With opposition to Google’s Toronto smart neighborhood, larger questions about powerful corporations, tax breaks, and public-private partnerships

Plans in Toronto for Google’s major development have hit multiple stumbling blocks:

As in New York, where fierce opposition to Amazon led the online retail giant to cancel plans to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, a local movement here is growing to send Sidewalk Labs packing. Their concerns: money, privacy, and whether Toronto is handing too much power over civic life to a for-profit American tech giant.

The #BlockSidewalk campaign formed in February after the Toronto Star reported on leaked documents indicating that Sidewalk Labs was considering paying for transit and infrastructure on a larger portion of the waterfront. In return, it would seek a cut of the property taxes, development fees and the increased value of the land resulting from the development — an estimated $6 billion over 30 years…

Separately, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the city, provincial and federal governments to shut down the project over privacy concerns. Michael Bryant, the head of the group, said Trudeau had been “seduced by the honey pot of Google’s sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory.”…

Micah Lasher, the head of policy and communications for Sidewalk Labs, said providing more details about the business model for Quayside and plans for data governance earlier would have helped allay many concerns. But he also said the business model remains uncertain.

Any major development or redevelopment project in a major city can run into issues. But, there seem to be at least three larger concerns at play here:

  1. Google and the role of tech companies. The public may be more suspicious of these corporations today compared to ten years ago when all the technology seemed rather magical. Issues of privacy and power matter more today.
  2. Tax breaks may not be the answer they once were in cities and metropolitan areas in order to attract corporations and developers. Residents and local leaders may ask why Google, a very wealthy corporation, needs any tax breaks. And, if the tax breaks are not provided, will Google take its smart city development elsewhere?
  3. This might signal larger issues with public-private partnerships. For at least a ten years or so now, these have been hailed as a way to move forward in many cities: both the local government and the developers chip in to get things done with benefits to both sides. But, do such deals turn over too much control or too many of the benefits to the private side rather than spreading the benefits to the residents and the community?

It will be interesting to see how local political and business leaders handle this: can they afford to let the project die or go elsewhere?

Perhaps the long-term answer for companies like Google is to follow the lead of Disney and Celebration, Florida and create whole communities rather than entering in messy situations in already-existing communities.

The legacy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago as a global city

After weighing the highs and lows of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight years in office, a Chicago Tribune editorial ends with this:

Because in the end, Mayor Emanuel kept his word. He pushed Chicago to keep moving, to shuffle forward, to improve its rank as a global city.

Not many big-city mayors can say that.

Two quick thoughts on how this conclusion feeds ongoing narratives about cities and Chicago:

  1. “Keep moving” and “improve” are linked to the idea of continuous city growth. Chicago may be slowly losing residents – or at least losing ground to faster-growing cities close in population like Toronto and Houston – but Emanuel helped stem the tide. Imagine this legacy: Mayor Emanuel could not increase Chicago’s population but think how much worse it would have been without all those new buildings downtown and in wealthy neighborhoods!
  2. Emanuel himself had a goal of keeping Chicago as a major global city. Indeed, it is. But, Chicago also has a lingering fear that it is not considered a global city, particularly compared to places like New York City. The population loss is likely part of this but so may be a location in the Midwest away from the exciting coasts. Again, for Emanuel’s long-term legacy: Chicago stayed in the top 50 of global cities!

Finally, all of this conversation makes it sound as if the mayor was the only one with influence in the city. The mayor of Chicago may always have an outsized influence – I’m reminded of former mayor Richard M. Daley’s visit to campus in 2011. This big man theory of history covers up a lot of other processes, including the work (or rubber-stamping?) of the City Council, the flow of global capital into Chicago, the influence of developers and wealthy business leaders, and numerous changes taking place within disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Learning about the notorious criminals of other major cities

In recently reading Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, I learned about several notable criminals and crimes in the largest city in the United States. This got me thinking: does every large city have its cast of unsavory lawbreakers that are relatively unknown to those who live outside the city or region?

