Chicago leads big cities in increasing downtown populations between 2000 and 2010

The residential population in the downtown of a number of American big cities grew between 2000 and 2010 and Chicago led the way:

The report found that the number of people living within two miles of Chicago’s City Hall rose 36 percent from 2000 to 2010. Though many of the largest U.S. cities experienced a similar trend in the last decade, Chicago outpaced them all in that category.

More than 48,000 moved to downtown Chicago in the last decade, according to the report. New York City saw a 9.3 percent increase in its downtown population, or about 37,000 people…

Rob Paral, a Chicago demographer, says the city’s downtown population growth reflects several underlying economic factors, including downtown revitalization and an expanding job market.

But though places like the South Loop and West Loop have benefited from the trend, Paral says, its effects quickly fade the farther out you go.

“There’s a big difference between what you see in downtown and what you see in other parts of the city,” he said. “We wish it would be happening within 20 miles of City Hall, but no city has that kind of prosperity.”

In other words: one of the wealthy areas of the city continues to grow while less well-off areas struggle to tackle social problems while facing declining population. I assume this report will be spun by Mayor Emanuel and others to suggest that Chicago is resurgent even in tough economic times. However, a city is not just its downtown.

Naperville planning and zoning commission approves “game-changing” Water Street development

Naperville is moving forward with plans for an important downtown development on Water Street:

Commissioners voted 5-2 early Thursday morning to recommend approval of Marquette Companies’ MP Water Street District LLC project, which calls for a 130-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites, a 551-space parking garage, 63 rental apartments and 16,000 square feet of separate office space. The proposal next goes to the city council…

Several residents, however, pleaded for the commission to deny the plan, saying seven-story buildings don’t fit the character of downtown and will add to traffic and parking problems…

“It’s almost like taking a big white elephant and putting it next to our little, historical village commercial center. It doesn’t compute,” O’Hale said. “It’s not in the spirit of our village. It’s a big, white, monolithic, monstrous elephant and it flies in the face of everything we value in our city.”…

But supporters argued a hotel is the only thing missing from downtown and could pump life and dollars back into the central business district.

In the end, a majority of commissioners said the time has come to change the face of downtown.

It is hard to tell at the time but this development has the makings of something big for downtown Naperville. Because it includes moving the downtown south across the DuPage River in a major way plus adding a hotel to the downtown and another parking garage, this suggests Naperville is serious about continuing to expand the downtown as well as make it more dense. It sounds like some spectators also think this is an important moment. The comments by O’Hale are intriguing; I wouldn’t classify Naperville’s downtown as a “little, historical village commercial center.” The downtown has several parking garages, parking and congestion issues, and a number of restaurants and stores. That horse was out of the barn a few decades ago. Yet, the spirit of the downtown could indeed change in the years ahead as Naperville figures out how it wants to mature.

It will be interesting to see how the discussion with the City Council goes.

Questions about a study of the top Chicago commuter suburbs

The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul just released a new study that identifies the “top [20] transit suburbs of metropolitan Chicago.” Here is the top 10, starting with the top one: LaGrange, Wilmette, Arlington Heights, Glenview, Elmhurst, Wheaton, Downers Grove, Naperville, Des Plaines, and Mount Prospect. Here is the criteria used to identify these suburbs:

The DePaul University team considered 45 measurable factors to rank the best transit suburbs based on their:

1. Station buildings and platforms;

2. Station grounds and parking;

3. Walkable downtown amenities adjacent to the station; and

4. Degree of community connectivity to public transportation, as measured by the use of commuter rail services.

A couple of things strike me as interesting:

1. These tend to be wealthier suburbs but not the wealthiest. On one hand, this seems strange as living in a nicer place doesn’t necessarily translate into nicer mass transit facilities (particularly if more people can afford to drive). On the other hand, having a thriving, walkable downtown nearby is probably linked to having the money to make that happen.

2. There are several other important factors that influence which suburbs made the list:

Communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the region tended to outperform those in the southern parts, with much of the differences due to their published Walk Scores. Similarly, communities on the outer periphery of the region tend to have lower scores due to the tendency for the density of development to decline as one moves farther from downtown Chicago. As a result, both Walk Scores and connectivity to transit tended to be lower in far-out suburbs than closer-in ones.

