Friday, October 21, 2011

Downtown development

New construction going up in a former vacant lot in the Loop, near the Eisenhower Expressway on ramp.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Demographic Changes

One story about the demographic changes in Chicago that I find underrepresented is the increase in downtown population.  Historically, downtown Chicago's population was described as being like a volcano:  empty in the middle and surrounded by great heights, then gradually decreasing to a shallow exterior.  This is changing.

Via the New York Times

As you can see from this map the neighborhood of downtown Chicago adjacent to Grant Park increased population by over 300%.  This neighborhood historically has had low population, hence the phenomenal growth.  In fact much of the Loop has been sparely populated and only in the recent years has space been repurposed residential.

One can observe Chicago's demographic changes better on this map. Downtown and areas near downtown are populating.  Some of the inner ring neighborhoods are depopulating.  Many of these depopulating areas are heavy industrial zones, as we will see later.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The urban frontier

Enjoy this essay regarding the undeveloped land in Chicago's South Loop via the Chicago Reader.  It is a subject that has also fascinated me and it is good to get some historical perspective on the area.

Chicagoans I've brought here for the first time invariably find themselves amazed at what they see. Wide-eyed, a native will usually ask two questions: First, "What in hell is all this wilderness doing in the middle of Chicago?" Second, some variant of "Gosh, isn't this place marvelous?" 

The answer to the first question is complicated. The space was created during the 20s and 30s in two stages. From 1925 to 1937 the city vacated more than nine square blocks south of 16th Street between Wentworth and the Chicago River for Santa Fe rail yards and, at about the same time, passed an ordinance to straighten out the river where it snaked east between 10th Street and 18th, to push it a full block and a half west of its original location. Mid-century, the railroad business collapsed, the rails were removed, and a huge strip of wilderness was left to sprout in the middle of the city. On paper at least, this land has been carved up by developers, but they haven't built much yet because there are no utilities, phone wires, streets, or sewers on the land. 

As for the second question, the answer is yes. 

Do read the whole thing, and the ancillary essay the Brownlands.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More comparative advantage

The upper Midwest has a real advantage over many Sunbelt cities in the west in one aspect; water resources.  Here is a story in a related tangent from the LA Times about Texas' vaunted cattle herd being sent out of state because of drought.

Texas has suffered more than $5.2 billion in agricultural losses this year from the dry spell, including in the cattle industry. No relief is in sight and the state climatologist says this could be the start of a 10-year drought, part of changing weather patterns worldwide.

This emphasizes one of the ways that cities in the upper Midwest can focus on their strengths.  Obviously Chicago is not going to start cattle ranching.  But there are many businesses that have large water needs.  Little known fact:  before Prohibition Chicago was a leading producer of malt liquor, and Peoria was a leading whiskey producer.  In fact Illinois produced more whiskey than Kentucky before Prohibition. 

"Peoria provided the perfect alignment of everything you needed for the production of alcoholic beverages: good spring water filtered by limestone, a river that provided transportation, a rail hub and lots of corn," said Brian "Fox" Ellis, a local historian and storyteller.

 "You also had the experience of two of the biggest groups to settle this area: Germans and Irish. Both knew how to distill, and both were thirsty," he said.

The river provided another benefit, said Ellis.

"The oak trees that lined the banks provided wood for cooperage houses that sprung up," he said.
Those cooperage operations thrived, making all the barrels needed in whiskey and beer production.
That production generated business beyond building barrels. Peoria's unquenchable thirst for distilling beverages was bringing 100 freight trains to town every day by 1880.

The spent sour mash and other byproducts were used to fatten thousands of head of cattle that passed through the Peoria Stockyards.

However, I would caution cities in this position to not use taxpayer money to try and lure businesses to the waterpark up north.  Rather, that cities should focus on making their water services as good as possible so that it provides businesses in the region a real comparative advantage.  Providing cheap water to residents and businesses is something that Midwestern cities do well, and they should focus on maintaining excellent water resources.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Urban Redevelopment

I hate to use the word "gentrification" because it tends to mean different things to different people.  Instead, I will use the term urban redevelopment because it is more precise; some cities have experienced a growth in population and this has lead to redevelopment.  Two notable examples are New York and Washington DC, though Chicago has experienced some of this as well.

