Chicago area voter turnout around 13-15%

The Daily Herald describes the low turnout in municipal elections in the Chicago area a week ago.

Only 13 percent of the suburb’s registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, the lowest rate for any election since at least 2006…

With hundreds of races in each county, some drew more voters than others. The Hinsdale High School District 86 tax hike question in DuPage County brought more than 40 percent of the district’s voters to the ballot box, with the looming threat of massive extracurricular cuts if the request didn’t pass. It did.

But scores of other races had less than 5 percent turnout, according to vote totals available on some election websites, mainly because they weren’t contested…

The growth in actual voters is little comfort to political scientists, local politicians and suburban election officials, who worry low voter turnout shows a dangerous level of apathy by the electorate.

While the article tries to bring out the positive news – there are more registered voters compared to the last set of municipal elections and some races had higher turnout races – it is hard to sugarcoat these figures. The Chicago suburb in which I live had low turnout for the first mayoral race in years. These local elections can have a significant impact as local leaders react to external pressures as well as have internal discussions. Not every local official makes significant changes and many local officials may run to make small improvements and preserve the nature of their community. At the same time, many communities have key moments in their past to which they could point to as sending the community down a different route and altering the community’s character.

Again, if Americans claim to like local government and local control in suburban settings, why do they not vote in larger numbers for the officials who will help guide their communities and local governments?

Communities, inertia, and change from a sociological point of view

After recently reading Market Cities, People Cities and hearing a talk by one of the authors plus having several conversations with people about how sociologists think about how communities and organizations develop and change, I wanted to outline how cities and suburbs change over time. Here is how I would describe it:

  1. A community or organization is founded. Relatively small in size at the start, it takes on characteristics and activities of its founder(s). These initial traits can have effects down the road but are not necessarily deterministic of where the community will end up. Inertia and founding energy carry the social collective along.
  2. Two major categories of social phenomena can lead to change. One option is outside social forces or pressure. Examples for communities could include broader shifts (such as new residents moving there from elsewhere, changes in government policies or funding, large-scale economic shifts, or changing cultural norms in the broader society) as well as more local changes (such as requests for new development, budget issues, a critical mass of new residents in the community, changes brought by local elections). A second option is internal decisions made to go a different direction (or reaffirm the existing inertia/path). These decisions are often a reaction to outside forces but they can also spring up from internal discussions and thinking. Examples of this could include requests for new developments, budget issues, and a critical mass of new residents.
  3. A period of inertia then follows until another major period of decision/reaction to outside forces takes place.
  4. The community or organization then goes on until it doesn’t.

To sum up: communities tend to follow a particular path of development and community life until something happens externally and/or internally that often allows space to have a discussion about a different vision. This “something happens” could be the result of external forces or internal forces or decisions. Emerson and Smiley rely more on steps toward developing a social movement while my own suburban work suggested “character moments” could lead to new paths. This collection of founding characteristics plus key moments then comprises the unique character of a community or organization that can differentiate it from an organization of community of the same broader kind.

Suburb sponsors a college bowl game, gets nearly 20 mentions, 6 commercials, and a lot of visuals on the field

Elk Grove Village sponsored a college bowl game. The Daily Herald tracked how often the community was mentioned during the game broadcast:

The 3½-hour telecast included nearly 20 mentions of the formal bowl game name that uses Elk Grove’s “Makers Wanted” tagline, and six commercials promoting the business park…

11:33 a.m. The players take the field, sporting the bowl game logo on jerseys. The logo, featuring the “Makers Wanted” slogan nestled in between two palm trees, is on the 50-yard line, while separate “Makers Wanted Elk Grove Village Illinois” logos are on the 25-yard lines. Similar banners are on sidelines behind team benches. Smaller sideline signs feature “Makers Wanted” and Elk Grove-based Stern Pinball, which gave pinball machines to each team.

11:54 a.m. Elk Grove airs its first TV commercial, which it gets as part of the sponsorship deal. “Why would Elk Grove Village sponsor the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl?” the announcer asks. “Because we’re proud,” mentioning the new technology park under development and access to transportation. The TV spot invites businesses to learn more “about how we can help your company grow at makerswanted.org.”…

2:32 p.m. Coming back from a break, ESPN shows scenes from Elk Grove’s municipal complex and park district and the watch party at Real Time Sports bar. “Good on the Makers Wanted people and all our friends watching in Elk Grove Village,” Levy says. “Need a place to set up and start a business and start a life? That’s an excellent place to go.”