It might be more interesting here to pick out suburbs that buck these trends and have truly put a premium on attractive transportation options. For example, can a suburb 35 miles out of Chicago put together a mass transit facilities that truly draw new residents or does the distance simply matter too much?

3. I’m not sure why they didn’t include “city suburbs.” Here is the explanation from the full report (p.11 of the PDF):

All suburbs with stations on metropolitan Chicago’s commuter-rail system, whether they are located in Illinois or Indiana, are considered for analysis except those classified as city suburbs, such as Evanston, Forest Park, and Oak Park, which have CTA rapid transit service to their downtown districts. Gary, Hammond, and Whiting, Indiana, also are generally considered cities or city suburbs rather than conventional suburbs, because all of these communities have distinct urban qualities. To assure meaningful and fair comparisons, these communities were not included in the study.

Hammond is not a “conventional suburb”? CTA service isn’t a plus over Metra commuter rail service?

4. The included suburbs had to meet three criteria (p.11 of the PDF):

1) commuter-rail service available seven days a week, with at least 14 inbound departures on weekdays, including some express trains;
2) at least 150 people who walk or bike to the train daily; and
3) a Walk Score of at least 65 on a 100-point scale at its primary downtown station (putting it near the middle of the category, described as “somewhat walkable”).

This is fairly strict criteria so not that many Chicago suburbs qualified for the study (p.11 of the PDF):

Twenty-five communities, all on the Metra system, met these three criteria (Figure 2). All were adjacent to downtown districts that support a transit-oriented lifestyle and tend to have a transit culture that many find appealing. Numerous communities, such as Buffalo Grove, Lockport, and Orland Park, were not eligible because they do not currently meet the first criteria, relating to train frequency. Some smaller suburbs, such as Flossmoor, Kenilworth and Glencoe, while heavily oriented toward transit, lack diversified downtown amenities and the services of larger stations, and therefore did not have published Walk Scores above the minimum threshold of 65.

I can imagine what might happen: all suburbs in the top 20 are going to proclaim that they are a top 20 commuter suburb! But it was only out 25…

5. There are some other intriguing methodological bits here. Stations earned points for having coffee available or displaying railroad heritage. Parking lot lighting was measured this way (p.24 of the PDF):

The illumination of the parking lot was evaluated using a standard light meter. Readings were collected during the late-evening hours between June 23 and July 5, 2012 at three locations in the main parking lots:
1) locations directly under light poles (which tend to be the best illuminated parts of the lots);
2) locations midway between the light poles (which tend to be among the most poorly illuminated parts of the lot); and
3) tangential locations, 20 and 25 feet perpendicular to the alignment of light poles and directly adjacent to the poles (in some cases, these areas having lighting provided from lamps on adjacent streets).

At least three readings were collected for category 1 and at least two readings were collected for categories two and three.

There is no widely accepted standard on parking lot lighting that balances aesthetics and security. Research suggests, however, that lighting of 35 or more lumens is preferable, but at a minimum, 10 lumens is necessary for proper pedestrian activity and safety. Scores of parking lot illuminate were based on a relative scale, as noted below. In effect, the scales grades on a “curve”, resulting in a relatively equal distribution of high and low scores for each category. In several instances, Category 3 readings were not possible due to the configuration of the parking lot. In these instances, final scores were determined by averaging the Category 1 and 2 scores.

I don’t see any evidence that commuters themselves were asked about the amenities though there was some direct observation. Why not also get information directly from those who consistently use the facilities?

Overall, I’m not sure how useful this study really is. I can see how it might be utilized by some interested parties including people in real estate and planners but I don’t know that it really captures enough of the full commuting experience available to suburbanites in the Chicago suburbs.

