How to (not?) add a parking garage to a charming suburban downtown

The suburb of Wheaton, Illinois is considering adding another parking garage to its downtown. How does one add a large parking structure to a quaint downtown?

The idea of a parking garage is highly conceptual, one element of a broader study on parking needs, restrictions and the existing inventory downtown. The goal is to stay ahead of parking issues as new businesses take over long-vacant properties and bring more visitors to the shopping and dining district, especially on weekend nights…

City planners say replacing a surface lot behind city hall with a parking garage is a viable option because it’s city-owned property, eliminating the cost of land acquisition. It’s also tucked away from the main downtown arteries but still within walking distance of a Hale Street restaurant row.

Suess said a city hall garage would address neighborhood concerns about overflow parking on residential streets around Memorial Park, a summer magnet that recently underwent a $5 million restoration, the centerpiece of which is a new band shell…

Other council members said they still want to consider another location that’s been floated for a parking structure over the years: the east surface lot of the Wheaton Public Library.

There are practical matters that any community would need to consider: how much parking is needed? What is the cost of the structure? Is this the right location?

There are also bigger questions about what a suburban downtown is supposed to be. Many downtowns would like to have more people visit and spend money in shops, restaurants, and festivals. But, more people and traffic can change the atmosphere. This means more cars. Where to put them?

Parking garages offer a possible solution as multiple stories can pack in more cars than street parking. Wheaton already has a few parking garages so this is not a new idea. But, parking garages are rarely attractive structures. Do they fit in with the surrounding streetscape?

The proposed location above tries to mitigate some of these issues. Wheaton has done this with other parking garages; tuck them behind other buildings so they are not as visible. The proposed garage would be behind City Hall, hiding is from a main stretch of Wesley Street. Yet, it then backs up to residences on the west side, is on a different scale than City Hall to the south, is visible from Memorial Park (site of festivals and events that would drive people to the garage), and is across the street from a school and its green space to the north.

The other proposed site mentioned above has some similar issues. While it would be next to the library on one side and across the street from a multi-story apartment building on the other side, it faces single-family homes on the other side and smaller apartments on another.

Wheaton wants its downtown to exist on a particular scale so that it remains an attractive place for residents and visitors. More broadly, the community protects its character as a quieter, single-family home community (see how a discussion about zoning along a main thoroughfare played out). The city also wants to bring in people and address parking issues which can mar the experience on streets and in nearby residential neighborhoods. Is a four story parking garage the answer? Local leaders and the community will have time to discuss and decide.

“Digital nomads” wanted to enjoy city life but could not

Researchers studying “digital nomads” detail their initial enthusiasm for big cities and later decisions to move elsewhere:

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Most digital nomads started out excited to work in career-track jobs for prestigious employers. Moving to cities like New York and London, they wanted to spend their free time meeting new people, going to museums and trying out new restaurants…

Although these cities certainly host institutions that can inspire creativity and cultivate new relationships, digital nomads rarely had time to take advantage of them. Instead, high cost of living, time constraints and work demands contributed to an oppressive culture of materialism and workaholism…

Although they left some of the world’s most glamorous cities, the digital nomads we studied were not homesteaders working from the wilderness; they needed access to the conveniences of contemporary life in order to be productive. Looking abroad, they quickly learned that places like Bali in Indonesia, and Chiang Mai in Thailand had the necessary infrastructure to support them at a fraction of the cost of their former lives…

The digital nomads we studied often used savings in time and money to try new things, like exploring side hustles. One recent study even found, somewhat paradoxically, that the sense of empowerment that came from embarking on a side hustle actually improved performance in workers’ primary jobs.

As the researchers note, this is a different perspective on the creative class that works in particular jobs and industries and pursues particular locations. Could these pieces detailed by Richard Florida be pulled apart; can the creative class jobs exist outside of the urban culture that Florida argues goes with it?

On one hand, numerous other locations other than big cities would love have to more creative class workers. These young professionals, often working in industries like tech, are desired by suburbs, smaller big cities, and many places because they represent status and potential long-time taxpayers and contributing members of society.

On the other hand, the creative class is supposedly not just looking for jobs with particular features: they also want to move to places with cultural opportunities and diversity. Can “digital nomads” find this outside of big cities? Maybe; there are suburbs and smaller big cities with diversity and vibrant creative scenes. Can these locations match the big city possibilities of places like New York or San Francisco or Austin?

These digital nomads have the potential to shape how communities look at jobs and residents in the coming years. Many will want them to locate in their community and yet the power of clustering together with other creative class people is strong.

