Why are 62 acres so close to Chicago’s Loop even available?

There has been a lot of talk about a new project on 62 acres on the Chicago River just south of the Loop. Before we get to what will go there, why was such a big piece of property empty near one of the major centers of the world?

The South Loop property was used as a rail yard, but has sat unused for decades.

The scraggly land was later owned by Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser for imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich who himself served a prison sentence after a fraud and money laundering conviction. The site was sold 10 years ago to Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding, a firm led by Iraqi-born and British-based businessman Nadhmi Auchi. He was convicted in a French corruption scandal in 2003.

Last May, Related completed a city-approved deal to take over as lead developer, with Auchi’s firm remaining a joint venture partner.

From the city’s perspective, Related’s involvement brought credibility to the long-idle site. Related Midwest is an affiliate of New York-based Related Cos., which is building 18 million square feet in the Hudson Yards mixed-used development in Manhattan.

One thing that is striking about Chicago and some other Rust Belt cities is the amount of available or empty property. In particular, Chicago’s South Side has a number of large parcels including this site along the Chicago River, land southwest of McCormick Place with some small developments here and there, land on the Robert Taylor Homes site with a few buildings here and there, and the former US Steel site (and subject to a number of proposals in recent years – see the latest here) plus numerous empty or vacant properties scattered throughout neighborhoods. Even while development booms in certain neighborhoods (and the city trumpets the work taking place in the Loop), others have significant chunks of empty land.

The why: these properties are often available in poorer or more industrial neighborhoods and the properties are often located in or close to areas with higher concentrations of black residents. In other words, these properties are not desirable, even at cheap prices (such as $1 properties in Chicago), and the desirability is connected to the status of the location and the status of places in the United States is closely related to race and class. This particular 62 acres is a great example of how uneven development works; those who want to build (leaders and developers/those in the real estate industry) usually do so in order to profit as much as possible. Now, this 62 acre site is more desirable (meaning profitable) because the South Loop has done well in recent years and there are other new developments nearby.

Call for Chicago to annex nearby suburbs

Amidst population loss and persistent social issues, could Chicago improve its situation by annexing suburbs?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago expanded aggressively, luring in the formerly independent entities of Lake View, Jefferson Park, Hyde Park and Pullman with the promise of city services such as sewers and electricity. But except for the addition of O’Hare, that movement ended in 1930. By the post-World War II era of suburbanization, Chicago was boxed in by established villages that marketed themselves as escapes from filthy, crowded city living.

By contrast, Houston has used annexation-friendly state laws to inflate itself to three times Chicago’s geographic size over the past 70 years.

“Houston and other Sun Belt cities are really different than Eastern cities, in that many of them have never been surrounded by municipalities,” says Kyle Shelton of Rice University‘s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Annexations were easier for them to pursue because they didn’t have anyone to fight.” As a result, seven of the nation’s 10 largest cities are in the Sun Belt. Toronto used a similar process to leap past Chicago in population, amalgamating with five neighboring suburbs. Miami, Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis have all merged with their surrounding counties…

But just because something makes sense financially doesn’t mean it’s easy to make happen. Politics and civic pride are two obstacles: In Illinois, annexation requires a referendum in both the annexing city and the targeted community. Village residents and trustees are reluctant to give up power and patronage. Consider the story of East Cleveland, a bankrupt Ohio suburb whose mayor was recalled after proposing annexation to Cleveland.

This may not make sense for those calling to contract cities (Detroit as one example) but annexation may make sense at a metropolitan level. David Rusk writes about this in Cities Without Suburbs: cities that are more “elastic” (have expanded through annexations since the early 1900s) have lower levels of inequality as cities have been able to capture many of the benefits of suburban life (wealthier residents, property tax monies, etc.). Cities that have been able to merge governments – whether through annexation or joining city and county governments (such as in Indianapolis) – have experienced benefits.

At the same time, this call for Chicago to annex suburbs doesn’t say much about how this would benefit the suburbs. Even as inner-ring suburbs have experienced many of the same problems facing big cities, would the residents and leaders want to join with the big city next door? I doubt it.

 

Putting a price tag on Chicago’s segregation

A new report from the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Urban Institute suggests Chicago pays a high price for segregation:

The seven-county area’s murder rate could be cut by 30 percent, its economy could churn out an additional $8 billion in goods and services and its African-American residents could earn another $3,000 a year if it could reduce racial and economic segregation to the median level for the nation’s largest metro areas.