Wheaton to get new downtown overpass – for pedestrians

The City of Wheaton has long looked into the possibility of an overpass in or near the downtown so that traffic could avoid the frequent trains on the Union Pacific (formerly Chicago & Northwestern) tracks. It looks like Wheaton is going to pursue an overpass in the next year, but only for pedestrians:

In 2010, Metra officials had announced plans for the proposed pedestrian overpass, as part of more than $3 million worth of improvements that Metra and the Union Pacific Railroad had drawn up for the Wheaton depot. The work also was to include moving the Wheaton station’s platforms entirely west of West Street.The project had been set to be completed in 2011 but hit a snag, Metra officials said, after complications related to gaining a needed easement from a private landowner on the south side of the tracks. Without that easement, the work could not proceed, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis…

The pedestrian overpass would be the first of its kind at Wheaton’s Metra station. The College Avenue station, a mile or so east, has a pedestrian tunnel, but Wheaton Metra commuters have no easily available bypass to get from one side of the tracks to the other.

Gillis said the pedestrian overpass would be constructed between 530 and 550 feet west of the West Street rail crossing.

It appears this was first announced in the Metra “On the Bi-Level” newsletter for the UP West line March 2009. I’ll be curious to see how this overpass looks and how it fits in with the surrounding area.

This will be helpful at the downtown commuter train station. However, it doesn’t help with a vehicular traffic and congestion issue in Wheaton: getting over the railroad tracks when going north-south. The bridge on Manchester Road is helpful but it requires going out of the way and it not right along the Gary Avenue/Main Street/Naperville Road corridor.

My take on why such a vehicular overpass has not been built is that it would change the historic downtown too much. Proposals made in the past would have required severely altering the Main Street/Front Street intersection, home to some of downtown Wheaton’s oldest buildings. Better options may have included extending Naperville Road across the tracks but this runs into the Courthouse area, the library, and a residential neighborhood and the Gary Avenue corridor is more residential. In the end, Wheaton may just have to live with trains stopping traffic: those same trains gave the community a reason for existing as Wheaton was initially founded around the then Galena & Chicago Union railroad tracks in the 1850s.

Naperville moving forward with proposal for influential mixed-use Water Street development

An important new development proposal in Naperville is back up for discussion:

Plans to develop the Water Street area of Naperville’s downtown are being revived after five years and now include a 130-room hotel.

However, the latest proposal will have to overcome concerns from city officials and residents about issues of height, density and traffic congestion.

Marquette Companies, under the name MP Water Street District LLC, presented its revised plan to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission this week. The 2.4-acre site is bounded by Aurora Avenue on the south, the DuPage River on the north, Main Street on the east and Webster Street on the west…

The current proposal calls for a 130-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites; 61 to 65 apartments; retail, restaurant and office spaces; and a 550-space parking garage. There also would be a plaza and connection to the Riverwalk.

The tallest portion of the development would be the hotel, which has a tower that reaches just above 90 feet…

Bob Fischer, vice president of the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation, said the plans will “canyonize Water Street.”

“Allowing this kind of height and density along the Riverwalk will forever diminish it as the crown jewel of our downtown,” he said.

I think there are two big points about this that are not mentioned in the article:

1. One important feature of this mixed-use development is that it is south of the DuPage River. In other words, this development would firmly move the downtown across the river. This is no small matter: while there is development on the south side, it is primarily smaller and single-family home. Naperville’s downtown is popular (see the parking issues) but it is not clear that a majority of Naperville residents want the downtown to expand into more residential areas.

2. This development speaks to a broader issue: is Naperville ready for denser development? While the community added about 100,000 people between 1980 and 2008 as it expanded primarily to the south and west, there is really no open land left in the community. Thus, to grow, the city must approve denser development. The downtown is the logical place to start: it is near a train station, it has a number of restaurants and stores, and seems to be quite popular. Yet, projects like this could push Naperville into a new era of mixed-use and denser development as opposed to the primarily single-family home development that characterized the post-war era.

I’ll be tracking what happens with this proposal as both of the issues I cited above are likely to generate a lot of public discussion and comment. This could be a turning point in Naperville’s history: should the downtown expand in a big way and should the city pursue denser development in desirable locations?

UPDATE: I wouldn’t be surprised if the project is approved but the height is limited to something like fifty or sixty feet (five or six stories). Ninety feet would be quite high for downtown Naperville though approving that height could indicate some willingness to to pursue taller projects in the future.

