Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, December 7

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The Mechanics

Environment/Sustainability Sun Jun 21 2015

Touring the Deep Tunnel and Thornton Quarry

The Thornton Reservoir
Construction equipment on the bed of the future Thornton Reservoir. Trucks on the Tri-State Tollway can be seen above the quarry.

On Saturday, I joined the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) on one of its tours of Chicago's goliath infrastructure. The tour featured the future site of the Thornton Composite Reservoir, the largest such reservoir in the world, and a Deep Tunnel pumping station 350' below ground at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant. Both are part of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD)'s gargantuan Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar project designed to protect the Chicago region from the flooding and pollution caused by overflowing sewer and stormwater infrastructure.

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David Schalliol

Urban Planning Thu Aug 28 2014

State Street Resurfacing to Be Completed in Time for the Marathon

Looking North on State Street from Randolph. Photo credit: Becky Schultz

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Loop Alliance and the Office of 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly held a community meeting to provide Loop stakeholders, business owners, and residents with logistics for the Chicago Department of Transportation's (CDOT) resurfacing of State Street -- the first since the mall removal and renovation in 1997.

With a goal completion date of Oct. 10 (just in time for the Chicago Marathon), overnight grinding could begin as soon as Sept. 8 with re-paving to begin on Sept. 22. The resurfacing (grinding, paving and re-striping) will stretch from Wacker to Van Buren.

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Becky Schultz

Neighborhoods Tue Mar 04 2014

Luxury Housing and Gentrification in Uptown

For two years I would go by the abandoned Frank Cuneo Memorial Hospital at Montrose and Clarendon on my way to my apartment. It didn't matter if it was the middle of the day or late at night, I always thought, "That building creeps me out."

frank cuneo memorial hospital
Frank Cuneo Memorial Hospital. Photo by Devin Hunter

After years of trying to find a new development for the site, it looks as though luxury housing will go on the site, a project which will receive about $14 million in Tax Increment Financing funds. This led to protests and criticism from Uptown residents upset with the project.

Historically, Uptown has been a neighborhood where underprivileged people move. This also interestingly enough includes Appalachians, large numbers of which moved to Chicago following World War II. Residents of Uptown celebrate the diversity as it is a neighborhood where you can in one day get Mexican food from a taqueria, chicken from a place that feels lifted out of the '80s and Vietnamese food on Argyle.

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Monica Reida / Comments (10)

Neighborhoods Thu Feb 20 2014

The Saga of Edgewater Medical Center

Edgewater Medical Center
Edgewater Medical Center; photo by Kevin Zolkiewicz/Flickr

Sitting between Hollywood and Edgewater on Ashland is a vacant decaying building. The building is that of Edgewater Medical Center, which has been closed since 2001.

The hospital has three claims to fame: the first and second are that it is the birthplace of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Wayne Gacy. The third claim to fame is the reason why the hospital closed.

It came to light in 2001 that Edgewater Medical Center had been defrauding Medicare. Among the procedures the hospital was performing were unnecessary angioplasties, and two patients died from the unneeded procedures. Eventually, the fraud came to light and Medicare decided to stop reimbursing Edgewater Medical Center. The hospital closed in December 2001 after a string of financial problems, left in a state that seems as if everyone up and left.

Twelve years later, Edgewater Medical Center still sits empty, a dangerous eyesore.

During the 12 years since its closure there has been a lengthy debate over what to do with the land. Should the site of the hospital be used for condos or for what residents feel is a much-needed green space?

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Monica Reida / Comments (3)

Health Care Wed Oct 16 2013

Southwest Health Care Campus Wins Architecture Award

An award from the American Institute of Architects is the latest bit of positive attention the new Focal Point Community Campus has received since the plan was announced December 2012.

Focal Point will serve the Little Village area as well as North Lawndale, Pilsen, Brighton Park, Back of the Yards and Archer Heights.

HDR Architecture, the firm behind the project, conceives the campus as "both an anchor and change agent" serving the neighborhoods surrounding the barren post-industrial area once occupied by Washburne Trade School.

The idea for a healthcare campus originated with Guy Medaglia, CEO of Saint Anthony Hospital and Chicago Southwest Development Corporation. According to Jacinda Adams, director of marketing and public relations at the hospital, Mayor Daley approached Medaglia wondering what Saint Anthony would do with the land once occupied by the Washburne. Rather than simply building a new hospital, Medaglia proposed the healthcare campus as a self-sustaining model in a time when state and federal resources are dwindling.

A new facility for Saint Anthony Hospital, which is currently located in a 118-year-old building at 2875 W. 19th St., will be one of many components of the project.

According to the American Institute of Architects, Focal Point stands out as a healthcare facility because of the multi-pronged approach to community health care it aims to accommodate -- the model includes retail space, an educational center, childcare facilities and areas for recreation. Adams said non-profit programs offered at Focal Point will be subsidized by the revenue generated from tenant spaces and other profit-making initiatives to ensure needed services will not falter due to a lack of funding.

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Taylor Long

Urban Planning Fri Jul 26 2013

Detroit's Not Dead. It's Not Even Detroit.

detroit 2.jpgDetroit Skyline. Photo by nic_r

It's been a busy week for Detroit. As the city itself continues to chug along, all Dan Gilbert-gilded glory or 58 minutes-plus of waiting time for the cops to come, the world's been chiming in on what went so utterly wrong up in Motown.

Detroit, once powerhouse of industrial might and paradigm of American ideals and grandeur, has finally fallen from grace: a victim of poor governance, racism, lack of economic diversification, empty pension coffers, and sprawl. And America, beware. While amplified in Detroit, the same underlying dynamics that so rotted the Motor City are coming to a city near you.

This is to read the obituaries.

And yet, things are getting better all the time in Detroit. Declare bankruptcy one day and announce some green shoots in the economy the next. A $60 million mixed-use development is in the works. There's a placemaking renaissance afoot turning traffic islands into temporary beaches and creating last change. Here come the Red Wings. Let's not forget, Whole Foods just opened up in downtown Detroit.

This is to read the news.

To paraphrase a song from one of the city's most successful rappers, will the real Detroit please stand up?

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Ben Schulman

Transportation Wed Jul 24 2013

Public Meetings to be Held For North Lake Shore Drive Study

The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Chicago Department of Transportation have started a study to examine improvement of North Lake Shore Drive. The study will examine Lake Shore Drive from Grand Avenue to Hollywood Avenue. The first round of public meetings regarding the study will be held on August 6-8.

In addition to examining improvements to the road, the project will also look at bridges and methods of non-motorized travel along Lake Shore Drive, such as the Lakefront Trail.

Anyone who uses the northern stretch of Lake Shore Drive is encouraged to attend the meetings. The August 6 meeting will be held in Gill Park at 825 W. Sheridan Road on the third floor. The August 7 meeting will be held at Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson in the atrium. The August 8 meeting will be held in the south gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. All of the meetings are from 6 - 8 p.m.

Monica Reida / Comments (1)

Education Tue Feb 19 2013

Genealogy of Scandal in Public Education

When Seth Lavin asks questions, he gets answers. Lavin is a local teacher, parent, and education observer, and briefly published a newsletter following Chicago education news. He's a thoughtful man who has recently been active in the school closure process -- or, "process" -- surrounding Brentano School in Logan Square. Frustrated with the Chicago Public Schools' posture during the closures, Lavin recently posted 10 questions to Twitter meant to question CPS's assertion that its school closure process and the related charterification was purely data-motivated (what I and others would refer to as "technocratic").

CPS felt the need to respond to Lavin's thoughtful questions. Their responses are forceful, but hardly get to Lavin's essential point: if school closures don't really save money, if the past closures haven't improved outcomes for children, and if the main criteria for closing schools, "underutilization," doesn't itself harm student outcomes, why is CPS causing these communities so much pain, ignoring the outrage in the community, and undermining community schools?

One could add: and why are they doing it to support and institutionalize a program of charterification when charters can't be said to be as efficacious as they claim, and scandals like the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) scandal are becoming more frequent and acute?

I envy Lavin. I doubt CPS would have answered my 10 questions. I don't need to doubt actually; these are precisely the questions critics of the privatization of the Chicago school system have been raising at least since 2005.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (5)

News Fri Feb 08 2013

Chicago Lights Urban Farm Nears Sale to CHA

By Ian Fullerton

The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago has confirmed that it is looking to sell its Chicago Lights urban farm to the Chicago Housing Authority. The deal -- about two years in the making -- could net $3.2 million for the Fourth, but would set the future of the farm property on unsure footing.

Located on the 400 block of W. Chicago Ave, the farm, which has been operational for about three years, provides job training, youth employment and volunteer opportunities to residents in Cabrini-Green.
In a statement sent to the congregation on Jan. 26, Calum MacLeod, executive associate pastor at the church, said that the agreement will include a two-year leaseback option at "no leasing cost" to the Fourth. This would allow Chicago Lights -- the church's charitable arm -- to continue operations at the farm during that period, "while alternate sites and opportunities are pursued for the mission outreach currently taking place there," the pastor said. The contract also includes a potential two-year extension.

MacLoed's letter marked the first time that the Fourth has identified terms or a potential buyer for the farm, even after CHA voted to buy the farm's two parcels in November.

The Fourth has stated that it intends to use the farm sale proceeds to help pay for its recently completed Gratz Center, a $42 million addition to its Gold Coast headquarters. The church had hoped to fund the projection by selling the "air rights" above the 142-year-old cathedral to a neighboring developer, but that deal fell through due to resident opposition. The church has been in talks with CHA since 2011, according to the Fourth's website.

The Chicago Lights farm, which originally opened in 2003 as a community garden, sits on a block that was once lined with public housing; today, only a stretch of rowhouses -- mostly condemned, with a few rehabbed -- remain north of the site. Work on the new Jesse White Community Center, planned for the parcel east of the farm, began last summer.

The sale will "be brought to the congregation" at the Fourth's annual meeting on Feb. 10, said MacLeod. A final vote will then by carried by the presbytery.


Public Transportation Tue Nov 27 2012

"Let Them Drive Cars!"

TrafficI met with skepticism the Tribune's report that Mayor Emanuel responded to CTA riders' consternation over hikes to the cost of daily, weekly and monthly passes by suggesting they can choose to either drive or use public transit:

The mayor suggested commuters who don't like the new fare structure are free to get behind the wheel, setting aside the fact many Chicagoans who rely on the CTA to get to and from work don't have cars. "Now you, as a commuter, will pick. You can either drive to work or you can take public transportation, and the standard fare will stay the same," Emanuel said.

This is a stupendously politically tone-deaf thing to say. But forget about the politics of it; it's wrong on the supposed policy justifications as well.

Actually, let's go back to the politics of it. Mayor Emanuel has faced a persistent perception that he's more friendly to big business interests than to working class Chicagoans. Two reports -- one from the Reader and one from the Trib -- have focused on the mayor's meeting agendas, full as they with millionaires and lacking in community voices. The first teachers' strike in a generation aided in this perception, particularly given articles like this one from Reuters pointing out how out-of-town wealthy donors were bankrolling his fight against teachers. Early in his Mayoralty he faced outrage over the closure of mental health clinics for poor Chicagoans.

Whatever the reality of his concern for working-class Chicagoans, the perception isn't great.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Urban Planning Wed Sep 12 2012

Preview: Accelerate 77 Share Fair 2012

accelerate 77.pngAre you interested in making the entire city of Chicago a more sustainable place to live?

Come join over 200 organizations from all across Chicago's 77 neighborhoods this Saturday at Accelerate 77's Share Fair 2012 to learn, network, and contribute to a grassroots effort to transform the city from the bottom-up.

Sponsored by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ISA), the goal of Accelerate 77 is to "identify current sustainability initiatives in all of Chicago's 77 community areas; connect them with one another to inspire new ideas, practices, self-consciousness and motivation through peer interchange; and engage residents in systematic learning, planning, and collective action."

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Jason Prechtel

Urban Planning Thu Aug 23 2012

Design for Good: A Target on State Street

City Target, State and Madison
CityTarget at State and Madison. Photo by Ken Smith

When Walmart unveiled designs to expand its presence in Chicago, the mega-retailer was met with fierce resistance by activists who feared the behemoth's presence. While unions were leading the call against Walmart's labor practices, there was an attendant concern over how the big-box would fit within the city's borders. This concern was not abstract, but rather fed by the numerous examples of gluttonous, low-slung Walmart stores that gobbled up land with abandon. With the design of a majority of Walmart's stores setback far from the street amidst a sea of parking, their typical model hardly fit within an urban context, even on a corner as disinvested as North & Cicero on Chicago's West Side.

One of the largest concerns when large-scale retailers encroach upon a neighborhood is that their presence will blot out all surrounding commerce and consign the entire neighborhood to a store's shadow. Even in struggling communities, where any sign of economic development may be welcome, strip-mall development can distort the landscape into one hegemonic bloc. Rather than being emblematic of a place that can anchor a community, the development of strip-mall centers within urban areas is but a temporary node that functions for one purpose: cheap commerce. Should the space go black, the community is left fallow.

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Ben Schulman

Law Mon Jul 30 2012

Dispatch from Chicago: Free Speech Meets Urban Planning at Chick-Fil-A

Should the City of Chicago deny Chick-Fil-A zoning relief because of the political opinions of its chief executive, Dan Cathy--and the political spending of the corporate parent?

Courtesy of Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a bit of an internecine row broke out amongst liberals in trying to answer this question. Immediately after the news was announced, I poked fun at the idea of using state power to punish businesses for their political activities, suggesting city officials were being a bit selective in singling out Chick-Fil-A. After all, Boeing, which was in the running to manufacture killer drones, not only is headquartered here, but is feted by the administration and receives tax incentives.

Things escalated after Adam Serwer, Kevin Drum, Glenn Greenwald and others published articles criticizing Alderman Moreno and Mayor Emanuel for setting a dangerous precedent, denying a business regulatory relief to which they would otherwise be entitled because of the political opinions and activities of its chief executive. Count me among those who think the City of Chicago has no business considering the unrelated political activities of applicants for land use relief when making a decision. This comes with several caveats and excursuses.

One threshold issue: Mayor Emanuel did not say he would deny Chick-Fil-A (and can I just take a moment to tell you how grating it is to type "Chick-Fil-A" over and over again?) any zoning relief, only that he opposed their entry into Chicago personally, in principle, because of the politics they embody. Granted, he was treading on thin ice given his rocky relationship with the Chicago Cubs and the staunchly conservative patriarch of the Ricketts family that owns them -- but expressing his displeasure at their business practices and expressing his opinion as to whether they would be welcome or not -- even encouraging a boycott -- is his own prerogative and in fact his free speech right; arguably, what he was elected to do.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Chicago Fri Jul 27 2012

Either I Just Skewed A Chicago Cultural Plan Town Hall Meeting, Or This Whole Thing Is A Farce

After taking a close look at the Chicago Cultural Plan draft released last week, I wanted to hear what other people had to say about it. More importantly, I wanted to hear how representatives of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and their consulting firm, Lord Cultural Resources, would talk about such a dense, buzzword-filled document to a room of concerned Chicagoans. So I went to Malcolm X College on Tuesday night for the first of four town hall meetings dedicated to the plan, hoping to get some clarity.

The first sign that something was amiss was when I registered and was promptly given a transponder. I was informed that I would need this to vote during the "audience participation" part of the town hall -- nevermind that the implied goal of a town hall is audience participation.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (5)

Technology and Politics Tue Jul 17 2012

The Loop as Hotspot

The Guardian reports that our "hyperactive" Mayor is looking at turning the Loop into one big wifi hotspot, providing internet access to the public. Attempts to create municipal wifi systems have an ignominious history, in part because cities have not been able to figure out how to build the infrastructure and keep it paid for. When the services have been left to private firms to build and operate, the subscriber system do not seem to provide the revenue necessary to make the concession profitable. By starting with the Loop alone, a municipal wifi service may be more realistically profitable, particularly if it were designed along the models used at big airports, where those wanting fleeting access can pay for services or watch ads.

Reports of the plan discuss turning existing infrastructure, including traffic lights, into "smart poles" that ensure universal connectivity, including in the subway. How the service would operated isn't clear--the plan is clearly in its nascent stage. From the general descriptions, though, it sounds like an initial public investment to create the infrastructure would be the first step.

It would be interesting to see how the city's wireless providers--an increasingly competitive market, with companies like Clear moving in on established providers like Comcast--would react to a municipal wifi that is potentially free or provided at a discount. The externalities of a municipal wifi system cause headaches for technocratic planners; a free or deeply discounted wifi system covering the city's most densely populated area and central business district could effect the cost and availability of wireless services in more outlying areas.

However, having a seamless coverage area in the CBD could undergird a broader municipal wifi system that could extend coverage everywhere, and in that way provide free or deeply discounted wifi access to underserved and impoverished areas. The other possible advantages are also significant: having high-speed wireless service everywhere could improve city services and public transportation.

