Honor a president…with a highway named after them

Chicago likes to honor famous people and politicians by affixing their names to roads so what would be a fitting honor for former president Barack Obama?

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, submitted a resolution to have the entirety of Interstate 294 named after President Obama. However, in the same week, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, indicated that he was moving to submit legislation that would rename much of Interstate 55 that passes through Illinois as the “Barack Obama Expressway.” The moves in Springfield led to chatter in the press and elsewhere about how to honor President Obama and his legacy.

Perhaps because driving is so ingrained in American culture officials like to rename roads and highways. A highway seems so dull here: it will be a staple of morning traffic reports (“The Obama is clogged from 159th to Cicero”) and make it into countless digital and print atlases. I imagine it takes time for a name change to switch over into normal use: is I-55 the Southwest Highway, the original name, or I-55 (when it was adopted into the Federal Interstate System), or the Stevenson (to honor an Illinois governor and twice-failed presidential candidate. How many people who live in the area say they drive the Reagan?

But, there are plenty of other infrastructure options: how about O’Hare Airport (named after a World War II aviator), one of the most important airports in the American system? How about a branch of the L? Think how many people travel on and would see the Obama Line and perhaps some politicians would rather be known for promoting mass transit. Of course, if you didn’t like a politician (not the case here), you could attach their name to something less worthy like a sewage treatment plant or a viaduct.

 

Proposal to bury some of Lake Shore Drive and create more parkland

Chicago’s lakefront parks are impressive and a new plan suggests they could be enhanced even further by putting some of Lake Shore Drive underground:

At its heart, the plan would straighten out and bury Lake Shore Drive’s tight and dangerous Oak Street S-bend and would provide unfettered pedestrian access to 70 acres of newly created lakefront parkland, beaches, trails, and a breakwater island. The improvements would buffer the roadway from the routine abuse dealt by crashing winter waves as well as fix the dysfunctional Chicago Avenue bottleneck by removing traffic signals and adding new interchange ramps.

With a price tag reaching as high as $500 million, the project would be hugely expensive and would require the cooperation of multiple local, state, and federal entities like the various Departments of Transportation and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Provided the massive undertaking is approved and funding can be secured, construction wouldn’t begin until at least the year 2020 and will likely take many years to complete.

The pictures look great (though they also include extending the beach even further into Lake Michigan). This could be a mini version of Boston’s “Big Dig” and that project turned out great for the aboveground landscape (based on several enjoyable experiences there in recent years). Additionally, the efforts to change the path of Lake Shore Drive around the Field Museum and Soldier Field (traffic used to split around these landmarks and now follows a single path further away from the lake) worked out.

While it is often better to do such large projects sooner than later as they only get more expensive and extend current problems, one could reasonably ask why it takes so long to bring up such ideas. Is it simply that it is often cheaper to think primarily of the road? Is it that planners in the past didn’t have sufficient foresight or that our standards of what is acceptable in terms of highways within cities has changed?

More unusual conversions of buildings to housing in Chicago

Here are a few examples in Chicago of converting solid older structures into residences:

Developers have never shied away from turning the remnants of Chicago’s past into residences—see the omnipresent warehouse-turned-loft projects across the city. Conversion treatments are now being found where they are less expected: A former Jewish orphanage in Wicker Park is now a single-family home. The old Sears store on Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square? It’s likely to become a 40-unit apartment building. Most impressively, a landmarked church at 2900 West Shakespeare Avenue in Logan Square reemerged in November as a 10-unit condo building. Other similar projects are in the works.

The reason for repurposing instead of demolishing is simple: The quality of old construction often surpasses that of today’s standards. “Most of the brick structures that were built in the postfire era used high-quality materials such as Chicago brick,” says Greg Whelan, a Redfin real estate agent. “Intrinsically, these buildings have high value because they don’t make that brick anymore.” Plus, existing structures bypass height restrictions dictated by modern zoning laws and solve the issue of the lack of vacant land in the most desirable neighborhoods.

These projects fix problems for developers. And the quirks of unconventional buildings appeal to homeowners. In the former church, bell towers allow ceilings, supported by original steel trusses, to soar as high as 30 feet. Slate from the old roof was repurposed as tile in the lobby. (There are plenty of modern features, too, including floating vanities the bathrooms and quartz countertops in the kitchens.) The exterior looks much like it did when the church was built in 1908, with dramatic arched Gothic windows and regal stone detailing around newly built balconies. Three of the 10 units were still available at presstime for between $480,000 and $650,000.

Presumably there are some limits to which older buildings get converted. Although this article doesn’t mention it, I assume a big factor is money: will the conversion provide a sufficient return on investment for the developer? Also, cities won’t necessarily allow anything to be converted to residences. It likely helps if the structure is already in a residential location (common for churches) and is a building that the neighbors like (as opposed to an eyesore or mismatch that even a conversion can’t fix).

I’m still intrigued by the conversion of religious buildings into residences. The architecture of such buildings is often conducive to groups (which would be limited when converted into multiple units) and intended to provide a physica connection with the spiritual realm. How exactly does this architecture fit the tastes of homeowners? Can you easily reduce the spiritual architecture to its component pieces like large windows and high ceilings? See an earlier post about converting Chicago churches into residences.

