Not So Fast

Not So Fast

With two similar developments still under construction along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor on Chicago’s northwest side, local architects Brininstool + Lynch unveiled in August yet another mixed-use rental tower as notable for what it lacks as for the handsome design elements advertised in its renderings—namely, it has less than half the number of parking spaces that a development its size would typically be required to provide.

In July, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed a plan to slash minimum parking requirements in the city, more than doubling the area eligible for so-called “transit-oriented development” status. Such TODs, as they are known, have been almost uniformly hailed by urbanists yet frequently opposed by community groups wary of rising rents and sudden shifts in density.

As of press time, the new development at 710 West Grand Avenue had not yet faced the public gauntlet, but others have. Packed public meetings in the Logan Square area have exposed some deep resentment from longtime residents of the gentrifying neighborhood toward new, high-density development. At the same time, many (including this editorial page) have praised the long-overdue easing of parking requirements in Chicago, which typically compel developers to provide one parking spot per residential unit. TODs are near transit, so the need for cars is less, the argument goes, and developments near train stations can qualify for parking-to-unit ratios less than 1:1.

But as the pace of TOD development picks up, enthusiasm for the policy’s basic principle appears to be crowding out important questions about the nature of neighborhood development. What are the implications of a wide-reaching TOD program for historic preservation? For affordable housing?

Scott Rappe, a principal of Kuklinski+Rappe Architects and past president of the local chapter of the AIA, was among the most vocal proponents of 1611 West Division, which in 2012 became the city’s first TOD thanks to a project-specific ordinance. Now, though, he is worried the label could be used to justify unnecessary teardowns and unsustainable development.

“I’m a solid supporter of TOD, but the recently introduced expanded provisions are causing me some real unease,” Rappe said. Specifically he’s worried about buildings marked as “orange” or “red” in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey—usually aging historic properties on small lots that could find themselves suddenly in areas incentivized by TOD policy.

“The threat I see, in terms of quantity of threatened buildings, is not really from the big TOD developments, but from little ones,” Rappe said. “The loss of a lovely vintage/historic building is not offset by a corresponding marginal TOD benefit of one or two units.”

Rappe did a quick survey of his area, Chicago’s East Village neighborhood, and estimated dozens of buildings could be in this situation.

For its part, the TOD ordinance does require developers to meet certain requirements in order to receive the parking waiver. It offers a boost in density to developers who provide affordable housing onsite instead of down the street (as allowed by the city’s affordable requirements ordinance). And it encourages “alternative transportation” options, like car sharing and bike parking.

But the ordinance could—and should—do much more. Owners of small lots within a half-mile of a so-called “pedestrian designated street” (defined at the whim of the local alderman) can now get more rent per square foot, offering more units instead of more parking. That is a powerful incentive for new development, and a golden opportunity to encourage the right kind. Why not scrutinize projects that propose teardowns, making them go through public reviews as any planned development would? Why not trade additional parking requirement reductions for greater affordable housing incentives? Would developers turn their backs on this huge windfall if it came with a small fee to fund public reviews and neighborhood development initiatives?

Transit-oriented development is a powerful tool, and it represents a positive direction for Chicago’s denser neighborhoods. But it is not the be-all, end-all of sustainable neighborhood development.