in recent years due to housing speculation associated with the Bloomingdale, New York City’s High Line, and the Atlanta BeltLine.

Rigolon and Nemeth reached their conclusions after interviewing 16 key players in the green infrastructure planning field, including members of nonprofit organizations and city officials, and a review of planning documents. One of the main points they make is that having park nonprofits manage projects for cities can lead to the fragmentation of green space development and affordable housing goals. It can also result in decision-makers focusing on the environmental and public health benefits of green infrastructure, while not paying enough attention to the potential for the displacement of longtime residents. Delegating project management to nonprofits can also reduce accountability for both public and non-state actors.

The authors chose to study Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail because Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made big-ticket sustainable transportation and parks projects a hallmark of his administration, and because studies have found a clear link between the Bloomingdale and rising housing costs along its corridor. Before The 606 became a reality, some residents had been pushing for the conversion of the old Bloomingdale Line railroad right-of-way into a trail for decades. The proposal was mentioned in the City of Chicago’s (1998) CitySpace Plan, and in the mid-2000s it was included in the Logan Square Open Space plan, the Logan Square Quality of Life Plan, and the Humboldt Park Quality of Life Plan.

In 2010, the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit with a mission to create parks and preserve open space, signed a contract with the Chicago Park District to become the lead private partner of the project. TPL was tasked with spearheading fundraising efforts, including securing donations from large private donors; conducting community outreach; and acquiring land on behalf of the city. When Emanuel took office in 2011, he pledged to complete the Bloomingdale Trail before the end of his first term.

The authors point out that having TPL manage the project had upsides, such as the organization’s experience with raising money and community outreach. However, they argue, having the organization lead the development of the trail paved the way for environmental gentrification, because preserving affordable housing wasn’t a central focus for TPL.

Local residents who spoke with the researchers stressed that they felt Emanuel coopted the planning process in order to fulfill his campaign process. One longtime Logan Square resident and community organizer, who is not named in the article, said:

The irony is that we empowered community members in the 2000s in a Quality of Life plan for Logan Square…Research at the time showed that Logan Square had the lowest amounts of green space in the city. We had young people in our community going door-to-door to survey people and say ‘What issues are you concerned about and how can we address those?’ The irony today is that the families at the time said ‘Well there is an abandoned rail line down the street that has become a hub for crime and we feel unsafe. Can the city transform that into a green space for our families?’ We couldn’t foresee at the time that today, in 2017, [The 606] would be the amenity that would actually be displacing us – something that we fought so hard for.

According to the authors, staff from TPL’s Chicago office acknowledged that when they led the project, their focus wasn’t on preserving affordability. “We are not in the business of housing,” one unnamed staffer said. “We are in the business of conservation and building parks. Housing is not what we do; that’s not our mission.”

An affordable housing advocate quoted in the article argued that responding to gentrification and displacement threats is difficult, because different community groups are operating in silos. “There is no overarching coalition to deal with these issues; even our organizing is segregated.”

An affordable housing developer contrasted this fragmentation among community groups to the seemingly organized way that Emanuel approached developing the Bloomingdale, “The Mayor wanted The 606 developed,” the developer said. “He was able to marshal the Trust for Public Land, some of the local aldermen, and the federal government. So, on the one hand, there is this is this singular vision that can drive the process and has influence. On the other hand, the opposition is a bunch of people all over the place, with different opinions and different reasons.”

But a Chicago Department of Planning and Development official who was interviewed said fragmentation is also an issue among city departments. “This idea that you were planning for all of these things at the same time [parks, transportation, housing], that was not happening.”

While the authors of found flaws with the ways LGIPs, specifically The 606, have been planned in the past, they also offered suggestions on to make future projects more equitable. One of the study’s main points is that these initiatives need to part of broader, holistic planning efforts that integrate investment in green space and active transportation with affordable housing.

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  • planetshwoop

    Would the area be better off without the 606? This is a serious question.

  • Cameron

    This is a tough issue to solve. Any well done amenity is going to make a neighborhood more desirable and increase gentrification pressures. This applies to basically everything including parks, transit, and schools. When one neighborhood starts improving relative to the city as whole, there will be gentrification.

    There aren’t a lot of options to stop investment from causing gentrification. Either investment can be limited to neighborhoods that are already so gentrified that they can’t gentrify anymore, or investment can be uniformly distributed across the city such that it doesn’t make one neighborhood nicer relative to the rest of the city. The first option has obvious flaws. The second option is difficult because investment has to be broken down into discreet projects and there aren’t enough funds available to always have a project in every neighborhood.

  • kastigar

    I don’t understand, or agree with the complaint about gentrification Things change, they don’t always remain the same

    If you own a home or building the value goes up. Who can complain about purchasing something and its re-sale value increases? If you rent, the property owner finds the taxes on the increased value go up, and increase the rent to pay the added taxes.

    If your desire is to live in a low-rent neighborhood and you find yourself living in an improved high-rent neighborhood simply move into a low rent neighborhood.

