Chicago's proliferating transit oriented developments spark controversy

Hot TOD-Dy

Chicago's proliferating transit oriented developments spark controversy

Transit is getting some love in Chicago, and not just in terms of de rigueur track and station improvements. An estimated 30 new transit-friendly residential projects have been built, are under construction, or are in planning since Chicago adopted its first transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinance in September 2013.

“The built and substantially built projects are four or five years in the making, so it’s hard to attribute them entirely to the ordinance,” said Jon Heinert, partner at Wheeler Kearns Architects and project architect for three major TOD buildings. Real estate microclimates also play a role in where and when housing gets built. Just compare Wicker Park and Woodlawn. But, Heinert added, “there has definitely been an uptick.”

The new rules make it easier for developers to revisit their proposals and apply for more units and less parking on the same plot—a potentially big profit booster.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel championed a revised TOD ordinance in September 2015 with provisions twice as potent. Developers may now apply for a 100 percent reduction in the parking minimum (up from 50 percent) within a quarter mile of a mass-transit station (up from 600 feet) or within a half mile of avenues with “pedestrian designation.”

Completed in 2014, Wheeler Kearns’s 1611 West Division was a TOD trailblazer, foreshadowing the citywide code change. The East Village Association (EVA), in a departure from kneejerk NIMBYism, encouraged developer Rob Buono to work with the city to free the project from its mandatory parking minimum (at the time requiring a one-to-one ratio of parking spaces to residential units). Buono and the EVA won a protracted battle with opposing neighbors and the 99-unit rental was built without a single parking space.

The controversy surrounding this building has since been diluted by a legion of imitators. 1611 West Division demonstrated an appetite among younger renters for smaller units in denser, more urbane buildings—hives of activity.

Public perception is somewhat different.

“The parking reduction is a nonissue,” said Heinert, “but the public is more resistant now to increased density. Developers are building with more bulk and height [in the neighborhoods].”

Density is further incentivized by a graduated floor area ratio (FAR) bonus for TOD developments large enough to trigger the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which includes a certain percentage of affordable units (developers can choose to build the units on-site or pay into a fund to off-site them).

On the question of affordability, the “luxury” makeup of most new TOD projects has alarmed some neighbors and community activists. Developers routinely opt out of the on-site affordable housing, and many aldermen fail to push the issue. But projects like the recently announced 100 percent affordable 88-unit building in Logan Square may help a bit. And taken together, all these new luxury rentals may take pressure off of existing stock.

Developers are queuing up parking-free or parking-reduced projects in gentrifying neighborhoods with sizable vacant parcels. Logan Square is the bull’s-eye, but neighborhoods five miles of the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, from downtown north through Logan Square along the Blue Line, are feeling the effects.

By one count, there are eight significantly sized TOD projects—all rental—completed or under construction with some 1,100 apartments in total. More than 330 apartments are spread across three under-construction buildings near the Blue Line’s California station, adding high-rises to the neighborhood mix.

Buono and Wheeler Kearns migrated northwest from their pioneering 1611 West Division to anchor this new blitz. Their Twin Towers, a stone’s throw from the Metra, are 11 and 12 stories with 216 apartments and 56 parking spaces. One block south on Milwaukee Avenue, a topped-out, six-story, 120-unit rental, simply called “L” for the elevated tracks at its door, has given primacy to bike parking. The tally? Bikes: 200. Cars: 60.

Despite sporadic local grumblings, TOD buildings are better neighbors in terms of design.

“Pre-TOD, larger buildings springing up in places like the South Loop and River North had a lack of engagement with the street,” said Heinert. “New parking-lite designs do a better job relating to the street and are more representative of classic Chicago.”

Looks like those old urban forms really do hold the answers.