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City Knows How to Improve L Station Neighborhoods, Chooses Not To

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

One of the most effective ways to solve the last mile problem is transit oriented development, or TOD.  Or, if you're the CTA and the City of Chicago and just want to be different, you call it Transit Friendly Development, and you publish a toothless "guide" to improving the immediate vicinity of L stations around the city.  Without a single mention of "last mile" and putting forth only non-binding zoning considerations, the CTA, CDOT, and the Department of Zoning and Planning (DZLUP) have proven they can effectively give lip service to one of the most fundamental aspects of livability.

Leaving aside (for the moment) the issue of what--if any--actions the city will take going forward, it's important to see exactly what the city is advocating for.  First, the seven "typologies" they've outlined are Downtown Core (DC), Major Activity Center (MC), Local Activity Center (LC), Dense Urban Neighborhood (DN), Urban Neighborhood (UN), Service Employment District (SD), and Manufacturing Employment District (MD).  Stations are labeled not as what they are today, but as what the city sees them as becoming.

CTA Typology Cropped Map.png

These types are innocuous enough--I mean, who would disagree that the Fullerton Red/Brown/Purple stop is a Major Activity Center?  And it's important to recognize that a lot of the Orange Line serves Manufacturing Districts that will have little opportunity for residential construction.  But dig a little deeper, and cracks appear.  For instance, the guide describes an Urban Neighborhood (like the 51st St. Green Line Stop) as areas where "retail development exists primarily to support the immediate area."  But if that retail gets concentrated in the area immediately next to transit, won't it become a Local Activity Center?  And that's exactly the kind of "placemaking" the city is supposedly trying to encourage.  The document proclaims itself as aspirational, but by announcing that they plan on severely restricting density around stations, they're crippling the efficacy of their own transit system.

Moving down the typology list, the "Service Employment District" designation is a joke.  It tries to lump large employers in "multistory office buildings" in with hospitals and universities, and suggests the areas near these kinds of stations should be designed to "improve regional mobility."  This is an enviable goal for the completely unwalkable Rosemont and Cumberland Blue Line stops, because it could push people towards transit and away from the nearby highways.  But the city clearly understands that universities are bastions of livability (most college students manage life carless,) and accordingly Loyola is a Major Activity Center, as is the Davis St. station in Evanston (the closest stop for much of Northwestern's campus,) as well as the Green Line IIT stop.  Meanwhile, the UIC-Halsted stop gets designated as a Service Employment District.  This merely reflects current zoning, not the potential for a stop which serves a primarily commuter university and the improving Near West Side.  Meanwhile, just a block away from the Morgan St. entrance is an entire square block given over to a surface parking lot!

And the guide's final recommendations seem pleasant and generally sympathetic to livable development.  For example, "Identify station areas where property ownership is such that aggregation and other incentives can be leveraged to encourage future transit friendly development," or "Refine TFD Guidelines and incorporate them into the appropriate municipal codes, especially the City of Chicago Zoning Code."

Except, when you think about it, wouldn't a guide like this be the perfect opportunity to precisely spell out even a few high-priority infill opportunities? Or maybe make a specific recommendation to re-zone land around a few stops as Planned Development areas to give future developers a head start on the permit process? Or put a number to the expected Floor-Area Ratios at Major Activity Centers and Dense Urban Neighborhoods? (Hint: start with 3.0 and go up.)

To be fair, there's really very little written in the guide that's disagreeable (other than the Service Employment District designation.)  And that's probably why the document as a whole is so incredibly frustrating: it leaves out all the important stuff, reads like a regurgitation of Center for Transit Oriented Development talking points,* completely lacks any quantitative analysis, and in some cases gives little credence to the actual facts on the ground.  The potential changes the guide does outline are straightforward, doable, and in many cases would cost the city very little.  And yet the CTA, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Zoning and Planning are content to sign off on a document they hope will be "useful" but won't actually create any of the necessary changes to our built environment.  They've acknowledged what tangible changes should take place-- but clearly they won't come at all if we don't pressure our politicians to live up to their word.

*Note I'm a big fan of these talking points.  They're clear and accurately explain the goals of TOD.  They're also a great starting point for documents like this typology guide.

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