Given the city's past experiences with municipal wifi, how the Emanuel administration approaches the problem should be enlightening, both here and for other cities.

Ramsin Canon

Transportation Fri May 25 2012

Gas and Cigarettes and Addiction Funding

shutterstock_91545929.jpgSo here's an interesting problem for students of how cities operate.

Public health and public transportation are two of the marquee issues for planners, and they're intertwined. Land use planners have recently turned towards policies that encourage walkability, bikeability, and "transit-oriented development." Mayor Emanuel's administration is currently undertaking an impressive, ambitious plan to introduce more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes, of the type found on Kinzie Avenue between Jefferson and Wells. Decreasing reliance on cars is a public health issue because it makes it easier for people to be active, and decreases vehicle emissions that pedestrians encounter as they move around the city. Similarly, the Affordable Care Act had provisions for public/private community health facilities with a focus on patient outcomes rather than fee-for-service models that merely encourage remedial care.

Two of the main sources of funding for public transportation and public health (particularly as the latter is undergirded by state Medicaid) are gasoline and cigarette taxes, respectively. You can see the immediate problem; the better transportation and health systems are designed, the more they must compromise the source of their funding. With transportation, this creates the most immediate problem: with increased volatility of gasoline taxes and a sharp increase in ridership, ill-equipped public transportation systems need more and more money to handle the increase (the fares are never enough to capitalize increased infrastructural capacity).

A brief by the American Public Transportation Association touches on this problem; as public transportation ridership increases, capacity needs increase even while revenues drop. Because fares will never be sufficient for real expansion of capacity, there's a systemic knot that can't be untied without a federal-state-local approach to overhauling the funding system.

Obviously, there's a similar problem with the vice-and-obesity taxes on things like cigarettes, alcohol, and fast and junk food. Where these revenues are meant to fund necessities--community health care in particular--the fact that the tax exists as a "disincentive" to unhealthy decision making implies the outcomes we want--healthier city living--are not really priorities. The addiction persists.

Cigarette photo via Shutterstock.

Ramsin Canon

Privatization Tue Apr 24 2012

Capital Strikes, Capital Flight, and the Wholly Privatized City

In approving with no modifications Mayor Emanuel's infrastructure trust plan today, the City Council took another step towards ensuring their own irrelevance and wholly privatizing the operations of Chicago. It also took another step towards building up the Mayor's 30-second campaign commercial for whatever higher office he's envisioning (so far, he's got "won the longest school day in the country" and "made the tough decisions to balance the budget"; of course, "took on the special interests (workers)" is a given). They can't be wholly blamed, though. There's little room for them, or any local (and even state) legislatures to maneuver. The corporate tactics of capital strikes and threats of flight have proven their worth. Cities and states have been starved for well over a decade, and now we're reduced to auctioning off what we own to meet our obligations.

In a piece on the Infrastructure Trust last week, I said that it wasn't an inherently terrible idea, in part because there's really no other feasible way to raise the money. Issuing general obligation bonds wouldn't be terrible different, the federal government doesn't spend money on infrastructure any more (at least not in a direct way not routed through private pockets) and the city's wealthiest institutions and individuals are unwilling to pay higher taxes--in fact, are unwilling to pay any taxes that aren't offset by massive welfare entitlements, as the ongoing tax increment financing boondoggle demonstrates.

Taking a step back and considering the broad view, this is an astounding progression of events. Over the last 25 years, Chicago's corporate and political leadership has drained the city of revenue through creation of TIFs as a condition to invest capital in neighborhoods--the whole point of a TIF is that available capital is being withheld until the public provides better incentives for its investment. The billions of dollars diverted into these funds contribute to not only to budget shortfalls but, amazingly, increase taxes on middle class taxpayers, as the school district and other bodies have to raise their tax levy to meet their obligations.

At the same time, the city's corporate powerhouses not only withhold investing capital without generous givebacks, but also threaten to leave if their taxes (euphemistically called the "business climate") are not satisfactory.

The result is a public sector starved of revenue which must then turn to selling off (or "long-term leasing-off") its assets. This in turn, by the way, reduces a city's credit-worthiness even more, making it more difficult to issue bonds in the future and narrowing the city's tax base.

This isn't just random dot connecting; it's actually how investors view Infrastructure Trust vehicles. Consider this bit of finance news from last year:

Earlier this month AMP Capital Investors was appointed by Irish Life Investment Managers to advise on its $1.5bn Irish Infrastructure Trust. The fund is expected to acquire key assets such as airports when the Irish government begins selling down assets to meet its obligations.

And this:

[The Irish trust] will provide crucial liquidity to a sector which has, and will continue to be, squeezed of capital. At the same time valuations for infrastructure assets should be low, given the weak macroeconomic outlook, with BMI anticipating a double dip recession to hit in 2012.

Investors in infrastructure trusts are not interested in helping communities (we, a community, are leasing the assets) getting to a place of healthy revenue capable of meeting obligations and investing in long-term projects. To the contrary; the more a community is starved of revenue, the more it'll have to auction off assets. The more it has to auction off assets, the fewer options it has to raise revenue. And on and on.

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Ramsin Canon

Privatization Mon Apr 16 2012

It's Not the Privatization, It's the Privatization

This morning a coalition of organizations opposed to Mayor Emanuel's proposed Infrastructure Trust Fund urged City Council Finance Committee members to vote on the proposal, calling it "the Great Chicago Sell-Off."

The idea of an infrastructure trust is to avoid funding needed and desirous infrastructure projects--such as public transit upkeep and expansion, building modernization, etc.--with debt. So instead of issuing general obligation bonds, attractive to borrowers because they're backed by property and other taxes the city has unlimited power to raise, the city would get private capital from wealth funds, banks, and other institutions, on the idea that the project would be administered by and in part controlled by that institutions, which would earn a return on its investment over the term of the interest.

So as a hypothetical example, the City wants to build a bus rapid transit line up and down Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than issue bonds that put the city further in debt, members of the Infrastructure Trust like, Macquarie and JP Morgan, put up $500 million to widen Milwaukee Avenue, put in the appropriate curbs, compensate the parking meter consortium for the lost spaces, buy the buses, and put in street signs and benches. In return, Trust members would be given a property interest in the BRT for a period of say 50 years, with the revenue generated either being divvied or going directly to them, either in full for the period of the agreement or up to a pre-defined ceiling that allows a nice return.

In the abstract, there's no real problem with this. We as a city don't have a lot of options. Illinois is broke beyond fixing and the federal government lost its appetite for funding major urban infrastructure projects generations ago. The general atmosphere of anti-tax hysteria makes general obligations a safe investment in theory but risky in practice. If these private institutions are willing to put up the money to develop the city's infrastructure for a similar or even slightly higher rate of return that the city would pay to bond holders, then there is no real loss to the city.

The abstract privatization isn't the problem, of course. It's the reality of it. Consider the hypothetical. In that hypothetical, the Infrastructure Trust would need to reimburse another privatizer, the consortium that bought the parking meter concession, for loss of spaces. This is a considerable cost over the life of a project. The city's agreement with that consortium tied our hands when it comes to planning our own city.

Consider in turn this story about the privatized downtown parking garages. In that agreement, the City promised not to permit competing parking garages to open up nearby. From the investor's point of view, this makes sense; they want a safe investment. From the public's point of view, it's an outrage. First of all, it's hard to see how such a promise serves the public interest, since it reduces competition for parking and thus protects a high-priced monopoly. But also, it seems like an outrageous delegation of the city's general legislative powers.

Privatization is supposed to make things more "efficient" by introducing "market-signals." In reality, however, privatization of public assets usually means binding the city's legislature--meaning us, the people--to long-term agreements that bind our ability to plan and design our city as we please, and keep us indebted to private interests, many of them with no real interest in making Chicago a better place.

A similar problem popped up with the parking meter concessionaire, too as a result of disability parking and its supposed deleterious effect on their bottom line. These agreements also tend to include arbitration agreements that are costly and keep "the City" (i.e., you and I) from going to Court over disagreements in an adversarial system that lets sunlight into operations.

Concessionaires are looking for safe, long-term investments. The more city assets they de facto control, the safer their investment, because the density of privately-controlled city infrastructure cuts into revenue generating opportunities for the city (which in turn makes it more expensive to issue bonds).

The safest investment are those that are most amenable to making a profit--more "monetizable" if you will. This inverts the rationale of infrastructure building. It's why Chicago has such a maddeningly redundant train system. The original lines were privately built, operating under charters granted by the City Council. The train operators knew the best and quickest way to make their money back was to have their train line touch the central business district, thus the creation of the Loop. But the whole point of infrastructure is not to maximize existing revenue opportunities, but to build up and out--to create new ones, even where there is risk, serving the underserved, and experimenting with new forms of infrastructure.

From a planning perspective, the concern with an Infrastructure Trust is that it privatizes our infrastructure decision-making. Rather than building and developing for the common good and to serve the underserved, we will be building and developing only where it is safe to do so, for the smallest cost for maximum return. And where such a decision may conflict with grander, more expensive, and potentially less lucrative plans, the binding, long-term agreements wins out.

As the story on the Monroe Garages indicates, these agreements are also often counter-productive. They lock the city into protecting non-competitive behavior for extremely long terms, with penalties that make forcing change or cancelling agreements costly enough to inhibit public innovation. It makes no sense for the city to agree not to permit competing parking garages, just as it made no sense for the city to guarantee the existence of parking spaces--and think how this inherently impacts the city's ability to move towards a more transit-friendly, bike-friendly planning posture. Consistent privatizing of assets creates a hodge-podge of potentially conflicting property interests owned by outside parties that keeps the city--us--from planning for a future that could, and should, look quite different from today.

From a democracy perspective, the Trust presents the twin problems accountability and transparency. Aldermen had to fight to get the Mayor to include a legislator on the body that makes decision--presumably an alderman he appoints--which does not augur well for the accountability and responsiveness of this body. It creates another appointed body immune to public pressure that further concentrates power in the person of the Mayor.

If we want a legislature that is independent of the Mayor, it'd be nice if it had some power distinct from his. With such limitless control over the Board of Education, the CTA, the CHA, and all the city's planning bodies, much of the reason the City Council can't cultivate any independence is that it has very little operational authority.

Asset privatization will create some jobs, it will modernize or improve some public assets, but it will not do so in a way that is publicly-driven, held well to account or even necessarily money-saving in a long-term sense. It isn't an inherently bad idea, particularly given the absence of lots of other options.

The problem in other words isn't privatization per se, it's privatization per quod.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Chicago Tue Feb 14 2012

Review: Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. Depending on where one lives, Chicagoans take pride in the neighborhood they call home and judge others based on where they live. But how does Chicago being a city of neighborhoods effect us in areas such as with poverty and our persistent segregation?

Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert J. Sampson examines Chicago and how being a city of neighborhoods affects Chicago and the social problems in our city. The book is bound to be a selection for college classes on urban theory, particularly in Chicago, but it is only a good book for casual reading if one is an urban theory geek.

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Monica Reida / Comments (1)

Urban Planning Tue Dec 20 2011

Regime Theory in Chicago: A Case Study

This week, Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, the shell consortium that owns our once-public parking meters, has sent the city two bills: one to compensate it for parking by the disabled, and one to compensate it for street closures. Despite some lap yapping from the Mayor, the city has little choice but to pay these bills, either in full or mostly-in-full.

The parking meters are bemoaned as an anomalous poor choice by Mayor My Predecessor, and Mayor Emanuel has regularly shifted between jokey anger and sighing resignation as to it. The truth is though that Mayor Emanuel will have his own Parking Meters deal--probably several--before his Mayoralty ends, and that his power to govern the city--to actually govern city, not just move numbers around between departments to create superficial savings and issue press releases--is not a function of his ability to "lead" but a function of his ability to creatively supplicate.

How does Chicago's government operate? The way it actually operates is fundamentally different from the way it apparently operates. The "apparent" part: it writes laws and enforces them evenly. The way it actually operates: it makes up for a deficiency to act on its own by seeking out powerful investment institutions to partner with, offering up its coercive authority in exchange for badly needed capital. Those agreements are the regime we actually live under, not the laws on the books.

The fundamental shift towards neoliberalization of the economy and government at federal and state levels has changed how Mayors and Councils "govern" cities if they really govern them, in the classical civics-class sense, at all. Of course Emanuel, as one of the political architects of one of neoliberalization's most important structural supports, NAFTA, is not a victim of neoliberalization but an important figure in its rise. That fact is one of the reasons national elites rushed to fund his campaigns for Congress and the Fifth Floor.

In the Neoliberal City, laws, regulations, and rules are less important than relationships between political leaders and wealth, or capital. Mayor Emanuel explicitly ran for office touting his ability to "leverage" his relationships with wealthy elites. He even comically justified his immense fundraising from out-of-state and global financial elites by pointing out that because the rich like him, he'll be able to beg goodies out of them for the public.

The regime that runs the city is not about legislation and enforcement, it is about bilateral agreements, where government promises to use its power for the benefit of investment, or capital, to the greatest extent possible. Carving exceptions to law is as important, if not more important, than legislating itself.

The most stark example of this is the "Memorandum of Understanding" between the City and the University of Chicago, an agreement that could usher in major changes to the Hyde Park/Kenwood area, that was agreed upon in bilateral negotiations between the Mayor and the President of the University. The Mayor told the press he was moved to go into these high-level negotiations with the University after the President told him that in China, such building projects only took six months, whereas the bureaucracy here would lengthen it to years.

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Ramsin Canon

Aldermen Tue Dec 20 2011

Talking Transportation with 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack

By John Greenfield

chicago alderman scott waguespackAs part of an ongoing project to interview all 50 of Chicago's aldermen about sustainable transportation issues in their districts (previously: 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett Jr.), I recently caught up with Scott Waguespack at the 32nd Ward service office, 2657 N. Clybourn. His ward includes parts of Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Goose Island, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Roscoe Village.

In 2007 Waguespack defeated Richard M. Daley-backed incumbent Ted Matlak and soon gained a reputation as an independent voice in City Council. Most famously, he was the leading critic of Daley's push to privatize the city's parking meters, a move that the former mayor would eventually admit, "we totally screwed up."

Waguespack is also known as one of the city's most bike- and transit-friendly aldermen. We talked about his commuting habits; his efforts to promote biking and transit use in the ward; plans for developing the Bloomingdale Trail; and his far-fetched idea of connecting his district to the Loop via water taxi.

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Environment/Sustainability Sun Dec 04 2011

Reverse Effect: Jeanne Gang on the Chicago River

Jeanne Gang is most commonly associated with the landmark 82-story Aqua building on Chicago's "New East Side." The undulating tower mirrors the river it shadows over and reflects the lake into which its views spill. Water has become a preoccupation for the MacArthur Genius; her designs not only reflect water as a form, but speak to water systems on the whole as meshing with the built environment. Nowhere is there more on display than in Gang's new book Reverse Effect, an innovative design plan that seeks to restore the natural Mississippi River and Great Lakes' watersheds, implement permeable green infrastructure, and reclaim vast swaths of underutilized land along the Chicago River for redevelopment.

Gang's plans for the Chicago River's remediation were revealed in a late November talk at the Harold Washington Library with Steve Edwards of WBEZ and Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. As illustrated in the book's title, Reverse Effect proposes the incorporation of green infrastructure as a way to mitigate the concern of invasive species threatening the entire water system from the Great Lakes down through the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico by restoring the natural watersheds of the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi River. Specifically, Gang proposes erecting a barrier near Bubbly Creek, the still-simmering toxic repository of the Chicago River on the border of the Pilsen and Bridgeport neighborhoods. With the barrier in place that separates the watersheds back to their natural state, and the introduction of adjacent green space to act as wetlands around Bubbly Creek, Gang's designs would work to recharge the lake, and provide an opportunity to reclaim the surrounding fallow, industrial land for redevelopment. As Gang stated, "this water problem is an urban problem. Our solution is to make the urban solution a water solution."

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Ben Schulman

Chicago Sun Dec 04 2011

Occupy Chicago Joins Motel Occupation

Visitors to Pastor Corey B. Brooks Head onto the Roof

At 7p.m. tonight, Occupy Chicago will hold its first overnight occupation on the South Side following a general assembly on property owned by New Beginnings Church. The church is hosting the event in conjunction with its own occupation of the derelict Super Motel at 6625 S. Martin Luther King Blvd, which is across the street from its main sanctuary. Its pastor, Corey B. Brooks, has been camping on the roof of the motel for a dozen days and fasting on water alone. He plans on camping on the site until the church raises $450,000 to raze the former motel and build a community center with mixed-use, mixed-income development on site.

Pastor Brooks said that he was "excited" when contacted by Occupy Chicago. "I think that anybody who -- especially when they're not from this area -- wants to come lend support, we've got to be open to that." Ultimately, the pastor hopes that he can play a role mediating between the group and Mayor Emanuel. "I want to have good relations with everybody. We are the church. We're not supposed to be at war with anybody ... We bring about peace."

