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


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.

Daley’s neglected big picture

Mr. Daley’s classy and necessary decision to hang it up after 21 years in office was the right move — for himself and for Chicago. It truly is time for someone fresh and new to lead this great but troubled city. – Greg Hinz

The reign of Richard II was, in many ways, fine for Chicago. Yes, the city turned a corner from the post-industrial abyss it faced in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the right mayor to consolidate a broad political coalition and manage some truly remarkable shifts in the city’s demographics and economic base, but the wrong mayor for a new era of governance that requires extending those gains through smarter government.

Mayor Daley completely lacked any notion of strategic thinking and openly defied any outcomes-based planning. His small-bore, project-focused mentality prevented policies from taking root. He rewarded political connections and shrewd negotiations, not actual lasting change; he focused on what could be done this month, discouraging anyone from dreaming about the next decade.

Lynn Becker doesn’t mince words, either: How can you preserve and rebuild a great city on a single man’s whims?

Crossing the line

Metro briefs for today. (Whew, am I sick of food trucks, although I appreciate Jef Nickerson for saying what’s on my mind: “I’m not saying Food Trucks should be banned, far from it. What I would like to see is, the city thinking about ways to encourage other forms of street food, be they micro-storefronts, push carts, Food Trucks, or something else.”)

1. Chris Leinberger tries to make nice with Joel Kotkin by pointing out that the latter is stuck in the old city vs. suburb dichotomy, hung up on municipal boundaries. This is still necessary that many years after David Rusk‘s “elastic cities” hypothesis? And for a writer based in the southwest, with its highly elastic cities? I’m more inclined to chalk it up to willful ignorance.

(Since I grew up in an “elastic” city with a regional school district, all of which consisted principally of low-density sprawl that overran and embedded a few country towns, I’ve always thought this distinction was a complete canard. Of course “auto-dependent sprawl” and “walkable urbanism” can both exist in either city, suburb, town, or country. Duh.)

2. Delhi is following Singapore and writing traffic tickets based on photo evidence of infractions posted to Facebook. I typically would support measures to improve the ubiquity of traffic law enforcement, particularly as regards public safety, but this raises serious concerns about due process. I wonder how much supporting evidence would be necessary to verify that such photos haven’t been doctored: untampered EXIF data? GPS tracks showing that the car was at that location?

3. “Chicago taxpayers [will] cry” over the $11 billion that the Morgan Stanley joint venture [JV] will make over the term of the parking meter lease, according to Bloomberg’s Darrell Preston. (The JV also admits that the amount it spent on new meters amounts to a mere $40M.) Interesting that the JV is issuing what amounts to parking-meter revenue bonds — except priced as corporate bonds, not as tax-exempt municipal debt. (I’ve been saying all this time that an easier and more cost-effective way to tap into the future revenue stream would be for the city to jack the rates and issue revenue bonds. The primary reason for not doing this is that it would add debt to the city’s books, thereby lowering its credit rating — and that the proceeds from municipal bonds are subject to greater City Council scrutiny under Illinois law than the proceeds from a PPP. Well, the city got a downgrade anyways.)

Meanwhile, of course, San Francisco — which pioneered parking meter revenue bonds back in 1994 — has just launched SFpark, its municipally run advanced market-pricing scheme. The startup costs are underwritten via a loan from the MPO, interestingly, to be paid back with the enhanced revenues. And guess what else? The city still retains the flexibility to do cool things with its public space, like curbside bike parking. Imagine that!

4. An interesting participation exercise from the Next American City, sponsored by IBM’s Smarter Cities ad campaign: The Next American City Challenge on Tumblr.

5. Speaking of Tumblr, TakeMeWithYou is a WPB Make Believe project that used the “community disposable camera” model of storytelling. This was suggested as one idea for our WPB plan outreach process; glad to see that it came up with some fun results.

6. Great article by Fred Mayer on the Twin Cities (and Madison) bike economy, which he estimates at over $300M in revenues annually. One might think that the bike industry should prove to have a particularly lucrative local multiplier effect: it’s relatively light on capital and heavy on labor, and generates positive local externalities — quite unlike driving, which sucks money out of other sectors of the economy and sends almost all of its capital costs out of the local economy.

7. Park51, or the Cordoba Initiative, is obviously a local zoning matter — and as such, national Republicans have zero say. Perhaps that’s why they’re fast falling into line to “stand against the Ground Zero mosque,” since it’s completely painless: it will undoubtedly happen, and they can look like they’re doing something (paying lip service to the insane base) without actually affecting any real change. Yet watching this is frightening: for government to step in and “stop” Park51 wouldn’t just prohibit the free exercise of religion (1st Amendment) but also deprive the rightful landowners their property (5th Amendment). That this self-described “Don’t Tread on Me” crowd can show off that much contempt for personal freedoms just makes it all the more obvious that such “freedoms” only apply to their selfish selves.

