From suburban to downtown growth in Aurora, Illinois

The suburb of Aurora grew tremendously in recent decades but now has little new land. Thus, to grow it must build up or become denser:

Today, the city’s once-booming growth has slowed to a crawl, census estimates show. Officials say there is room for growth, but that growth will look different.

There’s little room for more subdivisions to sprout across the community as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, the focus will be on downtown and the city’s train line, building up, not out, said Stephane Phifer, a longtime Aurora city planner who now works with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning…

As growth slows, the city has an opportunity to focus on redevelopment of downtown and working with the city’s neighborhoods, Nelson said. Downtown is the “new frontier” for development, he said.

Interest is building in downtown Aurora, Nelson said. The area is developing its own identity, largely centered around the arts.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. A shift from such explosive growth – the population doubling in two decades – to less growth can be quite drastic. A community gets used to the new subdivisions, the new city employees needed to provide local services, the changes to local school districts, and other social impacts.
  2. The assumption in this article is that growth is good. This is a common sentiment across American communities. What if Aurora stayed at roughly the same population – would it automatically be a failure?
  3. Aurora is not the only Chicago area suburb facing this issue. For example, neighboring Naperville has been considering this shift in growth for at least a few years. Numerous suburbs closer to the city have had this issue for decades. Few Chicago suburbs have the potential to truly become huge suburbs – imagine Aurora at 300,000 residents with a really dense and interesting downtown along the Fox River. But, to do so will mean competing with other suburbs for residents, entertainment options, and amenities.

All together, this could be a significant turning point in the history of Aurora as a community. Will it pursue downtown and denser development in the same way it pursued suburban growth in the last few decades? Will it focus on quality rather than quantity?

How a growing suburb plans to remain “a small town at heart”

Many growing suburbs claim to still be small towns in spirit. Here is how the mayor of Warrenville makes this argument while explaining a new development:

At the September 21, City Council meeting, nearly unanimous preliminary approval was given to a new development that will occupy a 4.3-acre site adjacent to the Warrenville Library called Settlers Pointe. this moderate dense development will consist of 34 single-family homes, 14 two-story and 20 three-story units, selling in the $350,000 to $450,000 price range. I believe this project will be a wonderful addition to Warrenville on many levels, but there was a time when I would have viewed this development through a different lens, and because of its density, would have been adamantly opposed to it as “not in line with the character of Warrenville”…

In the case of Settlers Pointe, it will be good for Warrenville in many ways. It is an attractive development being done by an accomplished and quality developer (google David Weekley Homes) who knows the market. You have told us that a very high priority is economic development. Essential to that goal is “rooftops”. Businesses will not invest in areas without enough people to support them. these new homes will help spur the redevelopment of our downtown, something else you have given us as a priority…

Rural may no longer be geographically possible for our town, but we have resolved to remain a small town at heart. this is the “character” that you have consistently told us that is most important to you to enhance and preserve. It is independent of housing style or lot size. The people who choose to come to Settlers Pointe in Warrenville will do so because they see who we are and want to be one of us: small town folks enjoying the best of all possible worlds.

This explanation seems to me to be a bit odd given the relatively small size of the development – it is a small site though centrally located – yet the way it is made is similar to pitches I’ve seen in other suburbs in my research. Here are some key elements:

  1. Americans generally like the ideas of small towns. As this earlier post put it, American politicians push small town values in a suburban country. The vast majority of Americans live in urban areas – over 80% – yet they hold to older visions of community life. Appealing to small town ideals is a safe move.
  2. Broader social forces have pushed a community past its old identity and the community can’t go back. Once there is a certain level of growth or enough time has passed, “progress” is happening with or without us. (Of course, there are plenty of communities where they try to freeze things in time. See this example. But, those who support new development often say this can’t be done – and they’re probably right in thinking about the long-term.)
  3. New growth can be good, even as it contributes to change and a newer identity. Economic reasons are typically cited: business growth is good, an expanded tax base is good, new attention from potential new residents is good.
  4. The development under approval is not too different from what already exists. If there is a group fighting the project, they will argue otherwise.
  5. Even with change and growth, it is possible to hold on to the “character” or “spirit” of a small town. Local officials typically refer to the actions of residents and community groups, implying that people still know and care for each other. For example, Naperville leaders suggest their suburb with over 140,000 people still has this spirit.

