Infuriating, Regressive NIMBYism in Chicago

This is the story of a particular lot on the North Side of Chicago, specifically on the border of Wicker Park and Bucktown. Sadly, it is also a story of political cowardice, bad development priorities, and democracy corrupted–and a warning sign for the future of Chicago.

Last spring, I interned at the Center for Neighborhood Technology on North Avenue in Chicago. I worked there several days a week, and also held down a part-time job with a web-based tutoring company around the corner on Damen. When walking from the Western Avenue bus to the latter job, I would pass by a particular, oddly-shaped empty lot defined by Wabansia, Leavitt, and Milwaukee Avenues, with the Blue Line elevated tracks running through the middle. From ground level, it looks like this:

The primary use seemed to be as a dog park. One the one hand, I wasn’t surprised that the lot was undeveloped; the idea of living underneath rumbling, screeching L trains running on a century-old structure brings the Chicagoan’s mind immediately to Elwood’s apartment:

On the other hand, this is a prime lot, one of the last easily developable ones in the middle of arguably Chicago’s hottest residential area. Until today, though, I had no idea just how indicative the saga of its proposed redevelopment was of the problems confronting Chicago’s vision of sustainability, livability, and affordability in the 21st century.

To understand the promise of this lot, you have to understand just how well-located it is. We already saw the L tracks running through the middle of the lot from ground level; here it is from above.

The Blue Line runs through diagonally, with stations just two blocks away in either direction at Western/Armitage and North/Damen. Milwaukee Avenue, running diagonally parallel to the L tracks, hosts the #56 bus and Chicago’s most popular bike lanes. Two blocks to the west is the aforementioned #49 Western bus; a block and a half to the south runs the 72 North Avenue; two blocks to the east is the #50 Damen; and three blocks to the north the #73 Armitage. This is just about the most transit-amenable location imaginable outside the Loop. You can get almost anywhere in the city with at most one transfer (though on the local buses it might take you a while!) It’s a mile from the Clybourn Metra station. The area looks like this on the RTA system map, with the red star roughly marking the location of the site:


It’s a transit paradise. And if all of that weren’t enough, the site is immediately adjacent to the Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago’s soon-to-open, more low-key version of New York’s High Line, which will include a dedicated bike path. And did I mention, it’s right across the street from a supermarket? The site has everything needed to support true urban living–dense, car-free, walkable, clean and sustainable. It’s a blindingly obvious site for a large apartment development.

Today, DNAinfo Chicago reported that the lot will be developed as 24 3-bedroom townhomes, each with an attached garage. After repeated protests from neighbors concerned about things like “increased traffic,” “too much density,” and the “desirability of the neighborhood,” and a re-mapping of wards that put the site under a new alderman, the development planned for the lot has been reduced over the past two years from 54 to 50 to now 24 units. Significantly, the project is now planned for sale rather than as rental. So the little corner site under the L will become home to a suburban-style development, planned to meet the needs of local NIMBY–Not In My Backyard–activists rather than the neighborhood or the city as a whole. And who were these people? Were they a representative slice of the neighborhood, or of the city? Well…there were 48 people at the first community vote taken, and a similar number at the second. I see no indication that more than 50-60 people were present at any of the meetings about the project. That’s not democracy, that’s a scam.

This lot could have been home to dozens or hundreds of people who would contribute their livelihoods, social engagement, and citizenship to Chicago, all while making very little impact on the environment or on the city’s creaking automobile infrastructure. Instead, with paranoia and illogic reigning (remember, it’s the provision of parking, not the people, that brings the traffic), the site will be developed at a minimal density and with residents of the development encouraged (by the provision of garages, among other things) to buy and use cars rather than making use of the immense transit, walking, and biking infrastructure available to them. Instead of getting rental units that would be subject to affordability requirements (however minimal they might have been) and that might have “filtered” down to less-wealthy residents as they aged, the neighborhood gained expensive townhouses unlikely to contribute much to the amelioration of its affordability problems. It’s absolutely infuriating for anyone who cares about a progressive vision of the future of Chicago.

Sadly, the case of the little lot on Winnebago Avenue is hardly atypical of Chicago. Daniel Kay Hertz has done a wonderful job illuminating the ways in which Chicago’s bifurcated housing market is a result of mistaken, often corrupted public policy. In particular, housing policies are often beholden, as they were in this case, to the whims of any neighborhood activists wealthy enough, or with enough time on their hands, to make their voices heard; these people abound in wealthy neighborhoods and are rare in poor and minority ones, which is why you get phenomena like that the fact that NO affordable housing has been built in Lincoln Park in 35 years. It’s not too hard to understand, as Daniel quickly did on Twitter, that the real motivating factor behind the neighborhood activists’ favoring of sale over rental properties (and, if we’re being honest, probably the entire opposition to the project) was social exclusion. Chicago has a deserved reputation for being the most segregated city in the country. And until the city and its leadership are willing to push back against the kind of NIMBYism that leads to these undesirable outcomes, it will continue to “enjoy” that reputation.

The NIMBY victory, of course, also has environmental ramifications. CNT, where I used to work, has researched in great depth how far Chicago lags behind other cities in encouraging transit-oriented development. The misuse of lots like the one on Winnebago brings enormous opportunity costs; every inhabitant who NIMBY activists push further from the L, of course, is more likely to use a car, thus contributing to all of the pathologies that the automobile brings. Chicago’s highways are locked up and its road network is creaking, and there is no foreseeable way to expand capacity, even if that were a desirable outcome. Chicago faces predicted doom on any number of fronts (crime, pension costs, education) but the threat that’s perhaps most immediate–and least exaggerated–is economic death by transportation strangulation.  Simply put, if the NIMBYs keep getting their way, the city has no future. It’s time to stand up to their greed and bring public policy back into the realm of the good.


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