An additional reason to dislike Chicago McMansions: contributing to lower population density

One Chicago observer suggests teardown McMansions impoverish the city in three ways: they suburbanize neighborhoods, they are poorly built and do not fit in with the architectural context of the city, and help lower the population density of neighborhoods. More on this third point:

Photo by Jona on Pexels.com

But Chicago’s density is declining, and some of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods have actually started to lose residents. Lincoln Par, once home to 102,000 people, barely housed 70,000 in 2020. Lakeview, once holding 124,000, was at 103,050 around the same time. North Center had decreased from 48,000 to 35,114, and nearby community such as West Town and Bucktown had similar fallen in scale.

These neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, and much of this de-densification may be due to a “spreading out” of sorts; wealthier people are moving in and are able to afford more space.

But there’s more to it than that. Previously, when a neighborhood in Chicago was in demand, builders capitalized, and the housing stock swelled. Chicago’s zoning laws, however, have changed, and while they allow for high-rise development in various downtown areas, they prohibit this same approach in neighborhoods. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how strict the zoning ode is in residential areas, single-family homes are pretty much always allowed.

One theory, termed “The homevoter hypothesis,” speculates that this is due to the control that homeowners have on urban development. Their interests have the most influence on local aldermen and, therefore, residential development. The good of the community and the city is not a factor in their agenda, which instead focuses on home value growth, and how to wield zoning changes in order to achieve it.

The argument seems to make sense: those who want to live in more well-off Chicago neighborhoods bring resources and an interest in larger homes. This could mean converting structures to single-family homes or tearing down older structures and starting over from scratch. If there is indeed an increase in larger single-family homes in Chicago, there should be data to support this. Anecdotally, my occasional travels in some of these neighborhoods suggests a good number of new homes nestled between two-flats and three-flats.

Additionally, there may be other forces at work that could also be leading to de-densification in Chicago neighborhoods:

  1. Chicago residents are leaving neighborhoods faster than people want to come in, regardless of what housing stock is available. The population is down in a number of neighborhoods across the city.
  2. The demand for new housing is higher in locations in and around the Loop because of the concentration of jobs and cultural opportunities plus the activity of developers. While Chicago has been known as a city of neighborhoods for a long time, the neighborhoods might not be as hot as the center.
  3. Developers and builders also want these new single-family homes because they can make a lot of money on each property.

Put all of this together and the new Chicago McMansions represent a change to numerous streets and neighborhoods.

Bringing a South Side Chicago home to the middle of an entertainment spectacle

The listening party Kanye West hosted at Chicago’s Soldier Field last week featured at the center of the set a replica of the home of his mother on the city’s South Side:

As noted in the review, the addition of the cross to the front of the home helped it look like a church. However, outside of that, it looks like a fairly standard house: long and skinny to fit a city lot, a bay window in the front, a second story with pitched roofs all the way back, nondescript siding.

That the single-family house was at the center of a spectacle – slow moving vehicles, other music stars, people in masks and costumes on the front steps, thousands of people listening in the stands – hints at the role of the home in the creative process. How many important American cultural works emerge from such dwellings? Once stars are established, we do not associate them with such humble dwellings but rather with large Hollywood mansions or opulent condos in the biggest cities. Or, we might think of artists as connected to particular places, whether specific neighborhoods or cities or suburbia at large. Kanye has noted connections to Chicago but this home says less about Chicago as a place than it does about more private activity, home life, and the importance of West’s mother. Even as we are not invited to see inside the important home – imagine it being constructed in such a way to open for the audience with emphasis on certain rooms, activities, or symbols – we get the sense that the home mattered.

Lightning strikes one Chicago building each year more than any other in the country

Tall skyscrapers are not just good at defining a skyline and providing status for a city; they attract lightning, some more than others.

Photo by Cameron Casey on Pexels.com

By a wide margin, three skyscrapers in the East stood out for repeated lightning strikes between the years 2015 and 2020. At 1,776 feet tall, the tallest building in the U.S., One World Trade Center in New York City, was struck 189 times between 2015 and 2020, but it wasn’t the most frequently hit building in the nation…

Yet the Big Apple isn’t the U.S. city with the most frequently struck building. That distinction goes to the Willis Tower in Chicago, which ranks third in the U.S. for height, towering at 1,451 feet above the Windy City. That skyscraper was hit with 250 lightning strikes between 2015 and 2020, making it Thor’s favorite target, so to speak.

Why Willis and not World Trade? Lightning strikes vary based on building height, material, and suppression systems. Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist for Vaisala, told AccuWeather that location may be to blame as well.

