Concern: Will Chicago’s new inclusionary zoning law allow double-counting?

Warning: this post gets a bit into the legislative weeds.

So as I wrote at Next City, Mayor Emanuel’s affordable housing commission just announced their recommended amendments to the city’s inclusionary zoning law, or ARO. (Affordable Requirements Ordinance.) Mostly, this involves closing or tightening loopholes that allowed developers to push new subsidized units out of wealthy neighborhoods, and into poor ones.

But one other provision gives me pause:

On page 9 of the ARO proposal. Click for a link to the document.

On page 9 of the ARO proposal. Click for a link to the document.

To summarize: the Chicago Housing Authority (or other “authorized agencies”) can buy ARO-produced units and run them as their own. In fact, not only can they do that, but the city is giving developers a financial incentive to sell. If someone builds a 40-unit building on the North Side, the new ARO says they’re responsible for four subsidized units, or an equivalent fee; one of those units has to be on site. If the developer chooses to pay the fee for the remaining three, that’s $375,000 (at $125k per unit). But if the developer sells the one unit they built to the CHA, they save $25,000 in fees per remaining unit – meaning $75,000 in all.

Anyway, at first blush, I don’t see any reason why converting ARO units to CHA units is a problem. Except for this: Rahm Emanuel has announced that he wants the ARO to create 1,200 units of affordable housing over five years. The CHA, separately, has a longstanding commitment to maintain 25,000 units of housing, of which it is short about 7,000. In other words, it appears that we currently have a commitment from the City of Chicago and its partner agencies for 1,200 + 7,000 = 8,200 new units of affordable housing over the near term.

The issue is what happens with units that are produced by the ARO, and then bought by the CHA. Presumably, Emanuel – or whoever is mayor at the time – will want to tout those as “ARO units,” since they would have existed without the law. Presumably, the CHA will also count them as “CHA units,” because, you know, they’ll be CHA units.

But what that means is that we’ll be double-counting. And in the extreme (though possible!) scenario that the CHA buys all 1,200 ARO units, instead of 8,200 new subsidized housing units, the city will get only 7,000 – because every unit the CHA buys from the ARO is a unit they don’t have to produce separately themselves.

Here is this idea in chart form:

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.58.10 AM

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.58.01 AM

Anyway: the stated purpose of the ARO amendment is to improve upon the old ARO, which only produced 189 affordable units over 7 years, or something like that. But double-counting, by creating the possibility that every new ARO unit will simply displace a CHA unit that would have been created, also makes it possible for the new ARO to have zero net impact on the total number of affordable units in the city. That is, if you look at the graph above, double-counting every ARO unit would leave the city with 7,000 new units – the same number the CHA would be obligated to provide if the ARO didn’t exist at all.

Now, caveats: I’ve asked around about this, and haven’t yet heard any reason that would prevent the CHA from buying up all the ARO units, but it’s possible that such a reason exists, and I’m just not yet aware of it. If you know of that reason, tell me!

It’s also possible that, even though the CHA has promised 7,000 new units, the CHA’s pants are on fire, and there’s no way they’re actually going to deliver that any time soon. In which case the ARO isn’t displacing CHA units, because the CHA can’t/won’t produce new units on its own. Maybe. That seems like a pretty unsatisfying answer, though: if you’re the City Council (or, say, the mayor), why not just find a way to force the CHA to live up to its promises?

Am I getting this wrong somehow? Or does there need to be some safeguard in the new ARO?

Chicago’s new affordable housing law

The proposed development at Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park, which will bring inclusionary zoning affordable units to the neighborhood for the first time in 25 years.

The proposed development at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park, which will bring inclusionary zoning affordable units to the neighborhood for the first time in 25 years. Credit: Chicago Architecture Blog

I wrote about it at Next City:

That goal reflects what makes Chicago’s affordable housing crisis different than the ones in a handful of coastal cities that have dominated national coverage. In many Chicago neighborhoods, depopulation, disinvestment, segregation and crime have kept housing values relatively low, even just a few miles from the booming downtown. Meanwhile, communities on the North Side — as well as a handful to the south and west of the Loop — have seen rapid gentrification and skyrocketing rents. That dynamic has led to a dramatic increase in economic segregation. (The city does not have any rent control provisions, so tenants have very few protections from shifts in the market.)