One unfortunate use for empty suburban big box sites: mass vaccination facilities

Suburbs do not like having vacant big box stores. Yet, in the time of COVID-19, they can be useful for vaccinating large numbers of people. Here is the former Sam’s Club where I received my vaccines:

This empty building sits within a busy strip of big box stores on a busy road. The Walmart next door is doing fine as is the Home Depot a little bit to the north. But, this facility can now serve hundreds of people a day. There is plenty of room for the various stations necessary to receive the vaccine including processing paperwork, getting the shot, and waiting afterward to see if there are any side effects. Indeed, there is room to spare as it appears roughly half of the floor space is unused.

Of course, this was not the intended use of the building. It was meant to be a place of commerce, specifically a site where people could buy cheap goods in large quantities inside spartan conditions. The store would have generated a good amount of sales tax money for the municipality and other governments, particularly on weekends when the number of shoppers would lead to busy aisles and checkout lines.

As an article in the Chicago Tribune notes, these sites can be very good for this vaccination use:

Spacious buildings, ample parking and easily accessible locations make vacant big-box stores good places to get shots in arms fast. That’s brought crowds back to some properties left empty even before the coronavirus pandemic heightened challenges for bricks-and-mortar retailers as people stayed home.

But vaccination sites are only a temporary fix for landlords trying to figure out how to reinvent spaces as retailers increasingly look to smaller stores and online sales.

Once the vaccinations are over – hopefully soon – the push will be back on to fill these spaces.

USPS address change data for COVID-19 sheds light on urban migration

Hard data has been hard to come by regarding people leaving cities during COVID-19. Did 500,000 flee Manhattan? Did San Francisco empty out? Here is data from the CBRE report:

In this comparison of 2020 and 2019 migration data, several big cities fared the worst: San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Sacramento did well because of spillover effects from the Bay Area.

In terms of actual numbers for cities, here is a summary of the same data for New York City:

By analysing US Postal Service address changes over the last 12 months, the study reveals the greatest out-migration of people is, as expected, from Manhattan, with nine of the 10 zip codes with the largest outflows of residents in the city located in the borough…

In terms of hard numbers, the four zip codes in Manhattan from the Hudson to the East River between 42nd Street and 59th Street lost more than 12,000 residents in 2020. In 2019 that figure was less than 3,000…

The streets may have felt even emptier than the data implies, as the study only looked at permanent address changes – the total number of those who left the city for significant portions of the pandemic is likely much higher. Many more people temporarily left to stay with family or at seasonal rentals…

Talk of an exodus from New York may be a little exaggerated as 41 per cent of Manhattan residents who moved in 2020 stayed in the borough, presumably taking advantage of cheaper rents to upgrade their living space. Prior to Covid, this figure was just below 50 per cent.

The last part quoted above is important: the number of permanent address changes was smaller than it may have appeared. Plenty of people left Manhattan and other urban locations but they did not necessarily give up on their property and may return when COVID-19 fades away. Similarly, the impact on suburbs that took in new residents during COVID-19 may then also see population shifts after COVID-19 as people return to urban neighborhoods.

White flight spontaneous or planned?

Sociologist Orly Clergé’s 2019 book The New Noir: Race, Identity & Diaspora in Black Suburbia includes the history of Blacks moving to New York and its suburbs. In her study, Clergé talks to both Black residents and white residents of suburban communities. Here is how Clergé responds to the claim by some white residents that their families left neighborhoods spontaneously as Black residents moved in:

Although White flight is discussed as a spontaneous response to Black in-migration, White fight and flight were well thought-out, collective, strategic, and immoral acts against Black people condoned by the state. (101)

White flight is the American phenomena where white residents left urban neighborhoods for the suburbs when Blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities moved in. This is most common in the decades after World War Two when government policy and community changes combined to lead to often rapid turnover in cities. In some Chicago neighborhoods, the population moved from +90% white to a significant Black majority in just a decade or two.

A number of studies explain how white flight happened in particular cities such as in Detroit as detailed by Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis or Atlanta as discussed by Kruse in White Flight. White flight affected all areas of life, ranging from the suburbanization of jobs as Wilson highlights in When Work Disappears and the move of white churches to the suburbs (an area I have done a little work in with a study of Protestant denominations in the Chicago region).

What the quote above highlights is just how prepared white residents were regarding potential changes in their neighborhood. Over the course of at least a few decades, whites deployed a range of techniques that culminated in white flight: restrictive deeds and covenants, blockbusting, redlining, and threats and violence. As each of these techniques was rendered illegal or went against public opinion, white residents moved onto the next option. And white flight was eventually the choice as white residents left en masse. It did not just happen; it was part of well-established patterns of exclusion that would then continue in suburban communities.