As noted previously, the decline of the American city in the postwar era coincides with many factors and it was most certainly a convergence of these factors which lead to their decline.  So too then much the renaissance of the city is a convergence of factors.  I'd like to explore another factor in a little more detail.

Chicago's homicide rate, like that of much of America, is following a downward trend.  It is interesting to compare Chicago's statistics to that of the nation as a whole as well as other cities for some context.  Today we shall have a glimpse of homicide rates in New York City from 1900 - 2007:

New York city homicide rate from 1900 to 2007

As you can see in this graph there was a huge surge in homicides in New York in the late 1960s and a steep drop in the mid-1990s.  The rates are gradually trending downward.  Not surprisingly this looks almost like an inversion of New York's population:

New York city population from 1900 to 2010

As you can see it is not a perfect correlation, however the dip in population from the 1960s to the 1990s coincides with the spike in homicides. It would be naive of urbanists to ignore the role that crime played in the decline of cities in the mid 20th century and rise in the late 20th century.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ugly subways

Riders of Chicago's L know that there is a disparity in the aesthetics of the stations.  Some stations are much nicer than others.  The good folks at Forgotten Chicago are proponents of the original Art Moderne subway stations.

Chicago’s are the best examples of Art Moderne style subway architecture in the United States, yet don’t enjoy landmark recognition of any kind. There is a history of neglect and callousness regarding historic preservation in Chicago. Important high profile architecture is often subjected to the wrecking ball, but that which is less obvious is at greater risk. For the average passenger, subway stations are at best a familiar, hardly noticeable detail, at worst a venue for intense frustration. However, to see them as part of a lineage in transit architecture is an entirely different matter. As one-of-a-kind structures, they may soon occupy a place in another lineage; the latest in a long line of Chicago’s squandered architectural heritage. 

An interesting corollary is this Forbes article making the case that the stations themselves should be spartan as the money is better spent on other things, or as the headline reads "Good transit is ugly transit".

If American cities are ever going to grow beyond their currently stunted sizes, they’re going to need new transit infrastructure. But no amount of government subsidies will ever be enough to build more than a line here and there until we get our astronomical costs under control. To be sure, aesthetic projects are not the biggest driver of America’s breathtakingly high transit costs, but they are indicative of our warped priorities when it comes to mass transit.

Let me give you a brief visual inspection of the subway stations in Chicago.

Chicago Subway -- Center Platform Speeds Service

The system in an original configuration.  Note the absence of benches.

subway platform

A mildly renovated red line station at Harrison.  The lighting is not original configuration, but it is otherwise original. 


An original station configuration.  Note the lack of benches.

Chicago Subway Station
A red line station at Lake, renovated with new lights, tile mosaic, marble flooring, and new and more numerous wooden benches. 

I have my own preferences for aesthetics, but I will leave it for the reader to decide which is preferable.

As Chicago's L increases in ridership and the city develops more densely, the case for more rapid transit will become more pronounced.  The dialogue is only beginning with the CTA's renovation of some older stations.  But it is one that needs to happen, because much of Chicago's transit infrastructure was built in the early 20th century or late 19th century.  If a miracle occurs and the subways are extended, what should they look like and how much priority should be placed on aesthetics?

Monday, October 10, 2011

More on the wrecking ball

Mathew Yglesias observes that Detroit has no bureaucracy for handling vacant properties and thus, civic institutions matter.

it drives home the extent to which Detroit’s problems are caused or exacerbating by totally dysfunctional municipal government

I would add that Detroit is one of the few large cities that does not have a ward system.  This electoral system means that there is no alderman to represent a neighborhood full of empty lots or to champion a reform to allow a ward resident the lot consolidation he or she desires.  As we've seen before though, Detroit has also been slow to adopt a good policy on blight with the creation of a land bank.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Chicago's subways back in time

Enjoy this short article on the construction of Chicago's subways during the Depression.  Can you find the spelling mistake?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Downtown Living

Today the word downtown can conjure up many different mental images.  It is easy to imagine downtown as a place of tall buildings, traffic congestion, many pedestrians, and a plethora of entertainment options.  It is good to keep in mind that downtown may not have always meant this.

