Suburbanites can rally en masse against (and for) zoning issues

Suburbanites may participate at low rates in local elections but they certainly can be energized by controversial local zoning proposals. More on the ongoing Haymarket case in Itasca, Illinois:

Itasca plan commissioners admitted they underestimated public interest in a proposed addiction treatment center when a crowd representing 16% of the town’s population packed their meeting Wednesday night…

Demonstrators marched earlier Wednesday evening through downtown Itasca to pressure a Chicago nonprofit group to abandon plans to convert a hotel into a 200-bed drug and alcohol treatment center…

Prominent politicians, advocates and other nonprofit groups have thrown their support behind Haymarket, maintaining that the center would address a shortage of easily accessible residential programs for recovering addicts in DuPage County. Proponents also say much of the outcry stems from the stigma around opioid addiction…

Opponents have focused their main objections on the size and location of a facility they say would put too much of a burden on the village’s police and ambulance services.

Quite the excitement for a suburb with less than 10,000 people. Several parts of this latest news report stood out to me:

1. A public march through the community from those opposed to the center.

2. Public demonstrations of support from those in favor of the facility. While there may be a good amount of NIMBY activity, there are also people willing to stand up for the facility.

3. That this all is based on a medical center. This is not a landfill or huge condominium building in a town of single-family homes. Of course, it is not just any medical center: it is one involving drug treatment. (And many suburbs do not like getting involved with anything to do with drugs.)

4. This is not how such local political activity works but it would be interesting to hear where Itasca residents think the facility should be located or whether they could help broker a deal for another community rather than just reject the local proposal. More broadly, how might communities and residents work together to locate facilities that may be undesirable but are needed?

Suburban opposition to drug treatment centers

The case of opposition to a proposed drug treatment center in Itasca, Illinois sounds similar to opposition last year to a center in Wheaton. On the Itasca proposal:

But opponents said the project would hurt Itasca’s economy. The hotel currently generates around $250,000 in annual tax revenue that would be lost.

Village officials also are trying to determine how the proposal would affect police, fire and emergency medical services.

While they agree DuPage needs treatment options, the residents said they would prefer the facility be more centrally located in the county.

“When direct questions were asked regarding the impact on Itasca, they were all pushed back toward the needs of DuPage,” the residents’ statement reads.

“They (Haymarket) found a facility that fit their needs in Itasca, but we believe overlooked the impact of putting it in such a small town with limited resources.”

Residents say they understand the need for the facility but do not want it in their town. The concerns are similar to those that any suburban residents might lodge against a new development: a loss of tax revenue and concerns about the size of the facility (which could be related to traffic, noise, use of municipal services).

Residents say such a facility should be more in the center of the populous county…like in Wheaton? The problem facing less desirable but necessary land uses is this: what might be good for a region on the whole is often undesirable for individual communities who suggest it should be located elsewhere. Since zoning and development decisions are left to municipalities, whole regions could suffer.

This does not just affect facilities that might be less desirable. In Wheaton, the conversation about a drug treatment center included the people who would be treated as well as crime rates around the facility. But, imagine the case of a hospital or medical clinic. People need medical care and these do not usually have negative connotations. Yet, any medical facility may not generate tax revenues like commercial uses. The size or design of the facility might clash with the character of the community.

There is no easy answer. In an ideal world, the process might look like this: a metropolitan planning board would consider the needs of the population and then find locations throughout the region that would best serve residents. There is just one big problem: Americans, particularly suburbanites, like local control over land use decisions. Few metropolitan regions in the United States can do this and place important infrastructure or facilities where they are needed because Americans place local control as a higher priority.

It will be fascinating to see how Haymarket will respond with this particular facility. If Itasca says no, what is the next suburb to approach? Additionally, how many people will go untreated as the wheels of zoning approval turn?

Mass transit agencies developing land to generate revenues

The actions of New York’s MTA – Metropolitan Transportation Authority – suggest a way American mass transit agencies can generate money: through partnering on transit-oriented development.