Pushing to ban grass in Las Vegas

Americans like grass lawns. Las Vegas is not an environment where it is easy to grow grass. What has to give? The city of Las Vegas wants to ban ornamental grass:

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Las Vegas-area water officials have spent two decades trying to get people to replace thirsty greenery with desert plants, and now they’re asking the Nevada Legislature to outlaw roughly 40% of the turf that’s left…

They say this ornamental grass requires four times as much water as drought-tolerant landscaping like cactus and other succulents. By ripping it out, they estimate the region can reduce annual water consumption by roughly 15% and save about 14 gallons (53 liters) per person per day…

The proposal is part of a turf war waged since at least 2003, when the water authority banned developers from planting green front yards in new subdivisions. It also offers owners of older properties the region’s most generous rebate policies to tear out sod — up to $3 per square foot…

Last year was among the driest in the region’s history, when Las Vegas went a record 240 days without measurable rainfall. And the future flow of the Colorado River, which accounts for 90% of southern Nevada’s water, is in question.

There are multiple interesting components to this. Here are at least a few:

  1. I remember flying into Las Vegas a few years ago. The difference between the desert and the city and suburbs was remarkable. I do not remember too much grass outside of the very green golf courses that stood out. Even without much grass, the city in the desert is a different sight.
  2. As the article notes elsewhere, this sounds like efforts in California during their big drought. At the same time, the article also mentions how other locations like Phoenix and Salt Lake City are not interested in curbing the grass.
  3. More Americans than just people in Las Vegas might be rethinking the lawn. In addition to the need for watering, there is fertilizing, mowing, keeping out weeds and leaves, designing features, and more. Who has time and money for all of that?
  4. Las Vegas is a sprawling metro area and the single-family homes of American suburbs are often surrounded by green lawns. It is part of the package tied to kids playing and a green nature buffer around the private dwelling. Are the suburbs the same without these patches of grass?

Perhaps this becomes a model for communities, in the desert or not, across the United States.

Interpreting a 50% chance of rain

We have had multiple days recently where there is a threat of rain all day. The hourly forecast from yesterday was not unusual:

One of my first thoughts in seeing such a forecast is to say that there is a 50/50 chance of rain. Flip a coin. With this in mind, I would not necessarily stay inside but I would be prepared when going outside.

The idea of a meteorologist flipping a coin when predicting rain is tempting. This could lead to thinking that the meteorologists do not really know so they are just guessing.

However, this is not exactly how this information works. If I look at the hourly forecast and see 0% chance of rain or even anything under 20-30%, I am not going to worry about rain. The probability is low. In contrast, if I see 70% and above I might alter my behavior as the probability is high.

The 50/50 information is still very useful even if it leaves a reader unsure if there will be rain or not. It is not conclusive information but it is not no information or just a guess. With rain at 50%, bring an umbrella, have a coat, or do not stay too far away from shelter but do not just stay inside.

How Americans arrived at converting rooms into closets

Is it as simple as Americans own a lot of stuff so they then need giant closets?

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That model held for the next century or so, until the postwar American economy lurched into motion, setting the country on the conveyor belt that would eventually deliver it to Kylie Jenner’s mirrored hall of designer handbags, a tour of which has been viewed more than 15 million times on YouTube. Prosperity settled in the suburbs, where millions of families moved into progressively bigger homes. Today, the average new single-family home is more than 1,000 square feet larger than it was in the early 1970s, even though new homes have, on average, fewer people living in them. (Regardless of Americans’ lack of need for giant houses, our zoning laws create them; many local governments have made building apartments or condos effectively illegal, and they are supported in this by homeowners, many of whom fear attracting less wealthy neighbors but welcome anything that pumps up property values, such as bigger houses down the street. Developers are happy to comply.)…

American homes not only have more space and fewer people than they once did; they also have a lot more stuff. “We’re conditioned that we need the right thing for the right activity,” Jill LaRue-Rieser, the senior vice president and chief merchandising officer for the custom-storage company California Closets, told me. As clothing in particular has gotten less expensive and more bountiful, big closets have become a selling point unto themselves. “The builders really figured it out,” she said. “If they could hook women with enough space for their shoes, they could sell the whole house.” Which is why, for decades, the country’s closets have had no reason to do anything but grow, fueling the perpetual-motion machine of the modern wardrobe—you have more space, so you don’t hesitate to buy more stuff, but eventually your big new closets seem cramped and small. At that point, maybe it’s time for a new place with even bigger closets…

Bradford said that converting a spare room to a closet has become particularly popular in recent years because it accommodates various internet home-design fantasies: natural lighting, room for a center island, seating areas, and space to show off particularly beloved collections of sunglasses or handbags or sneakers. “If people have something they value a lot, they want to create a perfect space for it, to highlight it,” she told me…

In other words, extreme closets may be starting to resemble those of, say, 16th-century Europe: a collection of prized things on loving display, a comfortable seating area in the innermost sanctum of one’s home, maybe a little desk area to work in solitude. “It’s about being proud of your space, feeling really good and calm in your space,” Adams said. Just like the Renaissance-era closet enthusiasts—though they probably lacked a wine or coffee station.

