Good for preserving suburban green space…but is it also contributing to inequality?

A group in the northwest suburbs of Chicago announced an agreement to buy and preserve nearly 250 acres of land:

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In a watershed moment for suburban land preservation efforts, a Barrington-based conservation group announced Monday it is buying the Richard Duchossois family’s 246.5-acre Hill ‘N Dale Farm South, long considered one of the most important and desirable tracts of open space in northern Illinois.

Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land near Barrington Hills will ensure it remains protected open space and provide a critical wildlife corridor with the 4,000-acre Spring Creek Forest Preserve next door…

All told, the acquisition and restoration carries an estimated $10 million price tag, according to the organization. Citizens for Conservation received nearly half that through a $4.9 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, the largest such grant awarded for a single-parcel purchase…

Although not within Barrington Hills’ corporate limits, the property is surrounded by the village. Village President Brian Cecola was enthused by Citizens for Conservation’s acquisition of the land.

“Citizens for Conservation’s dedication to land preservation aligns with our village’s objectives of preserving open spaces and maintaining our 5-acre zoning. It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” he said.

With all of the concerns about land use and environmental degradation due to suburban sprawl, isn’t preserving space for animals, plants, and nature a win?

Here is another possible way to read this: the purchase of this land continues patterns of uneven development and inequality in metropolitan regions. How this might happen:

-Who has this kind of money to purchase the land? In this particular case, a non-profit secured a sizable grant – not an easy task in itself – and found other money. This group purchased and maintains property on its own and has contributed to Forest Preserve acquisitions.

-This green space is in a wealthier suburban setting. According to 2020 Census data, Barrington Hills has a median household income of over $157,000.

-As described above, Barrington Hills has a guideline involving 5-acre zoning. Such zoning practices mean properties are larger and both the land and housing is more expensive. This limits who can live in the community.

Hopefully, there is some consideration given to who benefits from using this green space and how all people in metropolitan regions could benefit from proximity to and access to nature and green spaces.

Historic preservation, the ways cities and suburbs resist development projects, and property values

In a discussion of how historic preservation aligned with particular political interests in cities, a scholar describes how suburbanites resist development compared to those in cities:

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The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.

While historic preservation does take place in the suburbs (and will come for McMansions at some point), it does not occur at the same level as in cities. As noted above, suburbs are not likely to approve significant changes to local zoning or buildings. Neighbors and residents will complain about changes to traffic, noise, lighting, and the character of a neighborhood in a way that tends to limit what a redeveloped property will be.

Cities also have zoning regulations and NIMBY responses to new structures but the presence of more buildings and uses in denser areas can make this all more complicated. Particularly in areas where redevelopment is hot, a new building might be very different than what has stood there for a long time.

But, as the article notes, historic preservation can be a tool used in a lot of places to halt plans:

Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.

And perhaps this gets at the heart of the matter: whether using zoning or historic preservation, one of the goals of American residents is to enhance property values. Sonia Hirt argues that protecting single-family homes and their values is a primary goal of zoning in the United States. In a system that prizes the growth of home values, perhaps historic preservation plays a similar role.

Many goods come via truck, few want to encounter those trucks on a suburban road

Trucking is essential to the American economy. However, it is not desirable to encounter many trucks on local roads. Here is how one Chicago area county wants to address the issue:

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“The key is really getting trucks onto the interstate as safely and efficiently as possible,” said Patricia Mangano, senior transportation planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

As the county grows and the region continues to be an important national transportation hub, the study recommends strategies to minimize the negative impact of freight traffic to residents and the environment…

The report says that high volumes of truck traffic have led to safety and congestion concerns, especially in sensitive areas such as historic districts, neighborhoods or environmentally protected areas. The study notes western Will County’s natural and cultural assets, such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and the Kankakee River, could be negatively affected by new development and traffic…

“We are the proverbial crossroads of America,” he said, noting residents just want to ensure they can get from work to home to their children’s activities without being caught in traffic.

In recent decades, Will County has become home to an increasing number of warehouses and intermodal facilities. This could be viewed as a positive for economic activity and growth which then leads to more tax revenues, jobs, and prestige.

Yet, certain industries do not necessarily mesh well with the suburban single-family home ideal. Trucks are related to a number of concerns residents have about all sorts of land uses: noise, traffic, lights, threats to the residential ideal they hope for.

I see the point of routing truck traffic along particular roads. This also has the effect of altering those roads. I can think of several major thoroughfares near here that are full of truck traffic during the day. Driving on these roads can be quite different than driving on other main roads. And because the way many suburban communities are laid out, there are often not good alternative routes since traffic in general is funneled from smaller residential streets to larger volume roads.