Follow developments in the motel case on the Project H.O.O.D. website and through Pastor Brooks' Twitter account, CoreyBBrooks. Occupy Chicago is online at

Additional photographs follow.

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David Schalliol / Comments (1)

Urban Planning Mon Nov 28 2011

Zoning at 85 and a Reading Assignment

Urban Land Institute senior fellow Edward T. McMahon, whom I'll assume prefers to go by Edward or at least Ted, has a post up today commemorating the 85th anniversary of the decision in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty, the Supreme Court case that protected single-issue or "Euclidean" zoning.

McMahon addresses some of the myth surrounding the negative impacts of land use regulations generally and zoning specifically. Critics of zoning (and the planning it requires) argue that zoning codes infringe on individual property rights and as a result in the aggregate lead to less efficient uses of land, which in turn drive down land values and drive up costs of living.

Undoubtedly, Euclidean zoning on its own is inefficient, at the least because it creates zones that limit use way out into the future, people make long-term plans based on those zones, and changing them can be immensely difficult, whatever the economic or technological changes that come around. Alternatives to Euclidean zoning, including modular zoning and performance zoning, the latter of which was advocated in part by the Metropolitan Planning Council in a 2001 report.

What grabbed me about McMahon's piece is his mythbusting regarding Houston. Opponents of zoning point to Houston, which has grown in population and economy while other major cities have declined despite not having a city-wide zoning code. I would excerpt McMahon's point on this, but ULI has an insane policy of charging you to copy and paste text from their site.

Thankfully, McMahon's point is easily summarized: while Houston has grown, comparable cities in Texas with zoning codes (including San Antonio and Austin) have also grown, some at greater rates and with lower unemployment, and without the risk of someone running a marble grinding business out of their house next door to you.

This latter scenario (which comes from a real case) underlies the problem. Zoning is an expression of a natural instinct to protect your quality of life and your property from de facto intrusions from the way other people use their property. So while Houston lacks a zoning code, it does feature deed-restricted and covenant communities, which can be ruled by iron-fisted homeowners associations. In other words, the fairly broad and democratic regulations embodied in a municipal zoning code are merely privatized to homeowners associations with less transparency and sometimes less accountability.

Euclidean zoning is antiquated, notwithstanding its awesome name. Chicago has a proud and important history as a laboratory for urban planning. It may be time to revisit the zoning code in a comprehensive way. Given his eagerness to wipe the slate clean and considerable influence with the City Council, Mayor Emanuel could get the process started in a way a more compromised executive couldn't.

Which brings me to your reading assignment, this book which traces the evolution of Chicago's own zoning code. The current code is a creature of thousands of amendments, but its framework was built as the result of large, concentrated efforts by city leadership. Um...see if they have it at the library.

Ramsin Canon

Budget Wed Nov 16 2011

Mayor Emanuel's Budget Passes Unanimously

The City Council voted today to pass Mayor Emanuel's budget unanimously, 50-0. Chicago News Coop reporters Hunter Clauss and Dan Mihalopoulos described Aldermen's comments as "near worshipful" though not without acknowledging the necessary pain that will come with cuts to front-line workers, library and mental services, and elsewhere.

The budget affects deep cuts, particularly around staffing, to close the $600+ million budget deficit the city faced. The budget came in at $6.3 billion. Aldermen lauded the Mayor for being inclusive in the planning process. While under Mayor Daley unanimous budget votes were often used as evidence that the Council was a mere "rubber stamp" for the Mayor's prerogative, a unanimity does not necessarily entail that. Aldermen seemed to feel like they got their words in during the preparation process, which is arguably much more important than voting against the final budget. Tracking how the budget has changed from its initial form to today would be more instructive; unfortunately that process is not particularly transparent, or at least self-evident.

AFSCME Council 31, which represents thousands of city workers, released a statement upon passage of the budget bemoaning the deep cuts to basic and needed social services:

"We're very disappointed that aldermen have voted to reduce access to libraries, cut mental health services, privatize health clinics and cut hundreds of good jobs. Many aldermen voiced serious concerns about these cuts today. While the vote is over, the work of minimizing these harmful cuts is an ongoing process in which AFSCME and our labor and community allies will be fully engaged.

Yesterday, mental health advocates staged a sit-in outside the Mayor's office that lasted into the evening to protest the cutting of services at about half of the city's mental health facilities:


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Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Urban Planning Thu Nov 10 2011

Technocracy & Doing It Like China

In the 1980s, the last of the country's New Deal era big-city political machines collapsed. As Nixon and subsequently Reagan starved cities of the federal money they were used to, the ability of political bosses to bestow largess, along with the maturation of a post-Civil Rights era generation splintered them fatally. After a brief window a new era of urban governance took hold, which preferred alliance with big money and technocracy. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist ethos captured the nation's imagination.

Former Mayor Daley was in the vanguard of this transformation of city government. The Machine Lite he assembled had a particular emphasis on technocracy; the emphasis on "neighborhood democracy" and inclusive processes that characterized Harold Washington's administration were discarded as needlessly bureaucratic, parochial, and "divisive," unappealing traits for a city tired of the contentiousness of the Council Wars era. Technocrats were the answer: consolidate decision making under the Mayor, and let the Mayor appoint experts to make decisions based on their unique areas of expertise.

The trend in urban planning has been to emphasize centralized and comprehensive planning to avoid the type of regulatory uncertainty that supposedly inhibits efficient use of property and infrastructure. Efficiency is the holy grail; a recent article in Planning magazine criticized the "orgy of public process" that fatally interferes with efficiency; from Next American City:

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Ramsin Canon

Urban Planning Fri Nov 04 2011

Yglesias on the "Chicago Model"

Interesting short post on Chicago's zoning and development from Think Progress' Matthew Yglesias, with a note on how sprawl is impacted by mandatory parking space creation. I wrote about Chicago's parking policy and regulatory regime (though less as it relates to zoning) here. From Yglesias:

Chicago, though by no means perfect, is largely doing real estate development policy right. It's a city that's both sprawling and dense. It has its share of heavy rail transit serving the center of the city, and downtown where land is expensive the buildings get very tall. At the same time, it also spreads out a great deal since lots of people have a perfectly authentic preference for single family homes and varying degrees of low density neighborhoods.

Ramsin Canon

Race Thu Oct 27 2011

"You Even See White People on 43rd Street Now": Income and Segregation in Chicago

by Daniel Hertz

On a recent sunny afternoon, "John," 25, was hanging out at the Lake Meadows shopping center at 35th and King Drive in Bronzeville. He is a new resident of the city's oldest black neighborhood, formed in the first quarter of the 20th century by southern migrants searching for better jobs and living conditions in the North. John is also a migrant: he moved to Bronzeville from southwestern China earlier this year. And, in doing so, he became part of the slow breakdown in the racial order of Chicago that has been taking place for the last few decades.

It is not news that this city, like most northern industrial metropolises, is an especially egregious case of American racial segregation. Separation was never explicitly enforced by law, but restrictive housing covenants, social pressure, and violence, both random and coordinated, managed to create very real boundaries outside of which few blacks dared to live. Successive waves of migrants following World War II expanded the black ghetto to encompass much of the south and west sides of the city, while the severity of segregation worsened.

But it is less often noted that since peaking around 1970, black segregation in Chicago has been on a slow, but notable, decline. Now, new data from the 2010 Census gives an in-depth portrait of a still-divided city's tentative steps away from the kind of apartheid that earned it the nickname "Beirut on the Lake" in the 1980s. In neighborhoods like Bronzeville and Woodlawn on the South Side and Garfield Park on the West Side, white, Latino and Asian Chicagoans have cracked open the door to integration. Likewise, black families have started to move into pockets of the northwest and southwest sides where African Americans often made up less than one percent of residents just ten years ago. In some of these places, African American populations have grown by factors of two, three, or even ten since 2000.

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Mechanics / Comments (1)

Op-Ed Wed Oct 26 2011

Rainwater In Context: Is Chicago's Water Rate Increase Money Down the Drain?

by John Norquist and Caitlin Ghoshal

As many cities face both costly aging infrastructure and looming budget deficits, public administrators are turning to fee increases to finance system fixes.  Most recently, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed 2012 budget outlines an up-to-25% increase in the annual fee for water and sewer services. The Congress for the New Urbanism supports Chicago's water modernization efforts, but the Mayor's proposed fee lacks a direct connection to urbanism and green infrastructure.

A rate increase that only patches sewer pipes will flush taxpayers' money down the drain. If this water rate increase only helps the City rebuild - instead of renew - water infrastructure, the same stormwater problems will plague the City's streets.  Innovative and context-sensitive rainwater systems are not only sustainable and environmentally friendly, but also cost-effective. Green water infrastructure, the type(s) as proposed in CNU's Rainwater-in-Context initiative, helps reduce stormwater runoff and its stress on the sewer system.  Permeable pavement, alternative street design, and other context-sensitive rainwater systems protect urban watersheds like Chicago's - undoubtedly one of the city's greatest assets.

The current state of disrepair of Chicago's water infrastructure should be viewed not as a liability that can only be remedied through higher rates for fixes, but rather as an opportunity to create longer-lasting, more sustainable systems that securely plant Chicago at the forefront of green design. As the Mayor is wont to say, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Dense urban areas like Chicago have inherent environmental strengths (especially when compared to conventional sprawl patterns), and incorporating urban-minded water infrastructure can only enhance this standing. In committing to both green infrastructure and new urbanism, Mayor Emanuel has the opportunity to realize sustainable practices that reinforce the urban environment and protect the City's and taxpayers' assets for the long term.

Chicago helped pioneer interdisciplinary water and street planning, such as its Green Alley program. Dedicating water rate increases to broadly implementing urbanist green infrastructure keeps Chicago a leader in sustainable water policy.  Mayor Emanuel's budget proposal to address inefficient water pricing is only part of a more comprehensive solution to better managing Chicago's watershed.  Green - and urbanist - water infrastructure will shower rewards on both local government's coffers and taxpayers' pockets.

John Norquist is the CEO & President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, served as Mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004, and is the author of the book The Wealth of Cities

Caitlin Ghoshal is the Program Manager for the Congress for the New Urbanism, and served as a Mayoral Fellow in the Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel during the Mayor's first 100 days of office.

For more information on CNU's Rainwater-In-Context, please visit


Good Government/Reform Tue Sep 27 2011

Chicago Inspector General Offers Budget Ideas, Politics-Free

The Chicago Inspector General, Joseph Ferguson, released a report this morning with recommendations to the city government as to how it could close its considerable budget deficit.

There is constant harping in this space (e.g., from me) about the need for democratic control of institutions and meaningful public input into public processes. Any more than a little complaining about constant deference to more or less unaccountable technocrats. Make no mistake, though--technocrats and experts--and insular bodies--do have an important role to play. One of the best things about "third party" bodies that are insulated from politics yet still part of government is that they can make findings and issue recommendations free of the type of political considerations that the elected incorporate into everything. (Which is just one of many reasons why the IG's office should be well-funded and protected from meddling).

At the same time, being part of government means the recommendations these bodies make carry more weight, generate more instant attention, and carry some imprimatur of officialdom. So I read the IG's report with some interest late last night and early this morning.

One of the things that will strike you right from the executive summary is that a number of these recommendations could save enormous sums annually with fairly straightforward actions. It takes only another moment before you realize that they would be unpopular either with powerful special interests or with casual voters. Creating a 1% city income tax, for example, would cause a stir, and Mayor Emanuel has not shown the particular style of political courage necessary to try something like that. Similarly, this administration is unlikely to take the common sense step of eliminating some of the legions of appointed supervisors who supervise ever fewer employees but enjoy high salaries and benefits.

By Ferguson's estimation, that latter change could save the city as much as $100mn a year.

The option that generated buzz this morning was transforming Lake Shore Drive into a toll road, which is unfortunate because there are a lot of other common sense suggestions that, in the short term at least, could balance the city's budget without necessarily wreaking havoc among working families, including (from a release):

· Eliminating all Tax Increment Financing Districts to increase tax revenues to the City's general fund by an estimated $100 million annually

· Increasing the work week of all City employees to 40 hours to save approximately $40 million annually

· Create a Commuter Tax estimated to generate $300 million in annual revenues

· Implement Congestion Pricing for vehicular traffic that is estimated to generate an additional annual revenues of $235 million

· Broadening the City's Amusement Tax which would produce an additional $105 million in annual revenues

A lot of this is necessarily unlikely. They would be major, if simple, changes, and Emanuel's entire political career is one of risk-aversion, and the City Council is not really equipped to take any initiative. Still, having a body in government that can put forward options and recommendations like this, to at the very least make the public aware of what is conceivable and possible--and what politicians are unwilling, for their own person political reasons, to do--is essential to good government.

To read the full report, follow the jump. Also, check out IG Ferguson on WBEZ's 848 this morning. (I was on after him).

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Ramsin Canon

Urban Planning Mon Sep 19 2011

TIFs and the Race to the Bottom

Phil Rosenthal had a great piece in the Trib about the core policy questions that arise in the debate about TIF: Who needs subsidies? Working families? Or big companies?

On the one hand, you have unceasing waves of foreclosures hitting Chicago neighborhoods, contributing to blight, affecting property values, and, most importantly, putting families out of their homes. Without question, these harm a local economy.

On the other, communities need jobs. The flight of manufacturing from Chicago degraded the city's middle class significantly, and only an infusion of professionals to gentrifying neighborhoods has kept the median income steady. If employers are only willing to relocate with lavish subsidy, whatever our ideological or moral objections, it may be necessary.

Add to this a third layer: to what degree are we actually solving a problem, and to what degree are we shuffling deck chairs? From Rosenthal's piece:

"It depends on how you view the geography of our economy," said Rachel Weber, an associate professor in urban planning and policy at UIC. "If you think of the upper Midwest as one interlinked economy that competes with Europe and China, then moving these pieces around is not necessarily a benefit. If you look at it from the perspective of the city of Chicago, this is a winner. It depends on the scale of the economy you think matters most."

Beyond the process concerns, one of the challenges that TIF-style economic development presents is stability. TIFs are a weapon in the battle between communities and states to lure business away from one another, which changes the net but does nothing to the gross: the pie doesn't grow, in other words, between regions and states. How many subsidies are enough? What's to keep a company willing and able to chase the best benefits from staying put long enough to truly plan around?

Mayor Emanuel, like his predecessor (whose name is not "Mayor My Predecessor" as Emanuel would have you believe), has an intense policy focus on keeping Chicago a "global city." As the global economy has become more and more integrated and capital freed from parochial bonds since the 1970s, the "global city" idea has majorly informed of metropolitan areas has formed the basis of urban planning.

In her influential book Cities in a World Economy, Sasskia Sassen teased out what this often amorphous concept of a "global city" means:

[T]he forty or so cities that currently qualify as 'global cities' fulfil three major functions. They are command and control centres for the organisation of the world economy, key locations and marketplaces for finance and specialised services, and also major sites of production, including the production of innovation. [Sassen] stresses that global cities cannot be treated as single entities and that their social and cultural determinants must be taken into account to understand their economic trajectories.

The intense specialization and capital requirements of these functions requires significant infrastructure and social capital investment. Like the human brain, they consume a lot of resources. The professionals and the social networks in which they move require certain modes of urban living, access to major research institutions, access to power, and generally little interference from the state. Requirements like these often come to the detriment of the type of "neighborhoods first" governance that was the center piece of Harold Washington's reforms in the 1980s. Thus the constant friction between funding for "downtown" and Millennium Park versus investment into "the neighborhoods" and relief for cash-strapped families.

Competition for international capital and the industries, social networks, and professionals that accompany it is only sharpening. What's more, the policies needed to compete can seem to the public to be a series of desperation measures to stay relevant, with investment in working class communities forever put off into some future where there is some stability. And if the fictional wealth bonanza of the 1990s taught us anything, even seemingly dynamic changes to the fundamentals of the economy can be illusory. The example in Chicago is stark: the collapse of the housing market led directly to the tanking of Chicago's revenue base which was kept afloat by huge surges in Real Estate Transfer taxes.

The race to the bottom indicates there is a bottom, but the analogy can't be stretched too far. In reality, what is considered an acceptable level of social spending is constantly revised downward, the public common is consistently narrowed, and neighborhood participation in planning low-rated into oblivion.

Still, the abuse of TIFs by Mayor My Predecessor has given them a bad name, but they are not by any means inherently bad. To the contrary; one can easily imagine how TIF districts could be used as a tool for community control over and input into local planning and development decisions. A first step to resolving the type of tension Rosenthal reported on is to work towards some kind of consensus on the question of what makes a city prosperous, and to what degree our "global city" position needs to be balanced with true local ownership over policy and planning.