Add in all the times viewers saw logos on the field and in the stadium and it sounds like the suburb received plenty of air-time.

Two related thoughts:

  1. It is interesting to see how the community tried to present itself. The whole point was to sell the business space and atmosphere of the community but that does not happen by just showing empty land and warehouses. So, if you are trying to promote a friendly community that is full of successful businesses and entrepreneurs, what else do you show? Based on the account above, they showed a party and a pinball competition hosted by a local company. Could those events happen anywhere? Would local residents recognize this as their community in terms of a pervasive local character or did it just cherry-pick a few pieces of the suburb?
  2. Imagine a future where more communities sponsor sporting events or other major events. The average American has never heard of most other suburbs. The average Chicago area resident likely knows little about Elk Grove Village outside of its location near O’Hare Airport. This could be a way for relatively small and unknown places to become more known. At the same time, such campaigns are unlikely to have major transformative effects on suburbs.

Naperville considers one of its last greenfield subdivisions

By the early 2000s, the large suburb of Naperville had relatively few large parcels of land where new subdivisions could emerge like they did regularly for decades. One such parcel of land is now up for discussion:

Single-family detached homes are proposed for about 105 acres of the site at Route 59 and 103rd Street, requiring the zoning be changed from agricultural to residential. The remaining eight acres would be rezoned for office, commercial and institutional use to accommodate a new Compass Evangelical Free Church, which already has two Naperville locations and one each in Bolingbrook and Wheaton.

Houses ranging in size from 2,300 to 3,539 square feet would be built on lots ranging from 6,838 to 20,065 square feet, according to plans submitted to the city. There would be multiple floor plans available, and Pulte plans on a “significant setback and buffer from Route 59 to lessen potential impacts on the properties,” the proposal said.

The two-story 38,000-square-foot church would be built at the corner of Route 59 and 103rd Street. It would have a 600-seat worship center, a children’s ministry space, a multipurpose room or gymnasium, second-floor offices, a 5,000-square-foot coffee shop and 307 parking spaces, according to plans.

The requested use deviates from the 2002 Southwest Community Area Plan, which identified the future land use as commercial, senior housing and mixed-density residential. That said, city staff found the Pulte development to be “well-suited and complementary” to the city’s long-term plans, city documents said.

Two reasons why this proposed development makes sense and fits with the existing character of the community:

1. A residential subdivision is consistent with Naperville’s development since 1960. While Naperville has also approved other kinds of developments in certain parts of the suburb, much of the land to the south and west of downtown is now within subdivisions of somewhat sizable homes.

2. The space for a church is not unusual and could be a preferable neighbor compared to commercial or industrial uses. While the church does not generate tax revenues like other possible uses, it also does not present the same kind of noise, light, and traffic issues to nearby neighbors.

One reason the proposal may not make sense for the community:

1. Without many big parcels left, Naperville has limited opportunities to promote other land uses. Another subdivision is consistent with the suburb’s character but is this the long-term direction Naperville wants to go? The reference to the Southwest Community Area Plan is notable as the suburb had thoughts of creating a mixed-use node and even second social center for the community (next to the downtown) on the far Southwest side. Instead, this subdivision will simply add more homes and residents.

In sum, while this may just be another suburban subdivision, this could be a momentous choice by a mature suburb. If Naperville uses this big parcel for homes, does this mean they will seek denser development in their downtown?

American battle: weirdness vs. wealth

In a closer look at what is happening to retailers in New York City, Derek Thompson suggests two contrary forces are at work in urban America:

A war is playing out in American cities between wealth and weirdness. The former encourages the pursuit of national trends and national brands—high-end fitness studios adjoining Sweetgreen franchises—for the purpose of maximizing profit on a per-lease basis. That spirit runs counter to the desire for diversity and experimentation, which requires policies that actively promote the survival of small companies in an economy that would otherwise eat them up.

I would suggest this goes further than just big cities. One could argue this is a larger battle fought since at least the end of World War Two involving revered ideals in American culture.

On one side are the powers of standardization, efficiency, predictability, and national chains. Think the rise of McDonald’s, Walmart, and Google. These companies came to represent whole sectors of business and their actions helped lead to predictable user experiences and outcomes across different geographic contexts. They are good at efficiency, offering customers a cheap service while turning out billions in profit.