Donuts and wedges

Since my last post, I was reminded of the existence of this, from Radical Cartography. One point Bill Rankin makes there, which is really important, is that the “donut model” of economic geography, with concentric circles of high- and low-income areas, is really not the American standard. More common is the “wedge model,” with a “favored quarter” radiating out from the city center like an especially privileged slice of pizza.

For example (in Rankin’s maps, pink = rich and blue = poor):

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.01 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.09 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.22 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 11.07.32 PM

If you take another look at my maps for Chicago…

IncGIF

…you might reasonably ask: how sure are you that the growth of a high-income zone in the central city is following the donut model, versus the wedge model? After all, it seems to be growing mostly towards the already super-wealthy northern suburbs. Maybe the endgame is a wedge, after all.

To which I would reply: yes, I think there’s something to that. But what matters, I think, is what’s at the center. Going back to the rent gap theory, a building’s potential rents will only be high if it’s close to jobs or amenities that make the area valuable. In all of the extreme wedge examples above, the downtowns don’t really serve quite the same central economic or cultural role for their respective metropolitan areas as does downtown Chicago, and so areas adjacent to them – say, the southern end of downtown Atlanta, or the areas to the north of downtown St. Louis – aren’t especially close to a major job or amenity center. Instead, those centers are further out in the suburbs, and high rents revolve around them, following major transportation corridors.

Downtown St. Louis (background) has more jobs, but suburban Clayton (foreground) has higher office rents and half the vacancy rate. Credit: http://s29.photobucket.com/user/jeffvstl/media/downtownfromclayton1.jpg.html

Downtown St. Louis (background) has more jobs, but suburban Clayton (foreground) has higher office rents and half the vacancy rate. Credit: http://s29.photobucket.com/user/jeffvstl/media/downtownfromclayton1.jpg.html

In other words, northern Bronzeville’s position, I’m guessing, really isn’t anything like whatever neighborhoods are a mile or three east of downtown Houston: it’s actually in close proximity to the region’s largest amenity hub, and they aren’t.

Now, what gives the wedge model a bit of weight in Chicagoland is that the Loop isn’t the only major employment center. In fact, even if you know nothing about the Chicago area, you could easily pick out the other employment centers just by looking at the map: they’re in the northern suburbs and along a corridor running along I-88 in second- and third-ring suburbs southwest of the Loop. They are, not coincidentally, close to the two largest other major high-income areas. (Though the high-income areas near I-88 continue to move away from where the actual jobs are, which is something that should maybe trouble people with a vested interest in keeping those jobs there.)

Who could say no to working here? Naperville, Illinois. Forgive my urban snobbery.

Who could say no to working here? Naperville, Illinois. Forgive my urban snobbery.

Anyway, the point is that things are complicated, and basically every major metropolitan region in the world is polycentric, which does weird things to potential rents, and thus the prospects of disinvestment and reinvestment. You don’t even have to go outside the city to see that: though it’s much less dramatic, Hyde Park – the little patch of white along the south lakefront – has seen a very small ripple of reinvestment expand from its major employment center, the University of Chicago. The problem there, of course, is that Hyde Park is surrounded entirely by black neighborhoods (and South Kenwood, a mixed neighborhood, beyond which is North Kenwood, and almost entirely black neighborhood), which, as we discussed last time, makes the reinvestment stage difficult.

Chicago’s Growing Income Donut

Oh, the backlog of things I want to write! To work:

Other than “oy,” one of the most common reactions I got to the “vanishing middle class” maps I made several months ago was that focusing on the city proper necessarily missed the very important shifts occurring in the suburbs, where something like two-thirds of the people in the Chicago region live. In fact, it missed what was maybe one of the more important stories about the changing economic geography of the region over the last 40 years, which is a shift in the balance of economic power between the city and suburbs.

That’s true, so I’ve finally made equivalent maps for the entire Chicago metro area. (The researchers who provided my original data, Sean Riordan and Kendra Bischoff, made their own maps a little bit ago, and Whet Moser made some valuable graphs from their data. I’m going to use my own maps, though, from Brown’s Longitudinal Tract Database, so I can show the data in a way that’s most consistent with how I did the previous post.)