Ramsin Canon

TIFs Tue Sep 06 2011

A Look Behind: Mayor Emanuel's TIF Commission; What They "Do and Don't"

Last Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made good on his campaign pledge to reform the Chicago's sprawling Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program. So it would seem from scanning the headlines. Or maybe it's time to double-down on cynicism, because nothing has changed.

Hard to say, really, since there's been precious little analysis of what Emanuel's TIF reform panel actually proposed.

(For a quick refresh of how TIFs work, click here and here.)

So let's take a look. At bottom, their report urges the city to adopt four simple, technocractic habits:

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Public Transportation Fri Aug 26 2011

Growing Pains: The Red Line Extension

by Christopher Gray

Eddie Davis waits in his dapper suit for customers to arrive at Bass Furniture, but buyers and even browsers are few and far between these days for the Roseland landmark at South Michigan and 115th Street.

Business has been down for years, while Davis continues to pay the mortgage on his store and warehouses, which have sold new furniture on the Far South Side for generations.

"As much as I would like to stay in the 9th Ward, if I had the resources, I would move," Davis said.

The days when far South Michigan Avenue was a thriving commercial corridor with competing department stores are long gone, but Davis said business was much better even 10 years ago when a strip mall sat cater-corner to his store.

The mall was bulldozed for redevelopment in 2004, and the neighborhood has been waiting ever since for a grocery store to anchor the neighborhood on 115th. Roseland is completely without a supermarket, making it one of the city's largest "food deserts."

"It has impacted our business tremendously," Davis said. "We need foot traffic. We need people."

An Aldi store may yet anchor that location within the next year, but Bass Furniture could some day benefit from another development: a new El station a few hundred yards to the south, part of the proposed Red Line extension.

"We've been here 70 years," Davis said. "If it takes 10 years for the train, we hope to be here in 10 years."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on an overhaul of the Red Line as his highest transportation priority, and within his first 100 days in office, the CTA has showed the beginnings of that process: the agency won $8.4 million in federal dollars to conduct environmental studies for Red Line improvements.

The environmental studies will take two years, and push out the finish line of a Red Line extension until at least 2017, but Joe Iacobucci, a strategic planner at the CTA, said any delay is hardly the biggest obstacle the project faces.

"The two main barriers are finding capital funds and operations costs," Iacobucci said. "We're still a ways to go, but we're still pushing this through as fast as we can."

When Richard M. Daley was mayor, the Red Line extension had to share CTA planning time with extensions to the Yellow and Orange lines as well as a new inner-city connector route called the Circle Line. Under the new mayor, those projects appear shelved, and only the Red Line extension remains active. But now the extension is sharing funds with improvements to the existing Red Line on the North Side.

In the spring, the CTA initiated its "Your Red" campaign, which, reflecting Emanuel's Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, takes a three-pronged approach to the Red Line: overhaul the dilapidated north branch of the Red Line and the suburban Purple Line for $2.4 to $4 billion; replace the rails, ties and ballasts of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line for $700 million; and extend the Red Line to 130th Street, through the Roseland neighborhood to Altgeld Gardens, for $1.2 billion.

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Mechanics / Comments (2)

Open Government Wed Aug 24 2011

Transparency Ex Post and Ex Ante

Since taking office just about a hundred days ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pleased open government and transparency activists by creating a myriad of tools and data portals to open government information. All city employee salaries have been made easily accessible by the public, as well as 311 service requests, building permits, lobbyist data, and more.

At the risk of acquiring a John Kass-style cheap hater reputation, I had a good amount of fun making light of these actually impressive initiatives on Twitter, where I may or may not have referred to them as "democracy by spreadsheet." Recently, WBEZ ran a report looking at whether the Mayor's transparency initiatives were more appearance than reality.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (2)

Transportation Thu Aug 18 2011

How Bus Rapid Transit Can Be Implemented in Chicago

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) released their report Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity publicly at an event held yesterday at the Union League Club. For some background on the report, see here.

The speakers at the event included former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa, United States Bus Rapid Transit Program Director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Annie Weinstock, MPC Project Manager Josh Ellis and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) Commissioner Gabe Klein. The event focused on how BRT's implementation in Chicago could work and cited examples from other cities using BRT, primarily Bogotá.

As mayor, Peñalosa oversaw the development of Bogotá's BRT system. TransMilenio, as it was called is now viewed as being the world standard in BRT. There are 84 kilometers (52.2 miles) of road used in the TransMilenio route and it serves more than 1 million riders daily. (Note: TransMilenio links are in Spanish but can be viewed in English by clicking on "Idioma.")

"Buses operating as BRT are wonderful," Peñalosa said during his presentation.

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Monica Reida

Transportation Wed Aug 17 2011

New Report Examines Possibility of Bus Rapid Transit in Chicago

The Metropolitan Planning Council released a report, "Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity," [PDF] evaluating the potential for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Chicago. As part of the study, the proposed BRT lines would connect with Metra and CTA L stops, as well as help serve communities by improving livability. A BRT system was mentioned in both Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Transition Plan and the Chicago Climate Action Plan.

While BRT uses buses, it is meant to emulate a rail system in some ways. Standard BRT systems require riders to pay at stations before boarding, which allows for faster boarding at stops. BRT stations also usually have a level platform and buses tend to have multiple doors for boarding and exiting. Most systems have a dedicated lane for buses as well as signal prioritized intersections, which allow for buses to move without stopping and to ensure the safety of buses. According to the study, BRT costs about $13.32 million per mile to construct while light rail costs about $35 million per mile and heavy rail tends to cost more than $96.25 million. BRT is already used in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Eugene, Oregon. In Los Angeles, the Metro Liner system originally included the Orange Line, which is highlighted in the report, but another route--the Silver Line--was added in 2009 to connect the city of El Monte with downtown Los Angeles and the city of Gardena. Currently, officials in Los Angeles are extending the Orange Line, which had 22,817 average weekday boardings last month and a total of 591,179 boardings. The extension is expected to be completed in the summer of 2012.

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Monica Reida

Neighborhoods Tue Aug 16 2011

Chicago's Public Health and Violence Troubles Still Segregated

Chicago has over 200 neighborhoods within 77 "community areas." Guess which have the least access to "basic health resources"?

You probably didn't think of the Near North Side.

A new study by Northwestern University and the Chicago Department of Public Health demonstrate what most people already know: the South and Southwest areas of Chicago are painfully deficient in access to the tools for a healthy life.

The study tracked the prevalence of childhood obesity, breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, motor vehicle injury and death, as well as access to parks, good medical care, and affordable fresh fruit and produce.

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Megan E. Doherty

Urban Planning Thu Jul 07 2011

Chicago and Portland: Urban Dynamism


Aaron Renn, the estimable Urbanophile from the blog of the same name, published a piece considering what Portland, as a beacon of "livability," means for cities across the country. Renn compares Portland in the 1990s to Chicago in the 1890s: visionary and opportunistic, the "orderer" of its day:

Portland didn't invent bicycles, density or light rail -- but it understood the future implications of them for America's smaller cities first, and put that knowledge to use before anyone else. The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. Nobody else did. In an era where most American cities went one direction, Portland went another, either capturing or even creating the zeitgeist of a new age.

In the agro-industrial era, Chicago first understood the true significance of railroads, the skyscraper and even urban planning. It saw what others couldn't -- and acted on that understanding. That made Chicago the greatest city, indeed the orderer, of its age.

In the late 20th century and continuing to the present day, for cities below the first rank, Portland plays that role. Like Chicago, it is remaking much of America after its own fashion. Light rail, bike lanes, reclaimed waterfronts, urban condos and microbreweries are now nearly ubiquitous, if not deployed at scale, across the nation.

Renn is an agile and interesting thinker on urban issues, one of my favorites to read on big city policy, even when we disagree. While I think the piece lapses into generalization occasionally, he sets up some very interesting contrasts and asks some great questions.

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Ramsin Canon

Urban Planning Mon Jun 20 2011

Discriminating/Discrimination in Urban Planning

An interesting piece at Reason takes on the powers of landmark preservationists, architectural guideline bodies, and zoning and planning agencies in general, casting them as stealth modes of discrimination in urban planning. Pointing to the spotty at best history of urban zoning codes, author Tim Cavanaugh reminds readers that in fact "accounting for taste" in regulating what gets built and where is almost inherently discriminatory in the way that liberal social engineers would detest:

In fact, New York's zoning resolution followed by more than half a decade the 1910 zoning law of Baltimore's progressive Mayor J. Barry Mahool, who explained that "Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority."


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Ramsin Canon

Urban Planning Thu Jun 16 2011

The High Line Brought Down to Earth: Chicago's Bloomingdale Trail

It's been exactly one month since Rahm Emanuel assumed the mayoralty in Chicago, and already pedestrians are beginning to feel the Mayor's presence on city streets everywhere. Emanuel has given free reign to new CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein to introduce a series of measures in envisioning a more multi-modal, accessible, and interactive city whose streets serve a variety of functions. Klein has responded in a flurry of pedestrian-oriented activity, already implementing Chicago's first protected bike lanes, floating the idea for Chicagoans to do the "Barnes Dance" via diagonal street crossings, and proposing to transform the city's "under-utilized" bus shelter screens into gigantic smart-apps that indicate wait time for bus service, current bike- and car-sharing inventory information, and how long it would take to walk to one's final destination. Perhaps the biggest sign that Emanuel and Klein are pushing the city's functional form forward though is last week's news that design work on the long-proposed Bloomingdale Trail is moving ahead.

The dormant, 2.65-mile elevated railway line is often compared to New York's successful High Line project, and while the two projects share similar characteristics (two fallow, elevated railroad lines being remediated and reapplied), the discussion over the design of the Bloomingdale Trail indicates its function will differ significantly from the High Line. The High Line unravels as a highly manicured park that prohibits dogs and bikes, and exists as a bit of an open-air gallery piece. In contrast, the Bloomingdale Trail was included as part of Mayor Emanuel's transportation initiatives. As Adolfo Hernandez of the Active Transportation Alliance puts it, "The High Line is a passive space. The Bloomingdale Trail is meant to be an active space that can connect neighborhoods via bike and walking transit."

Emanuel is certainly aware of the economic benefit the High Line has brought to surrounding areas in New York, and no doubt hopes to see comparable rates of return in Chicago. Yet, unlike in New York, where the High Line has effectively created new neighborhood conditions that have changed the character of its surroundings, the success of the Chicago model is based more upon its functionality as a space that seamlessly integrates itself into the neighborhood fabric, and activates some of the locked-up potential in the immediate vicinity. In essence, the Bloomingdale Trail may be a more organic answer to many of the criticisms lobbed against the High Line in the past, such as in the recent Witold Rybczynski New York Times piece, "Bringing the High Line Back to Earth." Recognizing that most cities don't have New York's density and built-in, already activated assets, Rybczynski questions whether other cities should be looking towards the High Line as a model for reclaiming and remediating vacant spaces.

Ben Helphand, President of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, echoes Rybcyznski's doubts. "The High Line is a wonderful open space - it's just not something that can be replicated cookie-cutter across the world, just like Bilbao can't or shouldn't be replicated for every new museum," Helphand states. "What we do have, and will continue to have, are remnants from our industrial past, and increasingly, our auto-indulgent heyday. These remnants of rail lines, canals, river edges, factories, landfills, quarries, and too-wide streets can be reclaimed as new, active, often odd-shaped spaces." Rather than glossing its identity over with audacious design, the Bloomingdale Trail aims to reenergize itself as a space that provides "a mixture of fun, exercise and transportation." Helphand continues, "I would not be surprised if you saw thousands using the Trail as part of their morning and evening commutes, connecting to existing bike routes to the Loop and the bike boulevard system on the west. It also has convenient connections to two CTA train stations, the Metra station at Clybourn, and several major bus routes. For students at the 12 schools within easy walking distance of the Trail, it'll help provide safe and healthy routes to school." The Bloomingdale Trail as envisioned is not a gallery; it's a functional corridor.

Such a cohesively designed remediation project could serve as a more realistic example for other like-minded projects across the country, and even other spaces within Chicago, such as the Englewood ERA Trail. Hernandez, of Active Trans, believes the development of the Bloomingdale Trail could act as as the first domino to drop in spurring further movement. "There are different challenges in different communities, but the Bloomingdale Trail can be a catalyst. Most important though, the community has to inform the character the trail will take." Seeing the pace that Emanuel and Klein are setting, it may be soon that Chicagoans are setting examples for other cities and activating spaces all over.

This post also appears on

Ben Schulman / Comments (1)

Urban Planning Fri Jun 10 2011

Joel Kotkin's Jihad on Logic

In some urbanist circles, the name Joel Kotkin prompts groans and grimaces. Kotkin - a frequent writer for Forbes, the executive editor for the website, Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University (the credentials go on...) - is occasionally derided as someone who glosses over concrete statistics to prove points about broader trends that make his cases compelling, as Florida Coastal School of Law Professor Michael Lewyn vividly illustrated in his rebuttal of Kotkin's "The War Against Suburbia." Seen as a sprawl supporter or even worse, an apologist, this perceived bias can deflect urbanists from Kotkin's analysis and detailed demographic studies. Kotkin often tries to juxtapose his "everyday man"-isms against the "creative class"-isms of Richard Florida, as Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institute remarked in a New Republic article from last year. Yet, even as both urban theorists paint incomplete pictures of cities that rest on somewhat easy, homogenous models, they usually push a dialogue forward.

Some of Kotkin's more recent work does this successfully, such as when he gives careful consideration to the factors that shaped the unexpectedly suburban tilt of the 2010 Census. Articles such as "The Dispersionist Manifesto" and "Cities and the Census: Cities Neither Withering nor Booming" posit forth a legitimately sound version of urban demography that seems cut from the cloth of the Mike Davis/Los Angeles School of Urbanism, which deserve discussion at the urbanist table. Of course, it's just as easy to take the other side of the argument. One could point to the 2010 census and note the demographic shifts that have revealed tremendous population growth in innermost central-city cores from Chicago to Detroit to Philadelphia to Los Angeles. There's always another side to the story to be examined.

This duality is what makes discussion about dissecting cities, states, their populations, and the local, federal, and state policies that inform their shape, design, and viability so essential. Unfortunately, Kotkin's latest piece for Forbes and New Geography, "California's Green Jihad" leaves little room for duality and spurs very little actual thought for enlightened conversation. Rather, the article - whose basic premise is that the over-regulating environmental czars of California are enacting energy policy regulations in the disinterest of its people, and have developed a theocratic zeal for green energy that is on par with the Iranian government's Islamic fundamentalism - is a slipshod construction of ill-formed metaphor and mismatched thought. While there's certainly a case to be made against the unintended consequences of heavy state interference in a market economy (Disclosure: I've even written about such for New Geography in the past), Kotkin's comparison of theocratic thugs operating under the guise of some Bay Area greenies is disingenuous.

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Ben Schulman

Urban Planning Mon Jun 06 2011

The Vanishing City

The Architect's Newspaper review The Vanishing City, a documentary about New York City and the hard drive of the Bloomberg administration to attract wealth and expunge itself of its working class:

We are reminded that Manhattan is becoming a gilded ghetto in a documentary that is not a lecture, but a cri de coeur from a chorus of critics, most of them telling you the bad news that you know already.

Readers of this newspaper may know the critics, too. Planner Tom Angotti, sociologist Saskia Sassen of Columbia, and Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society chart the process by which builders are rewarded for chillingly refined high-rises that rose before the Wall Street crash in what had been affordable neighborhoods for those of us who don't work for hedge funds. The policy forces the rest of us to pay high taxes to finance services and drives the workers needed to serve this economy out of town, or at least out of Manhattan. If you have an ordinary income, you lose. You lose even more if you have children. And it's all legal.

It's a grim reality, and it's the policy of the Bloomberg administration. One strength of The Vanishing City is that it takes Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at his word, and quotes him. Bloomberg announced to New Yorkers and to the world that New York was not akin to Walmart but a luxury product. In comments like that, Bloomberg wasn't just a snob with a tin ear. He was fueling the transformation of the urban landscape away from the mix of rich, poor, and everything in-between that gave New York its charm and vitality. Let's not forget that the city voted to re-elect him--twice.

The displacing of working class families from cities is not of course unique to New York. One of the problems for example with evaluating Mayor Daley's legacy is properly understanding how efforts to lure back "professionals" doesn't necessarily add to the city, but just pushes out poorer residents. So when we see median incomes rise or crime drop, it isn't because people are finding better work or the causes of crime are being ameliorated, but rather because low-income families are being pushed into inner-ring suburbs.

Ramsin Canon

Chicago Thu Jun 02 2011

Crap[s]: A Chicago Casino

Should we bring casino gambling to Chicago, as Mayor Emanuel is aggressively pushing for? I've never been able to come to a solid decision on this issue, whether to oppose or not. Casinos are regularly trotted out as solutions to sagging tax revenues, particularly in declining urban areas like Providence, Hartford, Detroit and Cleveland. And while there is some initial surge in revenues, if Providence and Detroit are our glimmering examples of the wonders of casino gaming development, I'm not certain we should be encouraging their development here in Chicago.