“Chicago gets more lightning in an average year than New York City,” Vagasky said. “So when you stick a tall building in a place with a higher lightning density, it’s more likely to be struck than a tall building in a place with a lower lightning density. Willis Tower is only slightly shorter than One World Trade, by about 35 feet.”

This is a timely write-up given the number of storms the Chicago area has experienced in the last week or so. With summer heat and humidity in a humid continental climate, big dark clouds and rain have swept over the Chicago region.

The pictures that capture lightning striking the Willis Tower highlight the height of the building above the rest of the (impressive) Chicago skyline. Additionally, they also show the resilience of the structures – explained elsewhere in the article as large Faraday cages – in the midst of a natural phenomena that can be quite destructive.

The Chicago Fire: a disaster to be celebrated?

The 150th anniversary of the Chicago Fire is approaching and Rick Kogan highlights how the city came to celebrate the aftermath:

Photo by Martin Alargent on Pexels.com

The city, of course, rose from this disaster. But there is a thin line between celebrating and memorializing. One hundred and fifty years is a very long time, time enough, I suppose, for the fire to be viewed dispassionately, without alarm or pain or tears. But we are almost daily reminded that fires are ferocious and deadly, a realization that comes sweeping at us on television as Western portions of our country burn and burn and burn.

Yes, 150 years is a long time and we have grown so comfortable with — even proud of — our Great Fire legends that we don’t want them revised, even if such revision proves more historically accurate. The fire is among our most cherished, because it comes wrapped with enough historical substance to have withstood time’s test.

Perhaps turning attention to rebuilding was necessary to help stop agonizing over the tragedy. Perhaps this is an instance where American boosterism, promoting the growth and status of one’s community, ran and continues to run amok. Perhaps this is just the dominant narrative that we know now; of course the third largest city in the United States and an important global city came back from a fire.

The Chicago Fire was horrific:

The fire ran and it grew, swept by a strong wind from the southwest, eating its ravenous way north and toward downtown and beyond. People ran to the lake for shelter as the city became a vast ocean of flame. After that horrible night and the equally terrifying and destructive day and night that followed, the fire finally burned itself out. The city awoke Tuesday to find more than 18,000 buildings destroyed, much of the city leveled, 90,000 people homeless and 300-some people dead.

I am having a hard time thinking of a more recent urban tragedy that has followed a similar trajectory where despair turned to celebration of rebuilding and activity. Time might help but urban disasters or crises can strike quite a blow and the effects can linger a long time.

Slow housing construction in Chicago area, matching slow population growth

The release of data showing a small population increase in Chicago and the region also included data on housing construction in the Chicago region:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The number of homes in the Chicago metro area grew by 3.9% between 2010 and 2020, census data made public Thursday shows. That was a slower growth rate than the nation overall, where the number of homes grew by 6.7%.

The slow housing growth was not surprising, as the region recovered from the 2008 housing and financial crisis…

Among Cook and the collar counties, only Kendall County added homes at a higher rate than the nation: 11.6%. It added more homes than any county in the state, likely reflecting the county’s explosive growth in population over the past decade…

The Chicago area’s population growth could be good news for the housing market, inspiring investors and developers to take a deeper interest in the city, Smith said.

Presumably, builders and developers are going to be a bit hesitant to build a lot of units when the population is not growing as quickly. If new demand is limited, why build too many units and risk having lower selling prices? Add this corollary to the growth is good idea in American communities: higher rates of housing construction is a sign of a bright future and a higher status.

I do wonder what percent of homes or residential units need to be replaced each decade. Populations in metropolitan regions expand out – as noted above in Kendall County with double-digit growth – and occupy existing homes and units that may or may not meet their needs. Teardowns are one option, usually limited to wealthier communities where a new home in place of an older one can get a hefty price, but so are denser housing developments, in-fill development, or a change of use for properties (think vacant shopping malls or office parks converted to housing).

Additionally, does this small increase in homes also help address the need for affordable housing? At what price points are these new homes going for? I would guess that at least a sizable percentage of the new homes are out of reach of many in the region.

Chicago’s population grew in the 2010s!

Census 2020 data shows Chicago’s population increased in the last decade:

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

The decennial population count put Chicago’s total at 2,746,388 residents — a 1.9% increase over the 2010 census. The six-county region grew to 8,445,866 people — a 1.6% increase over a decade ago.

But perhaps the most stark statistic was Chicago’s plummeting Black population, which decreased by 84,738, a drop of nearly 10%. The number of Black Chicagoans now stands at 787,551 down from more than 1 million 20 years ago…

Chicago’s overall population gain is in striking contrast to the previous decade, when the city lost 200,000 residents, a 6.9% decrease. Just as eye-catching are the stagnant suburban numbers, as population growth in suburban Cook and the five collar counties stalled to what is easily the slowest rate since 1950, the data showed…

“Today’s census info shows Chicago’s resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges: privacy concerns, the Trump Admin’s fear-inducing policies targeting immigrants and a global pandemic,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “We’re digging into the data, but today we celebrate the growth of our incredible city.”