On the other side are the powers of small businesses, entrepreneurs, diversity, and American individualism. Think the quirky and interesting shopping districts that attract visitors. Many of the establishments offer unique experiences that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Think businesses that reflect the traits of their owners. These are people trying out ideas and participating in the local community. Non-conformity and cool are still sought after.

Both of these types of businesses reflect American ideals. Many of the national chains we know today started as the more unusual business options that became wildly successful. Some owners and founders want to remain small and others want to try for everything they can get. Obtaining a good balance of these approaches is likely hard to do from a policy level.

Secondary cities attractive but have a ways to go to catch biggest US cities

New data from Redfin suggests Americans are moving to secondary big cities:

Nashville, Sacramento, Atlanta, Phoenix, Austin and Dallas are among the top-10 cities with the largest influx of new residents, according to new data from the Redfin real estate brokerage…

“People in the coastal markets are just fed up with double-digit price increases, and they’re moving to a commuter town or to the middle of the country,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin. “In our most recent ‘hottest markets’ report, Indianapolis tied for third place with Boston among the cities where homes go under contract fastest. People are moving there from Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area because it’s affordable.”…

“It’s the combination of affordable housing and jobs that are causing people to move,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based property database.

“In places like Tampa, Dallas and Las Vegas, there’s a booming economy, with lots of jobs, along with relatively affordable homes. You can cut your housing costs in half if you move to Dallas from Los Angeles and there are jobs there, too.”

The United States has now had a decades-long hierarchy of the largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. It would be interesting to see if other regions could challenge those top three in terms of population or status/importance. I have written before about the case that could be made for Washington, D.C. but it also has relatively expensive housing and may be considered a secondary city. In population, Chicago has lost ground compared to Toronto and Houston may overtake it soon. But, does Houston or Toronto have the same status? Most of the locations on the list above of secondary cities are Sunbelt cities with relatively recent population growth and/or importance. Can a place like Phoenix or Nashville or Dallas translate these changes into global city status? It would take a lot of work and changed perceptions.

Fighting against McMansion apartment buildings

One commentator suggests apartments enabled by transit oriented development regulations in Los Angeles will be like McMansions in residential neighborhoods:

The development in question is on the 1500 block of South Orange Grove Avenue, a modest residential neighborhood one block east of Fairfax and two blocks south of Pico. The proposed structure is a five story, twenty-eight unit apartment building, replacing a single-family home and a duplex. It would be the tallest building in the neighborhood by two stories. The artist’s rendering above shows how it would impact the neighbors on the abutting block of Ogden.

Yet this particular building is only the first of many to come in Picfair Village and other areas throughout Los Angeles, transforming the character of our neighborhoods and adding boxy, out-of-scale buildings to a city already plagued by terrible traffic and failing infrastructure. Though the planning commission turns up its nose at the unappealing designs, they never fail to move the projects forward…

The bulk of this development is being done under the auspices of Measure JJJ, transformed by the City Planning Commission into Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Guidelines. Shrugging their shoulders of any responsibility, the City Planning Commission’s members, along with City Planning Department staff (also busy with the equally pernicious Purple Line extension upzoning plan), fondly refer to the TOC Guidelines as “the will of the people,” washing their hands of responsibility…

For whatever reason, City Hall and City Planning Commission members are embracing the TOC Guidelines and fully abetting developers’ plans to move full steam ahead with real estate projects that will drastically alter the character of our neighborhood and many others throughout Los Angeles.

The term McMansion refers to a single-family home. The headline for this commentary – the text of the piece itself does not use the term McMansion – uses the term to describe a certain kind of apartment building: ones that will tower over blocks of single-family homes. While these apartments are not oversized single-family homes, they may have a similar effect to many McMansions with significant size and a change in scale. The commentator suggests this will alter how these blocks are experienced, particularly for those in homes adjacent to the apartment buildings.

The broader use of the term McMansion could be applied to a number of items. For example, I recall seeing articles in the early 2000s comparing boats and other consumer goods to McMansions. Generally, this use would refer to a supersized and/or extra luxurious model. Applying the idea to other kinds of housing could prove trickier. Could you have a McMansion tiny house? A McMansion accessory dwelling unit? A McMansion condo high-rise? Broadening the term to more housing could make a fairly complex idea – with at least four traits – even more complicated.