Of course, Chicago is much different from Providence and Detroit. Chicago is a major convention city, the third largest city in the country, and the capital of the Midwest. We already draw huge numbers of tourists and conventioneers. Given that, the social ills that accompany casinos may not manifest; and perhaps their main function of merely sucking more money from low-income workers to enrich the casino developers and provide a trickle of extra tax revenue will be substituted for actually making money from tourists.

One thing does seem safe to say: if a casino attracts new tourists, it will make the casino operators very wealthy, which will have an attendant (small) impact on tax revenue. But it will not have any appreciable effect on other businesses. The Boston Federal Reserve Bank released a paper evaluating a proposed casino in Rhode Island and included this:

In general, whether a casino will benefit or harm a local economy hinges on whether the casino is likely to attract tourists to the region. Destination casinos, such as those in Las Vegas, essentially export casino services to tourists, bringing in new dollars to the local economy. A dollar spent by a tourist in a destination casino may fund a local supplier providing food and beverages to the casino, which then spends that income on other goods and services in the local economy, thus multiplying the effect of the first dollar spent. The tourist, however, does not generally spend much in the communities surrounding a resort-style casino. Steve Wynn, a major casino operator, expressed this point to local businessmen in Bridgeport which also considered a casino, in the 1990s: "There is no reason on earth for any of you to expect for more than a second that just because there are people here, they're going to run into your restaurants and stores just because we build this building [casino] here." Therefore, the main ancillary benefits are from indirect spending in the local economy spurred by tourists to a casino, rather than direct spending by tourists at local restaurants or shops.

(emphasis added).

In other words, the economic impact is strictly trickle down, and rests on some pretty big assumptions. So, in that way it is certainly a risk.

I have to believe however that Chicago given its existing reputation and infrastructure and steady convention business would be able to benefit from an appropriate casino (i.e., something a little classy). Most cities that pursue casino development do so to bring in the tourists; Chicago's casino would be another way for our extant tourists to spend money. If--if--we know that most of the casino's customers would be tourists, it's a good idea. If not, it's just another massive trickle-down project done out of terror of spooking away fragile mega-corporations who flee at the scent of any taxes that prompt a fair share.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Event Fri May 27 2011

CNU 19: Growing Local @ Monona Terrace Convention Center, Madison, WI

Hey Chicago, take the time to meet your regional neighbors in Madison! CNU 19 is the 19th annual Congress from Chicago-based non-profit The Congress for the New Urbanism, the nation's leading advocacy organization dedicated to promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.

Visit the program book now to see the full spectrum of events, tours, and networking events that await. CNU 19: Growing Local, June 1-4. Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, One John Nolen Drive, Madison, WI 53703. Register today at

Ben Schulman

Aldermen Thu May 26 2011

Efficiency: Government More Like China

On Monday, the Tribune reported on Mayor Emanuel's first weekend in office, spent working with the University of Chicago on a package of zoning and permitting issues. The University is in a constant state of reshaping Hyde Park according to its growth and development plans, and the City wants to ensure that those plans jive with the the City's and resident's hopes and plans for the area.

The Tribune's story focuses on Emanuel's roll-up-your-sleeves approach to making government "smarter," a theme that was integral to the Mayor's marketing package during the election season. Specifically:

The first actions of any new executive are heavy with symbolism...So what did Mayor Rahm Emanuel do during his first weekend in office? He went to City Hall on Saturday morning in jeans and a dress shirt and met with top officials from the University of Chicago to hammer out an agreement on, of all things, zoning and construction permits.

It was a nice little story about a new Mayor dedicated to overhauling government. What jumped out at me though was that in a story about major development plans in Hyde Park, Hyde Park's alderman, Will Burns, was not mentioned.

Apparently, Burns noticed this too, because within a few hours, he posted this on Twitter (read from the bottom up):


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Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Public Transportation Tue May 03 2011

How Far Will You Walk?

Walk further to the El? Or risk waiting forever to a bus?

Few either/ors are more prevalent, or more frustrating, in urban living. The first thing you want with transit is speed; and when you may end up waiting for a bus to take you to that train, you'll sometimes just walk. But when the walk to the train is too long (or it is too damn cold) you'll just give up the ghost and take the car, if you have one, despite the parking headache. Or waste money on a cab.

The question is, how far will people walk before they give up? Transit experts say 400 meters, or a quarter mile (or in local parlance, "two blocks"). This of course isn't a hard-and-fast cut off, but a point on the slope:


In an interesting post on the issue, Human Transit looks at different approaches to working this fact into transit planning. The post mentions the fact that people will "walk further to rail" (really, just walk further to faster transit), which makes the city's pilot program in Bus Rapid Transit [PDF] more compelling. In our fourth-street-main-street grid system, where we have sub-community areas about every half-mile to mile, one BRT route on every eighth block would help stretch the willing-to-walk radius a bit, but given its speed not prohibitively.

In any case, our transit system is rickety and worse, has done little to innovate. Air quality, quality of life, public health, and economic development would all be served by a more mobile and active citizenship.

When you're making the choice -- how far are you willing to walk?

Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Chicagoland Wed Apr 13 2011

Water Issues Critical for Illinois & the World

The recent assaults on the EPA moved me to dust off and finish some notes I hadn't had time to polish into a full-blown blog post. Because the cuts now threaten Illinois clean water infrastructure projects, however, in addition to the climate change programs that have gotten deserved attention, I'm compelled to give this a little more air.

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Jeff Smith

Aldermen Mon Mar 28 2011

Influence Pedaling in Uptown

An impressive crowd of about 75 turned out a few nights ago at Gill Park to hear the two runoff candidates for alderman in Chicago's 46th Ward, Molly Phelan and James Cappleman, weigh in on transportation issues at a forum hosted by Walk Bike Transit (WBT) , a newcomer to the political scene who may end up having an important impact. The non-partisan WBT says its mission is "to mobilize voters throughout Chicagoland [on] biking, pedestrian, and transit issues." The event was the first in a week of near-nightly matchups between the two would-be successors to Helen Shiller, and, while billed as a forum rather than a debate, it nonetheless offered insight into the contrasts between the candidates as well as showcasing the interest in issues affecting those who use their own footpower, or public transportation, to get around.

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Jeff Smith / Comments (5)

Election 2011 Wed Jan 19 2011

The Next Mayor's Power Instinct

Miguel Del Valle is being considered the progressive candidate for a variety of reasons. His record of independence from so-called "Machine politics" is considerably free of the spots found in those of Emanuel and Chico in particular; no organizational or professional ties to Mayor Daley. His policy positions on schools and teachers, the environment, and housing position him to the left of the field. While these positions are more liberal, they are also not controversial; meaning that, generally speaking, they are probably not significantly to the left of the average Chicagoan.

But there's something deeper in Del Valle's politics that may warm the cockles of a progressive's heart while simultaneously causing the city's power players, including its media organizations, to tremble with febrile dreams.

Based on his public statements about the relationship of the Mayor to the City Council, Del Valle appears to believe that conflict compels collaboration which leads to stronger results. In other words, by formally decentralizing power so that no one party or institution can simply act-and-make-so, they will be forced to negotiate one with the other on terms equitable to each, and thereby the best feasible solution will emerge.

Del Valle told the Sun-Times this:

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (7)

Mayor Thu Jan 13 2011

Can't Paint with Band-Aids

As the ticking clock on Gery Chico's website indicates, the first round of the mayoral election is getting closer by the second. The final stages of the race are taking shape in arguments over who is best qualified to stir Chicago's ship straight as it fiscally sails to the bottom of Lake Michigan. And while the $600+ million budget deficit does balloon over everything, most of the talk emanating from the remaining candidates shows an equal deficit in meaningful ways to reshape and reform Chicago.

Each of the candidates have taken legitimate shots at criticizing some of Mayor Daley's failings, especially in regard to the botched parking meter deal, education reforms, and the continuing debate over privatization of city festivals and assets. There's been talk of lawsuits from Miguel del Valle and Carol Moseley Braun to cancel the parking meter lease, a call by Chico to outift every CPS student with a laptop, and in general, very controlled messages from the seeming front-runner Rahm Emanuel. With few exceptions, the race has simply been about band-aiding things that ail the city at present. Lacking in the discussion thus far is a concrete vision about pushing the city forward in ways that the citizenry interacts with it on a daily basis -- and especially, in the shape of the city's streets.

In flusher times than these, it was easy to see vision blasting forth from Mayor Daley's office, a concrete vision laid out literally in, well, concrete. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin picked up on this most tangible part of Daley's legacy shortly after the mayor announced his intentions to retire. The recession, and Daley's imminent departure, have obviously changed this dynamic, as current economics continue to force everyone to maximize for the most effect with minimal cost. There's been a glaring lack of ideas and information put out by the remaining candidates for doing so though. Yes, times are extraordinary on local and state levels, but such trying circumstances are also chances to inventively implement low cost initiatives that continue to move the city forward and show the city is capable of action no matter what. More so, Chicago must be in a position to stay ahead of the curve to ensure that when good times return, the city is a position to capture renewed demand of services and its infrastructure without having to play catch-up.

Examples of such initiatives are easily seen in a series of recent low cost fixes in New York: turning Times Square into a pedestrian pavilion, or creating a new network of dedicated bike lanes to the cool cost of just $8.8 million. Similar quality-of-life projects, such as shrinking Lawrence Avenue, have just gotten under way in Chicago, but for the most part, these type of street level and impactful measures are not being discussed in the mayor's race. As easy as it would be to cast stones as this being a mayoral candidate's responsibility to take up, perhaps some of the reason we don't hear much talk about such initiatives is because Chicagoans tend to wait for a vision from the top, and not exert pressure on their elected officials from the ground.

With the city purse empty and Daley vacating the Fifth Floor -- things that seem seismically poised to change the city regardless -- the next few years actually have the potential be a tremendously effective and innovative time period. However things get accomplished, or wherever the initial spark lights, Chicago needs to see itself moving forward and maximizing incremental changes to the cityscape that make it a far more involved place. And whomever ends up occupying the mayor's office should encourage creating new ways the City and its citizens can interact with one another, recognizing that you can't paint a new vision of a place solely using band-aids. There's no better indication of how that process plays out than in design and use of the city's streets.

Ben Schulman / Comments (2)

Housing Thu Jan 13 2011

Capitalizing on Foreclosure: TIFs and Housing

Sweet Home Chicago, a coalition of housing advocates, continue their push to use tax increment financing (TIF) funds to purchase and rehab foreclosed properties and provide them as affordable housing. This seems like a reasonable idea; no need to reinvent the wheel, though, I'll just go ahead and quote Progress Illinois' Micah Maidenburg who said it so well:

Foreclosures radiate outward. Lawns don't get mowed, maintenance is deferred, and empty homes with boarded-up windows are prime targets for vandalism. Property values decline -- each home within 250 feet of a foreclosure loses 1 percent of its value due to the dispossess, according to one study, and the worth of the seized home itself sinks by 27 percent. When a few foreclosures cluster on a single block, entire neighborhoods swing into reverse. Gloria Warner, a member of the community group Action Now, described at a press conference yesterday how foreclosures are socking her community in West Englewood:

On its face, the proposal would ameliorate the social repercussions of the foreclosure crisis, while also achieving to some degree "scattered site" affordable housing, which is key to breaking the pattern of ghettoizing the city by social class and race. There is some evidence that residents have more incentive to take care of and protect their residences in scattered-site programs.

One question that comes to mind: would relying on TIF money to maintain a scattered-site housing program prevent needed reforms to the TIF program?

Ramsin Canon

Public Transportation Wed Jan 05 2011

Not Even on the Map

Recently, the CTA announced that its long-awaited Train Tracker app will be launching this month. Utilizing a system similar to its popular Bus Tracker app, CTA riders will now be able to get real time information on when the next train is due to arrive at the platform. Ideally, this story would be part of a narrative that the CTA, despite these lean times, continues to produce the best possible product it can for its ridership, and is dedicated to taking whatever steps necessary to ensure its service continues unabated.

Unfortunately though, the Train Tracker seems to be one of the only
projects that is realistically slated to get off the ground this year for the CTA. In an inventory carried out by the sweeping transportation blog The Transport Politic, a study outlining all of the major planned transit projects across the country is now available for review. Light rail in Denver, Dallas, and Pittsburgh? Construction already underway. Streetcars in Atlanta, D.C., Portland and Seattle? Making progress. Busways in Hartford, CT, and Los Angeles, and commuter rail in New York, Boston, and San Francisco? All are in various stages of construction or completion. Chicago? Not even on the map.

For a city with such historical precedent of great public works, and relatively recent cachet to preen about large-scale infrastructure projects such as Millennium Park or innovative greening initiatives, it's startling not to see it listed anywhere. In Chicago's defense, it's not as if it's starting from zero in terms of transit infrastructure. For that matter though, New York, D.C., and the majority of other cities on the list aren't either. With the completed Brown Line renovation, the CTA has been incrementally fixing what it can. And though they've still yet to move out of the review phase, there are plans to move the system forward with BRT lines, and the forever-in-review Red, Yellow, and Orange Line extensions .

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Ben Schulman / Comments (3)

Transportation Tue Dec 21 2010

Chicago's Sustainable Transportation Platform


Chicago's mayoral candidates have a lot to consider if they want to keep several local environmental and transportation advocacy groups supportive and engaged. In recent months, organizations have released detailed reports on how to make Chicago a more progressive and sustainable city. [For more on the loaded word sustainable, check out Ben Schulman's latest post]. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning unveiled its GO TO 2040 plan in October, and last week, the Center for Neighborhood Technology released its "Investing in a Better Chicago" report. Most recently, the Metropolitan Planning Council, Active Transportation Alliance and six other Chicago organizations collaborated on a Sustainable Transportation Platform, a report outlining ten priorities that the coalition is urging mayoral candidates to support in order to make transportation safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, and more efficient for all commuters.

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Sheila Burt / Comments (1)

Environment/Sustainability Tue Dec 21 2010

So Many Shades of Green

As the first decade of the new century comes to a close, the term "sustainability" deserves inclusion on the long list of buzz words and popular trends that have made up the cultural canvas in recent times. All sorts of green boosterism has arisen in the past few years as a clever marketing tool, especially from companies most vulnerable to the march towards sound environmental practices, as seen in commercials from the likes of BP and Toyota. The use of the word sustainability as a catchy marketing term doesn't diminish the legitimate intent behind the process that seems to be taking place, but its lazy application is reminiscent of 19th century bloodletting or perhaps more aptly, the mid-'90s Saturday Night Live "Crystal Gravy" commercial. Remove the direct impediment -- the bad blood, the heavy brown sludge of gravy, the easily seen sprawl of space and pollution of unclean energy -- and the problem is magically solved.

Again, there's no doubt that the intentions behind the greening of resource use is a real and noble purpose, but the problem with the majority of the current commercialization tactics being employed is that it makes something serious and concretely needed feel like a fad. The call for sustainability is being treated as an emotional argument, which tends to create a chasm between those who intrinsically feel compelled to agree with sustainable practices, and those who don't. Therefore, it ends up becoming a divisive issue between those who "get it" and those who fall on the periphery of the argument.

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Ben Schulman / Comments (2)

Housing Tue Dec 21 2010

The Story Behind One Cabrini-Green Eviction

This article was written by Rory Fanning.

Stepping out of the elevator onto the 14th floor of the Richard J. Daley Center, Sheriee Woodland was greeted by a world-famous panorama of high-rise architecture.

The Chicago Temple Building, Holabird & Root's 23 story, neo-Gothic masterpiece; Kohn Pederson Fox's "Birthday Cake Building" at 311 S. Wacker; and The Legacy, Solomon Cordwell and Buenz's 72-story condominium tower of ocean-blue glass, were a few of the many well-maintained buildings that looked back through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

But Woodland was at the Daley Center because of a different high-rise. She was on her way to eviction court.

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Mechanics / Comments (2)

Economic Development Sun Nov 21 2010

The Return of Andrew Mooney

Mayor Daley announced this week that Andrew Mooney would be taking over the newly created Department of Housing and Economic Development in an interim capacity.

Mooney was appointed by former Mayor Jane Byrne (1979-83) to take over the Chicago Housing Authority shortly after the notorious Charles Swibel was ousted. Mooney was only 30 at the time. In his book Fire on the Prairie, Chicago Reader reporter Gary Rivlin wrote this about Mooney's appointment:

Worse still was the man Byrne chose to take Swibel's place, a thirty-year-old named Andrew Mooney. Swibel had hired Mooney the previous year to serve as executive director, and the same HUD report that scored Swibel criticized Mooney as ill-prepared to contend with the serious fiscal, administrative, and physical problems confronting hte CHA. Mooney had no managerial experience or any management training, and he acknowledged as much when he confessed to a HUD investigator that he had been appointed primarily because of loyalty to the mayor....The furor that followed was as intense as it was predictable. Hundreds amassed at City Hall on the day the three appointees were scheduled to appear before the City Council. Some arrived as early as 7 A.M., but few were granted a seat inside. The doors were not opened to the public until the council chambers were already packed with city employees slipped in through a side door. Byrne ducked out a back door after the vote, eluding both the public and the press. When demonstrators gathered outside Byrne's apartment, she had them arrested.