8. Tom Philpott over at Grist notes that even most rural farms, much less urban farms, don’t make money. It frustrates me that so many people are so hopelessly naïve about farming’s poor economics: after the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars paving over farmland because it’s uneconomical, suddenly now farming will be profitable enough to underwrite demolition and infrastructure work to undo it all? This goes double for architects who concoct schemes featuring purpose-built “vertical ag” megastructures for agriculture (the very definition of a “factory farm”), or those positing urban farms as the solution for just about everything urban-decline related.

For instance, last year’s Re-Burbia competition finalists included exactly two approaches that comprehensively evolving suburbs through individual initiative. The rest of the schemes were a collection of inflexible (and therefore inherently unsustainable) megastructures (the sort of megalomaniacal thinking that got us into this mess of cloverleafs, malls, and McMansions), one-off tech gizmo wonder panaceas, or land-use transformations that betray a complete misunderstanding of economics (farms and wetlands are great, but they just don’t pay the rent).

As Alex Steffen (via Allison Arieff in Good) points out (and as SF Streetsblog commenters echo), it’s a folly to think that any vacant land (even in stagnant cities) should automatically be best thought of as agriculture, particularly permanently; in many cases, such land could best enhance regional sustainability (and the regional economy) if used to enhance walkability instead with more housing, retail, or workplaces. The difference between zero and ten food miles is nothing like the difference between ten and 2,000. Eliminating the first 99.5% of the food miles is easy and necessary, so let’s not obsess over the last 0.4%.

(And really, this has nothing to do with the orchard. Honest: that necessarily has to be open space of some kind.)

9. “[C]limatologists have long theorized that in a warming world, the added heat would cause more record highs and fewer record lows. The statistics suggest that is exactly what is happening. In the United States these days, about two record highs are being set for every record low, telltale evidence that amid all the random variation of weather, the trend is toward a warmer climate.” Justin Gillis [NYT]

Less serious:

10. Oh, how I’ve giggled at the now-repaired-again Milshire Ho sign. (Backup photo.) For the longest time, I just assumed it read “Wilshire.”

11. Oh, and while we’re in Logan Square, my friends’ HGTV makeover aired in June. Check this page for when it’ll re-run.

12. Not metro at all, but a recent party joke was about a theme band called “Ayn Rand Sex Scene.” Given her newfound popularity…

Orchard (2)

As Lynn mentions, a public meeting regarding the proposal to build an orchard on Logan Square will take place on Tuesday evening at Logan Square Kitchen. She also points out that DPD (or whoever they are now) says they have an open mind about the proposal.

Again, I welcome the idea of an orchard on a different site, in an area where a quiet garden would be a net benefit to the neighbors. I would even welcome a (temporary) vegetable or flower garden at this site, until the community has a clearer vision for this parcel. (A playlot? An outdoor flea market, for the yard-sale crowd taking over Logan? A graffiti gallery? Who knows?) However, creating an orchard here is a pretty permanent move, and its impact on the neighborhood for the next few decades should be very carefully considered — particularly the opportunity costs of fencing off a good chunk of public space within a growing retail area, where the neighbors (shops, mostly) would derive greater benefit from people than from trees.

I’ve been told that CROP is the only group that’s come forward with a promise to clean/maintain the site (over what time period, I don’t know). In the absence of an SSA or other funding mechanism, the Chamber is unable to step into that role should the site be developed into a public park or plaza. Yet CROP has yet to conclusively demonstrate that they have sufficient organizational capacity in spite of their brief history and narrow funding base. At the very least, as a neighbor I need assurances that CROP has the capacity to keep vagrants and vermin away from the site — and this video doesn’t exactly show off a well-tended garden. By that very low standard of care, the existing informal parking lot at least doesn’t damage the immediate neighborhood and provides a convenience to the neighboring shops. It also doesn’t present much of an opportunity cost, since it could be ripped up tomorrow.