Chicago sets new record for tourism

The city of Chicago may have problems but the number of tourists continues to increase:

An estimated 54.1 million visitors came to the city in 2016, up 2.9 percent from the previous year’s record-setting count. The increase marks a step towards reaching Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of annually attracting 55 million out-of-towners to Chicago by 2020…

Leisure proved to be the primary attraction behind Chicago’s rising tourism numbers. About four in five visitors last year (nearly 41 million) came to Chicago for fun, city officials say…

The long-running Blues Festival, the NFL Draft and the Chicago Cubs World Series victory parade were three major events last year that helped boost tourism numbers, Kelly said…

City officials also cite business visitation, which grew by 2.1 percent from the previous year, as another factor. Some 31 major conventions and meetings were hosted citywide throughout last year, drawing nearly one million attendees; 35 business meetings are slated for 2017.

I’d love to see how these numbers were calculated. Just take the suggestion that the Cubs World Series parade and rally are part of these totals; how big were those crowds? Early estimates were high but there was little commentary later about more solid figures. Were suburbanites who came in for the day counted as tourists? If the 5 million figure holds, then this one event on its own pushed the city from a lower number than the previous year to a record number.

Buying vacant Chicago lots for $1

Many Rust Belt cities have plenty of empty land and the city of Chicago is selling some of these lots for $1 a piece:

In an effort to combat urban blight and the illegal activity that often follows, the City of Chicago has announced a major expansion of its Large Lots program that offers empty city-owned parcels to nearby homeowners for just $1.

After debuting in Englewood and East Garfield Park in 2014, more than 550 homeowners have so far taken advantage of the program. Now, thanks to its recently expanded scope, Large Lots will extend to 33 Chicago communities on the West and South sides, offering 4,000 empty properties at the extremely discounted rate…

Not just anyone can swoop in and grab real estate for a buck, however. To purchase a lot, buyers must reside on the same block, be current on their property taxes, and be in good financial standing with the city in order to be eligible. Large Lots will be accepting applications on its website through the end of January.

The city tells the Chicago Tribune that all lots in the program are reserved for residential uses such as extended side or back yards, gardens, parking pads, or landscaped green space. In addition to improved neighborhood aesthetics, the Trib also cites a study that found the program yielded a notable drop in nearby littering, drug activity, and prostitution.

Eliminating empty properties is probably a good first step. But, what is the next step? What is the long-term solution to reviving both these properties and neighborhoods?

I will occasionally get questions from students as to why people or businesses don’t see vacant land like this as opportunities. On one hand, the Chicago metropolitan region is in desperate need of affordable housing. On the other hand, these properties are often located in poorer neighborhoods. But, a collection of residents or organizations could really make something interesting out of cheaper properties and the city would benefit from better uses.

Skepticism of 5 million fans for Cubs parade, rally

Even though the 5 million attendees estimate for the Cubs parade and rally was widely shared after being made by city officials, there is good reason for reconsidering the figure:

“The guesstimates are almost always vast exaggerations,” said Clark McPhail, a sociology professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Politics often play a factor in overblown crowd counts. Runaway enthusiasm also could pump up the final tally, McPhail said.

There is a science to calculating crowds. The most common method is to draw a grid and make an estimate based on the average number of people that would fit into each section.

Another way to gauge crowds, particularly in a city such as Chicago, would be to analyze the capacity of buses or trains to deliver millions of people downtown or along the parade route, according to Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University.

It doesn’t seem like it would take too much to draw a better estimate: there are plenty of aerial shots of the parade route and rally and groups like Metra and CTA could share figures.

Perhaps it isn’t a matter of examining the data: perhaps few people want to. Chicago could use some good news these days and making such a lofty estimate – supposedly making this the seventh largest peaceful gathering of people in human history – can boost the city’s image (both internally and externally). The team probably doesn’t mind the figure: it illustrates how dedicated the fans are (though there are plenty of other ways to do this) and might help increase the value of the franchise. The fans like such a figure because they can say they were part of something so much bigger than themselves.

If a revised lower figure gets released, I suspect it will not reach much of an audience.

Sociologists with their interests in social movements have been at the forefront in estimating crowd size. See earlier posts about counting crowds here and here.

Chicago looked good for the Cubs parade and rally…but was it the real Chicago?

For many, the city of Chicago looked good yesterday: the weather was beautiful for November 4th, the buildings gleamed, the lake was beautiful from the air, everything looked pretty clean, and joyful millions descended on the city (I’m skeptical of the 5 million figure but that may be a subject for another post) to celebrate a win for the whole city.

Yet, I want to continue some thoughts from last week: a championship, even one as unusual as that of the Cubs, does not lead to a transformed city. On the television coverage, they talked of the day’s events bringing the city together, how the team embodied different aspects of the city, and how so many hearts had been lifted. Will the poverty rate decrease? Will the uptick in shootings and murders subside? Will economic opportunities start arriving in poorer neighborhoods? Will the public schools start providing a good education for all students? Will residential segregation lessen? Will the wealthy share more with those with less?

If anything, this win will provide more money for those who already have a lot. The Cubs were already quite profitable before the win and the championship supposedly adds $300 million to a multi-billion dollar commodity. The team’s development work around the ballpark is supposed to help the neighborhood but it also follows the pattern of other teams who are using their sports franchises to make more money in local real estate and development. I know the team gives to charities – pretty much all major businesses do – but does the wealth help others?

And does a win provide Cubs fan Rahm Emanuel – alongside other city leaders who were to receive tickets to World Series games until the public got wind of it – a reprieve from tough questions?

And which Chicago is the real Chicago: the skyline, Loop, and North Side or the other areas of the city?

And how about the pretty white fan base (at least it appeared this way by who was attending the World Series games at Wrigley and those who attended the parade and rally)? How many of those who poured into the city to celebrate are from the suburbs and from outside the region?

It could still be a very good day for Chicago if that same passion and energy displayed in celebrating the winning of a game – men playing with bats, balls, bases, and gloves – could be regularly channeled into improving communities.