“Don’t let anyone else in.”

While I work on a few other pieces, my friend Steven Vance of Streetsblog and Chicago Cityscape fame (I assume everyone reading this knows about Streetsblog; but if you’re at all interested in development, preservation, or exclusionary zoning issues, you should be following Cityscape too) pointed me to this Tribune article from 1986. The article covers the campaign to change Lincoln Park’s zoning to prevent the construction of new, relatively high-density residential buildings.

It’s notable both from a historical perspective, in that it’s a primary document from one of the most consequential eras for housing policy in the last few generations – the decision to close off the north lakefront to further development and repopulation – but also because it contributes to my collection of people being refreshingly honest about their interests in zoning fights. (Previously in this ongoing series: people who don’t care about density, but want their neighbors to be of the homeowning class, not the renting class; and people who want their neighbors to be people who can afford to pay expensive rents.)

Anyway, this time, the honesty takes this form:

“I never thought I`d say: `This is enough. Don`t let anyone else in.` But it`s become almost impossible to drive,“ said 21-year resident Marjorie- Lee Perrine at a recent public hearing on the plan.

So here we go: residents campaigned to essentially cap the population of the city’s most desirable neighborhood – ensuring, by the way, that housing prices would skyrocket, and that it would become the ghetto of the privileged that it is today – so that they could drive more comfortably.

Now, I don’t want to reject out of hand that decent driving conditions are a reasonable goal for city policy. All things being equal, I think that’s probably right: people have a perfectly legitimate interest in mobility, and they are absolutely within their rights to lobby their government to protect those interests.

The question, though, is whether it is in the interest of the city as a whole to set a legal ceiling to the population of a neighborhood that on many scales – access to jobs, good neighborhood schools, safety, access to public transit – is one of the most advantageous in the region. Is it worth protecting the ease of driving for a few tens of thousands of people – people who are among the richest in the city – if the tradeoff is a) restricting the residential mobility of nearly everyone else and b) reducing property and sales tax revenue for the city that might be used to provide amenities for all voters?

And if those are the tradeoffs – if this local decision affects nearly everyone in the metropolitan area, especially when replicated across nearly the entire North Side – why should the only people who have a say be the ones privileged enough to already live in Lincoln Park West? Why should their elected representative be the one deciding?

These are obviously, for me, rhetorical questions: my answer is that they shouldn’t. But for most people in Chicago, including most people in power, the answer is different. And I think they – everyone from neighborhood groups campaigning against new residential development to the aldermen who listen to them – need to explain why. I am not, of course, under the impression that local anti-development groups are going to change their minds. What I am asking, though, is that we as a city be honest about what the tradeoffs are to these kinds of policies – beginning with the fact that there are tradeoffs, and that “not letting anyone else in” has consequences far beyond the neighborhood being walled off from the rest of the region.

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10 thoughts on ““Don’t let anyone else in.”

  1. I fully understand the necessity of acknowledging the tradeoffs that arise when local communities are heavily biased towards the status quo… But (at least as of May 2014) Lincoln Park’s single family home housing stock is 10.8%, less than half of Chicago’s average. Data thanks to DePaul’s excellent Institute for Housing Studies. http://housing-stock.housingstudies.org/#14/41.9199/-87.6705

    Now, this isn’t longitudinal, and I don’t know how LP has changed since Marjorie-Lee Perrine was quoted in 1987. But doesn’t it appear at least on first blush that it could be much, much worse? 90% of

    1. Looks like you got cut off there – but yes, it could be worse: they could have urban renewalized Lincoln Park and reduced its housing stock significantly that way, as they did in, say, Hyde Park or Bronzeville. But the longitudinal data shows that Lincoln Park has, in fact, lost significant amounts of population and housing – and its single family home percentage is much higher than it once was. More importantly, since the 1970s/80s Chicago’s zoning has prevented it from growing as it had historically when more people wanted to live there. There are currently 40% fewer residents in Lincoln Park than there were in 1950, despite the fact that it’s a much more desirable community than it was 60 years ago, and that the region’s population has more than doubled since then.