Quick: 31 July

A couple of recent thoughts:

1. “Chicago’s transit system–the country’s second largest with an average 1.8 million riders every weekday–faces some of the nation’s most dire challenges. It has more than $7 billion in unfunded maintenance needs. On parts of the system, for example, trains engineered to speed along at 70 mph now must slow to a 15 mph crawl because the fragile rails can’t handle faster speeds. ‘They’re going at the speed of a horse and buggy because the rails are literally eroding and coming loose from the ties,’ says Ben Forman, research director for MassINC, a nonpartisan, Boston-based public policy think tank. ‘When transit breaks down as it has in Chicago, cities lose a big part of their core.’ ” [Zach Patton in Governing]

2. Dig up the Deep Tunnel? The Philadelphia Water Department, faced with the prospect of an $8 billion bill to deal with combined sewer overflow, has instead presented the EPA with a $1.6 billion green infrastructure plan that seeks to effectively de-pave 1/3 of the city’s impervious surface. Shades of Growing Water here… [h/t Feather O'Connor Houstoun in the same issue of Governing]

3. I’m know it’s so very trendy, but I really don’t understand the fascination with littering Chicago with food trucks. I’ve found them quite annoying in NY and LA:
- they don’t pay rent for the valuable public space they take up
- they unfairly compete with fixed-premise restaurants, particularly since Chicago suffers from many miles of empty storefronts
- they only go to trendy areas which already have lots of shops and foot traffic, thereby merely overcrowding existing transient hotspots and potentially preventing new areas from emerging
- they leave clouds of diesel fumes and noise in their wake, since they run generators even when idling
- they generate mountains of trash in said areas’ already-overflowing trashcans, since there’s no capacity for onboard dishwashing and few sidewalk recycling bins
- they’d be yet more unwieldy vehicles careening through the streets, killing people in crashes.

I certainly don’t dispute the overall goals to have broadly available, inexpensive food and easing the way for entrepreneurs to open foodservice businesses. However, these goals frankly have nothing to do with adding more smelly trucks to already choked streets. Seems like we’d be better off making it easier for people to open small restaurants — perhaps through establishing public markets, or “hawker centres” as Singapore’s government (which counts getting rid of itinerant food vendors as a key public health victory) insists on calling them.

4. A recent conversation turned to imagining the office drama at the planning department in West Hollywood, “America’s First Gay City”: the setting almost seems worthy of a TV series on a gay cable channel. Perhaps a workplace sitcom riffing on “Parks and Rec,” with hilariously micromanaging interior decorators staffing the design review commission, or a drama combining the personal dramatics of [well, just about any gay drama] with a noirish view of (lightly fictionalized) viciously seamy municipal politics. Unlike popularizations of planning like SimCity, this would expose planning not as a bland technocracy, but as a bunch of jealous hacks playing out their inter-personal political dramas across a bigger stage.

Anyhow, the thought reoccured to me upon finding that the vice-chair of WeHo’s transportation commission is perhaps better known as the former author of Boi from Troy, a blog combining Log Cabin Republican political views with a passion for local college football(ers). Actually, I’m pretty sure that WeHo is a pretty well governed place, and its fussy attention is evident in some pretty thoughtful streetscapes — but it’s still funny to imagine.

5. Where in today’s Republican Party are honest-to-god “fiscal conservatives” like Peter Peterson and David Stockman and Bruce Bartlett? What I see on Capitol Hill now is a group of nihilist zombies, holding even the smallest of bills hostage as fiscal death (most notably the recent $34B unemployment extension) while simultaneously seeking to blast a 100X bigger hole in the budget with their sacreder-than-Jeebus tax cuts. These people can’t be serious, and yet they are.

Bartlett: “Republicans have a completely indefensible position on taxes. In their view, deficits cannot arise from tax cuts. No matter how much taxes are cut, no matter how low revenues go as a share of GDP, tax cuts are never a cause of deficits; they result ONLY AND EXCLUSIVELY from spending—and never from spending put in place by Republicans, such as Medicare Part D, TARP, two unfunded wars, bridges to nowhere, etc—but ONLY from Democratic efforts to stimulate growth, help the unemployed, provide health insurance for those without it, etc. The monumental hypocrisy of the Republican Party is something amazing to behold.”

No open space in my backyard (2)

An open letter sent to CROP, regarding a proposed orchard nearby. BTW, the title refers to another fight over what to do with another backyard I had.

I live [south of Logan Square, near the] city-owned vacant parcel that has been identified as “future community open space.” I recently heard about a plan being advanced to develop that parcel as a fruit orchard, rather than the market plaza promised by the Logan Square Open Space Plan. This proposal puzzles and concerns me, since this location strikes me as a particularly poor location for agriculture.

I have spent my career advocating for smart neighborhood and city planning, including longtime volunteer service on local planning in the West Town and Logan Square community areas. I also spent years as a community gardener at Greenhouse Garden in Ukrainian Village, which houses a number of espaliered heirloom fruit trees.