Mooney is 58 now, and in Mayor Daley's Chicago, probably significantly less concerned about people turning out to protest a Mayoral appointment to head a major City Department. It will be interesting to watch the docket of proposals coming before the Department of Housing and Economic Development as various parties anticipate the changing of the guard on the Fifth Floor. It will also be interesting to see if Mayoral hopefuls like Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico meet with Mooney in the "interim."

Update: Mooney apparently made his comeback in stages: On 12 November, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced her transition team chairs, and Mooney is listed as the subcommittee chair for economic development.

Ramsin Canon

Chicago Wed Nov 17 2010

CMAP and Chicago Community Trust Launch MetroPulse

Today marks the official launch of MetroPulse Chicago, a new website that is the heart of the joint Regional Indicators Project being championed by The Chicago Community Trust and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

MetroPulse acts as an open-source data platform that allows press outlets, government officials, and concerned citizens to access over 20,000 data sets on 200+ different indicators that track quantifiable issues throughout Chicagoland. Using a broad array of indicators, from unemployment to foreclosure density to infant mortality rates to political participation, MetroPulse provides a picture of quality of life as measured in data.

The site serves many purposes, no small part being an ongoing checklist for the implementation of many of the recommendations of CMAP's GO TO 2040 Plan. By making such an aggregation of information readily available to any and every interested party, the Community Trust and CMAP are truly providing a means for mass engagement in development and community issues. While a site as exhaustive as MetroPulse will require constant upkeep and inputs of new data, its ability to level the playing field in terms of access to the details that shape the region - with both elected official and constituent feeding from the same source - carries the potential to change the tenor of discussion between political bodies and their public into something more frank than normal.

Give your neighborhood a test run on the site now, and start thinking about all the questions in store for those aldermanic candidates popping up all over the place.

Ben Schulman

Urban Planning Tue Oct 19 2010

Chicago is What Happens When You're Busy Making Plans

On the rooftop of the Harris Theater last Wednesday, over 800 people overcame the torrential rains to witness the adoption of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's GO TO 2040 plan. CMAP, as it's colloquially called, is the regional planning organization of Chicagoland, and GO TO 2040 is their official, three-years-in-the-making guidebook that intends to serve as a road map for Chicagoland's growth and development over the course of the next 30 years. Paring its ambitious mission down to four main themes -- Livable Communities, Human Capital, Efficient Governance, and Regional Mobility -- the GO TO 2040 plan offers holistic prescriptions for the region as a whole, recognizing structural fixes are needed across all platforms.

Within its analysis, illustrations, and recommendations, CMAP, while never overtly saying so, lays claim to the argument that Chicago is effectively the main remaining relevant economic factor in the State of Illinois. (Obviously, the city is the largest and most influential in the Midwest as well.) And hence, given Springfield's antagonistic inability to recognize this, Chicago's relation to its state is simply a restraint on growth. It's Chicago's connection to Beijing, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, London, Dubai, almost anywhere but Springfield, that serves as the springboard to success for the region. Essentially, CMAP's plan is an argument that says in order maximize the global connectivity of Chicagoland to other global centers, the region's ability to successfully do so is directly correlated to the strength between its regional connections. With over 1,226 government units in the Chicagoland region due to myriad metropolitan agencies and functions, there is much room to streamline services and improve efficiency. And efficiency, used in the economic sense to mean the production of a good at the lowest possible cost that still provides benefit, plays directly into CMAP's call for sustainability.

Sustainability and tangibility are the two pillars on which GO TO 2040 rests. The plan promotes sustainability in its Livable Communities initiatives through the development of local food production, retrofitting programs to make older buildings better users of energy, and crafting local zoning laws to encourage mixed-use development of land. The Regional Mobility portion of the plan aims to improve mobility by increasing intermodal effectiveness, micromanage the budgeting process to bring transit agencies into fiscal well-being, and the implementing of five major capital projects, including extending the CTA Red Line south to 130th St, building the West Loop Transportation Center, and creating suburban highway connectors that flank the city and beyond. The Efficient Governance focus of GO TO 2040 is perhaps the crux of the entire plan. Any aspect of any plan must start with making access to government process and information more open and available, as CMAP outlines, and as detailed here in a earlier post, refocusing our taxing bodies into common sense vehicles.

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Ben Schulman

Transportation Thu Oct 07 2010

Do Bike Lanes Make Bikers Less Safe?

A biker in New York City makes the case in this video that bike lanes actually make biking less safe, sparking a debate in the bike community in New York.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Urban Planning Thu Oct 07 2010

A Steel Tree: Return to Pittsburgh

The corporate headquarters of American Eagle Outfitters, situated on the South Side of Pittsburgh, sits on what is known as the "Hot Metal Campus." Inside the building, a rush of attractive 20-somethings swiftly move about with a persistent soft buzz as jeans are shaped and cut, and merchandise is tested, worn, developed and discarded. The Hot Metal Campus rests along the Monongahela River, which is easily traversed by crossing over the Hot Metal Bridge towards the city's East End and its Downtown. Like most other sites along the river, gigantic steel mills once proudly stood here. In their time, the mills and refineries gave Pittsburgh its raison d'etre, coloring its skies in money and soot.

j&L.jpg The J&L Steel Mill, Pittsburgh, PA circa 1951.

The particular parcel where American Eagle now stands formerly belonged to Jones & Laughlin Steel, which in its heyday held 15,000 people in its employ at the SouthSide Works plant. The quiet hum that pervades the site now would almost seem to belie its history, but is in fact just as indicative of the Pittsburgh of today as J&L was of Pittsburgh's past. Flanking either side of AE's building stand two large steel trees. The sculptures, at once massive and intricate, display not only the story of the Hot Metal Campus, but also the continuing story of Pittsburgh itself.

steeltree2.jpg A Steel Tree outside of American Eagle Headquarters, Pittsburgh, PA circa 2010.

A few weeks ago, this space spilled some digital ink on the Pittsburgh "reinvention" story. The piece seemed to pick up on a meme floating around of Pittsburgh as place. It may be the capital of what blogger Jim Russell calls Rust Belt Chic, it may be -- with its over 20,000 regional jobs waiting to be filled -- the next fertile ground for corporate expansion, or it may be one of the best places for families with young children.

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Ben Schulman / Comments (7)

Election 2011 Mon Oct 04 2010

Modeling an Open Chicago: Taking The City Back

This is the first in a series.

They know what's best for you.

cover2.jpgWith an open Mayoral seat, Chicagoans a generation removed from the last competitive election for that office are unsure of their footing. The media is either causing or reflecting that confusion, unsure where to start an analysis of what this election "means," what will determine its outcome, who the players are. Path of least resistance: we focus on the personalities running, the staff they're hiring, the money they're raising. Is this a new chance at democracy? Have we had democracy all along? Does Chicago need a strong hand? Or are we looking for the next Harold? White? Black? Latino? Man? Woman? Gay? Straight? Machine? Progressive?

The cat's away. The mice are frantic.

"Progressives" are eager to make this election a change election, to "take the city back" from what they perceive as decades of corporatist policies under Daley's leadership. Their archenemy is Rahm Emanuel, the insider's insider who has openly mocked progressive leadership nationally and who made a curious insta-fortune on Wall Street after his years in the Clinton White House. And, it should be noted, who made his bones raising money for Mayor Daley. Whet Moser of the Reader directs us to a painfully prescient piece by David Moberg from those days, wherein Moberg by simply looking at Daley the Younger's fundraising deduces that the "new Machine" will be run by big money rather than neighborhood patronage.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Media Mon Sep 20 2010

Around the City Reads

Some good stuff to catch up on this morning:

CBS 2: Daley Mentored Others as He Shaped Chicago: But he's still "absolutely the best mayor in the country," Berry said. "Nationally there's no question he's been probably one of the most successful and important big-city mayors in the last couple decades."

Progress Illinois: Shift Expected at CAPS: The ground continues to shift at the Chicago Police Department. On Thursday, outgoing Mayor Richard Daley said he wanted civilians rather than uniformed police officers to run the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program. Ron Holt, the CAPS director, told the Tribune that too many of the 200 to 300 officers assigned to CAPS were doing administrative and civilian tasks. Many are expected to be reassigned to patrol work.

In These Times Working Blog: Hotel Quickie Strikes Build Union, Workers' Determination for Contract Battles: Workers in Chicago, like most of these cities, are responding with overwhelming strike authorization votes, protest rallies, sit-ins and civil disobedience, campaigns to persuade organizations and individuals to boycott certain hotels, and-last week-a planned one-day strike against hotel union UNITE HERE's national target, Hyatt, in four cities.

People of Color Organize!: Solidarity With Whittier School Occupation: The Whittier Parents' Committee has been organizing for seven years to push Pilsen alderman Daniel Solis to allocate some of the estimated $1 billion in Mayor Daley's TIF coffers to their school for a school expansion - he finally agreed to give $1.4million of TIF funds for school renovation. Cynically, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has earmarked a part of this money for the destruction of the school's field house, which has been used for years as a center for community organizing and services. This would directly undermine the ability of the Whittier community to organize and struggle for educational rights. Parents are demanding to be part of the decision-making process.

Austin Talks: March against violence challenges community to fight back: Graham urged residents to take a stand against gun, gang and domestic violence. Rev. Jennie Jones of Pleasant Ridge Missionary Baptist Church led the group in prayer and pleaded for strength in the fight against violence plaguing Austin.

Chicago Union News: Adjunct faculty at Chicago college cries foul while trying to organize: With only a few weeks until fall classes begin, some part-time instructors at East-West University in Chicago's South Loop are still waiting to see if they will be hired back to teach after what has been a "messy" summer-long conflict involving efforts to unionize.

Ramsin Canon

Education Sat Sep 18 2010

Parents and Students Occupy Whittier School Fieldhouse

arms.jpg Several dozen parents and students completed the third night of an occupation of a Pilsen elementary field house Friday night, protesting the planned demolition of the allegedly dilapidated structure. The sit-in has withstood several visits by the police - at one point they threatened arrests then abruptly left after more than 100 students, parents and community members pushed past barricades to support the protesters - and scored the promise of an interview with Ron Huberman to discuss turning the field house into a library for the school.


The field house of Whittier Dual Language School, at 1900 W. 23rd St., has been used as a center for after-school programs and community meetings. According to Gema Gaete, an activists with Teachers for Social Justice and Pilsen resident, parents found out that the building was set to be demolished in November 2009, when a budget detailing the proposed spending of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money allotted to Whittier was released.


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Mechanics / Comments (5)

Chicago Fri Sep 10 2010

Chicago's Right Fix

Last week, this space took a peek into various projects underway nationwide that are essentially right-sizing transit infrastructure to be compatible and appropriate for its surroundings. For infrastructure on the whole, more and more cities, such as New Orleans, are at the very least talking about attacking their present sense of being with a more symbiotic view of their natural sense of place. In addressing more realistic uses of land, and recognizing that the old standard of growth as a panacea is basically outdated, a city like Cleveland is just now starting to operate in the here and now by reclaiming vacant land for new purposes, and in the process directly addressing its future and not hoping for one to simply take hold of it. Under the still-new Mayor David Bing, Detroit is beginning to realistically assess its assets in terms of proper use, and not regrowth.

And with mention of mayors, it brings us home to Chicago. After hearing that Mayor Daley would not be running for reelection, the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamen noted in his Cityscapes blog that Daley "...was the Boss and the Builder -- a democratically-elected king who could remake vast swaths of the city at will," and that "whether you loved Daley or loathed him, this much was indisputable: He cared passionately about the way Chicago looked." For all of the much-needed repairs the CTA requires, for all of the neglected spaces and neighborhoods that need further tending to and attention, and for all of the unlocked potential within the city, we've got to admit Chicago's got good bones to work with. Where at one point in time the city could have very easily ossified, Daley ensured that for the past 21 years, there was a check against that atrophy.

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Ben Schulman

Urban Planning Tue Aug 31 2010

Foursquare the Digital Divide

It's been noted that Chicago is perhaps the most studied city in the history of cities. Maybe not in terms of the number of history books per se, but in terms of dissecting the organism that is the City itself. Much of this is due to the development of the "Chicago School" of sociology, where University of Chicago professors Robert Park and Ernest Burgess solidified their branch of sociological study by focusing directly on the urban form. Echoing Aristotle's view of the naturalness of the city, Park remarked, "The city is not...merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it, it is a product of nature and particularly of human nature."

Park and Burgess fleshed out the above quote to form the basis of study of the human ecology of a place, with the neighborhood acting as the elemental level on which to observe. The Chicago school emphasized, if not an advocacy of the street, a focus on the view of the street, in determining the ways in which cities, and societies organize themselves. In a pedagogical way, Park was trying to examine and exhibit how individuals and their interactions make up a community. If only Park and Burgess had had Facebook to help.

As we fast-forward from Park's work into the present, these individual interactions are literally being broadcast at every second of the day. In an inversion of Park's methodology though, the tapestry of communications is being woven together by the individuals within communities themselves by their various postings on social media sites, blogs, etc., and not so much as an academic exercise in which the interactions of a place are purposely allocated together. As a result, the information doesn't need to be mined necessarily as it simply needs to collated. Take a sample size from a city neighborhood, troll their Facebook/Twitter/MySpace pages, and a good idea may develop of what the individuals' larger community looks like.

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Ben Schulman

Transportation Mon Aug 30 2010

Creating Bike Lanes Makes Cities Safer for Pedestrians

A study by the New York City Department of Transportation has found that increasing the amount of dedicated bike lanes--and enforcing the laws around them--actually increases protection for pedestrians; roads with bike lanes saw 40% fewer pedestrian incidences with autos.

Perhaps this can help add light to the current hulabaloo going on in the comments on a post over at our sports blog, Tailgate, about the monthly Critical Mass "Happy Friday" bike rides.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Education Mon Aug 30 2010

Catalyst Report On Charters Demonstrates Duncan's Record of Failure

That Arne Duncan is a professional failure has never really been up for much debate. He achieved precisely zero of his objectives as head of the schools in Chicago, and failed upward into the President's administration mainly for his skills at self-marketing and the President's bizarre desire to appear "tough on teachers".

Catalyst Chicago in its latest issue[PDF] is digging into what teachers and parents have known since at least 2005: that the Renaissance 2010 program is a disaster, that privatization and charter schools have done nothing but increase opacity, decrease accountability, and aggravate the bifurcation of the school system; and that whatever improvement CPS has seen since the Mayor took over the school system in 1995 is due not to the free market unicorns sneezing their econowoozle magic on the evil teachers unions, but to gentrification.

As opponents of public school privatization have warned for years, the fascination with "innovation" and "entrepreneurial spirit" is hanging the hopes of a generation on buzzwords and sloganeering. There is no evidence, nor has there ever been, that introducing profit motive and private sector slash-and-burn sensibility would add value to education. Indeed, it hasn't been. What a surprise: firing master teachers and destabilizing the work force has NOT lead to an improvement in retention in poor schools and has not somehow magically improved classroom instruction.

As the Catalyst study points out:

  • On average, charters lost half of their teachers over the past two years, a turnover rate that rivals many low-performing neighborhood schools.
  • Only 16 of 92 new schools have reached the state average on test scores. Of those 16, just eight are charters. The rest are new magnet schools or new satellites of existing magnet and selective schools.

Just as public education advocates have been saying, introducing private operators into the school system with little oversight simply accelerates the problem of bifurcation. Charters are competing with each other for the best students and leaving the public school system to educate kids with poor performing kids, kids with learning disabilities, and kids from the poorest communities. Oh, and kids from multi-lingual households: Latino kids are particularly left behind according to the Catalyst study. The proportion of Latino kids attending high-performing schools has not increased at all since Renaissance 2010 began in 2004.

And, just as predicted, charters inherently prejudice students with highly involved parents, as this story heartbreakingly illustrates:

This spring, Charise Agnew was forced to confront the lack of school options in Roseland as she made an agonizing decision about where to send her older son, Dorian Metzler, to high school. Dorian was one of the top 8th-graders at Lavizzo, one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. In 2010, only about 44 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the ISAT. Agnew had her heart set on Dorian attending Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, a selective enrollment school just to the west of Lavizzo. She had him apply, and then she waited. But Agnew didn't know that Dorian needed to take an entrance exam. Few students at Lavizzo score above the 70th percentile on the ISAT, the cutoff to take the selective enrollment test. So there was no buzz in the hallway. A teacher might have asked about it, but the original 8th-grade teacher was fired and the class had a substitute for two months.

