New mixed-income development strategy: connect them to libraries

Chicago is pursuing three small mixed-income developments that have a unique feature intended to bring the residents of different social classes together:

At the University Village/Little Italy development, a one-story public library will connect with two four-story mixed-income residential units, according to a news release from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, the design firm working on the project. It will also include retail and community spaces, and a rooftop will be accessible to residents and visitors of the library.

The housing portion of the development will have 37 Chicago Housing Authority units, 29 affordable housing units and seven market-rate apartments, according to a news release from the city.

Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of Chicago Public Library, said at the groundbreaking that the library will offer free tutoring to students, early childhood centers, and study and meeting rooms. The branch will also have digital resources available to residents like a 3-D printer and a recording studio. The entire development is expected to be completed within a year…

“My view is that what we are breaking ground on is community,” Emanuel said. “And a whole new different way of thinking about how do you create space. … We aren’t divided so much as we are disconnected. If we could create a place that people from different walks of lives can come together and share an experience together — we are actually going to create community.”

There are few public institutions that could serve as an anchor like this. The only other options I could imagine include a school or a child care facility or a medical clinic (all scaled to the appropriate size given the number of housing units present). Yet, each of those have a more focused use compared to a library that could be home to many different activities.

At the same time, I’m not sure a library will be a panacea to the difficulties facing mixed-income communities. Just placing residents of different social classes together does not guarantee interaction, even if they have a joint building to use. Perhaps the library will have programs and activities intended to bring the adjacent residents together. Yet, even libraries can provide plenty of spaces and opportunities to not interact.

An overview of IKEA’s new 26-acre redevelopment in London’s East End

Here is a quick look at IKEA’s large redevelopment project in London’s East End:

The new project is only the first step of Ikea’s journey into urbanism. Inter Ikea’s LandProp division has acquired a second parcel north of London and has initiated talks for a $1.45 billion project in Birmingham twice the size of the one in London; it has reportedly shopped for sites in Hamburg, Germany, too. LandProp also intends to build a hundred budget hotels across Europe and is considering a push into student housing, all covered by the stores’ bottomless cash flow. “Once we decide to do something, we go like a tank,” said LandProp’s chief, Harald Muller, at Strand East’s unveiling in 2011. (Citing overwhelming media interest, LandProp refused repeated requests for an interview.)…

The new town within a town pursues this dual goal by putting the Swedish vision of the folkhemmet (the “people’s home”) to the test. It’s a utopian dream that dovetails nicely with the aim of London officials to use the Olympic legacy to address historic inequalities in the city’s East End. Plans for Strand East depict car-free streets lined with low-slung multifamily town houses, while smaller homes face the back alleys in an echo of London’s beloved mews. Of the 1,200 homes and apartments, LandProp promises that 40% will be large enough for families; another 15% will be set aside for affordable housing, for which London has considerable pent-up demand. The remainder of the site will consist of public squares and parks, with mid-rise commercial districts along the edges.

So far, urbanists are impressed with what they’ve seen of the project. “Compared to the towering cities popping up around the world, Strand East is a quaint, pleasant surprise, mixing old and new in a way that gives the area an uncommon sense of history and place,” says Paul Kroese, strategic adviser for the International New Town Institute. The plans are of a piece with Ikea’s other ventures, too. “Ikea wants to build a world that leverages its knowledge of how people live,” says Steen Kanter, a former top Ikea executive in the United States who today runs his own consultancy, Kanter International. “And it’s a good way to gain expertise installing kitchens and wardrobes and other large environments.”

Indeed, some retail analysts suggest that Strand East is both a branding exercise for Ikea and a living laboratory for a renewed drive into housing. The company has been trying to crack the U.K. market since 1997, when it intro duced a flat-pack home. The BoKlok comes in three configurations (none larger than 800 square feet), with prices starting at about $112,500. (The houses are assembled by Ikea’s construction partner, Skanska.) More than 4,900 BoKloks have been built to date in Scandinavia, but it hasn’t caught on in the United Kingdom despite recently renewed interest in prefab housing.

Curbed sums up some of the more interesting aspects of the project:

1. Included in Ikea’s masterplan: shops, schools, theaters, a hotel, and, you know, apartments for 6,000 people.

2. Strangely absent? An actual Ikea store.

3. Starting prices for the town’s flat-pack houses, called BoKlock, are less than half the price of an average U.K. house—$112,500 vs. $260,850...

5. Of the 1,200 houses to be built, 40 percent will be large enough for families, and 15 percent of them will be earmarked as affordable housing...