Here they are:

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

IncGIF

I think, on the one hand, that these regional maps show something very much like what Aaron Renn has described as a “new donut” pattern of urban wealth: a rich center, a ring of disinvestment, and then another outer ring of wealth in the outer suburbs. Importantly, though, I think these show that there’s nothing really “new” about this pattern – instead, the rings have existed since at least 1970, and have simply been moving further and further out from the center of the city.

Even in the first map, there’s a kernel of wealth around the Gold Coast, surrounded by extreme disinvestment, surrounded by middle-class neighborhoods, surrounded by relatively wealthy ones. In each succeeding decade, the general pattern is for the kernel of wealth to gentrify a bit of the surrounding disinvested neighborhoods; for middle-class areas adjacent to disinvestment to decline into disinvestment; for relatively wealthy areas adjacent to the middle-class ring to slip down a bit; and for some parts of the periphery to become more wealthy.

It’s a pattern that, if you’ve read Neil Smith on the rent gap theory of gentrification, makes a lot of sense. The idea is that waves of investment, disinvestment, and reinvestment in urban neighborhoods are driven by the semi-permanent nature of buildings themselves. In the beginning, say, someone builds a three-flat in a neighborhood near downtown. When it’s brand-new, it’s a highly desirable place to live, but over time, things deteriorate a bit, and newer construction further out steals away the high-income residents who can afford housing with better technology and more up-to-date styles. Importantly, the aging three-flat is not torn down or significantly renovated, because the difference between what the owner can actually charge, and what they could charge if it were a brand-new building, is smaller than the cost of demolishing the property and actually constructing a new property (or a gut rehab).

(That is: If you earn $10,000 from a building you own, and could make $15,000 if you rebuilt/rehabbed it, but rebuilding/rehabbing costs $10,000, you won’t do it. Because, you know, you’d lose money.)

As it ages, the building itself becomes less and less desirable, and so the people living there become poorer and poorer; if the surrounding buildings were all built around the same time, then something similar is probably happening in the neighborhood at large. But at some point, the calculation changes: the building becomes so low-rent that the extra income an owner could get if it were brand new is more than the cost of replacing it. (It might also be the case, of course, that the building’s rent hasn’t fallen that much more, but the value of a new/rehabbed building has increased a lot – if, say, the three-flat is in a neighborhood near other neighborhoods that have seen an increase in amenities and jobs.) At that point, since it’s profitable to do so, the owner will do a major rehab or reconstruction, and gentrification begins.

(That is: If, from the previous example, the $10,000 you’re earning dwindles to $4,000, all of a sudden rebuilding/rehabbing becomes profitable. Alternatively, if you’re still making $10,000, but a rebuilt/rehabbed building would give you $25,000 – again, rebuilding/rehabbing becomes profitable.)

For example: these townhomes in Logan Square. Credit: YoChicago

For example: these townhomes in Logan Square. Credit: YoChicago

As I said, to a large extent, I think this describes what’s going on here. But anyone familiar with Chicago’s racial geography will have already noted that there’s something else, too. (If you’re not: basically all of the deep-red areas are segregated black neighborhoods. A few are predominantly Latino.) Namely, black neighborhoods seem both to suffer much faster disinvestment than you see elsewhere, and to be less able to reach the reinvestment part of the cycle. Neither of those things are news – there have been several reports about how “black neighborhoods don’t gentrify” already this year – but I think it’s particularly striking in this context. It’s not just that black neighborhoods don’t gentrify: it’s that anti-black racism is so strong that it overcomes, and arrests, the regional pattern of disinvestment and reinvestment.

Or consider the problem from a different perspective. Some people have described gentrification as a process of “racial arbitrage.” Arbitrage, more commonly, refers to someone profiting by taking advantage of the fact that the same good has different prices in different places. (For example, you might buy cheap cigarettes in Indiana and sell them at a markup in Illinois, where taxes make cigarettes much more expensive.) In this view, some disinvested neighborhoods aren’t just cheap because their housing has deteriorated; they’re cheap because most of the people who live there are non-white, which makes white people not want to live there. Since white people make up a large number of buyers in the housing market, that means demand crashes, and so do prices.

But that also means that if you’re one of the few white people who doesn’t care about living around people of color, you can save a bunch of money by moving to a non-white neighborhood of roughly equal “quality” (whatever that means for you). Each additional white person who does so, however, makes the neighborhood that much whiter – and as a result, that much more comfortable for the majority of white people. At some point, the neighborhood is white enough that most white people are willing to live there, which brings up both actual and “potential” housing prices, inviting a wave of reinvestment and more gentrification.