The end result is that no one tapped Dorian or Agnew on the shoulder to tell them about the entrance test. "I just had no idea," Agnew says.

Brooks is the only higher-scoring high school in the area. Agnew's first reaction was to take Dorian's transcript up to Brooks and try to talk to the principal. But selective enrollment school principals can be inundated with pleas from parents to offer their child a slot. Schools set up shields, and Agnew didn't make it past the foyer.

A woman like Charise Agnew is undoubtedly an involved and interested mother. But in an education system perverted by the neoliberal fascination with competition and markets, even her children end up losing out.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

National Politics Tue Aug 24 2010

Pittsburgh, and the Magic of Failure

In recent years, Pittsburgh has developed an almost exotic allure as a successfully reborn, recast city. Since its near complete collapse in the early 1980s, when 85,000 regional jobs were lost as the steel industry decayed, Pittsburgh has been shaking off demographic decline and slowly morphing into an updated version of its former self -- if not as a manufacturing colossus, at least in terms of having thriving street-life, dense, small-scale development supported throughout its neighborhoods, and a sense of economic vibrancy. This percolating renewal culminated, or at least achieved validity, with President Obama's decision to place last year's G20 Summit in Pittsburgh.

Obama's decision to do so set off a small media frenzy about Pittsburgh's determined grit and resiliency, with odes from Newsweek, The Atlantic, and Forbes all heralding the rejuvenation of one of America's most overlooked urban jewels. Of course, the G20 boost was just landing on the tail end of a long-arc of reformation, as the New York Times had noted even earlier in 2009. On a recent visit just a few weeks ago to the city nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the amenities, vitality, and cultural options available seemed to be mammoth for a place of its size.

Walking through the Cultural District downtown, crossing the Sixth Street Bridge to the Pirates' PNC Park (adjacent to the Andy Warhol Museum), heading a bit north to the devastatingly beautiful Mexican War Streets Historic District (home to avant-art capital The Mattress Factory), crossing over to the hipster haven of Carson St on the South Side, exploring the teeming Old World-Bronx-circa-1950 feel of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, scarfing down the overwhelming deliciousness of the Saturday morning open-air food market that is the Strip District, or randomly stumbling into a milonga during the Lawrenceville neighborhood's First Friday evening artwalks, it isn't easy not to get caught up in the Pittsburgh reincarnation story. (Not even mentioned: Oakland, home to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh; Shadyside, the host to some of the most impressive homes anywhere in the country, and many other neighborhoods of the 89 distinct 'hoods that make up Pittsburgh proper.)

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Ben Schulman / Comments (14)

TIFs Mon Aug 23 2010

TIF for That: Fritchey Teams Up With Teachers, Parents on Reform

State Representative John Fritchey, who will be giving up his seat in the state house representing the 11th District to replace Forrest Claypool on the Cook County Board of Commissioners (assuming he wins in November), is teaming up with the Chicago Teachers Union and the Raise Your Hand Coalition to push comprehensive reform of the tax increment financing, or TIF, program. The reforms could end the exploitation of TIFs by the Mayor's office as a cudgel, and restore significant funds to taxing bodies--particularly the schools--that have seen billions of dollars disappear over the last couple decades.

Tax increment financing was created by state statute in the 1970s as a way to provide incentives to develop blighted areas. TIF areas are designated by municipalities; within those areas, property tax assessments are frozen at the level they were at when the zone was designated. The land is still assessed and the taxes on the increase are still collected, but they are diverted into a site-specific fund rather than being paid to the various taxing bodies that typically collect them. Those bodies are, primarily, school districts, counties, the municipality itself, and sanitation and fire districts, among others. The idea is that without the incentive, that tax money would never have been raised in the first place, and so those taxing bodies are not actually losing anything.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Public Transportation Fri Aug 13 2010

Raise the Grade

Chicago's Aaron Renn, who writes an influential blog under the moniker The Urbanophile, is one of the region's- if not nation's- leading thinkers in providing innovative solutions to urban issues. Last year, his series "Chicago Transit at a Crossroads" won the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce's Transit Innovation Award, and his work regularly is quoted and/or appears in the New York Times, Forbes, and New Geography, amongst many others. Needless to say, when Renn digs into an issue or picks up a cause, it is pretty much assured worth a read.

This past week, Renn made his case in a lengthy post about Metra's plan to use earmarked transit capital dollars to raise the grade of clearance bridges in order to accommodate more truck traffic on the roads below, and to remove a currently unused third right of way track that runs alongside the Union Pacific North Line. As is usually the case, Renn clearly illustrates his point, lucidly cutting to the heart of the matter by asking: why is Metra using any amount of their minuscule funds available for transit in order to enact what is essentially a roads improvement project? He further questions the wisdom of permanently removing the currently underutilized third right of way track in light of all indications pointing to increased ridership in the years to come, making it seem foolhardy of Metra to remove an essential bit of infrastructure that could very well be needed in the future. In his post, Renn encourages his readers to email the Metra Board and at the very least, appoint a third party to review their intentions before moving any further with the plan.

This bit of advocacy actually worked in prompting a response from Metra to Renn, presenting their side of the story and an explanation of some of their plans. (You can read their response by downloading the following: Urbanresponse.doc) While the factual matters concerning this debate would seem to fall in Renn's favor, one of the more interesting aspects of this exchange is the response elicited by the petitioning body and the speed in which the governing faction- in this case, Metra- responded. Saul Alinsky and neighborhood community groups aside, direct democracy and advocacy are not traditional strongholds in Chicagoland. Given the paucity of funds floating around during these critical times, and the utter incompetence of, sadly, most everyone involved in making funding decisions, there seems to be a slight shift afoot in how people interact with the powers and services that be. If, on a larger scale, Machine Lite may be in its waning days, could Renn and his readers represent an emerging kind of informed and eager class of citizen demanding direct interaction and response from their public utilities and government? If so, Paddy Bauler might be needing a new quote.

Ben Schulman

Urban Planning Fri Aug 13 2010

Let's Make Parking Policy Fun!

How market-pricing of parking can clear up congestion and make your life better (supposedly): now with fun graphics and cartoons!

SFpark Overview from SFpark on Vimeo.

Ramsin Canon

Crime Tue Aug 10 2010

The Politics of Watching: Cost/Benefit of the Cop-In-A-Box

[This piece was submitted by freelance journalist Shane Shifflett, photos by Andrew Huff]

Millions of federal dollars have been invested in miles of fiber optics in Chicago and more than 1,000 surveillance cameras to create one of America's most sophisticated crime-fighting networks. There is, however, a problem: No one knows how well it actually works.

Nancy La Vigne, the director of the Criminal Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and her team of researchers want to rectify this.

Their conclusion, which has yet to be publicly released, seems unique among the small number of similar studies conducted in other U.S. cities.

"The use of cameras is cost beneficial," La Vigne said.

To reach their conclusion, researchers compared the number and types of crimes in Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park to other neighborhoods that were statistically similar but without cameras. They discovered that for every $1 spent on cameras, the city saves $2 by preventing crimes, she said. By reducing the burden on the legal system society saves money, La Vigne said.

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Mechanics / Comments (6)

Public Transportation Wed Aug 04 2010

The Bus That Ate Chicago

While the implementation of the CTA's Bus Rapid Transit Pilot Program is eagerly anticipated, it's well-worth paying attention to some of the insanely innovative ideas coming out of China right now. Still in the proposition phase, the Chinese company Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment has unveiled plans for a gigantic, towering, road-hovering light rail/bus hybrid that looms over roadways. Powered by a mix of electricity and solar energy, and capable of carrying passenger loads of 1200-1400, the vehicle would essentially create a moving tunnel in which traffic would flow underneath the commuting masses.

This vision of tomorrow's future today is intriguing to say the least, although there are tremendous practical concerns to address, especially in regards to how such an imposing structure would encourage TOD-development if it was simply tacked on top of existing car-oriented thoroughfares. But nonetheless, it is exciting to imagine these new systems coming into play. Initial questions to ponder: where would such a system work best in Chicago? Can Marty McFly use his hoverboard to access docking stations? All things worth further inquiry.

Ben Schulman

Chicagoland Wed Jul 28 2010

Tax to the Future

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning recently came out with an exhaustive blueprint for moving the region forward to the year 2040. The 416-pg manual for Chicagoland's tomorrow entitled GO TO 2040: Comprehensive Regional Plan nobly proffers an outline for greater Chicago to prosper in the years to come, and presents a view of 2040 as developed in the best of all possible worlds. Riding the waves of last year's 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, CMAP
has unveiled a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the issues the region must address to build the most beneficial environment -- in all respects -- by that time. Focusing broadly on Livable Communities, Regional Mobility, Human Capital and Efficient Governance, the report breaks down each of those headings and gives them their fair due with hefty analysis.

From now till August 6, members of the public are encouraged to download the plan and comment on the ideas CMAP has offered. After the public review, CMAP will make changes as needed before presenting the plan as final to the overseeing CMAP Board. Then, acting as the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for Chicagoland, CMAP will in turn use the Go To 2040 platform to engage the State of Illinois and the US Government for funds, approvals, and the green light on implementing projects according to the plan.

While the entirety of the report proves too exhaustive to outline in detail here, there is one sub-section of the Efficient Governance chapter that deserves a closer peek. Reforming state and local tax policies is an absolute must if Chicago intends to grow, and seeing how Springfield seems to operate in a state of permanent stasis, it will take the grit, gumption and initiative of local civic leaders to push the debate forward on this issue. CMAP encourages an almost wholesale restructuring of our current taxing system, including broadening the tax base by creating a tax on the service sector (currently exempt although it makes up nearly 70 percent of expenditures), instituting a graduated state income tax based on income levels, and in general, standardizing the tax policy across municipalities so as to avoid the large and varied discrepancies that render some communities unable to provide basic services.

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Ben Schulman

Daley Mon Jul 19 2010

A Potential Challenge to Mayor Daley From the 32nd Ward

Scott Waguespack, the 32nd Ward Alderman who took on and beat the fading remnants of the Rostenkowski/Gabinski machine in the Bucktown/Ukrainian Village/Lakeview ward in 2007, told the Sun-Times that he is considering taking a run at the Fifth Floor whether or not Mayor Daley still resides there. (He lives there right?)

Give the man credit. Waguespack has been a City Council pest, voting against the Mayor's budgets, embarrassing the Mayor's staff by doing the actual math on the parking meter lease, and hectoring the Mayor in public about tax increment financing, or TIFs. Management of his ward is another issue; Waguespack has faced on-and-off criticism by his constituents for perceived slips in service in the ward. Still, by announcing a potential campaign to call attention specifically to the Mayor's failings, he's going out on a limb. Plenty of politicians have been ready to criticize the way the city has been run and the "Chicago Way" but rarely call the Mayor out by name. Mayoral pretenders almost universally qualify their interest by adding that those interests are post-Daley.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Environment/Sustainability Sun Jul 18 2010

Clean Power Ordinance for South Side Plants Gets a National Boost

This article was submitted by Chris Didato.

On Thursday, two national environmental groups, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, joined Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and the Chicago Clean Power Coalition in their effort to pass an ordinance that would limit the emissions of two South Side coal-fired power plants by 90%. At the press conference, held in Pilsen's Dvorak Park, with Midwest Generation's Fisk plant looming in the background, included several aldermen and community supporters, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, and Global Warming Campaign Director Damon Moglen. All gave the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance their support.

The proposed ordinance, introduced by Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward), would have the two coal-fired power plants in Chicago limit their emissions of "particulate matter" (or soot) and carbon dioxide.

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Transportation Thu Jul 15 2010

Fare is Fair

But it's gonna take money
A whole lotta spending money
Its gonna take plenty of money
To do it right child

Its gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
Its gonna take patience and time, ummm
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it,
To do it right child

Yes, the above lyrics reference James Ray's 1962 soul hit "Got My Mind Set on You." (Or if you prefer, George Harrison's 1987 cover version. Regardless, both are great.) But when read on paper, could these stanzas not be the prescription for transportation in Chicago, and the nation as a whole?

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Ben Schulman / Comments (1)

Public Transportation Mon Jun 28 2010

Brand the CTA

The MTA in New York recently announced that beginning this week they would be cutting two subway lines and 37 bus lines from service. With other reductions set to take place system-wide, New York's transit agency aims to shave $93 million from its operating costs. In July, when the MTA unveils its new budget, many expect the already rumored 7 precent fare hike actually to be much higher than anticipated. While the cuts in New York will indeed cause consternation and confusion amongst many, and fuel the fire of the MTA's naysaying watchdogs, it is interesting to note here the difference in tone from these drastic reductions in service in New York to the incessant "doomsday" chatter that hangs like an ever-present cloud over the CTA in Chicago. The MTA seems to have taken these operational measures without engaging in the process of alienating and villainizing the majority of the patrons who utilize their trains and buses. Leading up to the last series of service cuts experienced here in Chicago over the past winter, the CTA made a spectacle of itself by often throwing up its hands in the face of the City, Springfield and most importantly, its riders, by essentially saying "Look, there's no way. What do you want us to do? You deal with it."

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Ben Schulman / Comments (4)

Urban Planning Fri Jun 25 2010

The Importance of Mobility

Here's a useful follow-up to my previous post, which touched on the influence of segregation on crime and the subsequent lack of political will to attack the problem. The country's most diverse zip code--which is in Seattle--gives planners, activists, and entrepreneurs an idea of what makes a healthy neighborhood, "positive mobility" [via Citiwire]:

It's a big (though frequent) mistake, says Weissbourd, to think of neighborhoods as static places, with a set character to defend at all costs. Even some well-intentioned community development groups make that error, he suggests, constantly working to expand local affordable housing and social services when the growing poverty in America isn't in cities at all -- it's now in suburbs.

The secret to strong neighborhoods, Weissbourd argues, is positive mobility -- understanding that neighborhoods are in constant motion, turning over with people and businesses coming and going. "Neighborhoods need to attract the residents, the businesses, the investments they want -- or they're dying," he insists.

Does the city's planning regime--the zoning ordinance, public transportation plan, etc.--encourage this mobility? Or does it encourage stasis?

This also sounds a bit like a justification for gentrification; but the conclusions are drawn by studying the most diverse--ethnically and otherwise--neighborhoods, not just those with the highest "quality of life". Are we too in love with our neighborhoods, and too willing (or too able) to use the law to keep them from changing?

Ramsin Canon / Comments (2)

Budget Thu Jun 17 2010

Time for Chicagoland Residents to Take Control of the Country's Fiscal Future

An Op-Ed Submitted by Rev. Dr. Clare Butterfield and Herman Brewer

Some experts and policymakers believe our country could do more to prevent problems before they occur. In particular, instead of postponing our response to the nation's budget problems, we should use our resources today to prevent them from becoming worse. New reports show that current patterns in U.S. spending and revenue can't be continued in the long run. Decisions must be made about the goals we want our country to meet and how we raise the money to meet them; there are steps we can take today to prevent fiscal problems from becoming bigger and more costly to fix. The solutions we come up with will be important to all Americans.

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Mechanics / Comments (2)

Media Wed Jun 16 2010

What Mick and Ben Said

Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke, the Readers' star political reporters, had an important piece in the Reader a couple weeks back analyzing the TIF budgets and how exactly the money is dispersed. Much of what they found reinforced the suspicion that a lopsided amount of TIF dollars go to pet projects in non-needy neighborhoods, thus flouting the purpose of the state TIF statute. Interestingly, some of what they found actually overturned some conventional criticisms of TIFs, for example that it was weighted towards the clout-heavy (as an example, Finance Committee Chair and light tenor Ed Burke's 14th Ward received comparatively little from TIF funds).

Here's one important thing about their piece: it revealed no scandal.

In the larger sense of good versus bad government and policy, it certainly could spark outrage. But in the traditional sense of public corruption or betrayal of public trust or even rank hypocrisy, the Reader piece didn't serve the narrative of corrupt politicians swindling the public. Instead, it very methodically made a case that the current policy regime was ill-serving constituents, and did it in a sober (though entertaining) way. Yet even with that sober tone, it was enough to get people's cackles up.

That is the type of reporting that is threatened by the collapse of journalism. Yet, at the same time, the dailies aren't really known for this type of research and journalism--the type that doesn't look for a scandal as a hook, but rather just tries to tell the story of how the city works fundamentally, and make a case for fundamental change. That's not advocacy, that's just stripping the system down, rather than dressing politicians down. It's an important distinction.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a piece, Getting Past Daley, that tried to make the case that focusing on political personalities is beside the point, that the corruption that causes such outrage when it's reported in the Trib or Sun-Times is a result of material conditions and powerful institutions, not the whims of quasi-criminal elites. When we began organizing against the Olympics, we were disheartened by how much people wanted to focus on the Mayor as the problem, when the problem is clearly deeper than him.

