Building on the election

Sharon Stangenes reports on developer David Hill in the Chicago Tribune:

Critical to success, in Hill’s view, is a stable political environment for the several years it takes to get a development done. Also needed: a clean, clear decision trail so projects are not bogged down during the local government approval process.

“The issue of density in today’s world needs to be rethought,” he said. “If the political authorities recognized they have major working family problems and they have well-intentioned developers — and there are many — they can provide added density to offset the cost of the land.”

Well, sure, but if last week’s election is any guide, we’re not about to rethink no steeeenkin’ density issues, nor are we about to consider a reasonably clear decision trail for planning and development. Hayley, the YoChicago reporter in Edgewater, thinks it mighty strange that “only 4 precincts (30, 38, 50 & 51) got to voice their opinion on Broadway’s commercial development.” Sure, 80% of the voters voted to keep heights down to four stories — absurd on a street as wide as Broadway — but naturally, those were only those living in the least dense of the blocks adjoining Broadway. The denser blocks to the north and east? Their opinions don’t matter.

Even stranger is the Pilsen downzoning referendum passed in retaliation to the inclusionary-zoned loft conversions (particularly David Hill’s, actually) seeping into the largely abandoned industrial district running along the Sangamon rail spur. (What’s even stranger is that the area was TIFed over resident objections, but that’s good now: the increased tax base will now have to be spent within the community, not elsewhere.) The downzoning peculiarly uses these developments as ammo for a completely unrelated measure: downzoning the adjacent blocks from RT4 flats to single-family RS3. To a certain extent, I understand that Pilsen residents are concerned that property values, which they’ve successfully managed for decades by trading property mostly by word of mouth, will rise to market levels as Realtors blab to outside buyers. Pilsen is one of the city’s best kept secrets, and they understandably want to keep it that way. Yet on principle, it’s silly to consider reusing vacant land to be an affront to the community.

In Houston, as John Buntin of Governing reports in a cover story on gentrification, a city councillor is directing TIF revenues from redevelopment of an industrial zone to secure long-term affordability easements in an adjacent neighborhood threatened by gentrification:

The [Midtown TIF] board has chosen to use almost all its revenues — $10 million in the past five years — to purchase and then ‘bank’ land in the Third Ward. ‘If you look at Midtown, that was all publicly induced — ain’t none of it affordable,’ says [Garnet] Coleman [city councillor for the ward]. ‘Why can’t we do the same thing for people who need an affordable place to live?’ … An essential part of [Coleman’s] plan is to attach restrictive deeds to the rental properties to ensure that they are never sold to private developers[.]

Overall, these advisory referenda are a nice way to do a poll on the cheap, but any elected official who takes these numbers too seriously deserves what s/he gets. What’s often a limited subset of the ward’s residents (as the referenda appear only in certain precincts) even get to vote, and even then only those who do vote (excluding the young, noncitizens, non-voters, etc.) get to have a say. Of course, we know that those with NIMBY tendencies — middle age, middle class homeowners — are the likeliest to vote, so these often do nothing to substantially broaden public participation beyond the current NIMBY neighborhood organizations.

The Houston article ends on an appropriately cynical note: “the gentrification debate, [former mayor Bob] Lanier says, ‘is substantially about political control.’ “

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