When I participated in the Logan Square Open Space Plan public outreach process, the conversation about this parcel centered around creating a space filled with human activity. That makes sense given that this is one of Logan Square’s busiest corners, with thriving businesses opening up all around. Pedestrian-oriented retail districts like this need a critical mass of activity to thrive, and that activity should be reinforced whenever possible. That the retail is growing despite nearby parking lots, blank walls, empty storefronts, and high-speed thoroughfares is heartening, but we cannot take further growth for granted. A market plaza would bring more people and more commerce to this corner, helping all of the nearby businesses thrive…

An orchard, closed and gated to the public for all but a few days each year (I know from experience that otherwise fruit and/or trees would be lost to theft or vandalism), would do nothing to reinforce this hub of activity. Creating a “walled garden” (lasting at least several, if not a hundred, years) at the key junction of the Logan-Milwaukee business district will freeze this budding area’s growth and prevent it from coalescing into something greater. In addition, I know from having dug in my own yard that the soil underneath this site does not lend itself to trees: construction of the subway portal and trench required extensive excavation which was backfilled with gravel aggregate, which lurks just a foot beneath the ground.

Scores of vacant lots exist elsewhere in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Garfield Park, including high-visibility sites along the boulevard system or near the future Bloomingdale Trail. In fact, the Logan Square Open Space Plan identified several lots that would be ideal for community gardens, provided a group (like yours) was willing to step up and organize management of the site. Many of these would make for suitable locations for quiet agricultural uses, reinforcing the areas’ quiet residential or industrial character.

I wish your organization luck on finding a great site for your worthy project.

Quick links

  • Recently attended a presentation about the Sustainable Sites Initiative and I-LAST, two new attempts at green rating schemes developed largely by (respectively) ASLA and Illinois highway engineers. Ultimately, I’m certainly glad to see that other groups are paying attention to the need for sustainable practices, and appreciate the challenges that many areas face in taking just the first step in that direction. However, I can’t help but feel that these efforts will result in unfortunate greenwashing, at the expense of more rigorous systems like LEED-ND. SSI awards more points for native plant use than for infill and transit-oriented locations; I-LAST allows project managers to skip over sustainable practices (even basics like complying with local comp plans or doing perfunctory public involvement) that “aren’t applicable” without even trying. FHWA is rumored to be creating its own sustainability rating scheme; let’s hope that it not only sets a rigorous standard but also can make or break a project’s funding decisions.
  • “Farmers in Northern Illinois who only a few years ago were making plans to move their operations Downstate or closer to Iowa now have a rare opportunity to reclaim land sold to developers, at a fraction of the price the homebuilders paid… With a resumption of exurban homebuilding years away, corn and soybean farms will continue to dot the outer fringes of metro Chicago, making the woes of homebuilders and banks a source of opportunity for local farmers who want to bulk up and cheering critics of suburban sprawl.” [Steve Daniels in Crain's]
  • “Holiday Inn… commissioned less than a dozen of these circular high-rise hotels in the 1960s.” [Jefferson City, Missouri - Landmarks] Strange, I could have sworn there were more — or maybe they just figure prominently in my memory, owing to what’s now the Clarion Hotel in downtown Raleigh.
  • Alan Durning notes in “the parable of the electric bike” that a transformative electric vehicle boom has been underway — only it involves bicycles in China, not cars in the USA. (Indeed, you really have to be careful to look both ways when crossing either road or footpath in China, since electric bikes will quickly and silently whip out of nowhere.) Citing Chi-Jen Yang at Duke, he notes that this phenomenon was a market reaction to a policy stick: a crackdown on motorcycle pollution displaced demand over to e-bikes. Systems don’t change, markets don’t adapt to gentle pressure. New inventions for urban mobility won’t change the way we get around overnight, unless there are equally huge changes in how we build the places we get around. (He also makes a good point that we cyclists shouldn’t turn up our noses at e-bikes in our quest to human-power everything; we’re just falling for the same “our vehicles, ourselves” trap that makes drivers thumb their noses at cyclists.)

Remembering an inspiration

Jan Metzger, my neighbor and colleague on the WPB commission, died yesterday after a long struggle with cancer. Gin and Michael have shared some of their thoughts on their blog.

I’m proud that we, as commissioners of WPB, created a lasting legacy. We walked into a deeply divided room — which she walked out of as chair! She had faith in planning, urging me along to get the planning process rolling even while other commissioners were skeptical of the whole idea. When it came time to do the major public involvement for our then-in-process WPB plan, I almost felt afraid that whatever we came up with wouldn’t pass muster with her. After all, her passion for community engagement is legendary, and admittedly I sometimes prefer no-muss technocracy to the oft-dirty business of democracy. Yet her experience with leavening planning guided our successful approach.

From that rocky beginning, WPB now has lots of momentum behind numerous aspects of our plan, regardless of the personnel (commissioners, aldermen). Soon I’ll be proud to fulfill my last promise to Jan: to have one of our volunteers go to her favorite city, New Orleans, to accept an award for excellence in public involvement.