That is what inspired Harrison’s Halstead Avenue project, a $76.8 million mixed-use real estate development built in collaboration between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees the Metro-North, and developer AvalonBay Communities. It is the first time ever that the Metro-North will sell a parcel of its land for transit-oriented development (TOD); in this case: 143 apartments, 27,000 square feet of retail space, two pedestrian plazas, and a 598-space parking garage, most of which is reserved for the public and commuters…

The New York MTA, the largest transit agency in the U.S., is becoming more familiar with this type of construction. The Hudson Yards project—where the MTA decked over its train yards, and sold the rights to developers for $1 billion to build an entire Manhattan neighborhood on top, with a new subway line extension beneath—is perhaps the largest TOD project in American history. At One Vanderbilt Avenue, an office building being constructed across from Grand Central Terminal, developer fees to the MTA will pay for interior improvements throughout the huge hub.

But the Harrison project marks a new direction for the cash-strapped MTA, which is on the hunt for new revenue: Decades of underinvestment and recent ridership declines have left the MTA with a projected $433 million budget shortfall, a gap that a recession could worsen. Meanwhile, critics agree that Manhattan’s soon-to-come congestion pricing scheme cannot alone cover the cost of the subway system’s badly needed overhaul. Capturing revenues from transit-oriented development on MTA-owned lots could help. So the agency is eyeing projects in suburban communities outside of Manhattan, with the hopes that the prospect of economic development will prod smaller towns to plot their futures near its train stations…

Transit agencies in Europe and Asia are much more likely use development as a revenue tool much more commonly than their U.S. counterparts. David King, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied transit-oriented development, said that this is largely due to the fragmented (and car-centric) nature of land and transit planning, capital investment and operation in the United States. For example, as a state-regulated public authority, with a variety of funding pots for capital and operating costs, the MTA has to comply with home rule for a housing project.

Private transportation firms in the United States have promoted and/or participated in development for years. It was good business for transportation providers to promote travel and now more accessible properties. Railroad and streetcar lines made special trips to the end of their lines where they would then sell riders on new properties.

What could make this more complicated in the United States is that transit agencies could be drawing on public funds and the United States has a history of concern about how public funds are used for development. If public money helps support traditional suburban life – think the single-family homes and highways the federal government and others groups helped make possible before and after World War II – then there may be limited outcry. Try using such monies for affordable housing, particularly for poorer residents, and opposition will arise.

Thus, this project in suburban Harrison, New York fits existing patterns. Transit-oriented development along rail lines in suburban downtowns is very common and desired by many suburbs. The project is not too big. It sounds like the suburb wants some denser downtown development. It does not involve housing considered too cheap by the community. But, whether this tactic could expand across metropolitan regions remains to be seen.

A fight over potential Hasidic residents in a proposed new suburban subdivision outside New York City

Residents and local officials in the New York City suburb of Chester have concerns about who might move into a proposed development:

In a peaceful corner of the Hudson Valley, a broad expanse of land sits at the ready for hundreds of homes ranging between 2,500 and 3,400 square feet, with views of the surrounding hills. There will be a recreation center and tennis courts, and nearly half of the development’s 117 acres will be kept as open space.

But if it were up to town officials, the houses would never be built. They openly fret about the size and density of the 431-unit development, the Greens at Chester, and even confess wariness about the likely intended home buyers: Hasidic Jews…

Angry residents at the meeting talked of how school taxes could rise, and public resources could be stretched in the town, about 60 miles north of New York City. They spoke of fears that the development would one day resemble Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village about nine miles away that is overcrowded and has ranked among the poorest communities in the nation.

The developers, Greens at Chester, L.L.C., cite these statements and others in a federal lawsuit that accuses the town, Orange County and individual local officials of discrimination, contending that they assume that the home buyers will be Hasidic because some of the developers are.

The concerns expressed by residents and public officials are common ones levied at sizable new subdivisions: more strain on public services (though developed property could bring in more money through property taxes and money could be spent in the community) and a change in the community’s character. Even though growth is generally good in American communities, many places want to restrict what kind of growth is possible (and who new residents are).

What makes this more unique is the expressed concern about who exactly might move into these new suburban homes. Concern about suburban residents about the movement of Hasidic Jews in the New York City region is an ongoing one. Because they tend to move in sizable numbers together to particular locations, suburban residents feel they can be overwhelmed by a local change in population and lifestyle. This is not a new issue in suburbs in the New York City region. As Hasidic Jews have looked for housing and communities in which they can live, they have encountered opposition from at least a few suburbs concerning where they wish to worship.

Because local officials and residents have been so open about their opposition to a particular group moving in, I imagine this will not end well for the community. If the lawsuit does not side in favor of the plantiffs, this suburb will join others in having a reputation of not wanting certain kinds of residents. Many suburbs do this through a variety of methods but do so without explicitly naming who they are referring to (think of efforts to limit the number of poorer residents or minority residents). The residents and leaders of Chester may want to preserve some type of character of the community but doing so at the cost of naming and excluding specific residents is a dubious strategy.

Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part Two

Yesterday, I summarized the redevelopment plans for the East Roosevelt Road Corridor in Wheaton and the Giesche Shoe project in Glen Ellyn. Based on online sources, I will summarize the concerns of residents. There is a common theme: they perceive the character of the community is at stake.

In Wheaton, here are some of the stated concerns:

“We are a residential city, and our city planning should reflect that,” she said. “A forward-thinking city understands that pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and bike lanes are what attract new homebuyers, keep residents, increases equity for current homeowners and subsequently increases city revenue based on increased home value and an increased tax base.”

Nancy Flannery, the chairwoman of the city’s historic preservation commission, worries about the possible demolition of another Jarvis Hunt-designed house, now converted into offices at 534 Roosevelt. Built in 1896, the house was one of the first summer cottages constructed for members of the private Chicago Golf Club.

And a few more representative comments from the same May 28, 2019 meeting:

expressed concern that the proposed changes would build up retail, contribute to congestion and be detrimental to neighboring residents. He stated there are already vacancies and the report is not clear on what types of businesses would be interested in Roosevelt Road…

stated he thinks the plan as presented harms the neighborhood in terms of traffic, safety, noise, light and visual aesthetics, and he doesn’t think there is a problem on Roosevelt Road that needs fixing…

stated she does not want developers to be able to build commercial businesses on lots behind Roosevelt Road. She stated she does not want to see 4- or 5-story buildings being constructed right near residential areas.

In Glen Ellyn, some representative comments from an online petition:

Local congestion, size out of proportion (too large and bulky), traffic pattern near local churches & private school, etc…

It’s going to ruin the quant village that we choose to live in. We want to live in a village not a city with large structures – we would have chosen to live in Wheaton Or Naperville ( village is the key word – we are not a city Or town. We are the Village of Glen ellyn )…

a number of villages used to have charms that brought shoppers and new residents (e.g. elmhurst, arlington heights, mt prospect). their boards allowed developers to build in violation of existing codes and these charms were lost. don’t let that happen here…

My husband and I moved here because the town was still lovely, quiet, and mostly unmarred by the huge, unsightly, commercial behemoths scarring most of the surrounding suburbs. Glen Ellyn still has charm and an organic feeling of development. This development does not fit in at all with the feeling and aesthetic of the town. Say no!

In both cases, the concerns residents voiced are consistent across hundreds of development and redevelopment projects in suburbs across the United States. Having studied this in multiple ways (several of my projects address similar issues including “Not All Suburbs are the Same” and “‘Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Structure’“, residents generally bring up the same concerns: increased traffic, lights, and noise; a change in scale (particularly when it comes to height); and threats to residences (usually single-family homes) and the character of a suburb.

In Wheaton, the character issue is not stated as clearly but it is present. This major road is one of the primary ways people see the suburb. How should it look compared to the stretch of Roosevelt on Glen Ellyn which is more like the strip mall approach and Winfield to the west which is more green and residential (and not coincidentally they are fought their own battles over taking advantage of possible business opportunities on such a busy road)? This is not just about a busy roadway or the homes that back up to this stretch; this is about signalling what kind of place Wheaton is. One that values businesses or homeowners, one that prioritizes vehicles or pedestrians, one that celebrates its history or is looking to simply make money?

Interestingly, Wheaton comes up in the Glen Ellyn comments as a place that some Glen Ellyn residents do not want to become. Since the late 1990s, Wheaton has pursued downtown condos and office buildings. Other suburbs come up in the comments including more lively downtowns like Naperville and Arlington Heights. These Glen Ellyn residents have some similar concerns that most redevelopment projects engender – traffic, noise – but this particular project seems to be a step too big for their downtown. Can five stories “fit” with the existing downtown? This is not just about seeing the building from a distance: it is about a sense of scale for pedestrians, how the building might tower over nearby businesses and residences, and what this portends for the future of the downtown. Let this big development in and Glen Ellyn will become just another suburban downtown chasing after tall buildings and money to the detriment of residents who liked to feel they live in a small town.

