Elevating Chicago

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TIGER II: Livable Boogaloo?

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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 best-received aspects of last year's stimulus was the set of grants known as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) handed out by the US Department of Transportation.  So well-received, in fact, they're gonna do it again.  It's technically known as the National Infrastructure Investments (NII) program, but Congress--like us all--loves a good sequel, so this new round of grants is known as TIGER II.

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The original TIGER program was a $1.5 billion slice of the $787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, better known as the stimulus.  Unlike most federal transportation funding, which is earmarked for projects in the home district of influential congressmen, TIGER grants are assigned by a competitive process overseen by the US DOT.  This process tends to favor big city transit projects because they tend to affect more people, whereas normally federal money gets siphoned off through state DOTs, who spend on rural projects to win votes.  TIGER II should be especially be a boon to urban projects in light of the DOT's new "6 Principles of Livability" and the recent repeal of the Bush Administration's rule on cost effectiveness that hamstrung a lot of otherwise worthy transit projects.

During the first TIGER process, more than 1,400 applications were sent in, with 51 receiving funding.  IDOT requested over $2.4 billion, but the only winner in the Chicago area was $100 million (out of a requested $300 million) for the CREATE freight rail decongestion program.  This time, the total pot is only $600 million--$140 million of which must go to rural areas--and any locality would have to match 20% of the federal funds.  This still leaves plenty of room for Chicago's worthy projects to grab its piece of the pie (BRT? Union Station? Almost anything...)

There's also a new wrinkle in TIGER II: it comes connected to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) $40 million land-use aid grant program.  DOT and HUD plan on coordinating their efforts so that new projects will connect well to the areas around them.  This seems to bode well for cities like Chicago whose inherent density will mean most transportation projects will connect to commercial, residential, or commercial centers, and where there's plenty of space for new housing developments--especially ones including affordable housing--near multi-mode transportation options.

Applications have to be in by August 23, and winners will be named September 15.  Chicago has plenty of worthy applicants, and hopefully CDOT, the IDOT, and the other relevant authorities will put their best foot forward and bring some of this money home.

Environmental Determinism in Chicago (Part II - The Built Environment)

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

When it comes to the kinds of land-use changes necessary to promote livability in Chicago, there are two main obstacles greater than our city's propensity for cynicism and its forbearer, corruption: the natural and built environments.  In the Part I, I covered Chicago's natural geography.  Next up: the built environment.  The built environment we see today is the result of over 170 years of decisions by private citizens and the municipal government--some coordinated and well thought-out, some not.  Just as the natural environment was easily understood as the combination of three distinct types, we can split up the man-made city that surrounds us into  roads, railways, and buildings.  Some of the built environment works to Chicago's advantage, some of it to the city's detriment.

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All the pieces fit together. Image courtesy of subbu4 on flickr

Roads
For more than a century, Chicago's famous street grid has primed it for walkable development.  I won't recount Jane Jacobs' entire argument for why short blocks improve the cityscape, but briefly, if you're walking somewhere that isn't simply down the street a few blocks, every corner you reach gives you the opportunity to turn and encounter a different micro-neighborhood, a different set of retailers, and different people.  This makes streets and sidewalks more exciting, provides for more commercial opportunities, and generally adds to the vibrancy of a city.

Unfortunately, we also have highways carving up the streetscape.  I'm not going to say that we should get rid of highways--they serve their purpose.  However, there's a point at which they do more harm than good, and that point usually comes where there is or could be a perfectly good urban neighborhood which is instead cut to shreds by 8 lanes of speeding metal.  The best (worst?) current examples of this are the Kennedy south of Belmont and the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive.  The Kennedy because it creates a no man's land just west of the North Branch of the Chicago River--as I mentioned in part I, some re-zoning around the river would be necessary to really take advantage of this space--and the Stevenson because of the way it chokes off the Near South Side from Douglas.  (Compare this with how the Kennedy feeds into Ohio and the upcoming Congress Parkway redesign resist isolating the Loop further.)

Railways
Chicago was built on the back of the railroad boom in the 19th century, and the remnants of this history still shape our city in significant ways.  From the enormous Belt Railway Company Yard south of Midway to Canada Pacific's stagnant Bloomingdale Trail and the numerous Metra lines, rail rights-of-way take up significant real estate.  The CREATE Program will clear up some of the bottlenecks that come with this level of complex infrastructure, but by and large railroads are simply something we have to work with and around in order to have a growing economy.  There is also, of course, the L, maybe the defining characteristic of the Chicago built environment (along with the Sears Tower.)  We'll have plenty more to say about the L, as it's just as vital a part of the people economy in Chicago as the freight lines are to our local industry.

Buildings
Between the loop's skyscrapers and the familiar brownstones throughout the city, much of the city is built up nicely.  It allows for a wide variation in densities, from the incredible diversity of the areas around the Loop, to the almost suburban single family homes in Sauganash.  But there's also plenty of opportunity for urban infill, especially where surface parking has blighted the land around L stops.  There's no reason why the same 3- and 4-story mixed use development which has spurred non-bubble growth in many American cities in the last decade can't be replicated along various corridors here.  Developers are finally coming around to the economic merits of this type of construction, but it's up to the city to meet them halfway in terms of up-zoning areas which are well-served by transit so they can start building in a more economically and environmentally sustainable way.

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