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How Chicago’s New Bus TOD Ordinance Could Help Underserved Communities

Within a quarter mile of these bus route segments, the usual parking requirements for new developments would essentially be waived. Map: Steven Vance

Update: A substitute ordinance was passed by the zoning committee on 1/17/19. 

In October, hundreds of people attended the March for Racial Equity in Logan Square, demanding solutions to the community’s displacement crisis. Following the passage of Chicago's first transit-oriented development ordinance in 2013, Logan Square has seen a boom in high-density, low-parking housing near Blue Line stations, and most of the units are upscale apartments geared towards single people and couples. Typically 10 percent of the on-site units are set aside as affordable housing. The activists said the TOD trend has accelerated rising housing costs in a neighborhood where the Latinx population fell by 19,200 people from 2000-2014.

Proposed solutions included building more family-sized affordable housing units in the area; charging developers fees for demolishing existing buildings and using the revenue to fund affordable housing; and equitable TOD. The latter strategy, as defined by Enterprise Community Partners, a community development nonprofit, “combines the TOD approach with an equity lens” while supporting “mixed-use developments that incorporate affordable housing in close proximity to high-quality public transit.”

Last week Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a new ordinance that would expand the city's TOD zones, where the the usual requirements for on-site parking at new developments are waived, to include areas near several high-ridership CTA bus routes. Equitable TOD is a part of the city’s broader goal of building transit-friendly housing in new parts of town.

When the latest bus-TOD initiative was first announced last June, the city was considering including areas near the Western, Ashland, Chicago Avenue and 79th Street CTA routes. The final version of the proposal includes bus lines that travel through much of the South, Southwest, and West Sides, as well as North Lakefront neighborhoods. If a land parcel is located within a quarter-mile (two full blocks or a roughly five-minute walk) of a designated bus line segment, that parcel is eligible for reductions in required parking and increases in height and density.

The relevant route segments feature high ridership -- in some cases more than some 'L' system segments -- as well as connections to other CTA routes. These bus routes are great candidates for being upgraded with bus rapid transit-style timesaving features such as dedicated lanes and prepaid boarding.

While the city considered implementing robust BRT on Western and Ashland a few years ago, the plans were shelved after resistance from some merchants and residents. These streets have received minor timesaving improvements in recent years in the form of bus-friendly traffic signals and the elimination of some stops. But the only line that would be covered by the ordinance that features dedicated lanes is the #J14 Jeffery Jump, and those only exist on a few miles of the route during rush hours. 

A Jeffery Jump bus. Photo: CTA
A Jeffery Jump bus. Photo: CTA
A Jeffery Jump bus. Photo: CTA

Unlike previous versions of Chicago’s TOD ordinance, the new legislation explicitly mentions using TOD as a strategy for increasing racial and economic equity. Stated goals include "Avoiding displacement of residents, small businesses, cultural institutions, and community organizations" and "Encouraging investment in communities of color and low-income communities and appropriately addressing various market conditions."

Roberto Requejo, program director for Elevated Chicago, a campaign by several nonprofits to promote equitable TOD, elaborated on that philosophy. “Communities of color and low-income communities across Chicago are experiencing depopulation triggered by longterm disinvestment, as well as displacement due to gentrification," he said. "This ordinance tackles both issues by simultaneously expanding transit-oriented development incentives to a diverse set of bus routes, and ensuring that anti-displacement measures are in place so TOD can equitably benefit existing residents, small businesses, and other community stakeholders located near transit hubs.” 

So far Chicago's TOD boom has largely taken place in affluent and gentrifying North and Northwest Side neighborhoods, with the exception of a few developments like the KLEO Art Residences near the Garfield Green Line station and Woodlawn Station near the Cottage Grove Green Stop, both of which have received public-funding. However, elsewhere on the South and West sides, many zoning amendments for TOD have allowed entrepreneurs who are opening or expanding businesses in existing buildings to reduce the number of parking spots they need to to provide. In addition to the challenges of getting loans for new businesses in communities of color, the cost of supplying zoning-required parking spots is a financial hurdle, so reducing the number of required spaces helps relieve that burden.

As a strategy to spur investment in underserved communities, many of the proposed bus TOD zones correspond with corridors that the city hopes to revitalize through programs such as the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, Retail Thrive Zones, as well as the federal Opportunity Zones initiative.

“In spite of decades of disinvestment, the commercial thoroughfares along 55th, 63rd and 79th streets have fought hard to remain vibrant and relevant,” says Ghian Foreman, from the Washington Park Development Group, an Elevated Chicago Steering Committee member. “I believe this expanded ordinance will spark further development on these major corridors, benefitting thousands of users of the Green and Red line stations, and those who ride the heavily used bus lines.”

The mayor's office will create an “Equitable Transit Oriented Development Policy Plan” within 18 months after the ordinance is passed. Primary goals of the plan include avoiding displacement and encouraging investment in underserved communities through policy revisions of the TOD ordinance.

The future revisions could potentially help residents of communities that are seeing rising property values, property taxes and rents. However, many low-income Latinx families in gentrifying neighborhoods like Logan Square, which would be bordered to the east by the Western bus TOD zone, are already experiencing displacement pressures. The area has seen the most housing demolitions in the city and the number of white residents recently surpassed the Latinx population. In addition, the equitable TOD plan will only recommend, not enact policies, and the next Chicago mayor can choose which sections of the plan he or she wants to prioritize while the study is underway.  

The new bus TOD ordinance is a good start for expanding transit access and business investments in underserved communities. But more work still needs to be done to ensure that low-income and working-class residents of gentrifying communities are able to stay in their homes.

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