Of course, these arguments are often challenged by residents who don’t see it the same way. NIMBY responses typically don’t want a community to fundamentally change; the way it is now is why those residents moved into town. But, some change is inevitable so perhaps these arguments are really about the degree of perceived change. Will this “fundamentally” alter the community? Is this a slippery slope? This can be the case with development decisions but significant change tends to come through a chain of decisions and these patterns are easier to diagnose in hindsight. (See Naperville as an example.) Residents can also feel relatively powerless compared to local politicians or businesses who have power to make decisions while local leaders tend to claim they are looking out for the good of the whole community.

Change is not easy in suburbs. And it is often a process that may look different in its physical manifestations even as the elements of the arguments made both for and against development follow some common patterns.

“Cloak-and-dagger building deal blows up on Naperville”

An intriguing headline leads to a story of how much suburbs are willing to do to attract companies and jobs:

SKF Group, a manufacturer of ball bearings, seals and lubrication systems, approached city officials through an attorney in July 2014. The planning and zoning commission approved the project without knowing which company was putting it forward…

“I don’t want to take a chance of messing up this deal. This is the kind of deal every city wants,” Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said last year as a council member.

The 130,000-square-foot building at 1203 Warrenville Road was projected to employ 200 people whose research in materials testing would contribute to energy-saving products…

Naperville officials said they feel some disappointment that SKF changed course after all of their efforts to welcome the project into the city, despite neighbor concerns about traffic, noise and privacy disruptions. But having the company pull out before hiring local employees is not the worst-case scenario, Chirico said.

“The good news is we’re not losing existing jobs, it’s future jobs,” Chirico said. “It would have been a lot worse had we had a company that located here, hired people and then all the sudden they lost all their jobs.”

This is the sort of company that helped Naperville reach its lofty heights of population, wealth, and jobs: an international business bringing white-collar positions. Although the suburb didn’t offer them any tax breaks (the company would have received breaks from Illinois), Naperville leaders did go around their normal process to try to make this happen.

If this building sits empty for a while, things could get interesting. Naperville is not used to empty structures and any suburb would want the building and land to be a positive contribution to the local tax base.

Planners vote against Illiana Expressway

The proposed Illiana Expressway is in limbo after the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning rejected the project:

However, because the vote, 10-4, was not a sufficient supermajority, it puts the ultimate fate of the project in limbo.

The Illiana is a proposed tollway linking I-55 in the South suburbs with I-65 in Indiana that would be built as a public-private partnership. While Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation are backing it as a vital piece of infrastructure, CMAP experts warned in 2013 it will cost Illinois taxpayers up to $1.1 billion with limited benefits…

Today and Thursday is a rematch of sorts. Officials will vote on what should have been a routine decision — approving an update of GO TO 2040, a blueprint for growth in the region. In this go-round with the Nov. 4 election looming, Quinn has been pushing hard in favor of the expressway, claimed leaders of the Environmental Law and Policy Center who warned some CMAP board members might reverse their votes. ELPC officials quoted a toll industry publication describing the project as a “lemon,” and pointed out that CMAP has prioritized other projects over the Illiana. These include the Route 53 extension and Elgin-O’Hare Expressway expansion. The group has sued over the issue, claiming the MPO essentially lacked authority to override CMAP. The Illinois Department of Transportation estimates construction jobs should total about 9,000 and permanent jobs, mostly in freight and manufacturing, would amount to around 28,000.

However, the Metropolitan Planning Council said the project would drain jobs out of Illinois into Indiana, hurting employment in Chicago, Cook and the collar counties excepting Will County. IDOT officials said they stand behind the Illiana project.

A number of interested parties here and it is not clear how this will turn out. It is a classic urban planning issue: one side claiming economic growth, federal money, and jobs while the other side disputes the growth figures and asks who will be left on the hook if the road doesn’t generate the money it is supposed to. Growth is a pretty powerful motivator – particularly in a state that needs positive economic news as well as a Chicago region that is struggling, if not in reality, then perhaps always in its own perceptions – but difficult financial realities make a $1 billion+ project difficult to quickly approve.

UPDATE: The above article wasn’t the clearest on the next steps in the process. Here is some more details from the Chicago Tribune.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning board needed a 12-vote supermajority of its 15 members to remove the Illiana from its comprehensive plan, but opponents of the project could only muster 10 votes.

The spotlight will now fall on members of a companion agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Committee, who will meet on the issue Thursday.

And the voting seemed to go along geographic lines:

One of the CMAP board members whose vote could have helped turn the tide against the Illiana failed to show for the meeting.

Andrew Madigan, an appointee of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was absent, as he was last year when the Illiana originally came up for the planning agency’s approval. Emanuel’s other four appointees voted against the Illiana.