  • Carter O’Brien

    The answer will likely depend on if you’re an owner or a renter. There is an easy way to slow down gentrification, which is nobody sells their home. But does really expect long time homeowners to never sell, or to sell below market value?

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Hmm… Would the authors of the study, the article, or anyone else concerned with justice, prefer that — instead of a not-for-profit — a capitalist, for-profit entity (“parks” or otherwise) lead “infrastructure projects”? This project was initiated by grassroots group of (at the time) low-income residents. It involved many stakeholders over a long period of time. What we see happening with gentrification has other more important culprits than TPL or Rahm Emmanuel. The culprit may be capitalism itself, very strong private property rights and associated real estate laws and policies and practices in the this country, U.S.A. You won’t solve the malai until you correctly diagnose the root cause.

  • rohmen

    Exactly. It really boils down to scarcity of resources and past disinvestment in whole swaths of the City issues more than anything else. If you don’t want park and trail projects to lead to gentrification, build enough that they’re not a scarce resource. Obviously easier said then done.

    The only thing I think you can do in the current situation is have local government acknowledge the boom these projects will create, and at least minimize the impact a bit by putting into place smarter zoning and tax relief plans from the start. The 606 was going to draw people there no matter what (and gentrification was already happening anyway), but allowing people to buy three flats and de-convert them to SFH, and tear down properties down to build luxury houses and condos, certainly sped things up substantially. There are concrete things the City could have done to help (the City has started implementing a lot of changes now, but it’s likely too little too late).

    The question now is what did the City learn, and what will they do in the future in terms of similar projects.

  • Obesa Adipose

    A couple of points.

    (1) The
    gentrification of West Town, a neighborhood similar in many ways to
    the area around the 606, occurred at about the same as the
    gentrification around the 606. Yet there was no ‘environmental
    gentrification’ goosing along the changes to this neighborhood.
    Ditto the N.W. corner of Logan Square which started around 2010. Nor
    the current gentrification of Avondale. All these communities are
    experiencing gentrification and none with the help of grand new parks
    or other amenity infrastructure. Makes me wonder if the authors put
    their conclusion ahead of their study.

    (2) Unless you’re
    rich, the biggest portion of your net worth is in your homes. None of
    these articles ever mention the fact that long time residents often
    welcome the rising property values that gentrification brings.
    Resident owners get a break on property taxes, low income seniors get
    an even bigger break. As my Hispanic (former) mailman, who lives a
    few doors down from the 606 near the western trailhead has told me,
    he’s ecstatic to see the changes. The discussion he’s having with
    his wife is do they sell out and move to the ‘burbs or stay and
    enjoy living in a neighborhood where the gangbangers have fled.
    Anecdotal evidence, yes, and I have a lot of them: I’m one of them.
    But the point is why aren’t these people being interviewed?

    (3) I remember
    Harold Washington’s run for mayor. Part of his platform was the
    redistribution of city resource throughout the entire city, not just
    having them focused in the downtown. As he said once, why shouldn’t
    the neighborhoods have nice things just like downtown and the
    lakefront? Will the Englewood Line Trail die because it’ll be seen
    as a gentrifying element in that neighborhood. Doesn’t every
    neighborhood deserve nice things?

    (4) There are a
    number of ways to aide in keeping gentrifying neighborhoods
    affordable. Much more can be done but the pols seem to treat the
    subject like it’s radioactive and the list of what’s been
    implemented and what hasn’t is a little lopsided. This is
    understandable somewhat when you’re dealing with a market economy,
    property rights and fearful homeowners. Up-zoning areas from single
    family homes to 2-4 units is one way (SFH owners hate this);
    auxiliary dwelling units is another; flooding an area with apartments
    – too many units chasing too few tenants – lowers rent prices;
    set-aside low income units – both for rental and for sale – in
    exchange for up-zoning as with the TODs helps. Charging a homeowner
    $250k to deconvert a 2 flat to a SFH doesn’t. Why didn’t the CHA
    partner with a private entity or the city in a conversion of the
    cabinet factory at Richmond and the 606? Instead it’s being
    converted to a self-storage units. Gheesh!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “This project was initiated by grassroots group of (at the time) low-income residents.” For the record, the early advocates for the Bloomingdale Trail included residents of various income levels.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Who can complain about purchasing something and its re-sale value increases?” No one wants to be forced to sell their home by rising property values, especially if they’ve lived in the community for many years and it’s where relatives and friends live.

    For lower-income folks who rent, being priced out of a community where they’ve resided for years can be especially problematic, because they may rely on local support systems and relationships. Moving away from things like government offices or nonprofits that provide social services, or relatives, neighbors, and friends who help out with things like childcare, car repair, etc., can be a major setback as people work to improve their economic situation. There’s also the emotional toll of being forced to live further away from friends and loved ones.

  • So all these friends and loved ones are wealthy enough to stay, or what?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, the goal of efforts to preserve affordability in gentrifying neighborhoods is to allow all current residents to remain in the community, instead of being priced out.

