Buying vacant Chicago lots for $1

Many Rust Belt cities have plenty of empty land and the city of Chicago is selling some of these lots for $1 a piece:

In an effort to combat urban blight and the illegal activity that often follows, the City of Chicago has announced a major expansion of its Large Lots program that offers empty city-owned parcels to nearby homeowners for just $1.

After debuting in Englewood and East Garfield Park in 2014, more than 550 homeowners have so far taken advantage of the program. Now, thanks to its recently expanded scope, Large Lots will extend to 33 Chicago communities on the West and South sides, offering 4,000 empty properties at the extremely discounted rate…

Not just anyone can swoop in and grab real estate for a buck, however. To purchase a lot, buyers must reside on the same block, be current on their property taxes, and be in good financial standing with the city in order to be eligible. Large Lots will be accepting applications on its website through the end of January.

The city tells the Chicago Tribune that all lots in the program are reserved for residential uses such as extended side or back yards, gardens, parking pads, or landscaped green space. In addition to improved neighborhood aesthetics, the Trib also cites a study that found the program yielded a notable drop in nearby littering, drug activity, and prostitution.

Eliminating empty properties is probably a good first step. But, what is the next step? What is the long-term solution to reviving both these properties and neighborhoods?

I will occasionally get questions from students as to why people or businesses don’t see vacant land like this as opportunities. On one hand, the Chicago metropolitan region is in desperate need of affordable housing. On the other hand, these properties are often located in poorer neighborhoods. But, a collection of residents or organizations could really make something interesting out of cheaper properties and the city would benefit from better uses.

Updating the last few years of (private sector) history of Chicago’s public housing

By now, a number of scholars have effectively explained the problematic history of Chicago’s public housing. But, as this new piece from Curbed Chicago suggests, the most recent years have involved a lot of change. Here are some interesting tidbits from this recent history-in-the-making:

Holsten’s answer is emphatically yes. He specializes in mixed-income and affordable housing, and has developed $500 million worth of it since 1975. But building a mixed-income building is one thing. Forming an actual community across racial and class lines is another. “Our job as developers is much more than financing buildings and property management,” he says. “It’s trying to build community. That’s the hardest part.”…

One sticking point is the issue of density. Chicagoans feel burned by their past experience with high-rises. And the city has a tradition of homeownership that’s different from other very large American cities. Chicago’s famed “bungalow belt” of brickworker cottages built in the early 20th century offered waves of immigrants affordable single-family homes, and preservationists have formed a nonprofit to protect them.So the CHA’s residents would prefer a house and a porch of their own, but that desire often runs counter to the need to accommodate the thousands who have been displaced…

Between 2008 and 2012, the CHA issued about 14,000 fewer vouchers than HUD funded, building up a surplus of $432 million and earning a rebuke from HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (The CHA says its reserves have since been cut and will be spent down by the end of 2017.) A Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation found that four out of 10 voucher units have been cited for building code violations in the last five years.

I am skeptical that the private sector alone can solve these housing issues. The free market tends to lead to exclusion and profit-seeking. It doesn’t provide many solutions to correcting existing inequalities, which in the United States tend to connect race, social class, and housing. See an earlier post for a number of the bad outcomes that can result from a free market approach to housing.

On the other hand, the Chicago Housing Authority has done little good. And Americans from the beginning have been ambivalent about involving government in housing. There is little chance that the government will do much more to provide housing – even as the need for affordable housing is great in many cities – because it is a difficult issue in which to find much support.

Perhaps there is a third approach: the US government props up the mortgage industry! Probably not a good long-term solution but this is what we have and it is a system that privileges homeownership.

How many suburban entertainment centers can one region have?

Schaumburg is looking into creating a new entertainment district out of underused properties:

Schaumburg trustees Tuesday approved a $6.58 million offer to buy the two single-story office buildings just north of the village’s convention center and Renaissance Hotel to help develop a new entertainment district and reconfigure Thoreau Drive.

The 110,000-square-foot Woodfield Green Executive Centre lies on the north side of Thoreau Drive and just across Meacham Road from Zurich North America’s new headquarters…

The long-term plan is to hold the property to sell to one or more developers interested in building more restaurant and other entertainment venues near the southeast corner of Meacham and Algonquin roads.