It appears, though, that anti-black racism is so strong that there are virtually no white (or other non-black) people willing to move into black neighborhoods, even if it means saving a lot of money. In other words, regardless of whether you think this is good or bad, racial arbitrage doesn’t work in black neighborhoods. Even in places – northern Bronzeville, say – where proximity to jobs and transportation would make you think that it would be an attractive option, there is vanishingly little evidence for it. As a result, potential rents depend entirely on the purchasing power of a disproportionately poor quarter of the population, and stay relatively low.

As Pete Saunders has pointed out, many black South Side neighborhoods (like Chatham, pictured here) have a lot in common with working-class North Side communities.

Chatham demonstrates racial arbitrage fairly well: these bungalows would cost a good deal more in a similarly far-flung non-black neighborhood. Credit: YoChicago

These two concepts – the rent gap theory and the racial arbitrage theory – are both, I think, really helpful in understanding how Chicagoland’s economic geography has changed over the last 40 years, and how it’s likely to change in the future. The foundation is a tendency for an expanding donut-shaped ring of rich and poor neighborhoods as a result of cycles of investment and disinvestment in housing. On top of that – no less powerfully – are the consequences of racism, which have a number of effects. First, they accelerate disinvestment as white people and their resources flee non-whites, and as new non-white residents are discriminated against in the provision of retail outlets, public safety, functional schools, and so on. Second, they open up the possibility of racial arbitrage: that is, another way for “potential rents” to rise and attract reinvestment and gentrification. Third, for black neighborhoods in particular, they can freeze an area in the disinvestment phase by acting as a sort of ceiling on potential rents.

Finally, of course, zoning laws can act as an accelerant on the reinvestment/gentrification phase by effectively capping population in neighborhoods where lots of people would like to live, forcing some of those people to move to adjacent communities, and raising actual and potential rents there.

There’s obviously quite a bit more to say about all this; hopefully I’ll find the time to do so soon, and hopefully I’ll also hear from other people who have thought of things I haven’t. But, as I’ve said before, neighborhood change is easy to experience – and is too often talked about – as a kind of capricious, unpredictable thing. In reality, it appears that it’s heavily influenced by certain patterns and rules. To the extent that we’re unhappy with what neighborhood change looks like, understanding those rules, so that we can change them, seems important.

Segregation, integration, gentrification

I have a column at the Washington Post:

The kind of cognitive dissonance that allows someone to decry segregation while they wish to “reverse” the process of integration makes it impossible to articulate a real vision for what a just city might look like….

When we talk about racial change in Brooklyn or Washington, D.C., without acknowledging the larger context – the fact that for every black or Hispanic neighborhood seeing an influx of whites, there are 10 more that are just as segregated as they were 30 years ago – we’re missing what remains the fundamental inequality of American cities. What to do about the power and resource inequalities that both created and are sustained by segregation remains the fundamental challenge.

NB: Headlines are the bane of my existence.

A matter of scale

This is what you find when you Google "bus train."

This is what you find when you Google “bus train.”

One of the weirder recurring intra-urbanist fights is about whether buses or trains are better. This seems like a deeply silly argument to me, akin to angrily taking sides about whether people should eat cereal or spaghetti. That is to say: surely that depends on the time of day, and surely the “best” transportation technology depends on context.

I thought of this again when I read an old post Simon Vallée linked to this morning. (Simon has a great Montreal- and Japan-focused blog that you should read.) Generally, I’m not super interested in wading into these sorts of debates, but I thought his post was particularly useful both inasmuch as it emphasizes the importance of context, and then completely ignores the importance of context in order to draw the conclusion that, obviously, rail is better and anyone who disagrees is wrong wrong wrong.

The crux of Simon’s argument, as I understand it, is that rail doesn’t just provide a superior qualitative experience: in the long run, it actually beats bus rapid transit at its own game. BRT is promoted as a low-cost rapid transit alternative, but because you can fit more people on a train than a bus, you can run fewer vehicles, pay fewer drivers, and actually save money.