Jay Pritchett was ahead of his time: what America really needs are closets, closets, closets.

As the article notes elsewhere, if HGTV is to be trusted in this matter, a lot of bedrooms have been turned into large closets. This is a formal statement: a homeowner wants a large closet with particular features. But, this is a formal declaration of what has been happening for decades as Americans used spare rooms, attics, basements, and garages to store all of their items. As a person with a fair amount of stuff myself, I was intrigued by the first neighborhood we lived in as homeowners where all of the units had one car garages. Very few people parked in those garages. Instead, they held various items that did not fit in the relatively-small-by-today’s-standards 1,450 square foot residents.

I do think the curating and display of one’s possessions is worth noting. Today, it is not just about owning items but also about having ways to organize and show these items. Traditionally, closets are not something a homeowner might show to visitors. But, convert a room into a closet, put in an island and custom shelving plus a dazzling light fixture and this is now part of the home and possessions tour. How much time people actually spend in the expanded closet does not matter; this is a luxury item for the homeowner and the visitor.

I wonder if the reduced size of American households plays a large role here. If households have three-plus bedrooms but only a few members living in the home, there is now a free room. This could become an office; this has also picked up in recent years, even before working from home due to COVID-19, due to an interest in a clearly-defined and purposeful space. But, it could also become a closet or a theater room or a workout space.

Fighting zoning restrictions with “carrot, no stick” approach

The Biden administration has plans to encourage more housing by offering infrastructure money for loosening zoning regulations:

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The Biden proposal would set up a $5 billion fund for local governments to compete for grants to pay for new schools, roads or bridges if they agreed to loosen zoning rules.

“This is a new approach that is purely carrot, no stick,” said a White House official on condition of anonymity…

Trump himself explicitly campaigned against the idea last year, warning “suburban housewives” that crime would spike and home values drop if zoning rules were relaxed.

Housing experts praised Biden’s proposal, but said it may do little to influence affluent communities that have the tightest zoning laws, which have little need for federal assistance.

It will be interesting to see which communities would accept the carrot and loosen zoning. My guess: suburban communities that are already in the midst of demographic and community change and looking for funds that could help point the community in a particular direction.

Turnout for local Chicago area elections low again: under 20% in counties

Americans have regular opportunities to vote in local elections and Chicago area voters did not turn out in large numbers in this week’s election:

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At the county level, voter turnout mostly hovered in the low to midteens, typical for many counties in consolidated elections. On the lower end, McHenry County reported a voter turnout of 9.5%, and Kankakee County topped voter turnouts across the counties at 18.6%. The pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on voter turnout, according to county clerks’ offices, with sufficient alternative options for people to vote early or by mail instead of in person.

In Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, turnout was 14.7%, 15.6% and 13.7%, respectively.

In Will County, southwest of Chicago, 15.8% of voters cast a ballot Tuesday. That’s nearly 3 percentage points higher than the previous consolidated election in 2019, which had a voter turnout of 13.2%, said Charles Pelkie, chief of staff for the Will County clerk’s office…

Finding information on local candidates presents a challenge for voters, Pelkie said, confined mostly to mailed flyers and local radio or television ads. In general elections, Will County voter turnout can reach about 80%, Pelkie said, but local races don’t “inspire” voters in the same way as presidential or gubernatorial races.

I think this explanation is correct in that residents have to do a lot of work to find out about all the candidates and races. See my post on this yesterday.

But, there are other factors at work as well. As noted in the article, national races drive up turnout. I wonder if national politics has now completely overshadowed local and state politics through the last few presidential cycles. Americans often say they like local government but many eyes are now only turned to Washington.

Big issues in communities can drive up turnout. County level data can obscure higher levels of turnout for intriguing races. Yet, even interesting or important local issues might be drowned out by larger politics or the overwhelming number of choices.

A little thought experiment. Imagine a local government unit decided elections are no longer necessary or will not take place as frequently. They could cite the amount of money that is needed to run elections. Lots of energy is expended from both winning and losing candidates. I would guess there would be local protest; how can you have local government without regular elections? Would it prompt people to vote more often in local elections?

Or, could eliminating government bodies or consolidating such bodies in Illinois help? Reduce the number of candidates to choose from. Limit the number of taxing bodies that local funds go to. Focus some of the positions on broader issues rather than details of particular institutions. Again, this could be viewed as being anti-democratic but the current system does not seem to interest many voters.