Encouraging sprawl or downtown growth

A recent Canadian conference brought together scholars and practitioners interested in strengthening downtowns. Several of the participants made comments regarding the relationship between a city downtown and the suburbs:

By themselves, speakers warned, studios, galleries and quaint little bistros won’t solve the problems of troubled downtowns. Real solutions will have to overcome public policies that favour urban sprawl and punish core businesses with excessive parking requirements.

Consultant Pamela Blais pointed an accusing finger at municipal development charges that she argues favour suburban “McMansions” over turning downtown buildings into condos.

As one example, she pointed to one Ontario municipality that collects lot levies of $31,000 per parcel regardless of size — that means a house with a 30-foot frontage actually pays more toward the cost of water and sewer mains and parks than a bigger property.

Michael Manville, of Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, argued minimum parking requirements in city centres actually harm development by driving buildings farther apart.

“Most parking policies turn downtown into a sorry imitation of a mall,” he said. “We have to stop this quiet process of turning downtowns into suburbs one parking lot at a time.”

He argued for maximum parking requirements, rather than minimums, a policy he said will make downtown living attractive to people whose lives aren’t centred on their cars.

There are a lot of moving pieces here including big cultural forces favoring suburbs over denser environments (though perhaps not with younger generations). For planners in individual communities, it can be difficult to counter all of this at once.

At the same time, this is not a new issue. Urban (and suburban) downtowns really started to face these issues in the 1950s with the advent of the strip mall and shopping mall. Some of these same issues are reflected in the comments above: what to do about parking? How can a downtown compete against a mall where there are a number of interesting stores within a climate-controlled space? Other communities may not be completely on-board with promoting condos over single-family homes, particularly when condos can be tied to higher densities and bigger buildings which might clash with a community’s character.

One thing I have wondered before: is it always worthwhile for a community to try to revive a downtown? On one hand, a core is a valuable asset as it represents an opportunity to bring people together and to share a common history. Some newer communities have no real core or public space. On the other hand, downtowns can require a lot of revitalization and it can require fighting an uphill battle in some communities to put the kind of money and attention needed to get a downtown up and running again. It is one thing to present people with a thriving downtown that is attractive and exciting (see: downtown Naperville, which can lead to its own issues) but another to ask a lot of people to undergo a 5 to 20 year project to really transform a downtown. Frankly, some people don’t care about having a downtown and see it as a relic of the past – why not just build the newer versions of downtowns: lifestyle centers?

Here seems to be the primary strategies for downtown revitalization these days:

1. Promote mixed-use development, preferably buildings with retail on the first floor and then condos or offices above. This ensures social spaces and residents to use them.

2. Take advantage of transportation advantages such as mass transit. If you can increase density around important rail or subway lines, you can attract more people.

3. Generally aim to attract two sets of residents: younger professionals and creative types (a la the creative class). These groups like the idea of denser, exciting areas and are more willing to try things out. If you need a third group, aim for downshifters and young retirees who are also looking for a new scene.

Naperville downtown like “Rush street west”?

In response to the stabbing death that happened in downtown Naperville this past weekend, one city councilman suggests the city needs to enforce liquor regulations more closely:

Councilman Doug Krause pointed out that the city has only shut down one bar for one day in the past five years due to a liquor license infraction, and that an ordinance passed last month will allow bars to stop serving food at 9 p.m.

“It’s becoming more of a Rush Street after 10 o’clock at night — it’s like Rush Street west,” Krause said Sunday night. “It’s been increasing over the last eight to 10 years. There are mobs out there.”…

“We had over 6,000 calls for police service in downtown Naperville last year. The problem is an enforcement problem,” Krause said referring to liquor law enforcement.

Councilman Grant Wehrli disagreed with Krause, calling his response a “knee jerk reaction to an event that is still under investigation.”

This sort of reaction is something I was expecting even though Naperville is a relatively safe place.

At the same time, this does lead to a larger issue that I hinted at on Sunday: how Naperville wants to balance being a cultural and entertainment center while also remaining family-friendly. On one side, having a lot of bars in a suburban downtown is not usually considered family-friendly. Particularly on warm summer nights, there are a lot of people who congregate in downtown Naperville late into the evening, including many teenagers and families, to partake of music, shopping, the Riverwalk, and family restaurants and eateries. This sort of violence is not clearly not helpful to maintaining this environment but even public drunkenness is not terribly conducive to this.