7. The whole shebang will supposedly cost around $500M.

We’ll see what happens. Even if this wasn’t built with IKEA, there could be some questions about the design, how successful it will be as a mixed-income neighborhood, and how it will fit in with the surrounding area. While people seem interested in how might affect IKEA’s global image, I would be more interested to know how the community itself will relate to IKEA as developer and major corporation. The experiences of a place like Celebration, Florida and Disney suggest this can be a convoluted process that both attracts a certain kind of resident but can lead to governance and identity issues.

Update on public housing residents in Chicago mixed-income developments

Chicago and other cities have pursued ambitious plans in the last two decades to tear down public housing high-rises (like at Cabrini-Green) and replace them with mixed-income neighborhoods where public housing residents and market-rate homeowners would live near each other. Here is an update of how this is working out in one mixed-income neighborhood in Chicago:

But the common thread that binds many of these theoretical effects is the same: For them to occur, residents of extremely different incomes must connect on a deeper level than hellos in the hallways. And that doesn’t seem to be happening. Joseph, along with Robert Chaskin of the University of Chicago, documented and analyzed the interactions of residents in two of Chicago’s new mixed-income developments. Far from job networking, most of the encounters between residents were paper-thin. Nearly 25 percent didn’t know a single neighbor well enough to ask them a favor or invite them into their home. In the rare instances of deeper exchanges, like “looking out” for a neighbor with an illness, these interactions occurred almost exclusively between people who were in the same income group…

Community building doesn’t need to mean picnics in the park, however, says Joseph. “It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone becoming friends and having dinner. It means a set of neighbors who appreciate the fact that living in a diverse place means having to build common ground with people who are different than yourself.” He calls this positive neighboring.

If positive neighboring is happening at Parkside, though, so is negative neighboring. The day I visited, a sign taped to one apartment window had a picture of a handgun pointed at me, along with the words, “I Don’t Call 911 — No Loitering.”  There have been reports of market-rate tenants being the targets of derogatory name-calling, and subsidized tenants having the police called on them anonymously for hosting parties. A feature in Harper’s magazine reported that when market-rate families felt threatened by large groups hanging out in the lobby at one mixed-use development, the management removed all the furniture. The same article described the fates of two different Parkside families that held loud gatherings at their apartments one night: The next day, the public-housing unit got an eviction notice; the market-rate unit did not. “They can get buck wild, but as soon as we get buck wild, they want to send an email blast to CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] to complain,” said one of the subsidized tenants.

Critics of the model have asserted that this is what happens when cities engage in “social engineering.” But it might be more accurate to say that the social engineering that the city was counting on isn’t happening. Parkside’s residents might have been more interested in a killer deal than building a community. (The market-rate condo prices, in the $150,000s, are a steal for the location, a mile from downtown and steps from the Gold Coast.) “Could it be — and could people be afraid to admit — that market rate buyers simply don’t want to live right next door to government subsidized renters?” asked one Internet commenter.

This seems to fit with other research that suggests that although people may live near each other, they don’t necessarily interact in ways that are helpful to both groups. This is a sort of “black box” still to be figured out by reserachers: in living with more middle- and upper-income residents, how exactly will public housing residents move up to the working class or middle class? Earlier research suggests this may take some time; kids benefit from going to better schools while adults have a harder time crossing pre-existing socioeconomic and social boundaries.

The article suggests that some look at these mixed-income neighborhoods and call them “social engineering.” Deconcentrating poverty is a goal worked at by a number of groups since sociologists like William Julius Wilson started talking about this in the 1970s and 1980s. HUD has pursued or promoted policies like these throughout the country. It is not like the market-rate residents don’t have a choice in this matter; the housing units can often be cheaper than comparable units nearby. For example, some of the market-rate units in the mixed-income neighborhoods on the former site of Cabrini-Green are quite cheaper compared to units in nearby Lincoln Park or other “hot” neighborhoods. Additionally, the city of Chicago is certainly happy that the public high-rises are gone as they attracted negative attention. (Whether the city cares about the fate of the public housing residents displaced from the high-rises is another story.) Overall, however, some social policy is needed in the area of housing as cities like Chicago offer have severe affordable housing shortages.

The Big Sort continues? Fewer Americans live in middle-income neighborhoods

Here is another way to look at the gap between the rich and poor in the United States: the percentage of Americans living in middle-income neighborhoods has shrunk in recent decades.

In 2007, nearly a third of American families — 31 percent — lived in either an affluent neighborhood or a mainly low-income one, up from just 15 percent in 1970, according to the study conducted by Stanford University, and released in partnership with the Russell Sage Foundation and Brown University.

Meanwhile, 44 percent of American families lived in middle-class neighborhoods in 2007, down from 65 percent in 1970…

For the study, researchers used data from 117 metropolitan areas, each with more than 500,000 residents. In 2007, those areas were home to 197 million people — or two-thirds of the US population.