Chicago's downtown, in the earlier industrial era, was a gritty and polluted place.  The buildings downtown as well as the outlying factories ran their boilers with coal, which plumed out and formed clouds that blocked the sun and caused serious health hazards as well as being a foul smelling dirty mess.

The working-class populations that settled the adjacent residential districts suffered the most immediate effects, but prevailing winds from the southwest carried noxious stenches into the prestigious neighborhoods close to downtown Chicago. Citizen complaints prompted a more vigorous enforcement of public health laws after 1860, the effect of which was to push the offending industries beyond the city limits into new industrial suburbs. 

One of the many factors that coincides with the redevelopment of cities and the urban core is the reduction of pollution.  Manufacturing has gotten cleaner, has relocated out of city centers, or out of the country entirely.  Better technology has allowed coal fired boilers to be replaced with cleaner alternatives like natural gas.  So downtown living has become a more attractive idea with the reduction or elimination of pollution from the city core. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Transit, density, and development

A rant about restrictive development in a transit oriented neighborhood in Washington DC raises a more interesting question:  should municipalities be more forceful to make neighborhoods more densely population in areas saturated with transit?

what’s the point of building good transit systems if we don’t then allow buildings to be built near the stations so people can use them?

It should be noted that this area has a walk score of 95.

This of course leads to Chicago and it's many vacant lots near transit nodes.  Chicago has made some recent stride at downtown infill, but has a lot of empty lots downtown.  Are there policies that Chicago can pursue to achieve the best possible development?  Here is a related story about development in the West Loop region.

"I'm just disappointed," said Dore, who earlier this year became the reluctant leader of a group of neighbors who fought a losing battle against the high-rise. The first phase of the project, a three-story retail building anchored by a Mariano's Fresh Market grocery store, is expected to break ground next month.

Their arguments that the project will block views, increase traffic and change the neighborhood's dynamic have been made by residents in up-and-coming locations for years. As neighborhoods like the West Loop, the South Loop or the Near North Side grow, residents can be at odds with business owners, developers and city officials over the kind of development they want in their communities."

And a map of the areaNote that there is a new L stop being installed a short walk from this site on Lake and Morgan.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Redevelopment: from parking garage to high rise

On the corner of State and Congress in Chicago's Loop is the historic Leiter Building.  First we shall examine a photograph of the building looking north along State St at the intersection of Congress Pkwy.  As you can see in this historic photograph, a parking garage was once next door.


Today a mixed use high rise is where the garage once was.


And a profile view of the new building.


As you can see there are retail stores on the ground floor with space above for residential space or office space.  I believe this is mixed use residential.  If you know for sure please let me know.  There is no ground level parking, however this building does have some parking garage space between the ground floor retail space and the space above. 

First I'd like to comment on the Leiter Building, and how it is an example of repurposing of an old structure.  The Sears store was turned into an education building.  Second, the new building is an example of this block increasing density for either residents or workers.  Unfortunately I have yet to turn up information on the parking garage; when it was built or what was there before the garage.

And here it is on the map.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Transit and Congestion in Chicago

Chicago dropped to number 2 for traffic congestion nationwide in a new survey from Texas A&M.  An interesting note in the survey was this bit:

The large public transportation network in the Chicago region prevented the problem from being even worse, the report noted. The region ranked No. 2, behind New York-Newark, for delay savings attributed to bus and rail service. Mass transit saved Chicago-area commuters 91 million hours and more than $2 billion, the study said.

I should couple this with a report on fare hikes for the Metra, some 30%!

Even if the agency ends up raising monthly fees by about 30 percent, the agency would still be below the average fares of other commuter railroads in the country, Clifford said.

And I should point out that Metra ridership continues to increase

After adjusting for calendar differences, system ridership increased 1.3% when compared to July 2010. Year-to-date ridership was 0.6% higher than the same time period in 2010.

While there was a dip in 2010, it is still running near 40 year highs.  We will see what fare hikes, service cuts, and other measures do to Metra ridership and Chicago area congestion.