This sounds like a typical suburban strategy today: take properties that are not doing well or even abandoned (see efforts to utilize closed grocery stores) and start generating revenues through new entertainment use. Stores come and go but theaters and restaurants can come together to create a vibrant distract that will generate property and sales tax revenues for years to come.

This did lead me to a question: within the Chicago metropolitan region, how many entertainment districts can the region support? If many suburbs are trying to pursue these goals, can most of them sustain successful districts? There are already a number of successful or established districts: Evanston, Arlington Heights, Schaumburg and Woodfield, Rosemont, Gurnee Mills, the Oak Brook-Yorktown corridor, Naperville, plenty of other downtowns with lively scenes and regular festivals and events (Geneva, Aurora, Elmhurst, etc.) and countless shopping centers that are transitioning to lifestyle centers. I assume there is a saturation point where these districts start losing people to each other. Of course, this might be mitigated by two factors: (1) continued population growth so that everyone can share from a growing spending pie and (2) specialization among entertainment districts that could help each remain competitive.

Another thought: how often do entertainment districts simply reproduce existing patterns of wealth and the distribution of higher-end commercial properties?

Trying to convert large empty grocery stores to better uses

The end of a company can have rippling effects: a number of Chicago area communities have been working for years to fill empty Dominick’s stores.

When Dominick’s went out of business in December 2013, it added 72 empty stores to the Chicago area’s retail landscape. The most desirable ones were snatched up by chains like Jewel-Osco, Mariano’s and Whole Foods Market. Last year, Albertsons acquired Safeway, Dominick’s parent company, giving it control of most remaining Dominick’s leases and property in the area.

At least 18 suburbs are still trying to turn the lights back on in the darkened stores. As time drags on, the prolonged vacancies create pockets of blight in once-thriving retail areas, hurting town coffers, hindering other businesses and inconveniencing residents. Some officials blame Albertsons, saying the company is paying rent on dark buildings to block out Jewel-Osco competitors…

Albertsons has been “extending dark store leases” to keep out competition, a tactic that’s “objectionable, but not unusual” in the Chicago area’s extremely competitive grocery industry, said Andrew Witherell, a commercial real estate broker who consulted with Mariano’s on its expansion into 11 former Dominick’s stores…

Other towns have banded together to attract retailers. Last year, nine western suburbs launched a joint effort, “One Call/10 Stores,” to try to fill some 700,000 square feet of former Dominick’s space. Most of those stores, however, remain empty.

In other words, there is little incentive for Albertsons to sell the properties. I would also guess that a number of suburbs have struggled to find tenants who could use all of the building space and possibly be there for a long time. In many places, is there really a need for another grocery store given all the options (and with Walmart operating as the biggest grocery chain in America)?

Perhaps some of these communities need to head in different directions. Break the large store into smaller pieces. Think about retrofitting the whole structure to include a mix of uses and alter the big store and large parking lot dynamic. Maybe demolishing the structure could provide a fresh start and entice someone who doesn’t want to be saddled with an aging large structure. It will be interesting to see how long communities will go before trying something more drastic.

Redeveloping a few closed Chicago public schools into apartments

While many of the closed school buildings in Chicago are drawing little attention, a few are being redeveloped:

In a blog post on Medium, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (yes, the DPD apparently blogs now) offered a first look at one of these adaptive reuse projects. They offer some details on how the process works: developers express interest in a property, seek landmarking designation for tax credits and waivers, and then begin the renovation. A suburban developer, Svigos Asset Management, is currently working to renovate the Elizabeth Peabody Public School at 1444 W. Augusta Blvd. and the John Lothrop Motley Public School at 739 N. Ada St. — of which both have addresses the highly coveted West Town area. The group is also working on getting landmark status for the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville for an adaptive reuse project there.

The developer is renovating these schools and turning them into new residential developments. In their post, the DPD reveals photos of the former James Mulligan School being transformed into apartments. To be fair, the Mulligan School has been shuttered for much longer than the schools that were closed a few summers ago. However, the building is nearly ready to go and the DPD indicates that the building’s new owner is gearing up for pre-leasing.