  2. Okay, great post. I think the answer to your question lies in trade offs. I acknowledge that there are likely areas of Chicago that are “disenfranchised” in terms of influence when lobbying their government, but there are certainly a variety of neighborhoods/wards/aldermen that have powerful constituencies. Why do they all let each other do as they please and forego “the greater good” for the city as a whole?

    I think it stems from a “you do as you please in your neighborhood and we’ll do as we please in ours” mentality. The benefit any particular resident in the Loop, Gold Coast, Lakeview, Bucktown, etc. derives from eliminating Lincoln Park zoning “home rule” is much less tangible than the fear/prospect of sacrificing control of your own neighborhood.

    As you said, the “home-owning class” across the North Side is broadly in favor of localized zoning control. And if that were to go away, it would certainly change the city vs suburbs calculus (attraction of a small, homogeneous communities with local “sovereignty”). Who should dictate the suburbs’ policies, themselves or the city/county/state?

    You’re trying to get people to broadly reject NIMBYism, which for all the frustration it causes folks when it’s THE OTHER GUY, the sentiment doesn’t just disappear when it actually becomes YOUR BACKYARD.

    To oversimplify, I assert that people who buy homes generally like the CURRENT built environment where they buy them and are predisposed against change.

    Further I think it’s fairly well documented that people, on the whole, exhibit more SELFISH than altruistic behavior (general assumption underpinning entire field of economics)… So there are well documented undesirable characteristics of high poverty in your neighborhood (correlation with crime & public school performance). You consistently demonstrate that this is worse when concentrated and the public good will benefit when you diversify or un-concentrate the poverty. In order to do that you’re necessarily by definition increasing the poverty levels in upper-middle class/wealthy neighborhoods. While the impacts to those neighborhoods may be limited, you are advocating that they allow (or be forced to allow) those changes for the greater public good, when their own neighborhoods may see no direct benefits (or perhaps modest negative changes depending on what you value: elite schools/ hyper-low crime, or diversity).

    This is a terrific blog, but unfortunately I don’t think you’ve come any closer to convincing those people when the policy lacks some sort of tangible “what’s-in-it-for-me” incentive. Wealthy people will generally deploy their wealth, influence, (and skills with which they became wealthy) to improve their interests in government also.

    PS – I’ve purposely left racism out of this post, not because I believe it’s not an unfortunately real factor and pervasive problem, but rather because even if you’re envisioning a hypothetical better world where it’s not an issue, you’re still seeking a solution to the conundrum I’ve tried to describe.

    1. But the more important question is why does public policy support the NIMBY position? Zoning often provides these tools, like discretionary “character of the area” reviews, or prohibitions on duplexes and accessory units, or excessive parking requirements. To what extent should people have the right to restrict development on their neighbor’s property? I can agree that allowing an aluminum smelter is an appropriate restriction on private property in a residential area, but what greater public purpose is served by banning three-plexes? One role of government is to override parochial self-interest, especially where it has been shown to have a disparate impact on poor people. This is the moral case for getting rules out of the way and allowing additional housing in locations where the market demands it.

      1. Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s why I think one key reform is getting some amount of planning/zoning done at higher levels, where the need for growth for economic and equity reasons is clearer. One model I like is a “zoning budget,” where City Hall sets growth targets and then neighborhoods decide how they’d like to meet them: lots of new three-flats, or a few big towers on one corner, or whatever. There needs to be local input, but the interests of people in the broader region also need to be represented.

    2. I pretty much agree with everything here – except that my goal isn’t really to persuade, say, homeowners that they should no longer care about neighborhood character or – more to the point – their property values, because I think you’re right that people basically act in their self-interests, and for financial, status, and other reasons, those self-interests are pretty entrenched. Instead, I think my goal when I cover these issues is to elucidate the fact that there are tradeoffs to these decisions, and that there are people losing out who don’t necessarily realize they’re losing out – or at least, don’t realize how severe it is. From a political perspective, the gains to be made come from the fact that for the vast majority of people, the workings of zoning and housing development restrictions are just incredibly opaque – both in the sense that people don’t really understand just how powerful and influential they are in shaping the city’s built environment, and that they don’t understand how consequential the built environment is for things like segregation, local business, and so on. But I’m definitely not under the impression that someone who shows up to a community meeting to oppose a new development is likely to be converted by anything I’ve written here.

