The difficulties in changing bedroom suburbs into vibrant mixed-use places

What does it take for a bedroom suburb – the stereotypical placeless home to subdivision after subdivision – to change into something else? Here is a quick summary of the efforts in one Chicago suburb:

Bartlett was a typical “bedroom” community — people who worked in downtown Chicago took the train back and went straight home. The Metra station used to be surrounded by industrial buildings, said Tony Fradin, the village’s economic development coordinator. There was no reason to hang around downtown, and no practical way to avoid driving everywhere you needed to go.

The process of transit-oriented development, like the growing of a sapling into something that will provide shade, takes a long time and a lot of patience, said RTA and village officials. Bartlett got started by putting more development near its Metra station in 2005, replacing the obsolete industrial buildings with three-story condominiums and two-story mixed residential and retail space near the train. The complex includes the popular 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, which carries customers their food on a model train, and O’Hare’s Pub, which offers live music. The developments were backed by a tax-increment financing plan…

But the recession put a stop to further development. In 2013, Bartlett tried again to improve its downtown, applying for an RTA grant in 2014, and completing its TOD plan late last year, said Fradin.

Fradin said Bartlett hopes the plan, which includes ideas to improve pedestrian safety such as new crosswalks, will create a more urban, “walkable” feel. Bartlett plans to market a 1.8-acre site across from the Metra tracks and hopes to attract a developer in the next year or two for a high-density residential building, as outlined in the TOD plan. Another possible development site is a 5-acre, Metra-owned patch of land directly adjacent to the tracks, which Metra has held for years for possible parking.

Three things stand out to me from this example as well as the efforts I have observed in my research of suburban communities:

  1. These redevelopment efforts take time. The story above cites 2005 as the starting point of this kind of development and the suburb is still working at it twelve years later. One or two significant buildings or developments might be exciting but more is likely needed. The transformation of downtown Bartlett could take decades.
  2. Not all bedroom suburbs will be successful in developing a vibrant downtown, even if they follow all or many of the steps that characterized other successful suburbs. Sometimes it works but a lot of things – including internal decisions as well as outside forces that are beyond the control of a suburb – have to go right.
  3. Even if this more vibrant, around-the-clock downtown develops, it would be interesting to see what happens to all of the community since many do not live right downtown. Do these new developments around the train station cater primarily to young professionals? Do people from the edges of Bartlett regularly go to their own downtown or do they seek out other suburban spots (like Elgin or Woodfield/Schaumburg or the I-90 Corridor)? Do all residents want the quiet character of their bedroom suburb to change or feel that resources should be diverted toward

The role of residential segregation in lawsuit over Elgin school district

The Chicago suburb of Elgin has long been a satellite city with more diversity and manufacturing than the average suburb. The city’s school district, U-46, is the second-largest district in the state and is the plaintiff in a long-running civil suit that is continuing in federal court this week:

The two sides in a long, bitter fight over boundary lines in an Elgin-area school district met in federal District Court in Chicago on Monday, six years after a class-action suit sought to improve learning conditions for minority students.

The students and the families who were part of the original case filed in 2005 have long since left School District U-46, a racially and culturally diverse district of 40,000 students in the northwest suburbs. But the conditions that sparked that initial outrage — overcrowding and poor classroom conditions — continue to persist and are putting minority students at a disadvantage, attorney Stewart Weltman told the judge in his opening remarks.

“U-46 served the needs of white students first, and the needs of minority students second,” Weltman told U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman. “The district knew it had thousands of empty seats in white schools, and yet it forced more and more minority students into overcrowded schools and portable classrooms without running water.”

Attorneys for the school district say race never played a role in the redrawing of attendance boundaries for the district’s 55 elementary, middle and high schools. Instead, they say, the changes were part of a reorganization plan by the district in 2004 to allow more students to attend schools closer to home.

I don’t know the particulars of the case. What the district did sounds like what a lot of American parents might desire: let my children go to schools close to home rather than busing or driving them to schools across the city. Closeness is one issue but the idea of local control or rule of nearby schools is important, even in a large school district.

But as I read this, I am struck by an idea: with the district letting students “attend schools closer to home,” U-46 was letting the wealthier kids go to the nearby nicer schools and the minority kids go to nearby worse-off schools. And if you look at the map of the U-46 boundaries, there is quite an economic range, from Elgin (median household income in 2009: $57,009) to wealthier Bartlett (median household income in 2009: $91,863) and Wayne (less than 2,000 people in the village but a 2009 median household income of $142,321). Therefore, it may appear that the district is not spreading the wealth (in money or children) around the district in a way that benefits everyone. The residential segregation patterns in suburbia, where the wealthier tend to live with the wealthier and the poorer live with the poorer, then get reinforced.

It will be interesting to see how the case turns out. On one hand, I’m sure the district has an interest in keeping wealthier families and areas within the district, something that may have been aided by this 2004 decision. On the other hand, the larger school district is supposed to be providing the same opportunities for all students.