An impractical suggestion that might please suburban residents: have truck only roads that lead from industrial and commercial properties straight to highways. In many locations, this might work as warehouses and distribution centers are clustered together as are big box stores and shopping malls. On suburban roads without big trucks, suburbanites might occasionally find the opportunity to drive like people do in car commercials: on the open road.

Violating suburban boundary agreements

One Chicago suburb is accusing another of violating a long-term boundary agreement in order to pursue a sizable property formerly occupied by a notable company:

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Glenview officials indicated the Allstate campus is described as Territory D within the Milwaukee Road and Sanders Road Corridor Agreement between the two communities, which specifies that Glenview alone has the right to its annexation and that Prospect Heights shall not object to Glenview’s annexation.

But David Just, community engagement manager for Glenview, said Prospect Heights notified his village in late March that it intends to seek annexation of the former Allstate campus itself…

“We are disappointed to learn that Prospect Heights is now attempting to annex the former Allstate campus,” Jenny said. “This violates our long-standing agreement and partnership with Prospect Heights, and our community intends to take any and all actions necessary to enforce the terms of the agreement that governs annexation and development of this property.”

The statement added that Glenview strongly encourages Prospect Heights to respect the communities’ long-standing partnership and continue to abide by the promises made when the agreement was negotiated and approved.

Based on what I read, this strikes me as having two dimensions. There could be a legal dimension involving boundary agreements and annexations. How might the law and courts look at land between communities that could be claimed by both community or either community?

The second area involves interactions between communities in the long-term. Will Glenview and Prospect Heights see each other differently for years because of this? Will one community do something in response?

Suburban land is valuable, particularly if developers have plans for a land use that will generate additional revenues. Suburban communities are in competition for business and revenues so an opportunity like this might be too good to pass up, even if it ruffles the feathers of other actors. Given a good chance to secure a new development, how many municipalities would abide by agreements?

Still a limited tiny house movement

What happened to tiny houses in recent years? Here is some discussion of the issues tiny houses face:

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“We’re still here,” says Kent Griswold, 63, who lives in Bend, Ore., and is the founder of the Tiny House Blog, which is believed to be one of the first blogs about tiny houses. “The movement hasn’t stopped growing, it’s just not in the public eye as much anymore.”…

Laubach says due to the pandemic, which has made people re-evaluate what is important, retirees, mature widows and single women are driving much of the demand today…

Griswold agrees, but says instead of just the novelty of people looking for tiny homes on wheels, which really drove the movement during the 2007-09 recession, people are looking at other ways to live small…

“Tiny homes on wheels or park models are thought of as RVs, but many jurisdictions are starting to think of them as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Still, the code problems can get frustrating for people,” says Laubach.

Arguably, the tiny house movement was not big to start with and the homes often appealed to particular people with resources.

COVID-19 and the housing affordability issues in many metropolitan regions would seem to be the conditions under which tiny houses would thrive. People want to get away from typical locations and they need cheaper spaces.

At the same time, more uncertain economic conditions might mean that people are less likely than ever to be lenient about zoning and codes. This limits where tiny houses are possible. This is, of course, a much broader issue: many communities want to protect single-family homes at all costs.

Does this mean something has to give in the future? Can people have really high property values, complain about the lack of affordable housing or housing options, and continue to restrict other housing options like tiny houses?

The tiny house movement might be small and it might work steadily but its ongoing presence is at least a reminder that other housing options are possible.

The legislative act that helped Disney build Disney World in Florida

Corporations, sports teams, and developers ask for or make use of tax breaks or monies or land opportunities provided by governments. Walt Disney benefited from a 1967 act by the Florida legislature:

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The Reedy Creek Development Act can be traced back to 1967.

It was a pivotal negotiating factor in convincing Disney to locate his company in Florida and allows the company to do just about whatever it wants on its land.

“The ability, the power to build a nuclear power plant, an airport manufacturer, distill and distribute alcoholic beverages and lots of other things,” said Dr. Richard Foglesong, author of “Married to the Mouse” in an interview with WFTV in 2021.

Many would love to have this kind of freedom to do what they want with a large property. In contrast to what was possible through this act, many property owners would have to apply to local governments for uses of the property beyond what is allowed through the local zoning.

If leaders in Florida follow through with revoking this act and Disney wants to go elsewhere, does this shape up to be a second Amazon HQ #2 situation? Or, does Disney have a lot fewer possible locations to go to given its need for a lot of land and good weather?

“Dark stores” arrive on the urban landscape

The brick and mortar retail establishment has a new member popping up across communities: “dark stores.”