And 83,000 more residents could have earned bachelor’s degrees, spurring another $90 billion in collective lifetime earnings…

While the seven-county region has seen a slow reduction in racial and economic segregation between 1990 and 2010, it remained fifth-worst among the nation’s 100 most populous metro areas in 2010, the most recent full census year, the study found. The region includes Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, Kendall, McHenry and Will counties.

While segregation might benefit some – typically those who already have power and resources – this study suggests it harms the whole. Viewing issues of race, class, and gender might come down to these different perspectives of society: is it a zero-sum game where someone must lose for others to get ahead or can the pie be made bigger for everyone to share from? Take, for example, a period of history that is often held up as a good one for the entire country. The decades following World War II involved economic growth for most Americans as well as social change (Civil Rights, addressing poverty in cities and rural areas, the Great Society, etc.). We can’t recreate that period – it was contingent on a variety of other factors including winning World War II (and decimated economies elsewhere in the world) and the pent-up demand for many things after both a major war and the biggest global depression – but we could aim for policies that would help many people at all.

CHA’s Plan for Transformation didn’t transform public housing much

A new report from WBEZ suggests the Chicago’s Plan for Transformation has not met its goals:

Now, more than 17 years and $3 billion later, only 7.81 percent of the 16,846 households under the Plan For Transformation live in mixed-income communities, according to data from the CHA obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act through a joint study by WBEZ and Northwestern University’s Medill Social Justice News Nexus.

The rest of the households?

  • 20.81 percent live on a Housing Choice or Section 8 voucher
  • 15.97 percent live in traditional public housing
  • 11.99 percent were evicted
  • 9.59 percent have died

The remaining 33.82 percent are living without a government subsidy.

The Plan For Transformation is the largest remake of public housing in the nation. It has simultaneously produced new communities and tracts of vacant land, gentrification and segregation throughout the city.

Arguably, the most “successful” part of the Plan for Transformation was limiting the visibility of public housing  by demolishing high-rise buildings. But, that did little to help the public housing residents or the neighborhoods in which the high-rises were located (Cabrini-Green is an exception because it was already located near wealthier and whiter residents). All that money and effort…could it have worked out better if it (1) wasn’t managed by the CHA (which has a poor record over decades of providing public housing) or (2) wasn’t located in Chicago (the one Rust Belt city that has supposedly made it but still has serious problems including residential segregation)? Efforts elsewhere have also been mixed – leading to the thought that perhaps the federal government can’t do much in this area. This doesn’t mean that the idea of public housing is worthless but maybe that issues of race, class, and residential segregation are really difficult to overcome.

While all other major cities grow, Chicago loses population

According to the latest Census figures, Chicago continues to be an outlier among the largest US cities:

Of the country’s 10 largest cities, the Chicago metropolitan statistical area was the only one to drop in population between 2015 and 2016. The region, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, includes the city and suburbs and extends into Wisconsin and Indiana.

The Chicago metropolitan area as a whole lost 19,570 residents in 2016, registering the greatest loss of any metropolitan area in the country. It’s the area’s second consecutive year of population loss: In 2015, the region saw its first decline since at least 1990, losing 11,324 people.

By most estimates, the Chicago area’s population will continue to decline in the coming years. Over the past year, the Tribune surveyed dozens of former residents who’ve packed up in recent years and they cited a variety of reasons: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and weather. Census data released Thursday suggests the root of the problem is in the city of Chicago and Cook County: The county in 2016 had the largest loss of any county nationwide, losing 21,324 residents…

While Chicago suffered the largest population loss of any metropolitan area, the greatest metropolitan population gains were in Texas and Arizona. The Dallas-Fort Worth- Arlington, Texas, metropolitan area gained more than 143,000 residents in 2016, and the Houston region gained about 125,000. The Phoenix area gained about 94,000 residents and the Atlanta region gained about 91,000 people.

The ascendance of the Sunbelt continues. While this demographic shift has been in the works for decades, at what point can we declare that America is a Sunbelt nation? Granted, there is still significant power in other parts of the country – for example, New York, Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania – but the swath of America from Virginia to southern California both covers a lot of residents and has an increasing amount of influence.

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?