Madigan is the son of House Speaker Michael Madigan. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Also casting votes against the Illiana were four of five suburban Cook County representatives; and the representatives from Lake and McHenry counties.

Voting in favor of the Illiana were representatives from Will, DuPage and Kane Counties, and the representative from south Cook County.

Voters closer to the highway seem to have been in favor while those further away – Chicago and the northern counties – voted against it.

Should Detroit focus on growth at all?

A recent overview of Detroit’s status raises an interesting question: should Detroit hope for any growth at all? Here is part of the story:

“What everyone wants is new neighbors,” said Khalil Ligon, project manager for the Lower East Side Action Plan (LEAP), a nonprofit focused on some 15 square miles of the city where 55,000 people live. “But where are you going to get them?”

The falling population is one of Detroit’s biggest problems. Detroit Future City, a planning blueprint, assumes just 600,000 residents. Launched by Mayor Dave Bing, the plan aims to revamp the economy and use empty space. The Kresge Foundation, started by the Detroit family behind retail giant Kmart, has promised $150 million toward the project.

“It’s certainly the most realistic plan the city has ever had,” said Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan planning professor in Ann Arbor…

“We cannot cut our way of this situation,” Bing told Reuters. “We’ve got to talk about growth.”…

Bing’s revival plan will end up in the hands of the emergency manager, should one be appointed. “If the emergency manager buys into the long-term vision of the plan, it has a chance. But if their brief is just to cut costs and services, it doesn’t have a chance,” said Dewar, the University of Michigan professor.

Realistically, it is hard to imagine a major reversal in Detroit’s fortunes soon. The immediate question is whether the city can halt the population loss. However, the idea of growth is an interesting one as we think more broadly about American cities. We have a narrative that says successful cities grow. Cities that lose population, even ones that are not even close to Detroit’s population loss, are in trouble. Perhaps we can’t even have a realistic conversation about Detroit until the population plateaus…though this may not be for a while.

Developer’s son wrong; Naperville residents and leaders made decisions long ago that mean the suburb can’t go back to the 1950s

Naperville is considering a new project, the Water Street Development, but the developer’s son is not happy with the opposition to the project from the Naperville Homeowner’s Confederation. In a recent email, here is how he made his case:

In his email, Bryan Bottarelli said the council has been “politically intimidated by a group of old-economy thinkers who call themselves the Naperville Homeowners Confederation.”

“This group claims to represent all the homeowners associations in Naperville. But in reality, it consists of a handful of older residents who are bored — and who have nothing better to do than to try keeping Naperville the same exact way it’s been since the 1950s,” the younger Bottarelli wrote. “They’re afraid of change — and they’re using fear tactics to red-light this project. And be honest — what they’re doing has been working. They know how to work the local political system to their advantage.

“And, since they have so much extra time on their hands, they’ve committed their days to bombarding city council with emails, letters, and phone calls in complete opposition to this deal.”…

“The confederation is disappointed at the tone of the email by Mr. Bottarelli’s son,” President Bob Buckman said in a written statement. “This is not in keeping with the tradition of respectful public discourse in Naperville that we all value. It is unfortunate that his description of us does not in any way represent the confederation’s members, or our many contributions to civic life in Naperville. Since 2006, the confederation board and its members have carefully studied, dissected, looked for alternatives, met with the developer, submitted a comprehensive report in 2007 and testified at plan commission and now at city council on this proposed development.”

Here is the problem with his argument: regardless of what current residents want, Naperville can’t turn back the clock to the 1950s. Naperville is little like what it was in 1950 and residents have been part of the process in changing Naperville. I know Bottarelli mentioned the 1950s but a number of the changes to Naperville started occurring at the end of this decade so I’ll make a comparison to 1950. Indeed, my research on the topic suggests Naperville, leaders and residents, have made numerous decisions over the decades to pursue growth.

Here is how Naperville was different in 1950:

1. It had a population of 7,013 in 1950. Today, Naperville has around 142,000 residents. This means the population has expanded by a factor of 20.

2. Along with a significantly larger population, Naperville has significantly increased in land size. Today, the city is over 39 square miles and it can take a while in certain traffic conditions to drive from one end to another. The size is large enough that the city added a second city hall-like facility, it now has two commuter railroad stations, and the city has sought ways to create social space and a community feel on the southwest side because it is a distance away from downtown (for example, planning for a commercial node at the northwest corner of Route 59 and 95th Street).