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These ghost storefronts—often called “dark stores”—are warehouses in all but name, yet they look markedly different from the gargantuan spaces where older online grocery companies like FreshDirect store their goods. Traditional warehouses are zoned to regions outside of commercial districts, meaning they will be set apart from areas with lots of walking traffic. Dark stores are located in retail storefronts on main streets, near the heart of busy neighborhoods, but they serve only ecommerce customers. And they’ve gone from a niche phenomenon discussed largely in retail industry circles to a feature of major American cities.

The rise of dark stores directly parallels the acceleration of ecommerce as a whole, especially in the grocery industry. Online sales represented 13 percent of all grocery spending in 2021, a new high, and dark stores are designed to make the delivery process smoother…

Dark stores—sprouting up in former butcher shops, convenience stores, gyms, and mattress retailers—are taking up spaces once designed to be open to the public. That shift from far-flung warehouses to accessible retail storefronts has city planners on edge. Because dark stores sit at the confusing intersection of being technically occupied, but functionally empty, they risk entrenching the worst impacts that vacant real estate can have on a community.

The fear is that dark stores, like vacant storefronts, could puncture a hole in the social landscape of a neighborhood. Vacant storefronts are bad for cities. When there are a lot of them in a tight vicinity, they mean that fewer people will walk down the street, and fewer connections between neighbors will happen. “Having people out on the street increases public safety, because more people see things that are happening,” said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC. “That level of social engagement makes cities safer and makes places safer.” Accordingly, neighborhoods with high numbers of vacant storefronts see increased crime rates, fire risks, and rodent activity.

I wonder how municipalities will respond to this because of the revenues such dark stores might generate. It is one thing if other retailers or businesses want to use these spaces. But, if dark stores are occupying commercial space and generating money through paying property taxes and sales taxes plus adding jobs, will they be as concerned about the social fabric? It can be difficult to fill vacant commercial properties, particularly spaces like grocery stores.

So out of the concerns expressed above, I could imagine cities limiting the number or density of dark stores within different kinds of zoning. Or, what if there was a whole block of dark stores and then none for a decent distance from there? If e-commerce is here to stay and needs to be close to those who order, perhaps warehouse districts need to be spread throughout communities at regular intervals or near transportation hubs.

The arguments for and against banning zoning for only single-family homes

The single-family home is very important in the United States and this is enshrined in land use policy and zoning. Because of this, there is a move in multiple communities to ban single-family home zoning and this has prompted debate over the change:

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Originally introduced in Berkeley, Calif., in 1916 as a means of preventing a black-owned dance hall from opening, single-family zoning became increasingly popular — though divorced from its explicitly racist origins — as more Amercans moved to sprawling suburban cities across the country. Today, many of the country’s major urban areas reserve 75 percent or more of their residential land exclusively for stand-alone, one-family homes.

Recently, lawmakers in blue states and cities have moved to roll back zoning rules in hopes of spurring more development. Minneapolis became the first major city to ban single-family zoning in 2019. That same year, Oregon passed a similar law statewide. Perhaps the most significant change came in California where the median home price is estimated to exceed $800,000. A new law that eliminates single-family zoning across the entire state went into effect on Jan. 1. None of these reforms make it illegal or even more difficult to build a stand-alone house, they simply remove barriers that prevent any other type of dwelling from being built.

Advocates for eliminating single-family zoning say it’s the most important step toward addressing the housing shortage, since any other programs to spur more development would be moot if there’s no land to legally build on. Supporters say eliminating what they often refer to exclusionary zoning would have wide-ranging benefits beyond just creating more housing stock, including reducing racial segregation and closing the racial wealth gap, boosting job opportunities in urban areas and reducing climate impacts created by suburban sprawl.

Many conservative opponents of these reforms, including former President Donald Trump, have portrayed them as a “war on the suburbs” that would bring big-city problems to quiet communities while doing little to address the underlying causes of the housing shortage. Some argue that financial incentives, not coercive new laws, are the best way to spur development.

A lot of pro-housing advocates also have doubts about how much of an impact zoning reforms on their own will make. They argue that most of the new laws are riddled with exceptions that limit their scope and few also address the long list of other ways that local governments can prevent dense housing from being built — like minimum lot sizes and parking requirements. Some on the left make the case that the only way to increase housing supply at the pace that’s necessary is through strict mandates that require cities to build a certain number of housing units and impose heavy financial penalties on those that don’t.

This would be a hard change to make and capitalize on in many communities. Housing policy in the United States is difficult to change and is rooted in a long history, cultural narratives about success, exclusionary practices, and local governments and other government actors. Yet, even discussion of such a change at least highlights the need in many places to think more about housing and how it could be more accessible to many.