On the other hand, having a thriving restaurant and bar district can bring in a lot of tax revenue. Instead of residents going elsewhere (perhaps downtown Chicago even?), they spend their money out in downtown Naperville. Lots of suburban communities would love to have the problem that Naperville has had of not having enough parking spaces for all of the downtown visitors or having the kind of restaurants that exist in most suburbs only in shopping centers. The restaurants and bars help attract other businesses.

So how does a well-respected suburb balance these two interests? One of the worst things that could happen to the downtown is that it is branded “unsafe” and people turn away. At the same time, when there are plenty of people around and there is alcohol involved, it is really hard to stop everything bad from happening.

Seeing traffic and congestion as a sign of success

While some might generally consider traffic and congestion to be negative (see examples here and here), here is an alternative argument: traffic and congestion are one sign of urban success.

Congestion, in the urban context, is often a symptom of success.

If people enjoy crowded places, it seems a bit strange that federal and state governments continue to wage a war against traffic congestion. Despite many hundreds of billions dollars spent increasing road capacity, they’ve not yet won; thank God. After all, when the congestion warriors have won, the results aren’t often pretty. Detroit, for example, has lots of expressways and widened streets and suffers from very little congestion. Yet no one would hold up Detroit as a model.

After all, congestion is a bit like cholesterol – if you don’t have any, you die. And like cholesterol, there’s a good kind and a bad kind. Congestion measurements should be divided between through-traffic and traffic that includes local origins or destinations, the latter being the “good kind.” Travelers who bring commerce to a city add more value than someone just driving through, and any thorough assessment of congestion needs to be balanced with other factors such as retail sales, real estate value and pedestrian volume…

This doesn’t mean that cities should strive for congestion, but they should recognize that traffic is often a sign of dynamism. Moving vehicular traffic is obviously a necessary function, but by making it the only goal, cities lose out on the economic potential created by the crowds of people that bring life to a city.

Let me translate this argument into the suburban context in which I have studied. Most suburban communities would love to have thriving businesses within municipal limits. This brings in tax dollars, jobs, and a better image (a good place to do business, a vibrant place, etc.). But, for this to happen, this is going to require more people driving through and into the community. A typical NIMBY response to new development, particularly commercial property, is that it will increase traffic which threatens safety. There may be some truth to this but it is also about an image and whether the location is a residential space or something else. Additionally, many suburbanites assume traffic and congestion are city problems, not suburban problems, and therefore are unhappy when their mobility is more limited. A classic local example is Naperville: I’m not sure too many people in Naperville really desire having large parking garages in the downtown. At the same time, it is good that so many people want to come downtown and spend money. Ultimately, there are ways to limit this auto dependence and congestion in downtowns but you still need to plan for and accommodate the large number of cars.

All this suggests that there may be some contingencies regarding congestion:

1. There is a somewhere between not enough traffic and too much. These standards could be very different in different places. In quieter and smaller communities, I suspect the threshold is much lower. The character of a neighborhood or community is going to impact this decision. Perhaps there are even formulas that can predict this.

2. This is location dependent. Looking at congestion in a downtown area is very different than looking at traffic on collector roads or nearby interstates. Problems arise when transportation needs cross these location boundaries, say, when roads in a downtown are used to get to the other side of the community rather than to visit the vibrant downtown. The solutions for each location may be very different, and one size fits all policies may not be very effective.

Overall, it is unlikely that single suburbs or even small groups of suburbs can eliminate congestion and traffic on their own. It is not about getting rid of cars but rather successfully adapting spaces so that the cars are not overwhelming. We can think about ways to reduce congestion or ameliorate its occurrence in particular contexts, even recognizing that it may be a good sign.

Wheaton’s Ale Fest: a conservative image and helping the downtown

Wheaton has been a politically and religiously conservative community from its early day. Therefore, Ale Fest, a festival that might be considered normal for other suburban communities, still draws attention:

And while an ale fest might not be news in other communities, it raises eyebrows in Wheaton, which has a large evangelical Christian population and prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages from 1887 until 1985.