As Mayor Lightfoot notes, growth is good. Population growth implies thriving, more business, an attractive location. Chicago has faced a declining population since the start of the postwar era. From the second most populous city to third and now with Houston growing quickly…but for now Chicago’s status has improved.

The rest of the article includes interesting hints of other related population changes including a lower percentage increase in the Chicago suburbs, a shrinking Black population in Chicago, and a declining population in Illinois. There will be more to find out, discuss, and formulate plans in response to with more specific data.

Chicago as “the nation’s capital of deconversions” from condos to apartments

Henry Grabar suggests Chicago is ground zero for efforts to convert condos to apartments:

Photo by Timur Saglambilek on Pexels.com

Stories like this make Chicago the perfect place to understand how condos usually meet their end—not in a pile of rubble, but in a buyout that leaves some owners feeling lucky and others feeling betrayed. Lauren Kerchill, the owner of a Gold Coast unit overlooking Lake Michigan, was a holdout when investors came to buy out her building. After fighting to toss her condo board, she told Crain’s Chicago Business she was called “petty,” “greedy,” and “uneducated.” She just didn’t think she could find another home like hers nearby. In the end, she didn’t have a choice. Her neighbors voted to sell her building, at 1400 Lake Shore Drive, for $107 million in 2019—another record, this time the most expensive deconversion in the country…

But there’s another side to the story, in which deconversion is the only way out for condo owners stuck in deteriorating properties. In June, the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, drew attention to the challenges that confront condo boards as they assess structural damage and raise money for repairs. Maintenance bills for the Great American Condo Boom of the ’70s and ’80s are starting to come due in areas like South Florida…

While states like Florida, California, and Hawaii saw tons of new condo construction in the decades after the concept was established in the 1960s, Chicago saw a different kind of boom: older buildings becoming condos. Fearing rent control, facing declining profits, or saddled with obsolete prewar commercial space, landlords in Chicago raced to sell off their units in the 1970s. Yuppies and middle-class workers gobbled up these starter apartments, which provided an easy and cheap entry point to homeownership.

Fifty years later, those buildings are among the oldest condominiums in the country. Owners who have not kept on top of maintenance, and even some who have, sometimes find themselves facing massive repair bills.

It would be interesting to read more about the specific aspects of Chicago’s history, real estate market, and local regulations that play into the the number of condo deconversions in Chicago.

More broadly, this gets at two larger housing issues:

  1. How do deconversions fit with a larger American promotion of homeownership? Condos offer opportunities to offer homeownership opportunities in settings where the single-family home is less possible. But, given market conditions right now, is there now increased interest in having more rental units?
  2. While aging and the associated expenses is an issue for condo buildings, it is also an issue for many more housing units in the United States. What happens to older homes and residences when there is limited interest in repairing them or redeveloping the property? In wealthier communities and desirable locations, there are often developers and individuals interested in rehabbing or rebuilding structures. Hence, teardowns or new residences in suburban downtowns. Elsewhere, replacing or changing housing is a more arduous task.

Chicago truly has a grid

Looking at a map of Chicago or seeing it from above coming in and out of the local airports shows Chicago’s road network is a grid. A recent study examined just how much of a grid it is:

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Pexels.com

It is right to compare Chicago’s street network to something so obsessively exact. A recent academic study, “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy,” by Geoff Boeing, looked at the maps of 100 major world cities, and found that Chicago’s “exhibits the closest approximation of a single perfect grid.” Nowhere else have urban planners been so successful in imposing Euclidean order on natural surroundings. On a scale of 0 to 1, in which 1 is a perfect grid, Chicago scores 0.9. (The least-perfect grid is Charlotte, a Sunbelt city whose street system is more entropic than Rome or São Paulo.)

Why such a design?