Joravsky and Dumke in their analysis of the TIF program actually bust some myths about how the TIF money is spent--it isn't going to the clouted necessarily, it is money luring money, not petty local political clout dominating the process. By breaking down the mechanics of the process, Joravsky and Dumke create outrage out of picayune politics, not sensationalized scandal:


About a quarter of all TIF spending, or $358 million, went to a single ward, the Second, which includes much of the Loop and gentrified areas on the near south and west sides. That's more than the bottom 35 wards got altogether.

Approximately $267 million more was spent in the 27th and 42nd wards, which include the Gold Coast and near west and near north sides. Together the three downtown wards received about 43 cents of every TIF dollar spent between 2004 and 2008.

Portions of the Second, 27th, and 42nd wards are in fact struggling economically--but those areas are largely missing out too. Some aren't covered by TIF districts; in other places the TIF districts aren't collecting much money. For example, the 27th Ward reaches into parts of Garfield Park where the landscape is dominated by empty factories and vacant lots, but little TIF money has been spent there.

When we get analysis like this--and it's reasonable to disagree with the analysis itself--then we can start to really figure out how to attack the problem, including the politicians we reflexively blame for everything, despite a rotating cast of characters falling into the same pattern over and over, endlessly repeating.

Ramsin Canon

Urban Planning Tue Jun 15 2010

The Story at South Works: Malling the Lakeshore?

Op-Ed Contributed by GB Contributing Writer Bob Quellos

Last week, the Chicago City Council approved a $96 million TIF for the South Works development site, the largest ever given to a private developer in the City of Chicago. The plan for South Works calls for the eventual building of over 17,000 dwelling units on the 500-acre site at the location of the former U.S. Steel South Works, near 79th Street and east of U.S. 41. The project is to be run by a development group that includes the Chicago-based McCaffery Interests. The first phase of construction is scheduled for groundbreaking in 2012; located on a 77 acre portion of the site, it will compromise an astounding million square feet of retail space alongside residential dwellings. Decades from now if the project eventually is completed, it will create an entirely new neighborhood along Lake Michigan on Chicago's South Side.

But if you had $96 million dollars to invest in the City of Chicago what would you do with it? Would you build the infrastructure for a new neighborhood, or perhaps take a shot at filling the ongoing budget hole that is wrecking havoc on the Chicago Public School system. Perhaps you would find a way to put the over 1,100 employees at the CTA who were recently laid off back to work and restore transit services that were axed. Or maybe (hold on to your seat, this is a crazy one), reeling with disgust from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico you decide to make a ground breaking attempt to move Chicago away from a dependance on non-renewable resources and invest the $96 million dollars in wind power that would provide free and clean energy to some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.

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Mechanics / Comments (7)

Urban Planning Wed May 19 2010

South Shore Developer Lost Property to Foreclosure

Southworks_Field.jpgThe principal developer of the proposed massive redevelopment at the former U.S. Steel South Works site, McCaffrey Interests, lost one of their featured developments, The Market Common Myrtle Beach, to foreclosure last week.

The project--termed, perhaps ominously, The Market Common SouthShore--will feature nearly 14,000 new residential units, 800,000 square feet of retail and residential construction, and a 1,500 slip marina (finally!). Covering nearly 400 acres of a recently industrial zoned lakefront area, the Market Common SouthShore will rely on a massive $96m TIF subsidy and be developed in several phases over the next 20-45 years. The Market Common Myrtle Beach site also used TIF dollars.

Since 2000, McCaffrey Interests has given $27,100 to local campaign committees, including $3,850 to 10th Ward Alderman John Pope, $7,900 to Finance Committee Chair Ed Burke, $2,550 to 7th Ward Alderman Sandi Jackson, and $5,000 to Mayor Daley. Obviously all four of these local pols would have direct input into the Market Common plan.

The City's Plan Commission granted approval to the first phase of the project on April 21st, and the Community Development Commission gave their blessing on May 11--just a couple of days before the Myrtle Beach foreclosure.

Given its scope and cost, the Market Common could end up changing the South Side Lakefront completely. We'll be looking a little more closely at the plans over the coming weeks. A spreadsheet of McCaffrey's political giving is below the fold.

Continue reading this entry »

Ramsin Canon

Urban Planning Mon May 17 2010

Hilarious Change at the Department of Zoning

One of my favorite hyper-specific blogs, the Department of Zoning Oversight Fellowship Forum (DOZ-OFF) reports on a potentially encouraging change over at the DoZ:

Here at DoZ-OFF we were living on a prayer, fed lean from the table scraps left by Zoning, indoctrinated to believe our captors were our saviors. No more! A policy change at Zoning has opened the door for us to get fat off the land, or at least to save us the wait. Zoning no longer accepts walk-in appointments! Since May 1st, zoning plan examination reviews for building permits are scheduled exclusively through the online building permit application process. No more waiting; no more snoozing. No more subversion? Well, two out of three ain't bad.

Ramsin Canon

TIFs Wed May 12 2010

Midwest TIF Gets a $32 Million Raise

This Op-Ed was contributed by Valerie F. Leonard, a community development consultant on the city's West Side.

The City Council approved an ordinance on April 14, 2010 to increase the redevelopment budget for the Midwest TIF district from $100,500,000 to $132,865,000. This represents a 32% increase from the district's original budget. The City of Chicago's Projected TIF Balances Report 2009-2011 indicates that the Midwest TIF is projected to have a cash deficit of -$6,842,003 at the end of 2010 if every project on the schedule is implememented, and projected 2010 incremental tax revenues of $13,000,000 materialize. The projected deficit is expected to grow to -$7,213,492 by the end of 2011.

Midwest TIF Graphic-Redevelopment Budget.jpg

Midwest TIF Boundaries.jpg

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Budget Thu Apr 08 2010

Participatory Budgeting in Rogers Park Unleashes the Creativity of the People

democracy in real time

The residents of Chicago's 49th ward will vote on Saturday to determine what to use $3.1 million of city money on. The far north side ward was covered with fliers urging residents to vote in what is the first attempt in Chicago to use a democratic process for determining how to use infrastructure funds.

Each ward is given a budget to use for infrastructure, and the money is usually spent by the Alderman's office on permanent items such as street lights and pavement repairs. However Alderman Joe Moore in the far north side ward decided to open the process to the community and to let residents vote on proposals created in open committees.

The Mess Hall, an artist space with anarchist tendencies has a display that highlights the various proposals on the ballot. The space has had extended hours and has been packed with residents hoping to find out about the proposals.

Some of the proposals include: street lights, repaved streets, police surveillance cameras, bike lanes, historical markers, dog parks, decorative and educational bike racks and free wi-fi.

Continue reading this entry »

Matt Muchowski

Urban Planning Wed Mar 17 2010

Park Place: Parking Policy and Public Transportation

Tn-500_MON_TD_BB_Blu_ParkPlace.JPG"The Parking Meters" will not mean just "the parking meters" in Chicago for at least another generation. The popular outrage over privatization of the city's parking meters was one of the largest expression of popular discontent of the Daley era, and caused a crack, albeit a fine one, to appear in the Mayor's monolithic governing coalition. Given as we are to think of government and politics as a collection of personalities, the Daley administration's ham-handed negotiation and rolling out of the parking meter privatization have taken center stage. The concession agreement has been treated as a political disaster, with reports that the entire lease was undervalued adding to rage over an opaque process.

But are the projected sharp increases in parking costs and the potential coming of variable or market rate pricing projected over the coming years really a blessing in disguise?

Indeed, urban planners have been arguing for more realistic parking costs in cities for years, and market pricing is increasingly looked at as a critical component to make cities more "sustainable" -- that is, more efficient, less dependent on exhaustible sources of energy, more carbon-neutral, and more conducive to healthy lifestyles. These (largely academic) planners looked at the abundance of cheap parking and deduced that the prevalence of cheap parking stimulated demand, and that the abundance was a result of direct and indirect government intervention. This is primarily in the form of mandated creation of parking in the zoning code. As a result, non-drivers end up subsidizing drivers, since developers build the cost of parking construction and maintenance into their business models. What's more, in outlying areas mandatory parking lots create expanses that incrementally push commercial and residential districts further and further apart, making alternatives to driving -- particularly walking and biking -- less feasible.

A two for one solution appears: make parking sensitive to demand (i.e., increase the rates) and reinvest the revenue in foot and bike friendly urban design and public transportation. Result: efficiency and diversity of transportation options.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (9)

Public Transportation Tue Mar 16 2010

Cars: Smelly, Stupid, People Killers

Man. It is just not going well for cars. Cars are quickly becoming the cigarettes of this generation. More so, admittedly, in cosmopolitan places--big cities--but, hey, most humans live in cities. Just as economies like China and India seemed to be picking up the slack for Western nations that are beginning to see car ownership and the attendant dependence on foreign energy and the infrastructure costs as a nuisance, the World Health Organization has to increasingly talk about cars as a public health crisis. An interesting infographic of WHO data shows how traffic collisions will soon kill more than one million people worldwide, half of them cyclists and pedestrians. (Unlike the mafia, apparently, drivers don't just kill one another).

The American car companies took it on the chin and now Toyota, which had painstakingly built a reputation for reliability, won't stop accelerating.

Cities are increasingly looking for ways to discourage car ownership (or, more accurately, car trips), with New Urbanist planning and zoning laws basically designed to eliminate the need for a car in even modestly densely populated areas. Comparatively high oil prices (much cheaper here than Europe) are making people more aware of the cost of driving, and the absence of convenient, affordable alternatives is making those more aware people angry, which is usually a bad situation for politicians.

Maybe cars are getting a bad rap, though. First of all, cars are fun. Second, what about what cars save? Ambulances are cars. Cars are useful for big families. Also they deliver us things. Is the automobile industry doing anything doing anything to push back against this trend of car-less urban design? Where's the fighting spirit that funded think tanks to downplay acid rain?

If its the beginning of the decline of cars as the primary mode of transportation in the industrialized world, let's remember the good times.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Labor & Worker Rights Wed Mar 10 2010

Chicagoist Looks at Life Inside The Beast from Bentonville

Kevin Robinson at Chicagoist continues his great coverage of Big Blue, sitting down with some employees to get an inside look at life on the floor:

Linda Haluska, who works at the company's Glendale store, stocks the Health and Beauty Aids (HBA) section on the overnight shift. "On a nightly basis, when a truck gets in, I might have three pallets of cosmetic items to stock, which is about 50 boxes. That's quite a bit for one person." HBA is four aisles, and there are two aisles of cosmetics, each about 40 feet long. The pallets come in loaded with boxes of small items. "One aisle may have between 300 - 500 individual products: mouthwash, deodorant, toothpaste, bath and body wash, pads. And that's just one department."

Ramsin Canon

Urban Planning Tue Mar 09 2010

Why Shouldn't You Pay for Parking?

I've spent the last couple days reading studies and articles on the changing attitudes towards parking policies and zoning regulations, in favor of encouraging sustainability, walkability, and public transit. The case is made over and over again that parking is artificially cheap in big cities--particularly in Chicago--because of the way zoning regulations are written requiring parking be allocated as a ratio to square footage, and the general nature of parking meter costs (i.e., they aren't priced by market forces).

The idea is parking should be more expensive to make it more available (i.e., it'll be easier to find a spot), and to encourage people to make "active transportation" choices. Ideally, the increased revenues generated would be put directly into promoting bikeability and walkability as well as public transportation. This would need to be matched with zoning regulations that take away the incentive to build parking structures that encourage sprawl.

So my question to you all is: should the City of Chicago pursue a policy of making parking prohibitively expensive for most people in order to encourage "better" behavior? Should we encourage "the market" to determine parking costs?

Or would that just piss you off?

Ramsin Canon / Comments (9)

Neighborhoods Mon Mar 01 2010

How to End Cheap Parking

Should government planning policies be aimed at slowly phasing out cheap parking, to force cities to plan for efficiency and redundantly, and drive up demand for public transportation to ensure its continued expansion? Here's what one California legislator is trying to do (via GOOD):

California state senator Alan Lowenthal has stirred up a nest of idiots hornets with his Senate Bill 518. Lowenthal, recognizing that providing lots of subsidized parking is only enabling our addiction to cars, has introduced legislation that would incentivize cities to start reforming their parking rules.

His legislation would work like this: There's a buffet of different parking reforms, and each is worth a different number of points. A city can choose whichever reforms it wants to enact and if their points total reaches 20, it gets an edge in getting state funding. The reforms are wide-ranging. A city could, for example, install parking meters in high-demand areas (five points), raise parking meter rates to reflect market prices (10 points), or entirely scrap the requirements that new residential buildings come with a minimum number of parking spaces (20 points). You can see all the reforms and their point values here.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (2)

City Council Thu Feb 25 2010

Chicago Zoning Committee Decisions

The City's Zoning Committee is meeting today to determine the disposition of a number of properties. These are them. The agenda (with intended new uses) after the jump.

(Click on image to expand it)
Chicago Zoning Decisions 2.25.10.jpg

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Economic Development Fri Feb 19 2010

A Real Solution to the Food Desert Problem

Food deserts have become a concern du jour our city's political establishment, as the Big Blue Beast from Bentonville uses their existence as an excuse to bigfoot the retail market in Chicagoland. In previous posts I've argued that while food deserts are a problem, inviting in a corporate actor that tends to drive down wages and liquidate competitors (thus potentially just displacing food deserts) not to mention send profits back out of state isn't necessarily the best solution. Why not use some of that $70-million-for-the-Olympic-bid style muscle to raise funds for a program to encourage local entrepreneurs to step up and fill the need in the market, with proper quality and wage controls?

Turns out, according to Urban Farm Hub, Philadelphia has just done that--and fairly cheaply:

Brianna Sandoval of The Food Trust, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, discussed the need for understanding the needs of food retailers. In the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a $120 million funding pool created by public-private partnership provides incentives to operators to open shops in areas where they might not otherwise have done business. Businesses have to be located in low or moderate income census tracts and areas considered underserved based on size of businesses and proximity from other stores.

Programs also aim to improve access to healthy food in existing stores. In one case study, a local store increased sales from five types of fruits and vegetables to 20 types, and moved the fresh food to become the centerpiece of the renovated store. In another example, small refrigeration units for fresh fruit salads were added to a network of 40 corner stores. This change also resulted in new jobs as entrepreneurs moved in to provide the packing and distribution of the fruit salads.

All of these programs demonstrate the financial pay-offs of integrating community food systems into a city or region's economic development plans.

These are the types of solutions that would win the support and involvement of local residents--not to mention that they would likely come from locals if they had a real opportunity to participate in governing their city. Instead, they are just encouraged to beg for whatever meager jobs megacorporations are willing to dole out (that is, when those megacorporations aren't just fabricating that support).

Ramsin Canon / Comments (2)

Urban Planning Fri Feb 19 2010

Resiliency Theorists in Chicago

Seed Magazine has a fascinating piece about efforts to apply scientific "resiliency theory" usually reserved for ecological systems, to urban centers. Resiliency theory is a way of conceiving dynamic systems to gauge how they react to changes in inputs and how embedded feedback systems behave over time. By looking at cities through a resiliency lens, theorists hope they can better understand how cities change, grow, and safeguard themselves, and perhaps even better plan systems to protect the general welfare and improve quality of life.

From the piece:

The Urban Network has research sites in 12 cities: Bangalore, New Dehli, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Chicago, New York City, Phoenix, Canberra, Helsinki, Istanbul, and Stockholm. These cities span the globe and differ vastly in terms of culture, history, and economic development. The ultimate goal, according to Thomas Elmqvist, lead researcher of the Network, is to do a comparative analysis of these cities. How are they similar or different with respect to handling development? How do they compare it comes to withstanding shocks and surprises?

"As humans, we should try to understand how to manage systems in order to avoid passing thresholds," says Elmqvist. But this is especially difficult in urban contexts, which have already been so transformed by humans that they've breached most of the thresholds ecologists are familiar with. When great expanses of concrete and steel now exist where trees and streams once did, new tipping points must be defined for places that are, as Elmqvist puts it, "already tipped."

Case studies are now underway in each of the Network's 12 participating cities. But in deciding what kind of data to gather, researchers have had to ask themselves: What would a city look like through the lens of resilience?

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

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Parents Still Steaming, but About More Than Just Boilers

By Phil Huckelberry / 2 Comments

It's now been 11 days since the carbon monoxide leak which sent over 80 Prussing Elementary School students and staff to the hospital. While officials from Chicago Public Schools have partially answered some questions, and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has informed that he will be visiting the school to field more questions on Nov. 16, many parents remain irate at the CPS response to date. More...


Substance, Not Style, the Source of Rahm's Woes

By Ramsin Canon / 2 Comments

It's not surprising that some of Mayor Emanuel's sympathizers and supporters are confusing people's substantive disputes with the mayor as the effect of poor marketing on his part. It's exactly this insular worldview that has gotten the mayor in hot... More...

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