The origins of Chicago’s residents-only parking

An article on rethinking Chicago’s residential parking permits system reveals how it all started in the first place:

The first residents-only parking signs were put up in 1979 to protect North Side bungalow-belt homeowners who were tired of fighting Northeastern Illinois University students for spaces. Since then they’ve proliferated across the city, with 1,466 zones currently on the books. Aldermen often don’t want to say no to residents who ask for a parking zone, fearing the political backlash.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It is not surprising that such a program might spread. What was intended for one particular problem suddenly appeared appealing to all sorts of people and before you know it, permits were applied everywhere. This is a good example of the ease of creating such regulations – they spread really quickly – but the difficulty of putting the cat back into the bag when such regulations become normal and institutionalized.
  2. Chicago is often touted as a city of neighborhoods but what this means is that a lot of people are able to keep cars as the neighborhoods have plenty of lower density residences as well as single-family homes. The underlying issue here isn’t necessarily whether there are permits or not; rather, how do encourage people to have fewer cars? Is this even possible in a city that wants people to be able to own detached homes?

Comparing the architecture of Chicago and LA

If baseball teams from two cities square off, why not use it as an opportunity to compare the architecture of the two locations? “Chicago vs. Los Angeles: Which city has the better architecture, public art, and parks?” Here are the comparisons in the iconic skyscraper and landmark categories:

Willis Tower

During much of the twentieth century, Chicago was a merchant city and the biggest name in the business was Sears. In the late ‘60s, the company decided to build a new headquarters and tapped Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design what would become the tallest building in the world. Designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan, the building’s “bundled tube” design not only allowed it to reach new heights, but to also make a grand gesture in the Chicago skyline. With an official height of 1,450 feet (1,729 feet if you include its antennas), the tower held the world’s tallest title until 1998 when the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed.

US Bank Tower

The tallest building on the West Coast—until about six weeks ago, anyway—is strong and mighty—it was built to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. But that hasn’t mattered much to filmmakers. It’s such a standout building that director Roland Emmerich targeted it in no less than three of his blockbuster disaster films; Aliens destroyed it in Independence Day, Tornadoes swept through it in The Day After Tomorrow, and it was felled by an earthquake (presumably above 8.3) in 2012. Completed in 1989, it was designed by architect Henry N. Cobb, who outfitted the structure with its signature crown. This year, the tower unveiled a terrifying glass slide that suspends riders above the street 1,000 feet below. (Even the engineer admitted it’d be “scary as hell” to ride in an earthquake)…

Chicago Water Tower

The Chicago Water Tower in many ways is a reminder of Chicago’s ability to endure through difficult times. The 154-foot tall limestone structure is a physical connection to the city’s early days as it is one of the rare buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which wiped out most the city’s downtown. Today, it is surrounded by towering skyscrapers but remains a popular tourist destination and symbol of Chicago’s strength and determination.

Hollywood sign

Perhaps the most recognizable landmark this side of the Pyramids at Giza, the Hollywood Sign has come to stand in for so much—show business, fame, excess—but is locally a symbol of the city’s complicated relationship with growth and change. The sign originally read “Hollywoodland” and was merely an ostentatious billboard advertising a new subdivision during a 1920s development boom. Later, when it had become a recognizable local landmark, preservationists sought to restore and preserve the sign. And now, with tourists from around the world flocking to Beachwood Canyon to get a closer look at those giant letters, it’s apparently become the bane of local residents’ existence—some of whom have proposed dismantling the sign entirely.

If we are comparing the most iconic representatives of each categories, the cities may be closer than many realize. Chicago is widely recognized as a capital of architecture yet Los Angeles has a good number of interesting and well-known buildings and designs. Additionally, the “feeling” of each place – spatially, culturally – is quite different so it could be hard to make direct comparisons. Yet, I would guess that if we went with quantity as well as history, Chicago would be a more clear cut winner.

I would be interested to see how many architects worked in both cities. In other words, were they separate architectural worlds or was there a lot of back and forth? Given that the two cities are so different, I wonder how much overlap is possible and then how much either the cities or architects would want to broadcast such overlap.

Updating the last few years of (private sector) history of Chicago’s public housing

By now, a number of scholars have effectively explained the problematic history of Chicago’s public housing. But, as this new piece from Curbed Chicago suggests, the most recent years have involved a lot of change. Here are some interesting tidbits from this recent history-in-the-making:

Holsten’s answer is emphatically yes. He specializes in mixed-income and affordable housing, and has developed $500 million worth of it since 1975. But building a mixed-income building is one thing. Forming an actual community across racial and class lines is another. “Our job as developers is much more than financing buildings and property management,” he says. “It’s trying to build community. That’s the hardest part.”…

One sticking point is the issue of density. Chicagoans feel burned by their past experience with high-rises. And the city has a tradition of homeownership that’s different from other very large American cities. Chicago’s famed “bungalow belt” of brickworker cottages built in the early 20th century offered waves of immigrants affordable single-family homes, and preservationists have formed a nonprofit to protect them.So the CHA’s residents would prefer a house and a porch of their own, but that desire often runs counter to the need to accommodate the thousands who have been displaced…

Between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued about 14,000 fewer vouchers than HUD funded, building up a surplus of $432 million and earning a rebuke from HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (The CHA says its reserves have since been cut and will be spent down by the end of 2017.) A Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation found that four out of 10 voucher units have been cited for building code violations in the last five years.