Perhaps the big question here is this: are these concerns from residents valid? Are these just NIMBY responses? Who should control what kind of development occurs in a suburban community? Americans like suburbs in part because they feel like they have access to local leaders and can influence local decisions. From my own research on suburban communities, I am fairly convinced there are some suburban residents who move into a neighborhood and community and desire to freeze the place in that exact configuration. Indeed, they moved to the suburb for particular reasons. On the other hand, cities and suburbs are encouraged to grow (stagnation or population loss is failure) and development or redevelopment opportunities do not always come along easily or in forms that local officials or residents will like. If these communities do not act now, will they lose economic opportunities to other suburbs and in the long run shoot themselves in the foot by not upgrading when they can?

If local residents are vocal enough, they can likely slow down or nix these redevelopment projects. How many residents have to voice displeasure is not clear; few suburbanites are invested in local politics even if they count on the opportunities to voice this displeasure to protect their own investments. Local officials do listen and will encounter difficulty down the road if they just ram through projects.

Here is what I suspect will happen in the long-term in these two cases (and in suburban disagreements over development and redevelopment generally): few communities are so anti-development that they keep out all changes. Suburbs generally hope to keep growing and this becomes more difficult in more mature suburbs like these two which cannot add new subdivisions. There are only so many ways Wheaton and Glen Ellyn can add businesses and residents. If these changes do not happen now, they will probably happen eventually as the opportunity costs are too steep: local leaders will have a hard time turning down these chances when the possible consequences are lost money, vacant properties, and eyesores. Some local residents will dislike the changes and some might move away. But, the very conception of suburbs may be evolving as well: outside of moving to exurban areas, many suburbs are pursuing more density and vibrant downtowns. This may make suburbs all the more complex in how they are understood and experienced and in how residents think of their community’s character.

 

Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part One

The suburb in which I live and the neighboring suburb both have proposed redevelopment ideas and each has attracted opposition from residents. Both sets of opposition have yard signs to voice their displeasure and residents have spoken at public meetings.

Part One of this analysis involves the basics of the proposed projects and how this fits into what suburbs generally try to do.

The Rethink Rezoning group is responding to a study commissioned by the city of Wheaton to improve development along the busy Roosevelt Road corridor that runs east-west through the center of the suburb. From the Daily Herald:

Wheaton’s East Roosevelt Road corridor has a hodgepodge of businesses and housing, obsolete office space and no consistent sidewalk network that encourages pedestrians to walk from one end of the nearly 2-mile stretch to the other…

Consultants propose a “Horizontal Mixed-Use Zone” from Carlton Avenue to West Street/Warrenville Road, currently a mix of low-intensity offices, houses and residential structures adapted into offices. In that subdistrict, the city should expand the palette of permitted land uses, including limited retail and “personal service establishments,” the report states.

Farther east, a “Commercial Core Zone” between West and President streets could concentrate new development of significant size — greater than anywhere else along the corridor — taking advantaging of proximity to the downtown and the Mariano’s grocery store. The Mariano’s intersection has traffic congestion when cars queuing up in the west turn-lane from Naperville Road to Roosevelt.

A “Mixed-Use Flexible Zone” from President to Lorraine Road “should encourage a broad range of uses, including retail, service, office and multifamily residential,” according to the report.

See a more complete draft report from earlier this year.

The Save Main group is opposed to a mixed-use five-story building to be built on the southern edge of Glen Ellyn’s downtown. Here is a 2018 description from the Daily Herald:

A new redevelopment plan for an old shoe store in downtown Glen Ellyn would replace the long-vacant building with an apartment complex that would rise above neighboring restaurants and shops…

Larry Debb and John Kosich are the two principals for the project that would demolish the Giesche store to make room for a five-story apartment building with about 5,360 square feet of first-floor commercial space. The footprint would include what is now the village-owned Main Street parking lot…

But in a letter to village planners, Kosich and Debb said they’re proposing a “condo quality” building with 107 rental units. A two-level parking garage would provide 147 public parking stalls on the first floor, with access off Main Street, Hillside Avenue and Glenwood Avenue. The garage’s second floor — reserved for apartment residents — would contain 142 stalls…

Such a mixed-use development with parking would align with the village’s 2001 comprehensive plan and 2009 downtown strategic plan, Hulseberg said. The latter recommends the village add at least 450 new residential units downtown.

Neither of these projects are unusual for suburban communities. Indeed, they both attempt to take advantage of unique traits already in the suburb.