Without reading histories of every large American city, it is hard to know. And I wonder if it is harder for these infamous characters to go unnoticed on the national scene today with the round the clock news coverage online and on TV that can talk about possibly criminal activity for hours and days without stop. On the flip side, these local characters might even become a part of civic pride or a grim experience everyone has shared or even tourist fodder. While cities can be compared on overall crime statistics (such as with claims that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States), stacking criminal individuals or groups against each other is a more nuanced task.

And would it be worthwhile to be able to name a few notable criminals from every major American city? These cases could help reveal some unique local history and character. But, they could also reinforce notions that cities are centers of crime. With so much interesting material to learn about a large city and/or a metropolitan region, criminal activity would be far down my list of what I would want to know.

What might be behind a debate over affordable housing in a new Naperville development

Naperville’s Housing Advisory Commission recommends 20% of the units should be affordable housing in a proposed new development of roughly 450 residential units. Let the debate commence:

“Here’s our chance,” said Becky Anderson, a city council member and liaison to the housing advisory commission. “We own this land, so let’s make the most of it and … make sure that we include some more affordable housing.”

The city is required to provide a report by the end of June 2020 to the Illinois Housing Development Authority listing the number of units needed to comply with the 10 percent minimum and identifying sites or incentives to help reach the goal. In a position paper, the housing advisory commission said the city failed to submit such a report by the last deadline in 2015.

Mayor Steve Chirico said it’s best to use multiple sites — not only 5th Avenue — to work toward the requirement…

Mayoral candidate Richard “Rocky” Caylor, however, said incorporating 20 percent affordable units into plans for 5th Avenue sites could help take a step toward 10 percent….

Dan Zeman, who lives in the Park Addition subdivision one block north of 5th Avenue, said he originally was skeptical of affordable housing on the sites slated for redevelopment. But once he researched the topic, he decided “maybe I was just being a NIMBY,” and thinking “not in my backyard.”

A few guesses about what might be lurking behind this affordable housing discussion in Naperville:

  1. As far as I know, the Illinois requirements have little teeth and operate more like recommendations. The repercussions for Naperville for not meeting the targets might be limited.
  2. This is a sizable project near the downtown train station and within walking distance of the downtown. Because of the size and location, this is an important project.
  3. What people actually mean by affordable could differ. The current mayor is quoted in this story saying it is about “entry-level workforce housing.” Does that mean young professionals or people who work in retail or service jobs? Naperville is a wealthy large suburb.
  4. This could be a proxy conversation about poorer residents in Naperville. The poverty rate in Naperville is only 4.4%. But, do Naperville residents and leaders want more poor residents? The status and image of the community is important to many.
  5. Deconcentrating affordable housing may seem like a reasonable idea but would the city follow up in other new projects? Are there other sizable projects in the works (such as a development on the southwest side of the suburb) that could also include affordable units?

I lived in a suburban house with radioactive thorium in the front yard

The first home my parents purchased was on the southwest side of West Chicago, a small suburb in the western part of DuPage County. While the community was the known for the railroad, industry, and a sizable population of Mexican residents, what we did not know was in the ground in our front yard also came to define the suburb.

The 1954 ranch house on a quiet street with no sidewalks was relatively unassuming: the home was just over 1,200 square feet, had a one car garage, three bedrooms, and a decent-sized yard. The self-contained subdivision was near a grocery store and some strip malls and was a ten minute car ride from the suburb’s downtown.

WestChicagoHouse.png

When my parents went to sell the home in 1988, a discovery was made: the front yard had radioactive material from a local plant. A Chicago company produced lanterns and opened a facility in West Chicago in 1932. The radioactive waste material from the plant, thorium, was then offered to the community as fill. The city and residents took the fill and used it all over the suburb. The plant was later acquired by Kerr-McGee and when the radioactive thorium was discovered throughout the community (after years of struggle), a good portion of the community became the Kerr-McGee Superfund site and the last of the contaminated soil was removed in 2015.

This front yard revelation had implications for selling the home: no one would want it. Supposedly, the radioactivity in the front yard was enough to equal that of an x-ray if someone sat between the two trees in the front for 24 hours. Eventually, Kerr-McGee purchased the home and years later, many yards on that street were torn up to remove the radioactive material.