The man hired to plat a town at the mouth of the Chicago River was James Thompson, a surveyor from Kaskaskia, and the father of the Chicago Grid. Illinois had already been divided into square townships and sections by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Since Thompson was subdividing a township section, he simply repeated that pattern in miniature when he designed Chicago’s first street map. It was less than half a square mile, bounded by Kinzie on the north, Washington on the south, Jefferson on the west and Dearborn on the east, but it was the template for a network that would eventually cover the 234 square miles of Chicago—and extend into suburbs beyond its borders…

Thompson’s grid was interrupted only by the river, and by established Native American trails which became diagonal streets: Elston, Clark, Milwaukee, Archer, Ogden. By 1869, the grid had become so integral to the city’s identity that the Tribune boasted, “There is no city where the opportunities for straight streets are so advantageous as in Chicago,” and demanded, “Give us straight, broad streets, running uninterruptedly from one extremity of the city to the other.”…

In our quest for orderliness, Chicago also has the advantage of being one of the flattest cities in the U.S., lying on a plain that was once the bottom of a proto-Great Lake. It would not be practical or possible to impose an uninterrupted grid on Pittsburgh or San Francisco, where streets wind sinuously around hills. As the study notes, “Boston features a grid in some neighborhoods like the Back Bay and South Boston, but they tend to not align with one another. Furthermore, the grids are not ubiquitous and Boston’s other streets wind in various directions, resulting from its age (old by American standards), terrain (relatively hilly), and historical annexation of various independent towns with their own pre-existing street networks.”

This sounds like a perfect storm of factors: a planner who applied methods from the Northwest Ordinance, a unique landscape that was flat and had only one waterway, and a quest for land development and profit with land that could be easily marked and developed.

Of course, this question of spatial order could be combined with consideration of how these different spatial orders are experienced. Do residents of Chicago and visitors have a better experience because of the grid or are cities, like Boston or San Francisco, with different spatial orders more interesting and vibrant? The grid has particular advantages for navigation but has less charm or uniqueness.

Chicago to test ADUs: coach houses, attic and basement apartments

With housing issues in the city and region, Chicago is testing out several ways property owners can convert parts of their property into residences:

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Coach houses – stand-alone housing structures sometimes built above garages and sometimes referred to as “granny flats” – were once prevalent in Chicago, but changes in zoning and parking requirements caused their construction to be banned in 1957. In December, the Chicago City Council re-legalized coach houses and apartment units in basements and attics, passing the Affordable Dwelling Units Ordinance. The ordinance took effect May 1, and the city is now accepting applications.

The five pilot areas cover much of the city, with zones in the north, northwest, west, south, and southeast areas of Chicago. After a three-year evaluation period in these pilot zones, the city will decide whether to make the ordinance citywide policy…

For properties planning to construct two or more additional dwelling units, every other unit must be affordable housing.

This opens up new opportunities both for property owners and those searching for housing. For landlords, they can gain more income, house family members, or create new space on their property that people could live in later. For those needing housing, these are likely smaller spaces that could provide dwellings in residential neighborhoods and possibly help keep such housing more affordable with more units available.

But, how many of these units will be created? Property owners might not like the idea of someone living so close to them. It takes money to create these units. The density of residential neighborhoods is important to many single-family home owners; they often want more space. Does this create more demand for parking and vehicles? Could this lead to tension on a block if some want to add units and neighbors are not as bullish on the prospects?

Furthermore, do these efforts continue to concentrate wealth and opportunities in the hands of particular land owners who can afford to create and rent units? Will this truly lead to more cheap housing or will certain neighborhoods have more of these units at higher prices?

Developers not willing to build a particular Chicago project because of affordable housing requirements?

Chicago, like many American cities, asks developers of particular projects to include a portion of the space for affordable housing. But, developers argue this may make an entire project not worth their while. Here is a recent example from proposed developments on Chicago’s North Side:

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

But those fees and the sites’ location within a pilot area where there are higher affordable-housing requirements – 20%, all on-site – have made some projects difficult to finance. The 700 W. Chicago project also has been made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, which leaves a record level of vacant office space in downtown Chicago…

Omni Group appears to have been able to overcome financing challenges in part because it negotiated a lower purchase price for the site – $38 million, down from an initial $50 million deal with Greyhound – in response to the affordable-unit requirements

The firm is also known for keeping apartment buildings it develops, rather than selling them after they’re built and filled with renters. The decades-long investment strategy may help offset the 500-plus affordable units, which typically lose money for developers because of high construction costs.

The affordable housing requirements are not the only factor at work here but they are a regular part of proposals in many locations. The goal is to have some of the benefits of a new development in a desirable urban location – a valuable asset – address the important issue of affordable housing. If developers have no or little interest in constructing affordable housing on its own, the construction of desirable projects can still help lead to affordable housing.

What would be very interesting to know is how exactly the money, including financing, costs, and profits, works out with the requirements for affordable housing. Can the developers here not make any money or does it reduce their profits below acceptable levels? It is one thing if money will be lost but another if the affordable housing requirements limit the profit. How much return do they expect on a large project like this? Is the goodwill of participating in providing affordable housing worth anything (status, money down the road, favorable approaches to future projects, etc.)? While this is likely firm-specific proprietary information, I imagine some money still could be made.