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Transit-Oriented Development Proponents Admit 'We're Learning As We Go'

By Patty Wetli | August 23, 2017 2:13pm
 A forum on transit-oriented development raised as many questions as it answered.
A forum on transit-oriented development raised as many questions as it answered.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

LINCOLN SQUARE — Transit-oriented developments are being proposed, and approved, increasingly in Chicago following the passage of an ordinance that provides incentives to construct housing near CTA and Metra rail stations.

Is the policy working, and did it make sense in the first place?

The jury's still very much out, according to a panel of urban planning experts who spoke at a forum held Tuesday night in Lincoln Square.

For every question panelists were able to definitively answer — No, the ordinance doesn't give developers a blank slate to erect the Sears Tower of apartment buildings — more were left open to further debate: How do the developments affect gentrification? Does the ordinance allow for too much or too little density? Should more consideration be given to development on side streets?

"We're learning as we go," conceded panelist Kyle Smith, economic development project manager with the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Among the subjects in need of deeper exploration:

Is transit-oriented development the right horse to back?

Transit-oriented developments are typically pitched as a way to decrease the need for cars by concentrating denser housing near public transportation. Chicago's ordinance allows for more dwelling units and fewer parking spaces than the zoning code would require for non-transit-oriented projects.

"It is hard to predict if in five years people are going to be living car-free lives," said Joseph Schweiterman, professor of public service management and director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

"We could guess wrong, we could have a boom in car ownership," he said.

In Chicago, transit ridership had been surging, but thanks in part to lower gas prices, growth has recently been static on rail lines and dipped on buses, according to Schweiterman.

Abnormality or trend? That's a question for planners to wrestle with.

The city's shifting demographics could affect future transit use as well, Schweiterman said.

"As we get wealthier, living a life as a transit-goer can be unappealing," he said.

Other variables include the city's financial woes and declining population. How should those current realities factor into long-term conversations about zoning and development?

"There's a sense we should err on the side of development," as opposed to San Francisco, which is at the other end of the pendulum, Schweiterman said.

• Is Chicago's transit-oriented development policy too heavily skewed toward rail lines?

"The plan hasn't looked at what the transit system can handle," Schweiterman said.

The Red and Purple Line modernization is a step in the right direction, but CTA's other rail lines face capacity and slow zone issues, and the system overall suffers from "the shortest rapid transit cars in the country," noted Schweiterman.

Then there's the matter of whether high-density development along rail lines alone is enough to get Chicagoans to give up their cars.

That car-free or "car-light" vision of the city falls apart the minute someone attempts to get from Rogers Park to Lincoln Square via CTA train. Or Lincoln Square to Pilsen. Or Jefferson Park to Lakeview.

"The bus really is the missing link," said Smith.

"High-frequency" bus service — meaning service at least every 15 minutes, seven days a week not just during rush hours — would open up the benefits of transit-oriented development to far more areas, Smith said.

Schweiterman concurred.

"Transit to get to and from work isn't enough," he said.

Bus rapid transit — buses that run along a dedicated center lane and make fewer stops — is one potential solution, and compared with adding rail lines can be built for relatively low risk and investment, Schweiterman said.

Yet the concept met with strong resistance when proposed for Ashland and Western avenues and has yet to gain significant traction in Chicago.

"BRT [bus rapid transit] is the big weapon we've yet to use to full effect," Schweiterman said.

The city actually operated, and abandoned, a version of bus rapid transit decades ago, Smith noted. 

"Streetcars," he said.

• Is there a way to spread transit-oriented development across the city?

Urban planners from other cities practically drool over the massive vacant lots Chicago has near rail stations, which are prime candidates for transit-oriented developments, according to Kendra Jackson Freeman, manager for housing and community development at the Metropolitan Planning Council.

The problem is, those aren't necessarily the lots being snapped up by developers. Instead, residents complain, real estate investors are targeting neighborhoods where resources like street parking are already scarce.

"A disappointment of the ordinance is it's not being seen on the South Side," said Schweiterman.

Why not?

Because developers are following the market, rather than being forced to lead it, he said.

After nearly two hours of thought-provoking discussion at Tuesday's forum, one thing became clear about transit-oriented development — Chicago hasn't remotely exhausted debate on the topic.

Pointing to the size of the standing-room only crowd, Schweiterman said, "Only in Chicago would you get an audience like this to talk about zoning."