This study covers about two-thirds of the American population. I assume the study is restricted to larger metropolitan areas because of how the researchers defined a neighborhood but couldn’t they adapt to smaller cities in order to represent more of the US population? Also thinking about the research methods, I hope the researchers used analogous cutoff points for these different classes in 1970 and 2007.

Moving past methodological issues, this does bring to light an interesting issue: how many Americans experience residential segregation based on social class? Of course, race and social class is linked. Do Americans care that people of different income strata live in completely different areas? Based on American history, I would say no: Americans don’t seem terribly concerned about concentrated poverty or pockets of affluence. If you have money, it is generally expected that you go live with people who also have money. You might provide incentives for the classes to mix (example: mixed-income neighborhoods on the site of former housing projects) but this is rare.

It would be interesting to see a breakdown here between cities and suburban areas. Some of the earliest American sociological research focused on these disparities in the city, such as Zorbaugh’s work The Gold Coast and the Slum where the rich and poor lived in incredible proximity but rarely mixed. Is class-based residential segregation higher in the suburbs?

The current problems of mixed-income development in Chicago

The challenges facing a new Chicago mayor are large. Within a story about how growing Chicago’s middle class will prove to be one of these challenges, the Chicago Tribune summarizes the progress of the mixed-income developments that replaced a number of public housing high-rises:

For years, miles of high-rise public housing buildings stretched across the city’s skyline, blocking off entire neighborhoods from any hopes of improvement and further defining Chicago as an urban failure.

Today, much of the city’s stability rides on the success of the $1.6 billion effort launched by Daley in 2000 to tear down those public housing towers, sending thousands of Chicago’s poorest residents to new neighborhoods.

As part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, the mixed-income developments going up in those neighborhoods are meant to be cornerstones for further growth, luring urban pioneers whose presence there would then attract new stores, restaurants, better schools and even more residential development.

The plan has worked in some neighborhoods, most notably, the area near the Gold Coast that was home to the infamous Cabrini-Green housing complex. Synonymous for decades with urban despair, the community has been transformed to a bustling center of urban chic, even before the CHA began demolishing the last high-rise building there last month.

But in other Plan for Transformation communities, the weak economy has altered plans for new development, generating concerns about an effort that has been blamed for destabilizing some neighborhoods.

Unable to attract enough interest for the middle-income homes that are the linchpins of those developments, several developers have recently won approval to instead build more rental homes, including public housing units and other low-income apartments.

That has stirred worries that pockets of poverty are being re-created, though a federal judge overseeing the effort has emphasized the importance of including the mixed-income units.

“If you get too much rental, and too much of it is low income, the neighborhood can get fixed with an image that is hard to change, so that’s an ongoing concern,” said Alexander Polikoff, a director at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a law and policy group that has monitored the Plan for Transformation’s efforts as part of a federal court settlement stemming from a 1966 class-action lawsuit.

In a 2009 report, BPI criticized developers for the “slow pace” of building on middle-income homes that could have been sold when the housing market was still strong.

Some thoughts about this summary:

1. We will still need time to assess the full impact of the Plan for Transformation.

2. For sources like the Chicago Tribune, just getting rid of the public housing high-rises is an important enough feat. Because Chicago no longer has these high-rises, is it now not an urban failure?

3. The emphasis here is on neighborhoods, collectivities of institutions and individuals, and their status. What about the residents who left the public housing high-rises. What sort of neighborhoods are they in?

4. Within the Plan for Transportation, how much planning was there for harder economic times? When the Plan was conceived and put into practice (late 1990s-2000s), it seems imperative that middle-class professionals would want to purchase in the mixed-income neighborhoods. If this pool of buyers is not available or is not as big, then the neighborhoods can’t be what they were intended to be.

Last resident out of Cabrini-Green high rises

Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune chronicles the sage of the last family to move out of the 1230 N. Burling building, the last occupied high-rise at Cabrini-Green. Here is how Schmich sums up the legacy of the housing project:

Cabrini, with its history of murdered cops and slain children, was the housing development that came to symbolize the squandered hope of them all. It was a Chicago name known to the nation. It was also unique, sitting as it did on prime land near downtown and the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods…

In Cabrini’s heyday, 15,000 people lived in its white high-rises, red high-rises and brick row houses. Born as a hopeful haven for the poor, it devolved by the 1970s into an oasis of poverty in which guns-gangs-drugs melded into a single demon…

Whether life has changed for the better for the majority of people who have moved out remains a question, but the neighborhood is clearly better.

As the era of the public housing high-rise winds down, now we can turn and see if newer forms of public housing development or aid, such as mixed-income developments or Section 8 vouchers or other options, are better in helping people leave poverty.