Majority rule, minority rights — or Moses and NIMBYs

Terror alert

I snarkily wrote up a little headline last Monday: “Belmont Bypass’ Immediate Neighbors Slam Outreach, Will Vote On Keeping Bottleneck.” Then Daniel Kay Hertz wrote a somewhat fuller reponse, pointing out that a few people would vote on a project that impacts rail service for hundreds of thousands.

(Not surprisingly, the referendum failed, with 583 votes against. In June 2014, the three rail lines that would benefit from the bypass carried 6,353,313 passengers.)

Many broadly beneficial, but locally detrimental, projects are subject to being torpedoed by hyper-local concerns. As with any Locally Undesirable Land Use (LULU), the benefits are broadly distributed but the costs are highly focused. Many will gain a bit, but the benefits are in the distant future and somewhat speculative, so the issue has soft salience to the majority. On the other hand, a few will lose a lot, so those loss-averse few have a strong incentive to fight tooth and nail against threats to their homes. It’s just human nature.

Later comments directed at both Hertz and I raised the specter of Robert Moses bulldozing East Tremont for the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Yes, there are some surface similarities: properties expropriated for a transportation improvement. Yet these projects differ incredibly, not just in what is being done, but more importantly in how they are done.

A new highway arguably fails a cost-benefit analysis once social costs are calculated: It exacts leviathan costs, from destroying communities to contributing mightily to destabilizing the planet’s climate. (This probably even applied in Moses’ era, before thousands of miles of highways were built, subjecting further investments to the law of diminishing returns.) A new transit connection has a much better balance sheet. The Belmont Bypass has particularly high leverage, since it finally unleashes the bottlenecked potential of the miles of four-track structure beyond it.

More important is how the project is executed. In a democracy, the majority rules with respect for the basic rights of the minority. Moses infamously low-balled property owners when seizing land, and paid tenants (and rent-controlled tenants in an era of high housing inflation arguably hold a claim resembling property) almost nothing; such expropriation is clearly contrary to the Fifth Amendment or to the UDHR‘s Article 17.

Several property owners stand to lose their property to the Belmont Bypass. In such a high-profile situation, which public opinion broadly in their favor and multimillion-dollar properties on the line, I imagine that this group will receive just compensation — quite unlike the residents of East Tremont, who were largely ignored by the press, whose cries for help went almost entirely unheard by their legislators, and who lacked funds to file lawsuits.

Yes, a slightly larger population will be inconvenienced by construction for a few years, and this crowd appears to have provided most of those damning 583 votes. While pollution, even non-toxic pollution such as carbon, can justifiably be construed as violating others’ right to life, the noise and dust from construction can be mitigated to a significant extent.

In short, the substantial benefit that the majority will derive can justly be seen as outweighing the relatively minor rights claims in this instance, and the comparison to Robert Moses is spurious.

Of course, it’s rare for citywide transit agencies to make decisions at the hyperlocal level. Yet it’s absolutely typical for decisions to be made about permitting additional housing at almost a parcel level; in that case, the marginal benefit to other regional residents is so marginal as to be doubted entirely. Yet affordable rentals, in particular, are a LULU that local NIMBYs have successfully engineered the regulatory regime to discriminate against. Ryan Avent writes in the Economist: “The benefits and costs of population growth occur in a way that practically guarantees highly restrictive building rules.” Michael Lewyn takes the view that “cities cannot be trusted to weigh the citywide interest in new housing against neighborhood concerns… the chances of abuse are simply so high that a higher authority must step in.”

Why inclusionary zoning has a cash-out provision

Daniel Kay Hertz has a recent post about how Chicago’s inclusionary zoning (IZ) policy is insufficient at creating enough units to meet Chicago’s affordable housing needs.

Montgomery Ward Complex

Some of the loft condominiums within the former Montgomery Ward Catalog House, where one penthouse unit sold last October for $2.95 million, were set aside as public housing replacement units.

When I was working for the Chicago Rehab Network 11 years ago, I wrote up the broad outlines of what was eventually adopted as Chicago’s IZ policy. I certainly concur that it is not going to solve the affordability crisis in Chicago anytime soon, but I still think it’s a reasonable approach to providing workforce-level affordable housing within the context of how Chicago builds housing — and once it was implemented, IZ multiplied the number of affordable units that Chicago’s Department of Housing could take credit for (primarily through LIHTC).

During the process of drafting this policy, we anticipated and understood that IZ would absolutely not be a cure-all, regardless of how future politicians would try and take credit for it. Furthermore, as Alex Block points out in a comment to the post, IZ absolutely does attempt to do two, contradictory things: (1) integrate gentrifying neighborhoods by creating new, permanently affordable units and (2) creating as many units as possible.

Since CRN is a coalition of CDCs, almost all of whom work exclusively in poor neighborhoods, the CDCs stood to benefit more from approach #2, and so the law probably errs in that favor. Even CRN’s members who worked in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods, though, would rather have served two families in Oakland than one in the South Loop, and the cash-out provision allows them to do so. I certainly don’t blame them, even if the net result does to a small extent perpetuate socioeconomic segregation.