Simon provides charts to show how this is true, at least above a certain level of ridership. He doesn’t provide any sources for his cost estimates, so I wouldn’t actually take this as gospel, but he seems to know what he’s talking about, so for the sake of argument let’s assume all these numbers are right. (Actually, looking at them again, they seem to understate US rail costs compared to Alon Levy’s list, and overstate BRT costs, at least compared to Chicago’s projects. But whatever.) In that case, light rail is cheaper than bus rapid transit in the long run for any line with more than about 50,000 daily riders.

BRTLRTHRT1

So, Simon concludes:

Personally, I find LRTs more promising for the developed world…. The future of full-fledged BRTs in North America isn’t promising, at low riderships where they are cheaper than LRTs, the low riderships don’t actually justify the investments in BRTs, limited buses with bus lanes could achieve more or less the same quality of service. When ridership increases to the point where investing in BRT would be really better than just limited bus services or BRT-lite (like the SBS in New York), you’d probably be better off investing in LRT anyway, at least in the long-term.

This may be true. The problem, however, is that in practice, the vast majority of US light rail lines are below Simon’s ridership threshold. Of the three dozen cities or so that either have light rail systems, are building one, or are planning one, exactly five have single lines that carry (or are projected to carry) over 50,000 people per weekday. (Those are San Francisco, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.)

That means that in roughly 80-85% of US bus/rail arguments that are about an actual or potential piece of infrastructure, Simon’s own analysis suggests that he should be in the anti-rail camp. Or, you know, that this whole thing is more complicated than he’s letting on.

Ashland.

* I would point out, also, that Simon’s cost savings come from having “three to six times” fewer vehicles running with light rail than BRT. That saves a bunch of money, sure, but it also means that vehicles come three to six times less often – meaning that a BRT line with buses every 5 minutes becomes a light rail system with trains every 15-30 minutes. And, in fact, many light rail systems in the US run on exactly those kinds of headways. At that point, light rail becomes hugely more of a hassle, since you have to build an extra 10-20 minutes into every trip to make sure you’ll be on time if you have a long wait for a train. Light rail can come more frequently, of course – but then it loses its labor cost savings over BRT.

** In my last nit-pick, I would also point out that Simon doesn’t do any discounting for future costs, which is not how any cost-benefit analysis has ever worked. That is, money in the future counts less than money in the present, not least because money in the present can be invested in things that produce value now. The lower initial costs of BRT are a bigger deal than he allows, I think.

*** Finally, to ruin my opening metaphor, spaghetti is obviously better than cereal, even for breakfast.

Height can be deceptive: when 15 = 4

One of the foremost complaints about the proposed 15- and 11-story towers around the California Blue Line stop – a proposal that I briefly mentioned in an earlier post – is that they’re too dense for the neighborhood. What people mean by this, and sometimes what they just come out and say, is that they’re much denser than existing buildings.

logansquaredualtowers

The proposed towers in question.

For the record, I don’t think that “denser than existing buildings” and “too dense” are the same thing, but let’s put that aside for the moment. Are these towers actually much denser than existing buildings in Logan Square? In one sense – a visual sense – the answer is obviously yes. People associate density with height, and these buildings would be much taller than anything else around them. (As I mentioned in the previous post, the tallest building currently in Logan Square is a seven-story residential building a few blocks away; otherwise, the vast majority of the neighborhood is built at between two and four floors.)

But although visuals absolutely matter, I think people generally believe that visual density is a decent proxy for actual density, which we usually measure in people or housing units per a given amount of space. At the public meeting for this proposal, both kinds of density were brought up many times: the aesthetic density of the streetscape, as well as the number of people who would be “crammed” into a relatively small area.

The problem with this is that visual density is not actually a great proxy for actual density. This concept has been covered elsewhere by smart people in a general way, but it’s also important in ways that are specific to Chicago. Part of the issue is that, because Chicago’s buildings heights tend to be so uniform everywhere outside of downtown and the lakefront, we are extremely sensitive to anything that falls outside that range – again, typically two to four stories – but we fail to perceive the massive differences in density among different kinds of three-story buildings.

Let’s take three (and a half) examples.

1.

3flat

Here is a typical three-flat. It has three housing units, or probably between five and eight people, on one standard 25′ by 125′ lot.

2.

corner3

Here’s a three-story corner building. (I made up the word “corner building” because they tend to be on corners, like this one, and also because I’m not aware of any other commonly used word for them.) It’s three floors, on the same standard 25′ by 125′ lot, but now it has at least six units, housing between 10 and 15 people or so. In other words, it’s literally twice as dense as the three-flat, despite being the same number of stories.