As about any policy possibilities in the United States, I now wonder if what would work best in this situation is for several different kinds of communities across the country to ban single-family zoning and see what happens. What changes in the community? How do residents and newcomers experience it? How does it affect housing values? Does it significantly alter the character of the community? And if there are success stories – which could range from limited noticeable change (that it does not lead to negative outcomes or the end of the suburbs might be good enough) to positive outcomes – then other communities could observe and consider the option.

The importance and consequences of separating single-family homes from other land uses in the United States

A foundational idea in American life is that single-family homes should be located near other single-family homes and away from other land uses, including denser residential units. While this might sometimes be sidelined to the more areas of planning and zoning, I would argue this is much bigger than just allocating physical space: it interacts with significant social, political, and cultural forces and has sizable effects on daily life. I will first describe how we got here before highlighting two examples I saw this week and then noting several important outcomes.

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From at least the mid-1800s, Americans developed ideas about having separate single-family homes among nature. Scholar John Archer examines the idea of “the cottage in the woods” from its roots in English villa houses and into a rapidly urbanizing American landscape. As cities and then suburbs developed, the single-family home became a hallmark of suburban communities where residents had escaped hectic and dangerous urban life. As zoning developed in the early 1900s, it evolved to protect single-family homes from other nearby land uses that might threaten it. Many American leaders and organizations promoted homeownership. Suburban communities and residential neighborhoods became refuges for whiter and wealthier residents who then worked to keep others out. This all helped contribute to residential pockets separate from other land uses and protected by local zoning and land use policies.

This historical legacy and ongoing reality plays out consistently in certain areas. Two examples I ran across in just the last few days:

  1. Affordable housing in the suburbs. Can denser housing that is cheaper be anywhere near single-family homes? This particular project in the Chicago suburbs drew typical complains from nearby homeowners; noise, traffic, change in character for the neighborhood. The developer came back with changes to try to fit in better with the nearby homes but there are still concerns. This makes sense given the American logic of homes and space but this logic is not organic or inherent to the housing itself; it is created.
  2. Why do apartments have to be located on busier streets in American communities? This may have negative effects on the apartment residents and serves to maintain the distance between denser housing and single-family homes. Again, this makes sense given the established American logic but it is possible – and indeed done elsewhere – that you can have quieter residential streets lined with apartments.

Why does this all matter? This separation of housing serves to continue race/ethnicity and class divides, contributing to residential segregation. This changes social patterns as people in different neighborhoods may be less likely to interact, utilize the same civic (such as schools) and private services, and engage politically. Ultimately, it can both shape and be shaped cleavages in society. Location helps determine life chances and Americans start with the premise that homes should be separate.

Acknowledging that a building proposal from a religious group can lead to a “painful” process

Religious groups regularly propose changes for land and buildings and I have studied this both in the western suburbs of Chicago and the New York City region. After a City Council vote to approve changes to land owned by the Islamic Center of Naperville (see earlier posts on the unusual amount of attention this drew and approval by the planning and zoning commission), the mayor of Naperville acknowledged that it had been a difficult process:

A large crowd in the city council chamber erupted in applause when the vote was completed. Each council member and Chirico expressed gratitude for the work put in by all parties throughout the process that played out over nine months in the city’s planning and zoning commission with 500 speakers in 15 meetings.

“We all know it was painful,” Chirico said. “There were times where I was entertained. There were times where I was angry. There were times where I was throwing my shoe at the TV. Every emotion it seemed like it went through.”

Even as life will now continue with the different actors involved, acknowledging the difficult process is noteworthy. In my study of such proposals, the religious groups do not always reach the outcome they desire nor do communities and residents always get what they want. Here, describing the process as “painful” could refer to a number of things – the time it took, figuring out the particulars, working with all of the interested parties, etc. – and very involved may have attained exactly what they wanted at the beginning.

It is also worth noting that the same group and site may be up for conversation again in the future. In order to help the proposal succeed, the Islamic Center of Naperville agreed to submit future changes for the building and property for review:

The final step pushing the proposal over the finishing line was a concession by the Islamic Center to submit its third, fourth and fifth phase to additional city council review when the time comes. A group representing the nearby subdivisions of Ashwood Pointe, Pencross Knoll and Tall Grass agreed to accept the proposal with those conditions.

Will the process at that point be less painful? The group has made two proposals and both times has encountered numerous questions from neighbors and community members. Some of the particular actors involved in those two discussions may be gone but the underlying questions may not.