  3. Great discussion points all around.

    RE: To what extent should people have the right to restrict development on their neighbor’s property?

    I guess I see it as a majority rule issue, where the negative impacts are not necessarily disproportionate enough to warrant significant minority protections from government. Ex. – if the vast majority of residents in Park Ridge don’t want anything but single family homes in Park Ridge, they should be free to put in place a government that ensures those land use specs are protected. As for the City of Chicago, I understand why you’re advocating moving more power up / centralizing it, but to me that’s just part of the natural tug and pull between central/decentralization. Do we have confidence that the mayor is going to handle it better than the aldermen at the local level? What’s your view on the Mayor utilizing TIF dollars as a part of the package to bring an arena/hotel to McCormick Center? Wouldn’t those dollars be better used to subsidize some middle income apartment/condo towers? Or just fund an increase in the police force? Or BRT?

    I agree that its frustrating and that we need to promote density especially along core transit lines, but I’m just not sure I see a better solution.

  4. Update on Wicker Park: New article out, developer seeking zoning change for 7 story / 128 apartments above Aldi grocery store, steps from where you noted the developer gave up and starting building townhomes. Alderman, non-committal.

    Milwaukee between Damen/Western & North/Armitage; Bloomingdale Trail:

    7/16/2014 1701 N Winnebago 2 story townhomes Could not receive zoning change for apartments http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20140716/wicker-park/wicker-park-townhouse-development-proposed-near-bloomingdale-trail

    10/16/2014 1759 N Milwaukee 7 story 128 apartments + grocery + retail zoning change required http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20141016/wicker-park/aldi-of-future-along-bloomingdale-trail-developer-pitches-7-story-complex

    Would point out that 1 mile southeast on Milwaukee toward the city center at Division / Ashland / Milwaukee, you had 99 units open last year, with 149 more seeking zoning changes across 3 developments:

    8/9/2013 1661 W Division 11 story 99 apartments Opened last year http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20130809/wicker-park/photos-wicker-parks-commuter-pet-friendly-apartment-tower-opens

    5/27/2014 1726 W Division 4 story 12 apartments + retail zoning change required http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20140527/wicker-park/developer-wants-rehab-century-old-division-street-storefront

    6/19/2014 1660 W Division 7 story 77 apartments+ retail zoning change required http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20140619/wicker-park/wicker-park-proposal-would-put-7-story-building-on-prime-division-spot

    6/13/2014 1237 N Milwaukee 7 story 60 apartments + retail zoning change required http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20140613/wicker-park/polish-triangle-could-get-seven-story-transit-oriented-development

    I am in favor of all of these, but I don’t live in Wicker Park, so… obviously I am.

  5. I like your zoning budget idea. Otherwise, reading about these 7 story projects w/ difficultly getting through… it makes me think there should be some sort of universal reset / up-zone for “main road” facing properties within ~1/4 mile (5 minute walk) of a CTA station. Let the side streets keep their town homes and 2 flats. Is 7 story some sort of cut off? Or is that a coincidence? Whats the background on the city’s “Transit Oriented Development” thing? Sounds like a reduction in parking requirements? If so that’s (admittedly small) progress.

    1. Yeah, I mean, I think it would also be nice to just upzone everything around transit stations – 6-10 stories within, say, a quarter mile, and then stepped down to 4-6 stories within half a mile. Seven stories is not a cutoff – they’ll need an special zoning change for that. The TOD ordinance gives an optional small density bonus and a larger optional reduction in car parking, but it only applies within 1/8 of a mile on *most* properties (the rules are somewhat obtuse, and I don’t recall them at the moment) near a transit station, or 1/4 miles on officially designated pedestrian street districts. The number of properties that even theoretically could take advantage of the TOD ordinance is super, super tiny.

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