Now, to be fair, this particular corner building has a sort of basement half-story. So maybe it’s three and a half floors. But just to drive the point home, let’s take a building that’s unambiguously shorter than our three-flat:

2 1/2.

corner2

Here’s a two-story (or, if we’re being generous, two-and-a-half) corner building on the same standard lot with four units, or between six and eight-ish people. This scans to the average person as less dense - because less tall – than the three-flat we began with, but is actually 33% denser in terms of how many housing units it has, and how many people are likely to live in it.

3. 

courtyard

I’m cheating slightly here, but in a way that actually helps my case. This is, obviously, pretty much a four-story building – 3.75 stories, at the least – but I wanted to keep all of my examples in Logan Square, and it turns out that there aren’t very many courtyard buildings below four stories there.

But let’s compensate by just hacking off a floor’s worth of density. In reality, this building has about 32 units, but if it only had three floors, it would have 24. The building takes up just about three standard lots, meaning that it adds about 10.7 units per standard lot – or, in its imaginary three-story version, eight units. In other words, a three-story courtyard building has nearly three times the density of a three-flat of exactly the same height.

There’s a lot more to say about this, and its implications for planning and zoning in Chicago – incidentally, while we’ve allowed buildings to continue to be built up to three (or even four) floors in much of the city, we have outlawed corner building and courtyard building density virtually everywhere, meaning that the only way for us to get practical density is by adding lots more visual density than we’re used to.

But in this case, I want to address the particular case of the California/Milwaukee towers. For the sake of simplicity, I like turning everything into the number of units allowed per standard city lot; that way, we can directly compare new buildings to three-flats, corner buildings, courtyard buildings, and so on. The California/Milwaukee proposal contains 254 units on about 70,000 square feet of lot space. That lot space represents about 22.4 standard lots of 3,125 square feet (or 25 times 125). Doing the math, that means that there are about 11.3 units per standard lot.

To recap:

  • Three-flat: 3 units per standard lot
  • Three-story corner building: 6 units per standard lot
  • Three-story courtyard building: 8 units per standard lot
  • Four-story courtyard building: 10.7 units per standard lot
  • 15- and 11-story towers: 11.3 units per standard lot

In other words, this project would be denser than almost everything in Logan Square, but not by much. Less than a unit per lot separates it from four-story courtyard buildings, which are found all over the neighborhood, especially near Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than being four times denser than any common neighborhood building – which is a figure I’ve heard people use based on its height – it’s actually less than 10% denser.

And note, please, that I said “denser than almost everything.” Because there is, in fact, a much denser building that’s been around since early in the last century.

50

That seven-story building on the Square has, according to a well-placed source who opposes the California/Milwaukee towers, about 50 units. It’s on a slightly larger than normal double lot, with about 7,500 square feet. That works out to more than 20 units per standard lot – or nearly twice as dense as the proposed towers.

To be clear, none of this means that the California/Milwaukee proposal has to go through as is. It does mean, however, that we need to be clear about what kinds of precedent these towers would actually break if allowed: not a precedent of density in terms of people or housing units, but rather a precedent of density in terms of appearance. They would, in fact, be much taller than anything else in the area. Would it be possible to bring them more in line with the neighborhood’s look – if, as seems to be the case, that’s what neighbors want – without actually reducing the density of units? I don’t know what kind of engineering or economics problems that might create for the developer, but it’s worth asking.

Chicago Urbanist Calendar

So during an otherwise lazy weekend, I’ve finally launched a minor project I’ve been thinking about for months: the Chicago urbanist calendar. (There’s also a link to it up at the top of the page.) Basically, I am in a near-constant state of agitation as a result of missing events I’d like to go to because I only hear about them after they happen. To avoid that – and as a gracious public service – I’m now collecting all potentially interesting urbanist-related Chicago events in a public Google calendar, and hosted on this blog. The events range from governmental meetings that are open to the public, to civic hack nights, to architectural tours, to university panels on housing and gentrification; I’m trying to err on the side of including too much, rather than too little. To that end, if you or anyone you know is involved with any events coming up soon or in the more distant future – or know of an organization that regularly or occasionally puts on events that should be on this calendar – let me know! You can either email me (danielkayhertz [at] gmail), or leave a comment on the calendar page. (I won’t publish the comment, but I will add it to the calendar.)