  • But you make it sound as though the core of the community remains intact.

  • Guy Ross

    A possible solution would be to institute a property tax/rent increase cap. In a defined district around a infrastructure project which is likely to raise rents in a neighborhood below a media average in real estate value with sunset provision for year X (sunset provision could be helpful to residents. Same for an annual rent increase.

    This will set up some contrivances in subletting and advance payment on future transfers but this is the trade-off with such small-scale rent controls. However, under current law this is a non-starter in IL https://www.chicagobusiness.com/government/rent-control-campaign-heats-illinois

    Therein the crux: does anyone involved in this project from the sides of the trust, elected officials, or local residents have any hypothetical on how this amazing public asset could have come to be without the single focus of the trust while being supported by local aldermen representing their low income neighborhoods thereby somehow not raising property values?

    I think the least worst option is to allow rent controls.

  • Guy Ross

    If you were poor without much prospect for improvement hoping to make it to the end of each month and not run into a single stretch of bad luck, you would understand.

    ‘Things change’ if you on on the lowest rung is terrifying.

  • planetshwoop

    I think the intense focus on this area is leading to bad decisions. Not every trail is going to lead to this type of conflict. Just like most software companies are not Microsoft, not every infrastructure project is the 606. We’re overdoing our concerns because of the unique case of one area that got a lot of attention.

    Yes, infrastructure projects can increase the relative value, but there are loads of trails/parks that have not caused this type of change.

  • rohmen

    I largely agree, but I think the Paseo Trail project on Pilsen and Little Village has the potential to see very similar impacts to what has happened with the 606.

    I think the key distinction is whether the area is already gentrifying at a quick pace. Projects like Big Marsh and the rails-to-trails project in Englewood are likely to not have a massive gentrification impact because those areas aren’t gentrifying on their own. Projects like the Obama library will see some, as that area is next to an already gentrifying area where demand will push out, but I doubt it’ll be as big an impact as 606 outside of the blocks directly next to the project (and that spike in value is mostly driven by speculators anyway).

    Something like the Paseo, however, could be a match to already smoldering gunpowder in Pilsen. I don’t blame affordable housing advocates in that area treating it as such, and demanding some protections be put in place to avoid rapid changes.

  • Kelly Pierce

    The loan the city took out to build this trail gets paid off
    in part by rising property values and the taxes they bring in. When wealthy people
    come in, they are willing to pay higher property taxes and spend money in local
    businesses, generating sales tax revenue. Without wealthy people, cities lose
    their tax base and energy. I don’t want to live in a St. Louis, Detroit, or
    Baltimore.

  • rohmen

    I’d say it’s about balance. No one wants to live in a the Detroit of 7 years ago, but then again the San Francisco of today is heading to the opposite end of the spectrum. San Francisco is going to have one hell of a tax base, and a lot of energy in terms of tech, but at the cost of its soul. In the end, that end of the spectrum is going to be just as destructive to the “fabric” of the city as losing wealth was to Detroit.

    Chicago has a long way to go before its SF, and I’m personally not sure we’re at the point where we need drastic measures like rent control, but it’s also not as simple as “wealthy people good.”

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I don’t recall the city taking out a loan to fund the Bloomingdale Trail, which was funded by federal grants, city, county and park district funds, and private donations. Perhaps you’re thinking of the Chicago Riverwalk, which was funded by a federal TIFIA loan that will be paid off by concessionaire and docking fees?

  • planetshwoop

    So I think I disagree.

    If gentrification is an issue to be addressed, it seems like it should be done regardless, not as a specific driver of a trail. I’m not sure Paseo is the match… it’s really already burning.

    PIlsen has been “gentrifying” for a long long time — probably since Maxwell Street was redeveloped in the 90s and filled with townhomes. So it’s not a new problem, really, but one we’re more inclined to do something about maybe than the past?

    As Carter mentioned, I’ll be interested to see if there is any tension among the residents between homeowners and renters about how to handle the situation.

    Last point: Little Village desperately needs greenspace, so that’s part of why I feel it’s better to build than overdo the protections; the opportunity might be lost altogether. (cf the Weber Spur)

  • Kelly Pierce

    Yes, I am John. Thanks for the correction. The trail is then
    a neighborhood improvement rather than a community investment with an expected
    rate of return. Even as a community improvement, people value improvements like
    new bike trails, new parks, fieldhouses, and transit stations. After government
    builds new infrastructure, people are willing to pay more for properties near
    these improvements.

  • Kelly Pierce

    SF has rent control, which is the remedy some Logan Square
    activists are demanding. Obviously, it has not created affordable housing and
    has likely helped prevent its development. SF also has an extremely bureaucratic
    and lengthy process that is heavily politicized to build housing. Chicago is
    not at this extreme. SF has also chosen to not change zoning laws so many bigger
    buildings with more density could be built. Local residents in SF complain about
    the lack of housing but there is not support for leaders who are willing to
    make the policy changes that would drastically increase housing.

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