As part of the process of creating this legislation, we conferred with developers of both low-rise and high-rise units, who shared their pro formas with us, and with very extensive research done by groups like MPC and BPI, mostly relying on established policies in primarily low-rise places like Montgomery County, Md. and Burlington, Vt. We saw very few examples of successful policies that worked in a high-rise context. And since a large share of the development in Chicago, then as now, was in downtown high-rises, we needed to find some way to get buy-in from high-rises.

In short, affordable units within high-rises turn out to be very difficult to create and administer. High-rises are costly to build per square foot, and there isn’t much latitude to trim the costs through things like unit sizes and finishes. Most crucially, high-rises are subject to numerous cost thresholds, beyond which the primary incentive of IZ (“free land” in the form of higher density) can become worthless — e.g., a 7-story building is actually far less profitable than a 6-story building. And once a high-rise is completed, it’s difficult to balance the operating costs of luxury amenities (concierge, pool, etc.) across market and affordable units, which has recently been in the news with the “poor door” controversy. (This is somewhat less of a problem in MoCo, since the Washington area’s very high AMI allows for luxury studio apartments to be counted as “moderately priced dwelling units.”)

So, given these difficulties — and given the CDCs’ thirst to capitalize a housing trust fund that could significantly expand their efforts at helping low-income families in neighborhoods (rather than moderate-income singles downtown), we went with the “cash-out” provision that pretty much exempts downtown high-rises.

As for exempting small developments, that’s solely related to the fact that the requirement kicks in based on the number of units, and it’s impossible to deliver a fraction of a housing unit.

Industrial change created a peaking problem for Chicago transit

[An entire month without blogging — let’s fix that. This post started with a Twitter conversation about the unusually low peaks in how Montreal schedules its Metro trains, perhaps because it’s not as 9-5 as other cities. A note about the charts: it turns out that I can’t embed Datawrapper charts on WordPress.com, so the ones below are screen caps. Just click on the chart to go the original chart and see the source data.]

Along the lines of “the best transportation plan is a land use plan,” sometimes land use changes can impose huge costs upon the transportation system. As an example, let’s examine how industrial change in central Chicago triggered vast, and costly, shifts in how the CTA arranges its services.

Chicago skyline in 1970

Chicago

Chicago skyline in 2010 (slightly narrower view)

Popular perception understandably saw downtown Chicago as a boomtown: Enough skyscrapers were built to house all of downtown Philadelphia’s offices, plus all of Glenview or Moline’s residents. Within the high-rises, private-sector office jobs (in business services and finance) grew by 53%. Yet the total number of jobs in Chicago’s Central Area (source) grew surprisingly little in the 1980s and 1990s — by just 10.4%.

The growing skyline masked a sharp decline in nearby industrial jobs. Together, the manufacturing, transportation/utilities, and wholesale sectors lost 42% of their center-city workforce. This bifurcating job market, common to many deindustrializing American cities but occurring on an leviathan scale in Chicago, exacerbated the city’s social divides, plunging some neighborhoods into despair and richly rewarding areas just blocks away.

This tremendous economic shift remade the paths of Chicagoans’ daily travel, and to a large extent demanded a reconstruction of the city’s transit system. Despite the Loop’s triumphant skyline, everyday Chicago was for many years a collection of factory towns stitched together along streetcar seams. The factories lined up along the various rail or river routes leading into the city, and the high-level services they required were provided downtown, but their workers came from all over. Terry Clark writes in the essay “The New Chicago School”: “immigrants naturally lived in neighborhoods where they could talk, eat, relax, and worship with persons of similar national background. They would commute even to distant factory jobs to preserve this neighborhood-cultural-ethnic heritage.”

Since so much employment was at three-shift, all-day factories, service levels were remarkably consistent throughout the city and the day; that combined with the city’s grid to create the gridded bus network we all know well. The comprehensive transit system even worked overnight: The 1957 route map lists 69 surface routes and nine elevated lines running all night. Yes, the “L” system did its work of shoveling people into the congested Loop, but even there it only carried 25% of all transit passengers — even to downtown, 75% arrived via the surface lines.

Just like manufacturing, transit is also a capital-intensive enterprise, and having steady ridership all day/all night makes sure that the equipment (and labor) is optimally used. There’s no need to buy streetcars and pay drivers just to shuttle one giant crowd in at 8 AM — and then keep the fleet parked until they leave at 5 PM. Also, it’s all-day transit, not peak service, that enables urban life: as Jarrett Walker writes, “Low-car or no-car lifestyles, in turn, mean that transit has to be available for many of life’s purposes, not just the peak commute.”

The deep spiral of deindustrialization that I mentioned above also changed where and how Chicagoans commuted. Instead of dispersing themselves across the city at all hours of the day — a flow that became better suited to driving anyways — people began piling onto Loop-bound trains for 9-to-5.

Commuter trains always ran highly “peaked” service, with many more vehicles during rush hour, but these services’ peaks have dramatically grown. The commuter line from Hyde Park to the Loop used to run a 2:1 ratio of peak : midday trains in 1939; now that’s a 7:1 ratio.