Alternatively, if you have any ideas for how to make the calendar better or more useful, let me know! Hopefully this is something that will get refined over the next few months.

 

I get to vote, you don’t

I have to go to bed, so this will be quick. But this is such a perfect example of geographic bias in “public input” that I can’t let it go unremarked upon:

LAKEVIEW — Voters in the 44th Ward said “no” on Tuesday to the CTA’s proposed Belmont Bypass project.

The $320 million project would add another track to the Belmont “L” station, which connects Red, Brown and Purple lines and require the city to buy 16 buildings, partial air rights and several parking lots — a move some locals say could devastate the surrounding area.

[snip]

The question only appeared in those precincts closest to the Belmont “L” station: 20, 36 and 38. Local activists said the limited scope was due to time constraints.

What that means – as the article’s author, to her credit, points out – is that the 1,900 voters who would be most negatively affected by the Belmont Bypass got an officially-sanctioned megaphone for their views, while virtually all of the 200,000 people who ride the Red, Brown, and Purple Lines, and who would most directly benefit from this project, did not.

The offending bypass. Credit: Curbed Chicago

The offending bypass. Credit: Curbed Chicago

Several caveats: 1. I do not actually have a strongly held opinion about whether the Belmont Bypass is actually a good idea; 2. Certainly the people who own, reside, or run businesses in one of the 16 buildings to be taken and demolished have more at stake than everyone else, and I don’t want to minimize that; 3. This is a nonbinding resolution, and so doesn’t actually directly cause any action to be taken or not taken.

That said. That said, this is a shining example of the way that the procedures of local democracy often disenfranchise many of the people – frequently, the vast majority – who are affected by a given decision. Though the referendum is nonbinding, it certainly sends a message to the local alderman about what his constituents – that is, the people on whom his employment depends – want him to do; and, in the world of Chicago politics, local alderman have an awful lot of power to influence what happens in their ward. (That’s a separate discussion, though the fact that these sorts of decisions are made by such hyper-local officials is just another way in which the vast majority of those 200,000 daily riders lack recourse: their aldermen don’t have any say in the situation.)

I can imagine an objection. Daniel, says the objector, the reason these 1,900 people got to vote on this referendum – the reason they have a megaphone – is that they organized and collected petitions to get the question on their ballots. Had those other people organized, they would also have had a megaphone.

True. But two points:

1. The sorts of resources and skills required to collect signatures for a ballot referendum – knowledge of some of the more arcane election laws, probably access to at least one lawyer, language skills, enough free time to actually walk around with a pen and clipboard, and so on – are not equally distributed across the population. They are not equally distributed between, say, Lakeview and Washington Park. Setting some threshold for proving that a given issue is important enough to put on the ballot seems reasonable enough; requiring each and every precinct to do so separately – or forgo the chance to take a public stance on an issue that other people get to vote on – does not.

2. Even if the aforementioned resources and skills were equally distributed, this sort of public input – where, as with most public meetings, a sizable investment of time and effort is required just to have the chance to register your feelings – privileges small minorities with strongly-held opinions over large majorities with weaker opinions. In most cases, that means projects are shot down, whether it’s a piece of transit infrastructure that will speed the commutes of 200,000 people at the expense of 1,000, or new housing that will improve the accessibility of a desirable neighborhood at the inconvenience of its nearby neighbors. That’s not to say that these projects are always worth it, or even that every person’s opinion should be considered equally: clearly it’s a bigger deal to lose your home, even if you’re compensated for it, than it is to save five minutes on your commute each way.

But at the moment, we have a system of public input that, all too often, pretends the members of the vocal minority are the only people with a stake in the decision. And that seems to me like something less than democracy.

Height restrictions: hmm

I should say, to begin with, that I’m not totally unsympathetic to Charles Marohn’s call for flexible height restrictions. If there were a referendum tomorrow as to whether we should replace all the density restrictions in Chicago’s zoning code with his proposed rule – you get 1.5 times the average height of surrounding buildings – I would probably vote yes. (Although I’d be more likely to vote yes if there were another clause that gave you the option of building, say, 1.5 – 2 times the width of the street your building would face, which would allow much more density on major streets like Western and Irving Park.)