Not too surprising that the ones that are more attractive to developers are ones that are in more desirable locations.

Given the response to the closing of these schools, I’m a little surprised progress has been so slow. Granted, there are other major concerns in Chicago but given the city’s debt and the need for resources in some neighborhoods, these buildings represent an opportunity. Apparently there are plans for some other buildings:

The shuttered schools that have not been sold off still belong to the city and its residents, and some neighborhoods are looking to take these buildings back as community centers, food pantries, or other uses that would serve the surrounding residents.

These could be worthwhile ideas. Is the city determined to hold on to many of these structures rather than find community partners who could do some good? All of this reminds me of some of the fate of the properties where public housing high-rises stood for decades: often located in poorer neighborhoods, this land can sit empty for years. In fact, while Detroit gets a lot of attention for empty lots, Chicago has plenty of open space in certain neighborhoods. Outside of a long-term project of a land bank, what could be done to positively utilize these lots?

Deadmalls.com

The site has not been updated for a year or so but there is a lot of interesting retail information at Deadmalls.com. You can even purchase your own memorabilia (though I was hoping for something more ghastly)!

Four quick thoughts:

  1. The shopping mall was a marvel of the post-World War II suburban era. Today, there are still thriving malls – even in urban locations as they figured out that they needed to play in this game – but plenty of dead ones (27 listed in Illinois alone). The wonder of having all of those stores in one location that is easy to reach by car.
  2. Have the shopping malls been replaced by anything? Shopping online is not the same visceral experience. Perhaps it is big box stores: occasionally when I wander into a Home Depot or Costco or Walmart, I am astounded by the vast size, the number of products, and the relatively low prices.
  3. There are a lot of efforts to renovate or revitalize shopping malls including turning them into lifestyle centers, adding housing, and incorporating new features like skating rinks. Such efforts will probably succeed in a number of malls..
  4. I’m reminded of the portrayal of a dead mall in the book Gone Girl which portrayed it as a suburban wasteland (along with the McMansions). It would be worthwhile to go back to these dead malls sites in a decade or two to see what has become of them. Urban/suburban ruins? New uses?

Trying to revive “obsolete” suburban office parks

Declining interest in space in suburban office parks means a number of people are looking for ways to use that same space:

A report from the real-estate-service firm NGKF released late last year provides new numbers on an ongoing phenomenon: the slow, agonizing death of the American office park. The report looks at five far-flung office-tenancy submarkets—Santa Clara, in the San Francisco Bay Area; Denver; the O’Hare area of Chicago; Reston and Herndon, outside of Washington, D.C.; and Parsippany, New Jersey—and finds a general aura of decline.

Between 14 and 22 percent of the suburban-office inventory in these areas is, the report found, “in some stage of obsolescence,” suggesting that between 600 million and 1 billion square feet of office space are unnecessary for the modern company and worker. That’s about 7.5 percent of the country’s entire office inventory…

There are models that developers are using to transform older office parks throughout the country, to measured success. They mostly involve turning definitely-suburban office parks into urban-like, albeit still isolated, office “cities.” (It is worth noting that many of these projects involve extensive rezoning efforts.) A facility in the community of Edina, Minnesota, is in the midst of transforming from a sprawling office center into what one local developer called “not your father’s or mother’s office park.” In practice, that means linking the park to 15 miles of bike trails, big-box-store-free retail, and green space. Other developers managing struggling office parks are considering adding farmers’ markets, hotels, and housing.

Such efforts have been going on for a while now whether from New Urbanists trying to introduce mixed uses (office parks are notoriously empty for much of the day outside of business hours) or edge cities trying to diversify their portfolio of uses and revenues (see an example like Tysons Corner). Of course, such efforts require funds and demand for the new or renovated space and it can often be easier for developers and investors to move on to new hot locations or construct all new buildings and properties.

One other idea for these office parks: why not seriously look at converting them into housing? A good amount of the infrastructure would already be present – major roads, utilities, parking lots – and many metropolitan regions are in desperate need of more housing units (particularly affordable ones). Many of these office parks are located in existing job centers so the housing would be convenient for a number of workers. I don’t know what it would cost to renovate office space to residential space but it would be interesting to see some proposals.