How the discussion might go regarding 700+ empty acres in the middle of suburbia

A new large plot of land may soon be available in the middle of Lake County, Illinois. What should go there? Here is an early idea:

The family that owns the Chicago Blackhawks wants to turn more than 700 acres of farmland it owns near Mundelein into a housing, commercial and industrial development, village officials confirmed.

If the Wirtz family’s vision becomes reality, the land would be annexed into Mundelein and become the largest development by acreage in Lake County, Village Administrator Eric Guenther said.

“This is a big deal,” Guenther said. “(It) could prove to be a very extraordinary development for Mundelein, the Wirtz family and Lake County as a whole.”…

Guenther declined to detail the family’s specific plans for the land. They will be unveiled to the public at the village board’s Dec. 12 meeting.

Given what I have seen regarding suburban development, here are some of the steps to come and the common responses from involved actors:

  1. The landowners will bring a plan to the municipality that maximizes or at least includes a lot of profit through developing the land.
  2. The Village of Mundelein will receive the proposal and work on it through elected and appointed officials plus professional staff.
  3. There will be public hearings regarding the property and proposed plans.
  4. Community residents will chime in with a variety of concerns, including regarding traffic and noise. The local school district and other actors will wonder how new development will affect local services and amenities. The village will want to consider the tax base on how the tax revenues add up from such a property. Some actor(s) will propose keeping the property or part of it as green space.
  5. There will be some negotiations between the developers and the community. This could go relatively quick or slowly, depending on the changes asked for and the vision of the developers. They could happen behind the scenes or be more visible to the public.
  6. Roughly 1-2 years from now a plan will be in place and development can start.

Each of these steps could proceed differently with the potential for plans to move more quickly or more slowly. There is no guarantee that the proposed project will go forward.

However, given the size of this parcel, there will be a lot of interest from everyone about what happens with this land and how this might affect Mundelein – whether it is the community’s character, revenues, or land use – for decades to comes.

Casinos in the Chicago suburbs did little to improve downtowns

The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board suggests casinos that opened several decades ago in multiple suburban downtowns did not help revive the areas:

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Remarkably, Aurora was on board, with city officials calling the new plan “one of the most significant developments in the history of Aurora,” which is exactly what they said when the riverboats came to downtown and were compared by the then-mayor to the coming of the railroads. Penn Entertainment also announced a similar plan for the casino in downtown Joliet, which it also owns.

Better, it said, for the casinos to be near the expressway for easier access. But what about the promises made to downtown Aurora and Joliet?…

Illinois casinos, it seems, have become like NFL franchises, supremely skilled at lobbying and dangling the promise of revenue to cash-strapped cities but on their own ever-changing terms.

Was the Hollywood Casino good for downtown Aurora? It’s debatable. The charming riverwalk got finished and area landscaping improved. The Paramount Theatre came back to life, but on its own merits. And on a recent Sunday night, those new restaurants in downtown Aurora were either closed or mostly empty. The action, it felt, had shifted elsewhere.

Numerous suburban downtowns have struggled for decades as activity moved outward to new neighborhoods and communities plus shopping malls and strip malls. Thus, when an opportunity presents itself, like a casino, many communities would be interested. A new attraction or business or development could help attract visitors, residents, and firms while bringing in new revenues.

Except building thriving downtowns in the suburbs is complicated. The suburban communities highlighted in this editorial are unique industrial suburbs outside of Chicago. Firms and jobs left. Suburban sprawl continued. The riverfront is still there. Other suburban downtowns thrived like Naperville or Arlington Heights, both of which are different kinds of suburbs.

While this is a tale about specific developments, it sounds like a generic development pattern: developer and/or company comes in with grand plans, community agrees to help make it happen, the developed property enriches the property owners, and if another location emerges where more money can be made, the development might move.

As the casino moves from downtown Aurora, what plans does the large suburb have to grow its downtown? What is the new attraction or set of steps to keep the downtown going?

Naperville supports affordable housing for households making $100,000-$125,000

Naperville is close to final approval for a new development on its southwest side that would include some affordable housing:

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The Naperville City Council this week gave the go-ahead for a developer to pursue an annexation agreement that would absorb the Naperville Polo Club into the city and open the door for the land to be transformed into a residential subdivision.

Mayor Steve Chirico and council members expressed support for the plan that would bring 252 single-family homes and 149 townhouses to 110 acres off 119th Street just east of Route 59. But they requested project tweaks mostly focusing on traffic flow and congestion…

Pulte plans to build four different home styles at differing price points, including a percentage of affordable housing dedicated to households earning $100,000 to $125,000 a year.