It is hard to know if the radioactivity had any effects on those of us who lived in the house. Nothing obvious has emerged yet. We may have emerged unscathed. It was not Love Canal. Perhaps this could be considered an odd footnote in a suburban upbringing. Yet, at the same time, few suburbanites would expect to find they had purchased radioactive land. Furthermore, few Americans have a personal connection to a decades-long and costly fight to clean up and remove (this cost an estimated $1.2 billion alone) radioactive thorium.

Advertising your business as five miles east of a wealthy suburb

Suburban businesses can use odd geographic markers to describe their own location. One building material company in the Chicago area regularly runs radio ads with this description of their location: five miles east of Oak Brook in Broadview. Why might they do it this way?

  1. Compared to Broadview, Oak Brook is a more known location.
  2. Oak Brook has a large shopping area with a mall and all sorts of restaurants and other businesses nearby. People already out shopping may be willing to drive a bit further.
  3. Oak Brook is a higher status community with more wealth. Also, Broadview is majority black and Oak Brook is majority white.
  4. They are trying to reach wealthier suburban customers. This is why they do not say they are roughly 14-15 miles from the center of the Loop.

All in all, the Broadview location is about 10 minutes east of Oak Brook. That is not a long drive for suburbanites who may be willing to drive all over the place for good deals. And the advertising strategy may have some effectiveness as the business keeps using it. Still, it strikes me as a bit odd to downplay their own location in favor of a suburb five miles away…

 

Forgetting the railroad tracks in downtown Chicago when they are covered up by developments

As Chicago grew at a rapid pace in the nineteenth century, the railroad lines that helped make the city largely converged in one place: the south bank of the Chicago River alongside Lake Michigan where goods could be loaded and unloaded for the city or for ships. A 1948 image on the Maggie Daley Park website gives some indication of the scene:

Later development of land, such as Millennium Park, helped eliminate and then cover up more of the tracks. And a new proposed development south of Grant Park may cover up more:

Even as city officials weigh other proposed megadevelopment deals in and near downtown, a Wisconsin developer who played a key role in building Ford Field in Detroit and rebuilding Lambeau Field in Green Bay is pitching another: a multibillion-dollar plan to deck over Metra Electric rail tracks west of Soldier Field to build a mix of residential, office and retail space.

Several sources close to the matter say a partnership headed by Wisconsin executive Bob Dunn has briefed City Hall and other officials on plans, set to be officially unveiled next month, to build over 34 acres of Metra Electric tracks and storage facilities just west of South Lake Shore Drive, from McFetridge Drive south to roughly 20th Street.

Air rights to build over the tracks were acquired more than 20 years ago by developer Gerald Fogelson, who built the huge Central Station residential complex just to the north, south and east of Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue. Fogelson had hoped to develop the adjacent air-rights property himself as a sort of a Central Station 2.0, and as late as 2015 he was looking for a partner, describing then a $3 billion long-term plan with 3,000 apartments and 500 hotel rooms.

But Fogelson’s plans never jelled, and a new group named Landmark Development has emerged, with Fogelson still involved but Dunn, who is president of Milwaukee-based Hammes, now serving as lead developer.

Few would argue that the railroad tracks downtown and along the lakefront contributed to a beautiful aesthetic. Between the noise and the sights, most residents and leaders would prefer to see buildings, parks, and water than tracks. But, I wonder if the continued covering of tracks and building on the air rights might help lead Chicagoans to forget both the historical and current importance of the railroads to Chicago.

As Chicago grew, the railroads helped Chicago become the center of the Midwest as commodities came in from north, west, and south and were turned around for the Chicago market or markets out East. (See Nature’s Metropolis for all the details.) Today, Chicago is still a railroad center with numerous important railroad lines and a lot of freight traffic. The move in recent years to relieve accidents, ensure on-time trains, and traffic congestion is to move more and more of the railroad traffic to the outskirts of the region.

It might be easy today in a world of smartphones to forget the basic railroad infrastructure that helps undergird Chicago and the country. Chicago itself has shifted away from a commodity based economy and joined the ranks of finance and corporate capitals (and done so successfully). Yet, the railroad will continue to be important for Chicago even if it is no longer visible in some of the city’s most iconic locations.