Wheaton Ale Fest, which will take place on Front Street from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, will feature more than 100 styles of beers from craft brewers around the nation. The event, which is being hosted by the Wheaton Park District in conjunction with the Downtown Wheaton Association and the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce to bring more visitors to downtown Wheaton’s shops and restaurants, also will allow visitors to vote for their favorite Illinois craft beer…

Looking back, Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk called the gradual loosening of alcohol restrictions – and the community’s acceptance of them – “typical of Wheaton,” which was not a community that wanted “to go into this too fast.”

“If you look at our history, this is quite a stunning change from what we did 30 years ago, but there are residents who have moved here since 1985 for whom the whole idea of the city’s past prohibition would be news,” Gresk said. “As a city, we’ve had a very gradual and measured response, and the city has eased itself and its population into this mindset. We police it very closely and watch to make sure there are no underage sales.”

Gresk noted that while “some longtime residents might raise an eyebrow” at the notion of an ale fest, he believes the event is a great way to showcase Wheaton’s many businesses.

Two points come to mind:

1. Wheaton’s image is long-standing and has staying power. Even though liquor sales have been allowed for over 25 years, some people still think of Wheaton as dry. While not all suburbs have such a consistent character over time, Wheaton does. This could be good and bad: some people like consistency (what you see is what you will get) while others might want more to do and more to happen (compare downtown Wheaton to downtown Naperville).

2. The push to allow liquor sales in the mid 1980s and the reason for having Ale Fest today sound about the same: alcohol sales can help bring people into town and boost tax revenue. In the mid 1980s, the argument was made that restaurants would not be interested in locating in downtown Wheaton if they could sell liquor. Today, Mayor Gresk also says the festival is “basically good for our downtown.” The festival may not exactly fit with Wheaton’s image but many suburbs are looking for ways to improve their business climate, boost tax revenues, and bring more people into their downtown.

What to do when a quiet suburb may have too many downtown bars

Suburbs want their downtowns to be full of businesses, particularly restaurants, because they enhance the community’s tax base and provide a more vibrant atmosphere. But what happens when a suburb has too many downtown bars? Here is the situation in St. Charles, Illinois:

Simpson wants to open a business called the Alibi Bar & Grill at 12 N. Third St. Aldermen told Simpson on Monday that they welcome the “grill” part of his plan, but they aren’t big fans of the “bar” part. Simpson’s plan envisions a “restaurant-style sports bar that will serve American-style food, cocktails, beer and appetizers.” He plans on having live entertainment at the establishment as well. He’s even agreed to close his doors at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights just to win a more favorable view of his liquor license application. But aldermen on the city council’s government operations committee weren’t sold.

“I really don’t think St. Charles needs more bars,” Alderman Cliff Carrignan said…

[St. Charles resident] Amundson lives in the downtown area and said the family-centered community he moved to has evolved into a weekend destination for young people on drinking binges…

Amundson’s comments spurred the rest of the conversation about how many taverns is too many in the city. Staff estimated there are between 50 and 60 restaurants in the city that have liquor licenses. Alderman Jim Martin has long crusaded against city’s tavern density.

St. Charles is a relatively wealthy and quiet yet growing community. While having new business is good, the issue of bars clashes with the community’s character: there is a line between being “family-friendly,” which I think many suburbs would wish to be known as, and having a vibrant restaurant scene, which I think many suburbs would also want. This is the same sort of issue that was brought up in Naperville late last year with a request from Show-Me’s to open a restaurant.

A community could deal with this in a few ways but there are two primary methods of control: zoning and liquor licenses. Certain uses, like tattoo parlors, are often not allowed, but suburbs can go even further to restrict the opening of new banks (Wheaton in more recent years). Restaurants are quite desirable for small downtowns as they can bring in people from outside the community and patrons might also spend money elsewhere in the downtown. At its best, a downtown might create a downtown entertainment district that includes food and entertainment (music, movies, theater, etc.). It sounds like those who are opposed to more bars in St. Charles are not opposed to more restaurants so perhaps the businessman will simply have to drop his request for a liquor license (though this would likely impact his opinion of the profitability of his venture).

More broadly, it sounds like St. Charles needs to make some decisions about what exactly they want in their downtown. Either path, toward families or food and entertainment, could work out but addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis will quickly get frustrating.