This is a follow-up to a recent post where I wondered about this being labeled as affordable housing. I would like to hear more from elected officials and city employees about how they see this serving the affordable housing needs of Naperville and the surrounding rea. Who exactly do they hope moves into such affordable housing? Why not offer cheaper housing? What does Pulte think of constructing affordable housing? There is a lot more that could be explored here but I suspect the involved parties will be happy to claim they helped provide “affordable housing” in a wealthy suburb.

One front in zoning and development battles: school districts do not necessarily want more students

The words of a suburban school district superintendent regarding a possible Bears stadium and adjacent development highlight one of the current fronts in battles over development:

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Palatine Township Elementary District 15 Superintendent Laurie Heinz said that if the special taxing mechanism is implemented — where property taxes above a certain level would be diverted away from schools, as well as other taxing bodies, and into the Bears’ proposed mixed-use project — the district would need financial assistance to add classroom space to schools in nearby Rolling Meadows, or potentially even build a new school within the 326-acre site…

The Bears’ preliminary site plan suggests a significant residential component, from higher-density, multifamily properties of four to eight stories closer to the Metra train station, to lower-density townhouses and multifamily units of two to four stories further south and east through the site.

Heinz said the housing could generate hundreds or even thousands of students.

“We want a seat at the table,” Heinz said at a recent community meeting. “We’re going to fight against it all being TIF’ed because we will need money.

The superintendent is saying that the school district will need money to serve the influx of students that would come through new residential units. Other school districts, residents, or leaders have gone further when considering other suburban projects: they do not necessarily want school students to live in new residential units. Fewer school-age children would save money for school districts and communities in the long run due to not having to provide educational services.

In some ways, this is an odd stance for suburban leaders and residents to take. Much of the suburban sprawl in the United States involved providing spaces and success for children. Property values and a sense of community status are often tied to the performance of local school districts.

But, this focus on children comes with costs. Particularly for mature suburbs, they can struggle to fund schools or residents and leaders push back against the costs of schooling compared to other preferred priorities (such as taxes not going up).

For this particular project, who will adjust: the city not provide a TIF? The developer change the residential units in ways that appeal to certain kinds of residents and not others? The school district finding ways to fit this into particular confines? Stay tuned.

Can a successful suburb have a thriving downtown and a stadium-driven mixed-use district?

With the Chicago Bears considering building in Arlington Heights, one village trustee expressed concerns that a sizable project would compete with the suburb’s successful downtown:

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But, he said, “I’m going to tell you right now I’m not a fan of the site plan. And I hope this doesn’t blow up and ruin things for you in any way because I’m just one person sitting up here. But I have to be true to myself and true to my thoughts.”

Tinaglia, who founded his Tinaglia Architects firm in Arlington Heights in 1991, blasted the mixed-use transit-oriented development aspect of the Bears’ proposal, arguing the plans for restaurants, stores, offices, hotels, homes and more on 206 acres of the 326-acre property would detract from what is in downtown Arlington Heights.

“For a community that doesn’t have a downtown — that doesn’t have what Arlington Heights already has — that community would die to have this,” Tinaglia said. But he said he didn’t believe Arlington Heights’ current business owners could survive the competition from the kind of development being proposed.

Just how many entertainment centers can exist in the suburbs, let alone in one community?

Many suburbs would like to have a thriving downtown. Arlington Heights has one. It boosts the status of the community with its older buildings, current businesses bringing in residents and visitors, and possibly residents living downtown and also visiting local businesses and restaurants. Not all suburbs have downtowns; some never had them due to consisting of multiple suburban subdivisions joined together while others may have had a downtown that is now struggling or non-existent. The suburban downtown has had numerous challenges over the years – strip malls, shopping malls, driving and parking, big box stores, and more – so having a successful one is not something a suburb would lightly give up.

On the other hand, not every suburb has an opportunity to be home to a major sports stadium and all of the development around it. This is a new opportunity that could be worth a lot in terms of business activity and tax revenue, population growth, and status tied to being the home of an important football franchise.

It will be interesting to see if there is a compromise to be had here where both a downtown and a new mixed-use development coexist. Do they have to be in competition or can they serve different audiences?