I am skeptical that the private sector alone can solve these housing issues. The free market tends to lead to exclusion and profit-seeking. It doesn’t provide many solutions to correcting existing inequalities, which in the United States tend to connect race, social class, and housing. See an earlier post for a number of the bad outcomes that can result from a free market approach to housing.

On the other hand, the Chicago Housing Authority has done little good. And Americans from the beginning have been ambivalent about involving government in housing. There is little chance that the government will do much more to provide housing – even as the need for affordable housing is great in many cities – because it is a difficult issue in which to find much support.

Perhaps there is a third approach: the US government props up the mortgage industry! Probably not a good long-term solution but this is what we have and it is a system that privileges homeownership.

The Chicago of today influenced by 1920s zoning decisions

A new study suggests the beginning of zoning in Chicago had long-lasting effects:

Walsh and two other urban economists investigated zoning’s long-term effects in Chicago, using 1920s parcel-level data on land use and market values prior to, and immediately after, the adoption of the city’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1923. They compared these early quilts of land use to that of the present day (or, at least, to the most recent complete dataset available, which came from 2005).

Contrary to what many economists may believe, they first found that zoning did not merely ratify existing land uses. Lot by lot, they found significant variation between the activities that predated zoning and those that came after, especially as years went by. For example, some factories and shopping areas that didn’t conform to the 1923 code were allowed to stay in their respective locations, thanks to a “grandfather” clause. But over time, the vast majority of them disappeared. The powerful force of zoning can be seen on a citywide scale, too: Whereas 82 percent of Chicago’s developed blocks had some form of commerce happening in 1922, that share had dropped by about half by 2005, researchers found.

In other words, the way Chicago looks in the 21st century tracks much more closely with the desires of its planners in 1923 than it does with the city that preceded zoning. This fact has had a huge effect on economic patterns, too. For example, the researchers found that exclusive residential zoning had a significant impact on home prices, driving up values in neighborhoods cordoned off for single-family homes. On a citywide level, they used a regression analysis to find that the zoning code of 1923 had bigger role in shaping economic patterns—i.e., where commercial and industrial activity is going on today—than either pre-existing transportation networks or geography, two factors you might think would best explain why there’s a factory by the old railroad tracks, or a shopping district near downtown…

Although the present paper didn’t explicitly analyze how Chicago’s old zoning codes have influenced racial segregation, a companion paper published in Julyby the same researchers found that the laws drawn up in 1923 were discriminatory: Areas with more black residents were zoned for higher-density housing, and “neighborhoods with larger populations of blacks or recent immigrants were zoned disproportionately for manufacturing.” Chicago consistently ranks as among the most segregated cities in the U.S., and its present-day economic divisions track closely with race (as well as with municipally recognized community boundaries). It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that zoning laws (much like housing policy) dating back a century are in some ways responsible. That’s a theory that needs investigation, Walsh says.

Zoning decisions are political ones. The suggestion here is that if the decisions are good ones, they can have positive effects for decades. The converse – particularly when used to limit options for particular groups – is also true.

The last paragraph of the article hints at recent suggestions regarding significant changes to urban zoning. It would be interesting to see what average Americans think of such ideas: would they trade predictability for flexibility? Continue with the example of Chicago: would more flexible zoning allow for the construction of more affordable housing or would it mean that more land would be converted to non-residential uses, limiting housing options? New Urbanists have touted mixed-use zoning for a long time but their vision of this is often limited to particular kinds of businesses or offices as well as nicer housing (even if it includes different price ranges).

Redeveloping a few closed Chicago public schools into apartments

While many of the closed school buildings in Chicago are drawing little attention, a few are being redeveloped:

In a blog post on Medium, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (yes, the DPD apparently blogs now) offered a first look at one of these adaptive reuse projects. They offer some details on how the process works: developers express interest in a property, seek landmarking designation for tax credits and waivers, and then begin the renovation. A suburban developer, Svigos Asset Management, is currently working to renovate the Elizabeth Peabody Public School at 1444 W. Augusta Blvd. and the John Lothrop Motley Public School at 739 N. Ada St. — of which both have addresses the highly coveted West Town area. The group is also working on getting landmark status for the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville for an adaptive reuse project there.

