Classism in zoning and coalitions behind streetcars

1. In Wicker Park, neighbors are opposing a four-story, 30-apartment building on the grounds that it’s too “damn big,” despite being in a neighborhood full of three- and four-story apartment buildings, and being right next to a dozen-story highrise on what is, by some distance, the busiest corner on the Northwest Side.

In Irving Park, neighbors are opposing turning an already-existing church building into apartments. Quoth the neighbors:

“This is a single-family-home neighborhood,” Engel said, questioning whether Sonco had considered another use, such as townhomes, which would be “more simpatico with the neighborhood.”

The size of the proposed apartments — 700 to 800 square feet — “might imply more of a transient nature,” he said. “It’s not quite SRO, but it’s not far from it.”

“Renters don’t contribute to community groups,” which have been instrumental in combating crime in the area, said Caperton. “I’ll do everything I can to keep another rental unit property from coming into that place.”

Your trusty blogger will translate:

“This is a well-to-do neighborhood,” Engel said, questioning whether Sonco had considered building homes for wealthier people, which would be “more simpatico with the neighborhood.”

The economic class of the proposed tenants  “might imply more of a transient nature,” he said. “It’s not quite SRO, but it’s not far from it.”

Poor people don’t contribute to community groups,” which have been instrumental in combating crime in the area, said Caperton. “I’ll do everything I can to keep more poor people from coming into that place.”

I will say, because I guess it needs  to be said, that we live in a free country and everyone is free to tell everyone else what they think they should do, and what their ideal world looks like. If it looks like all the poor people have to live very, very far away from you, fine.

But it is simply morally repugnant for the government to be playing economic segregationist. And that is exactly what they’re doing. This isn’t just about failing to actively create affordable housing; this is about using the force of the law to prevent the private market from creating working-class housing. It’s disgusting, and it needs to stop.

2. The Cincinnati streetcar is saved!

Although this is not the most popular thing to say, the calculus over whether or not this is a good thing is complicated. On the one hand, as I wrote yesterday, the streetcar is close to useless as a transportation project; even if it’s extended to a length where it would be faster to wait and get on it than to walk from one end of the line to the other, it’s a colossal waste of money. The same time savings could probably be achieved for a tenth the cost with improvements to buses, and the chance that “rail bias” will bump ridership on a tourist trolley enough to make up the difference is basically nil. (Of course, at this point, it may be cheaper to continue than cancel the project – but that doesn’t make it better as a poster child for Rust Belt urban planning.)

The generic response to that sort of argument, when it’s made by people like Stephen Smith at Market Urbanist and Jarrett Walker, is to admit that there’s little transportation benefit and then claim that’s not the point: instead, the real purpose of streetcars is to promote development.

But if that’s the case, then I’m not inclined to be any more sympathetic to the project than I am to other enormous public expenditures to boost already-gentrifying districts.  If I think that Rahm Emanuel is halfway criminal for spending $40 million on a basketball stadium on the edge of downtown Chicago, then why is it any better to spend $130 million for tourists in downtown Cincinnati – which, although it’s got miles to go before it reaches the elite-playground status of the South Loop, is clearly one of the few parts of the Queen City with market-based redevelopment momentum?

And yet. And yet I’m still at least 65% happy about how this turned out. Because even if it’s terrible urban planning, the streetcar’s victory is a victory for a coalition of people who believe in making investments in transit and the inner city. That coalition may be skewed in favor of gentrifying neighborhoods and elitist projects, but I still believe that even co-opted urbanism is better than the status quo.

3 thoughts on “Classism in zoning and coalitions behind streetcars

  1. The streetcar tracks in Cincinnati are capable of handling full-scale light rail cars. So it can be a north-south segment of a future LRT network.

    You should also look at the context in which it was chosen to be built. There was a regional transit plan in 2002 that was shot down by Hamilton County voters. The plan included bus improvements, a light rail network, and…a streetcar. When the plan was shot down, its supporters wondered what they could build from the plan that wouldn’t require raising taxes, but would work as a first step toward the regional system. The obvious choice was the streetcar, as it was small and in a high profile location. So it’s always been viewed as a first step to a much more comprehensive system.

    I would argue that attracting choice riders is much easier to do with a streetcar than with a bus, and since Cincinnatians largely (and wrongly) view transit as being exclusively for people who can’t afford a car, the streetcar is a great way to educate & gain support for improved transit city/region-wide, by showing people that transit is for everyone.

    1. Yeah, sorry for the lack of context – I’m certainly not trying to imply that the people supporting the streetcar have just never thought of my (or Stephen Smith’s, etc.) critique. But I think that the fact that it was pared down from a plan that really would have been an improvement for transportation to an economic development project in an already desirable area is representative of exactly the kind of power relationships that make people skeptical of urbanism as a movement.

      As far as the long game, it seems to me like the most effective thing to do would be change zoning requirements to allow more density and less parking, so that transit might actually be competitive with driving. I really don’t think that people are going to start taking transit because they saw a streetcar downtown; I think they’ll start taking transit when it provides a good enough service.

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