3. Basically none of the post-World War II subdivisions had been built by 1950. Harold Moser, the local developer who was responsible for a large percentage of the subsequent growth, was just getting started. The homeowner’s associations Battarelli is disparaging didn’t even exist in 1950.

4. Naperville’s downtown is quite different today. There is a renowned Riverwalk. There is a municipal center and Naper Settlement. The downtown has a number of national retail stores. There are plenty of restaurants and bars. There is a new performing arts center (in conjunction with North Central College) along with a carillon tower. In short, the downtown is a suburban entertainment hub. Even if the Water Street development gets turned down, it is not because Naperville hasn’t wanted to have a successful and vibrant downtown.

5. I-88, the highway that runs alongside the north side of Naperville, hadn’t even been built yet in 1950. It opened in the late 1950s and the first major facility, Bell Laboratories, was built near to the Naperville Road interchange in the mid-1960s. The moving of this facility near town helped kicked off Naperville’s rise as a white-collar job center which also helped fuel some of the other changes.

6. The Naperville of 1950 was not known for being one of the best places to live (Money in the mid 2000s), having a top 10 library, or the other accolades Naperville has accumulated in the last ten years or so. In 1950, the community had a small liberal arts college, a swimming pool converted from a quarry, the Kroehler furniture plant, and was known as the community that was once the county seat of DuPage County before Wheaton took the honor in the 1860s.

In other words, the Naperville of 1950 bears little resemblance to the Naperville of today. The cow is already long gone out of the barn on this one. Over the years, Naperville has consistently chosen to annex land, approve development, and grow even as it tries to retain its small-town charm. So if this particular project doesn’t succeed, this doesn’t mean Naperville residents or leaders want to live in the Naperville of 1950: even with some heated discussions over the decades about how much Naperville should grow and whether the new changes would irrevocably change the character of the community, Naperville has consistently pursued growth and change.

Rahm Emanuel: Chicago the model for pro-growth policies

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had an op-ed in the Washington Post on Friday where he explained how his city could show America the way toward growth:

While infrastructure improvements have been neglected on a federal level for decades, Chicago is making one of the nation’s largest coordinated investments, putting 30,000 residents to work over the next three years improving our roads, rails and runways; repairing our aged water system; and increasing access to gigabit-speed broadband. We are paying for these critical improvements through a combination of reforms, efficiencies and direct user fees, as well as creating the nation’s first city-level public-private infrastructure bank. Democrats should champion these kinds of innovative financing tools at a national level.

If we want to build a future in which the middle class can succeed, we must continue the push for reform that the president began with Race to the Top, bringing responsibility and accountability to our teachers and principals.

Chicago has adopted its own Race to the Top for early childhood education, allowing public schools, Head Start, charters and parochial schools to compete for dollars by improving the quality of their pre-kindergarten programs. In addition, this year Chicago Public Schools put into effect a 30 percent increase in class time, which means that when today’s kindergartners graduate high school, they will have benefited from 2½ more years’ worth of education.

In partnership with leading private-sector companies, we reengineered our six community colleges to focus each on skills training for jobs in one of Chicago’s six key growth fields. Democrats can be the party that closes the nation’s skills gap by making our community colleges a vital link between people looking for jobs and companies looking for skilled workers.

The strength of these investments is proven in the number of people we’re putting back to work: Chicago is first in the nation in terms of increase in employed residents, and for several months we have led the nation in year-over-year employment increases. We added 42,500 residents to the workforce in the past year alone — 8,000 more than the next highest U.S. city…

If Democrats develop innovative policies that help Americans compete in a global economy, we will outperform Republicans on Election Day. It’s that simple.

I’ve made this argument before (see here): Rahm Emanuel is more of a pro-business Democrat. As he notes in this article, he is in the mold of Bill Clinton who was willing to do what it takes to add jobs and fuel growth (illustrated by his recent push for digital billboards on city property alongside busy highways). And thus far, Emanuel has been able to push through his agenda in Chicago.

However, two things might hold back his arguments on the national level:

1. How much do Democrats and other Americans want government  to work closely private firms and corporations? Emanuel is a fan of public-private partnerships but people on both sides may not like this idea much.

2. Critics will charge that Chicago is hardly a model for others to emulate. Crime? Residential segregation? Massive budget issues? Battles with local unions? Underperforming schools?

I imagine some other big-city mayors might argue their cities could provide better models for the whole country. It would be fascinating to see a number of them respond with different visions.

(One last question: how much of this argument is simply boosterism from the mayor of the city’s third largest city?)