The developer is renovating these schools and turning them into new residential developments. In their post, the DPD reveals photos of the former James Mulligan School being transformed into apartments. To be fair, the Mulligan School has been shuttered for much longer than the schools that were closed a few summers ago. However, the building is nearly ready to go and the DPD indicates that the building’s new owner is gearing up for pre-leasing.

Not too surprising that the ones that are more attractive to developers are ones that are in more desirable locations.

Given the response to the closing of these schools, I’m a little surprised progress has been so slow. Granted, there are other major concerns in Chicago but given the city’s debt and the need for resources in some neighborhoods, these buildings represent an opportunity. Apparently there are plans for some other buildings:

The shuttered schools that have not been sold off still belong to the city and its residents, and some neighborhoods are looking to take these buildings back as community centers, food pantries, or other uses that would serve the surrounding residents.

These could be worthwhile ideas. Is the city determined to hold on to many of these structures rather than find community partners who could do some good? All of this reminds me of some of the fate of the properties where public housing high-rises stood for decades: often located in poorer neighborhoods, this land can sit empty for years. In fact, while Detroit gets a lot of attention for empty lots, Chicago has plenty of open space in certain neighborhoods. Outside of a long-term project of a land bank, what could be done to positively utilize these lots?

Bringing tiny houses to Chicago’s young homeless

A new plan involves housing homeless teenagers in Chicago in small units:

11,447 – Homeless unaccompanied youth, ages 14 to 21, according to an estimate by CCH

374 – Youth shelter beds across Chicago, according to CCH

The tiny homes, the way they are being planned by the working group, would cost $55,000 to $65,000, excluding the cost of the land or any site work like landscaping. Tenants would have yearlong leases, and the group is hoping that a local nonprofit would play the role of the landlord. Tenants would pay the utilities.

Next to funding, the biggest obstacle tiny homes advocates face is zoning. Chicago zoning attorney and Chicago Tiny Home Summit panelist Danielle Cassel said she ran out of sticky notes when logging inconsistencies between tiny home models and zoning code requirements.

Multiple communities have had discussions regarding plans to house the homeless in tiny houses – see earlier posts here and here. But, it seems that their smaller size and lower cost are not automatically enough to overcome the issues that affordable housing generally faces. Namely, there are three concerns: (1) who will finance these units? (2) who is willing to live next to them? and (3) will enough units be constructed to make a sizable dent in the populations that need such housing? Take Chicago: while it isn’t as expensive as New York City or San Francisco, the cheaper land is in less desirable areas, zoning guidelines will have to be altered, and there is a tremendous need for cheap, durable housing.

A cynical take is that several units or colonies will be constructed in a few Chicago neighborhoods and then touted as solutions. However, much would have to change for tiny houses to be a sizable solution for homelessness and affordable housing.

The difficulty in returning to public housing

Once people left public housing high-rises in Chicago so that they could be demolished, it was difficult for them to return to new (and limited) public housing units:

Despite the promises that everyone could come back, the numbers don’t add up. The decrepit, infamous Cabrini-Green had 3,600 public housing units. When the rebuilding is complete in 2019, there will be around 2,830 units. Only 30 percent are for families in public housing. Got that? Fewer than 900 units.

The screening process is the next barrier. People are kept out of the new neighborhood if a family member has a single arrest record—even if no charges were pressed. Public housing residents have to submit to mandatory drug testing every year. They can have no record of rent and utility delinquency. They cannot take in friends and relatives. New rules in the neighborhood include no smoking, no barbecuing, no loud music, no washing cars on the street…

But coming back to Cabrini was a huge disruption to her family. Her 17-year-old daughter had a misdemeanor for fighting at school. Brewster had to send her daughter to live with relatives in order to keep her lease…

Another reason most people from Cabrini haven’t come back: finances. Moving is expensive and disruptive, and poor families can’t easily absorb these hits twice when they move away from bulldozers.

And is there any surprise that some residents at Cabrini-Green fought the demolition? The alternatives to even bad public housing high-rises are often not much better. As is also noted in this article and backed up by research, vouchers only go so far as well as many former public housing residents end up in other poor neighborhoods.

It does seem that once the HOPE VI program started in the 1990s, public housing has become less and less of a public issue. Public housing has never been popular in the United States – it took quite an effort to even start a federal program – and efforts in recent decades have moved to decentralize public housing units, limit who can access benefits, and reduce funding for programs. Yet, there is still significant need in the United States for reasonably-priced housing in decent neighborhoods (for example, see the waiting list in Chicago). I would suggest the free market hasn’t done too well in this area; many builders and developers will go for more money rather than supplying needed housing, many residents don’t want cheaper housing or certain kinds of residents nearby, and local regulations including zoning laws often make it difficult to pursue affordable housing or innovative solutions.