City Working on First Plan to Promote Growth, Avoid Gentrification Near South and West Side Train Stations
Dollar Day Plus sits on the 2800 block of North Milwaukee Avenue, just a block from the bustling Logan Square ‘L’ station, and serves as one the last affordable hubs for groceries, home goods, and toys in the Northwest Side neighborhood. Roberto Requejo said it’s one of the few places left in the community that he visited in his childhood.
As high-end restaurants, bars, and apartment complexes have popped up near the Logan Square Blue Line train station, many long-standing community members and businesses have been pushed out of the neighborhood due to an inability to afford the area’s new standard of living, he said.
“Due to the type of unit and the affordability of those housing units built, a lot of folks have not had access to them,” Requejo said. “A lot of folks have had to leave; they couldn't stay because those rents and those property taxes were really high.”
Requejo, who works with nonprofit Elevated Chicago, is now collaborating with city officials on the first-ever policy plan for how to encourage equity as neighborhoods change, as well as promote development in underserved communities, through transit-oriented development, which means strategically building near train and bus stations.
The plan is a requirement of Chicago’s landmark equitable, transit-oriented development ordinance, which the Chicago City Council passed in January 2019. The law stipulates that any new development along train and bus lines should be prioritized in economically disadvantaged communities and that new buildings in gentrifying areas such as Logan Square must avoid displacing longtime residents and businesses.
It builds upon directions first initiated by the City Council in 2013, when the city adopted its first transit-oriented development ordinance, which slashed parking requirements and allowed greater heights for buildings near train stations. Then in 2015, council members expanded the measure to streamline the approval process for developers building near train and bus stations. All this was done to make Chicago’s streets safer and more walkable.
Since then, building near public transit in Chicago has boomed. Logan Square actually represents an outlier in how this development has occurred, Requejo said. An investment analysis by city officials and Elevated Chicago found that, of all the city’s train and bus stations across the city, close to 90 percent of the development has occurred in more affluent communities on the city’s North and Northwest sides or very close to the Loop, said Requejo, who serves as program director for Elevated Chicago.
“So the entire West and South sides of Chicago have seen no development at all,” he said.
Requejo blames developers’ hesitation to build along train and bus stations in these areas on decades of systematic disinvestment, pointing to redlining and predatory lending by the banking industry as causes. In addition to the long history of disinvestment in those communities throughout the 20th century, faulty loans to residents living in these areas led the foreclosure crisis to disproportionately impact neighborhoods on the South and West sides. He said this has led to communities with vacant lots and a lack of services, which leads developers to believe they are a risky bet for building. Requejo said those policies led to a distorted perception of risk, as well as a distorted perception of the South and West sides in general.
“Now when a developer is looking at where he or she wants to build or start a business or invest in a community center, they feel that those communities are not their first option,” Requejo said.
Kendra Freeman, director of community development and engagement at the Metropolitan Planning Council, said now is the time for change – she feels optimistic about the implementation and completion of equitable practices under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as well as under the new planning commissioner. She said the city’s Plan Commission is in “early talks” to produce its first-ever, comprehensive development plan for the South and West sides.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to get it right this time, making sure that we have a policy that’s not in a silo, flexible depending on market conditions,” she said. “I think there’s almost a perfect storm of opportunity here.”
She said the city should focus on incentivizing developers to build affordable, multi-family units near transit stations, as well as do a better job planning how to build up areas near train and bus lines. The traditional process of development, in which a builder decides where and what they want to construct, approaches local officials, and then engages the community about the plan, is broken, Freeman said. Developers should be asking residents what they need in the neighborhood first – particularly at prime spots for development, such as the vacant land near the recently revamped 95th Street Red Line train station.
“We haven’t done a good job really planning for, ‘How do we build up areas around transit?’” she said. “Then there’s the whole challenge of driving investment to areas that have been neglected for many, many years.”
Todd Meyer, a principal at Stantec, a national planning firm with offices in Chicago, said that building more affordable units – as well as promoting investment on the South and West sides – presents a challenge on the developers’ end. Aside from land costs, he said developers spend about the same amount of money to build a high-end condo on the North Side as they do to build affordable housing on the South.
“Building costs and design costs and construction costs, they’re fairly similar, whether you’re talking about an affordable unit or a luxury unit,” he said. “Without some subsidy, sometimes it’s hard to make those work. You’ve got to get creative with the financing for how to include those units.”
He said that, for developers, building on the North Side of Chicago provides a “safe bet” that they will receive a return on their investment. But when it comes to building on the South and West sides – and building affordable housing all over the city – he believes local government needs to provide incentives to stimulate development.
“Some people view some of the incentives around transit-oriented development as sort of rapidly changing their neighborhoods,” Meyer said. “My view is that development is going to happen and that it should happen in a quality way. I don’t think we should pretend it’s not going to happen.”