Removing a mound and landmark to supply 1800s development

The landscape of the Chicago region has a limited range of elevation. One of the natural mounds and an early landmark disappeared at the hand of a local company for local building:

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Long ago, a mound jutted up from the flood plain flatlands surrounding the Des Plaines River in what is now a mostly industrial area on the southwest side of Joliet.

It was a significant feature and guidepost for travelers plying the Illinois waterway in the earliest days of recorded history, and a mainstay on maps for decades. Some speculated it was a creation of the mound building civilization that had populated these lands for centuries, best known for its world class city at Cahokia.

Subsequent digging didn’t turn up valuable artifacts, but instead revealed valuable gravel and sand deposited during the ice age, and a short-lived company made quick work of Mount Joliet, dispersing its innards for use in roadways and other projects as the modern development of the region began in earnest in the second half of the 1800s…

Another feature used by centuries of travelers in the area has survived to the present day. In fact, besides giving river navigators a guide point, Mount Joliet may have been one of the landmarks as well along the Great Sauk Trail, an ancient roadway connecting the Mississippi River to what is now the Detroit area.

According to another source:

The mound was destroyed when it’s clay contents were mined to make sewer tiles by the Drain Tile Manufactory of the Joliet Mound Company in the 19th century.

White European settlers to northeast Illinois altered the landscape when they moved into the region in the 1830s. They altered waterways, cleared trees and forests, drained swamps, dug up prairie, made plowable farmland, laid railroad lines, and created plats for sale and development. It does not sound like this mound was in the way of anything; rather, it offered raw material for objects helpful to new development.

I am grateful for maps and other efforts that show what metropolitan regions looked like before white European settlers and then prior to all of the urbanization and suburbanization of the 1800s onward. For example, I have seen multiple versions of this for Manhattan and New York City, discussing and showing streams, hills, and habitats that are hard to imagine in such a large city. Likewise, maps and narratives of the Chicago region highlight a verdant area at the southwest edge of Lake Michigan – that just happened to be an easy portage point to connect the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Today, it is hard to imagine significant hills or mounds in a region where the flat grid predominates.

Is this the path to “small-town democracy still works as intended”?

The village board of suburban Round Lake recently voted against a proposal to annex property and create a year-round ski hill. One representative of local opponents described the outcome this way:

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“It is heartening that small-town democracy still works as intended,” Ashman added.

What happened in this process of “small-town democracy?

Opponents who had coalesced into a large, multifaceted grass-roots force were uncertain of the outcome until Trustee Mark Amann, who was appointed earlier in the meeting to fill a vacancy, ended the speculation…

The opposition group started with about a dozen residents a few months ago but grew with a united goal and different areas of expertise.

A Facebook group ballooned to 779 members, 120 yard signs were posted, hundreds of fliers were passed out in town and a website was created. Nearly 2,000 signatures in opposition were gathered on an online petition, and a blog chronicled the issue…

“I had to go with my conscience and my gut,” he said after the meeting. “The bottom line was he (applicant Dan Powell) didn’t have any skin in the game. We were at more risk than he was.”

This exemplifies why suburban Americans like local control and local government. In a smaller community (Round Lake has over 18,000 residents), the closer connection residents have to the local board or council. If residents do not like something, it is easier for them to make their voice heard. Here, residents took advantage of social media and websites plus utilized yard signs and fliers. Those opposed felt this was not in the best interest of their community. If elected officials do not do what residents want, it can be easier to remove them at the next election.

Whether such a process leads to the “right” outcomes is another question all together. Such a process also makes it easy for communities to resist affordable housing, development or changes that might be good for an entire region, or protect a particular character or set of resources.

Sports teams want the state-of-the-art stadium – and all of the nearby mixed-use development – to profit

The conceptual plans released earlier this week from the Chicago Bears about what they might construct in Arlington Heights follows a recent trend: sports teams are interested in stadiums and all the other development around those facilities.

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The plans revealed Tuesday by the Bears call for a multipurpose entertainment district anchored by a stadium that could host the Super Bowl, college football playoffs and college basketball Final Four, with an adjoining commercial/retail and housing district. While cautioning that the long-term vision for the entire property is a work in progress, the team said the site could include restaurants, offices, a hotel, fitness center, parks and open spaces.

The team’s open letter provided a series of economic projections, saying the large-scale redevelopment would provide “considerable” economic benefits to Cook County, the region and state.

For instance, construction would create more than 48,000 jobs, result in $9.4 billion in economic impact in the region, and provide $3.9 billion in labor income to workers, the team said.