Bus ridership, particularly crosstown, dropped off — setting off a vicious cycle of cuts (chronicled by Joshua Mason and Graham Garfield) that reduced crosstown bus service to a shadow of the former streetcar empire. Today’s route map counts a mere 17 all-night surface routes; three-fourths of the corridors that used to have nighttime transit now don’t.

Yet parking buses overnight is relatively easy to do, even though idle capacity is expensive in the long run. What’s been much more difficult, and costly, is adding new capacity to accommodate the ever-larger rush hour crowds, particularly for the growing (Loop-centric) rail system and commuter express buses. Already, CTA spent $530 million on the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project, which increased train lengths by one-third, and more recently spent over $1 billion on a train order that increased its fleet by 17%. Many of its other planned capital projects, like rebuilding the North Side Main and untangling Clark Junction, will also sink huge sums into upgrading the system to accommodate rush hour crowds.

A small countervailing trend has more recently emerged, though. The city as an entertainment destination — as a site of 24-hour consumption, rather than production — has pushed the system to slightly extend evening hours. That said, the efforts will always pale in comparison to the overnight network that once existed, serving not the few who partied all night, but rather the many who worked all night.

Chicago’s 1923 zoning ordinance

1940s Chicago skyline by Charles W. Cushman, from Indiana University

Lindsay Bayley asked via Twitter about Chicago zoning before the 1957 ordinance. I’d seen the city’s previous (and first) zoning ordinance, adopted in 1923, only as a library reference book, but I thought it was worth a look online. Sure enough, the Internet Archive offers up the entire document, including all 15 pages of text, hand-drawn maps of the entire city demarcated by use and bulk, and the few fantastic pages of extra-legal zoning envelope illustrations, sure to please the form-based coder in your family:

Chicago zoning envelope illustration, 1923

Even though the zoning ordinance was only in force for a scant six years until the Depression kiboshed construction, so much was built in those years that the bulk standards’ peculiar shapes are still visible throughout the city. Downtown, views really open up above the 264′ ceiling on “palazzo” tower heights, which could be exceeded only by thin spires — hence the two-tiered skyline seen above. In the neighborhoods, hewing closely to zoning’s origins as a means of guaranteeing light & air, larger lots and corner lots were allowed higher FAR and building volumes.

(I find it strange that the second of Chicago’s five bulk districts, circa 1923, was about as permissive as the zoning for present-day downtown D.C. And yet our own restrictive attitude towards height was based, strangely, on Chicago’s practices just one generation prior, in 1890.)

Where the Height Act came from

Photo at top of post is of Chicago skyline, perhaps 1958, by Charles W. Cushman, from Indiana University‘s collection

Interrupted


CMD East Originally uploaded by Payton Chung

The building in the middle of this ensemble — directly below the street sign — burned in a recent fire and is now being demolished. It was built a century ago as part of the Central Manufacturing District, and provided part of the original industrial park’s regal face to the city along Ashland Avenue. (The CMD’s front door was its better-known, mile-long streetwall along Pershing Avenue.) Together, they defined two of the few well-defined streetscapes on Chicago’s south side.

October shorts

It’s no longer shorts weather, but quick links endure!

1. Capital Bikeshare just turned one, and surprisingly has doubled its initial ridership projections and is currently running an operating surplus. [via GGW/WashCycle]

2. Economists like Ed Glaeser (and Ryan Avent, although I haven’t read his new treatise; reviewed by Rob Pitingolo in GGW and Lydia in CityPaper) often make the mistake of overly simplifying how housing markets work. Instead, numerous other important factors complicate matters, including:
– as Rob points out, housing is a bundle of goods whose utilities vary for different audiences
– housing construction can induce demand, particularly by adding amenities to a neighborhood
– housing construction can also remove amenities from a neighborhood, like a low-rise scale, thus changing other intangibles included in that bundle of goods
– construction costs don’t increase linearly; rather, costs jump at certain inflection points, like between low- and mid-rise
– housing and real estate in general are imperfect markets, since land is not a replicable commodity
– the substantial lag time for housing construction, even in less regulated markets, almost guarantees that supply will miss demand peaks

Pro-active planning remains the best and most time-honored way of pre-empting NIMBYs. Get the neighborhood to buy-in to neighborhood change early on, and then they won’t be surprised and upset when it happens.

3. Very interesting to see (via Dan Mihalopoulos/CNC) that Inspector General Joseph Ferguson has put a lot of sacred cows on the table for increasing revenue in Chicago — particularly several implicit subsidies to drivers. A downtown congestion charge, tolls on Lake Shore Drive, a commuter income tax, privatized parking enforcement, higher water/sewer fees, and higher garbage collection fees all would substantially impact suburbanites, single-family homeowners, and drivers.

4. How important are street enclosure ratios? As this gallery of reconstructed L.A. traffic sewers shows, they’re so important that almost nothing else matters if you get them right. (Photo-illustrations by David Yoon.) Back when I was reading comments on LEED-ND 1.0, a lot of complaints centered on the street enclosure requirement; I think that thinking about such urban design factors is just foreign to the architects & engineers who typically do LEED submittals. Yet it’s absolutely fundamental to defining urban rooms.