In Wheaton, the Roosevelt Road corridor has been an area of interest for the city for decades. With tens of thousands of cars passing through each day, it presents an opportunity, particularly since it is just south of the downtown (and traffic does not necessarily turn off Roosevelt to go downtown) and north of the other major shopping area at Danada (along the busy Butterfield Road corridor). But, Wheaton has generally been conservative about what development they allow along this stretch. Compared to Glen Ellyn to the east or the Ogden Avenue corridor in northwest Naperville, the Roosevelt Road stretch in Wheaton is relatively void of strip malls, fast food restaurants, car repair places, and rundown facilities. Again: this has been an intentional effort to maintain a certain level of quality.

The proposed changes would build on this by updating some uses (most suburbs utilize single-use zoning but this can be restrictive in certain areas) and try to encourage some cohesiveness across stretches. What is now a hodgepodge of offices, some older houses, some more recent office buildings, could have a more uniform character and present a more pleasing aesthetic. I don’t know how many people will walk along such a busy road but it certainly does not lend itself to that now. All of this could help improve aesthetics and bring in more revenue from taxes in a revitalized district. Having a more uniform plan could help bring in more money for the city which then helps relieve local tax burdens.

In Glen Ellyn, such a project both fits with the village’s own goals and echoes what numerous suburbs in the Chicago region have tried to do: encourage mixed-use buildings in downtown areas near train stations and existing restaurants and shops. This new project would add to a fairly lively restaurant and retail scene while also adding more residents (and probably wealthier ones – this is not about suburban “affordable housing”) to a suburb that has little greenfield or infill development available. The new residents would patronize local businesses, utilize the train, and contribute to a density that could make the downtown even livelier. Again, one of the benefits would be increased tax revenues: the vacant property would have a more profitable use, the first-floor businesses would add sales tax monies, and the new residents who probably have limited numbers of children would bring in tax dollars.

If these projects are in line with suburban plans – let alone the long-term plans for each community – what are the residents objecting to? More on that in Part Two tomorrow.

Three thoughts on the finding that 7.5% of housing in Naperville is affordable

Naperville is a large – over 140,000 residents – and wealth – a median household income of just over $114,000 – suburb. It also does not have much affordable housing:

A state agency recently faulted Naperville as the only Illinois community of 50,000 or more lacking affordable housing, which, according to the federal government, means housing costs make up no more than 30% of a household’s income. In a report last year, the Illinois Housing Development Authority found just 7.5% of Naperville homes are considered affordable based on the regional median income, among the lowest percentages in the state.

Some elected officials fear Naperville’s high housing costs could drive out seniors and push away recent college graduates and middle-class professionals. As those city leaders consider a slew of new developments, they and housing advocates are debating how and whether to include affordable units that could bring in new residents and help people such as Melekhova stay…

Efforts to include affordable housing in Naperville developments have been met with some resistance. Residents have questioned the effects affordable units would have on their neighborhood and whether the look of buildings with affordable units would fit the character of the area.

One question submitted on a note card during a panel on affordable housing in May was more pointed: “What steps can landlords utilize to minimize the potential negative impacts of the associated tenants utilizing affordable housing?”

Based on my research on suburbs and Naperville, three quick thoughts:

  1. Naperville enjoys being a wealthy suburb. It has a really low poverty rate for a city its size. It has lots of white-collar jobs. While this tends to be put in terms of having a high quality of life, nice amenities, and good schools, there is clearly wealth.
  2. There is not a lot of affordable housing because that is not the kind of housing Naperville prioritized for the last fifty years. As the suburb really started to grow in land area and population in the 1960s, there were public discussions about building apartments. This is not what won out in the long run and the community approved subdivision after subdivision of nicer single-family homes. (See my 2013 article that details some of this.)
  3. More recent discussions and the comments highlighted in the article are common ones in suburban debates over affordable housing. When suburbs discuss affordable housing, they often are thinking of people that would desire in the community such as younger adults and retirees. They are not explicitly seeking out poorer residents. Such concerns can be put in different terms – privileging “quality” development or protecting the “character” of neighborhoods – but they often do not address housing for the many Americans working in lower-paying jobs. And there may be some support for affordable housing units but it is harder to find the suburban homeowners who want to live near those units.

All that said, truly addressing the issue of affordable housing requires more effort than adding a few units spread throughout the large suburb. A larger discussion about what kind of housing the community desires and what kind of residents it wants would have to take place before the number of affordable housing units would truly jump.