The development would generate $16 million in annual tax revenue for the village, $9.8 million for the county and $51.3 million for the state, according to the Bears.

Yes, a stadium is necessary for football but teams now want to develop more land and generate additional revenues adjacent to the sports playing surface. If they help generate such development and/or retain an ownership stake in the surrounding development, this can both bring in significant annual revenue and further boost the value of their franchise.

This also follows on-trend development ideas where a mixed-use property helps ensure a regular flow of activity. Instead of separating land uses in different places, putting them all together can create synergy and additional revenues.

Another way to think about it is that a lot of sports teams are in the land development business. How exactly this fits with a goal of fielding a winning team might get complicated.

Teardown McMansions in Tampa

A large number of teardown McMansions have been constructed in recent years in Tampa:

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Nearly 5,000 residential demolition permits have been issued in Tampa in the last decade — including 709 in 2021. That’s the most in any single year since at least 2005, according to city data.

“Having all of these homes torn down is a wrinkle we haven’t had before,” says Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell, “and the pace is really incredible.”

A blogger has tried to keep up with“The McMansioning of South Tampa.” About 2,700 razed dwellings are pictured. Some of the lost homes are majestic and sad. Many, though, were tired and untended. The sheer volume is beyond what a single blogger could chronicle. Ten of the 14 homes knocked down this century on Jerry’s block aren’t depicted on the site’s map. Even so, the layers upon layers of red pins are striking…

Not everyone is happy. Search the local Nextdoor site for the term “McMansions” and you’ll encounter one of the more passionate running discussions in the city. When a one-story home came on the market at the start of the pandemic, neighbors implored the owner to seek a buyer who would maintain it. “I beg you not to sell it to a builder that will level it and build a ridiculously oversized McMansion that ruins the charm of our neighborhood,” wrote Lisa Donaldson. “Please.”…

Others counter that the older homes are no longer functional and that the newer onesraise the value of those around them. “The curmudgeons will always complain … until they are ready to cash out,” posted Marc Edelman. “Tampa is progressing for the better.”

A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. If just looking at economic factors, teardowns tend to occur in desirable neighborhoods where the new homes can fetch a significant profit compared to the previous dwelling.
  2. Socially, teardowns are more difficult to navigate given the competing interests of property owners who want to make money, builders and developers looking for opportunities, neighbors who might be opposed to a changing neighborhood, those interested in local history and preservation who might prefer to keep older dwellings, and local leaders who may or may not support teardowns.
  3. Sunbelt cities and communities have experienced much growth in recent decades. People are used to change and growing populations. But, this is a different kind of change where existing homes are replaced rather than new subdivisions spreading across available land. There is now an established landscape that could look quite different in coming decades.
  4. Sunbelt communities are generally pro-growth. Does this change at some point given population sizes and composition, the availability of resources, and several decades of established history?

Amazon was opening a warehouse every 24 hours…but not now

Amazon was building warehouses at a rapid pace during COVID-19:

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When homebound shoppers stampeded online during the pandemic, Amazon responded by doubling the size of its logistics network over a two-year period, a rapid buildout that exceeded that of rivals and partners like Walmart Inc., United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. For a time, Amazon was opening a new warehouse somewhere in the U.S. roughly every 24 hours. Jassy told Bloomberg in June that the company had decided in early 2021 to build toward the high end of its forecasts for shopper demand, erring on the side of having too much warehouse space rather than too little. 

But, now the opposite is happening:

MWPVL International Inc., which tracks Amazon’s real-estate footprint, estimates the company has either shuttered or killed plans to open 42 facilities totaling almost 25 million square feet of usable space. The company has delayed opening an additional 21 locations, totaling nearly 28 million square feet, according to MWPVL. The e-commerce giant also has canceled a handful of European projects, mostly in Spain, the firm said.

The scale of this is worth marking: a new warehouse every day.

Companies act in such ways given economic conditions. Yet, these are not just business decisions; they affect communities. As Amazon rapidly expanded, many communities sought out such a facility and/or offered tax breaks and incentives. This happened in the Chicago region. If Amazon contracts, this affects local decisions and revenues.

As conditions change, will communities operate differently toward Amazon or will they reassess their approach to attracting businesses, jobs, and revenues? Many communities would still probably prefer to have an Amazon facility in the long run but they may be harder to entice or the competition might be stiffer. Or, if Amazon facilities come and go, they might be inclined to look toward other firms or industries.