But still, I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical mostly because I think Marohn doesn’t fully grapple with the trade-offs the “incremental” approach requires, at least in mature, built-up city and inner suburban neighborhoods – and because I think those tradeoffs have really serious implications both for politics, and for the sort of urban fabric/soul-of-the-city questions that he seems to care a lot about.

Let’s take, for example, the two high-rise apartment buildings that have been proposed next to an L stop in my neighborhood. At 11 and 15 stories, the taller one would be roughly twice as tall as anything in the neighborhood (there’s an eight-story building a few blocks away), and roughly four times taller than the standard three-to-four-story building canopy in the area. This is exactly the kind of non-incrementalism that Marohn opposes, and I’ve heard more than a few people express the feeling that they’d rather see all those units come to the area in the form of more traditional three-flats than a big and flashy new tower.

logansquaredualtowers

But what would that actually look like? The towers are supposed to have roughly 250 apartments. That’s 84 three-flats, or roughly four full block faces. But if each of those three-flats is replacing a single family home or two-flat, then you’re not getting three new units in each building – you’re getting one or two. To get 250 new units, you would have to tear down 100 two-flats and 75 single family homes and redevelop them as three-flats: 175 old buildings, or roughly nine block faces. If we want to concentrate this density near the same L station, that basically means that every adjacent block would be entirely demolished and rebuilt with modern three-flats. Even if we discount the units that could be built on the empty lot where the towers are proposed – something that exists in very few places in Logan Square, or in most other neighborhoods in the city where development is occurring – we’re still talking about the wholesale destruction of at least a hundred historic buildings.

This, obviously, is a problem. It’s a problem from a logistical point of view, because assembling 100 or 175 or whatever separate properties is obviously harder, and probably more expensive, than buying a single, larger property. (And though Marohn has responded to this criticism by saying that he doesn’t care about the cost efficiency of construction, anyone who cares about housing costs, and the social problems related to ones that are too high, should.) It’s a problem from a preservationist point of view, because you’re requiring the teardown of historic buildings and streetscapes at a massive scale. It’s a problem from a Jacobsian urban planning point of view, because you’re eliminating the older building stock that provides most of the cheap housing and commercial spaces that create space for diversity in neighborhoods like Logan Square. And it’s a problem from a political point of view, because people generally don’t like it when every single building on their block is torn down and replaced with something that looks completely different.

I’m not sure how much the historic preservation and Jacobsian old-building issues bother me, or if I could deal with them. I am more confident, however, that the people who don’t like having a tall new building a block or two or three away from them would not be any happier about having all, or half, or a third of all the buildings on their street torn down. I could be wrong! And if I am, okay.

But the fact is that the kind of incremental development Marohn is championing is pretty rare, at least on a scale that would come close to matching the housing growth from a handful of very dense projects like the towers above. One of the only examples I can think of are some of the inner neighborhoods of Houston, where a loosening of density restrictions in the late 90s has unleashed a wave of townhome and small apartment developments in formerly single-family-home areas.

townhomes

There used to be quaint old little homes here. Credit: cdandrews.com

But Houston is obviously an outlier in the laxity of its building regulations, at least in neighborhoods like this one. (And people there aren’t necessarily happy about it.) Otherwise, the North American successes I’ve heard of in outlying neighborhoods – especially around transit – have come from targeted, out-of-scale development right around rail stations in places like Toronto, Vancouver, and suburban DC.

These two blocks are about a quarter of a mile from each other in outlying Toronto. Dense towers, protected single family homes.

These two blocks are about a quarter of a mile from each other in outlying Toronto. Dense towers, protected single family homes.

I should also say that part of the disagreement here, I think, comes from the fact that Marohn and I live in very different places. Marohn is from a small, generally auto-oriented town without, I would imagine, a huge pent-up demand for housing, and without the same kind of historic housing stock that people in places like Chicago are attached to. (Although maybe people there are attached to their housing too: I don’t know.) In any event, the case for new, large residential projects to inject as many housing units as possible, especially near transit, is clearly much weaker in the kind of place Marohn lives than where I or many of his detractors on this issue live.

Which is to say that I’m sort of sympathetic to his argument, and I think that in some contexts, he’s probably correct. But the costs and benefits of what he’s proposing in Chicago are very different from the costs and benefits in a place like Baxter, Minnesota, and I think he ought to be a bit more up front about that.