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Transit Oriented Development – Chicago

Written by Todd Meyer, Principal, Stantec Urban Places

RAILWAY AGE, SEPTEMBER 2019 ISSUE – Effectively leveraging rail infrastructure: Dynamic, walkable, higher-density urban neighborhoods in proximity to transit can improve quality of life. Here’s how it’s done in the Windy City.

In the fourth installment of our ongoing series on transit-oriented development (TOD), we’ve focused on Chicago. Our previous articles looked at how New York got TOD right, how California is doing something different in TOD and the key role P3s can play in booming Toronto.

Chicago has long been considered a significant rail hub in the U.S., including freight and passenger service. As an early adopter of transit investment, Chicago’s first raised “L” line (L is short for “elevated”) began service in 1892. It took less than a decade for the L to expand to include multiple lines and neighborhoods, including Chicago’s downtown core, known locally as “The Loop.” This name was derived from the multiple elevated train lines that encircle the city’s primary business district.

Chicago’s adoption of mass transit was necessary in order to efficiently move large numbers of people in a growing city that served as a crossroads of goods and services nationally. In part, the existing rail lines that facilitated the movement of freight also helped to create a modern, robust and multi-modal transit system. With that system, America’s largest Midwestern city had the foundation to build TOD as a matter of normal course, as evidenced in buildings of all shapes and sizes throughout town.

While the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) urban network of trains and buses can get passengers within a block or two of almost any destination in the city, Metra commuter lines connect farther out to Chicago’s suburban communities. Daily ridership on these lines approaches 300,000 on weekdays. Because of the prevalence of these rail lines reaching farther regional destinations, neighboring communities have also benefitted from TOD by way of their rail connections to Chicago.

Many of these suburban municipalities have evolved through the decades, some from being small industrial outposts and bedroom communities, to corporate headquarters and bustling communities of their own. Motorola moved its headquarters from Chicago to Schaumberg in 1976, and McDonald’s decided to establish its global headquarters in Oak Brook.

However, along with Kraft and other large corporations, both companies have responded to recent talent trends and relocated their headquarters locations downtown. In addition to relocating back to walkable, urban neighborhoods where many people want to live and work, convenient transit access is commonly cited as a critical element for companies choosing an office location and individuals making decisions of where to live.

TOD in Chicago

The City of Chicago has always employed TOD as an approach to ongoing densification and development. In 2013, the city introduced its TOD policy around Chicago’s many train stations to “encourage lower carbon transportation choices and reduce household costs associated with car ownership.” The policy allows developers to build more dense, multi-family residential projects without parking structures, and under a streamlined approval process. This removes one of the major obstacles to building dense urban projects—costly parking. This makes absolute sense financially, but also because cities are looking to increase transit ridership and move people more efficiently, as we consider a future of reduced car ownership through the advent of autonomous vehicles. Developments that meet the TOD requirements must also comply with the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which mandates projects dedicate a percentage of units to affordable housing.

In 2015, Chicago’s Zoning Committee approved a measure to expand the areas where TODs can be built in the city’s north end. The ordinance more than doubled the area of land where developers can build projects with reduced parking requirements. In 2018, the city expanded its TOD policy to high-ridership bus lines. This is one of the first initiatives in the country to pursue a citywide policy that encourages TOD around bus lines. A well-traveled bus route can carry thousands of people every day, and incentivizing their use is a good way to expand a network of connectivity throughout the city, while addressing affordable housing needs.

While these are big positive steps to increase TOD, they will make even more sense in the future as mobility choices shift through the advent of autonomous vehicles (AVs). While AVs are not going to replace personal cars, buses or trains in the near future, they are going to provide an additional mobility option that does not require parking on location. Urban car ownership is already declining in most major centers; this will likely continue as ridesharing and other mobility options become better ingrained in the way we get around. As a company that advises clients on how to best approach development, we are already looking at ways to repurpose or redevelop existing parking structures and surface lots that could be sparsely used within a decade. We’re also advising clients to wait as long as possible to build new parking structures to leverage walking, biking and transit, but also to see the impacts of AVs as they gradually come online.

Equity and Inclusion

One of the biggest challenges in cities across the country is to ensure that housing policies are inclusive of all socio-economic groups and do not exclude certain geographies or segments of the population. As normal market forces continue to gentrify various neighborhoods in Chicago, we see the “price of success” where many TODs yield luxury apartments in neighborhoods that have historically been more affordable or traditionally had lower rents. The concern is that many existing residents are displaced as an increasing number of wealthier people seek walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhoods that are connected to transit lines.

Many civic leaders are trying to address this issue, but it’s clear that the popularity of these neighborhoods is in part due to access to good transit options. These are complicated issues to solve for certain, but with the right balance of policy, incentives and infrastructure, the future holds promise for fair and equitable housing that includes all segments of the community.

Civic leaders in Chicago are working to promote more equitable TOD by increasing the number of required affordable units to 15% of each project, up from 10%. In addition, there is strong support to spur more TOD on the economically challenged South and West sides of town. Regarding transit itself, the following measures are currently being debated to increase accessibility and ridership in Chicago, as indicated by John Greenfield, transportation reporter for the Chicago Reader and editor of StreetsBlog Chicago:

  • A reduction of transit fares for low-income residents of various ages.
  • A goal that every resident can live within a 15-minute walk of reliable 24-hour transit service.
  • Encourage CTA to implement all-door bus boarding to increase operational efficiency.
  • Work with state legislators to permit fair camera enforcement of bus lanes.
  • Revisit Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors in the city, such as Ashland Avenue.
  • Create 50 miles of dedicated bus lanes (Chicago currently only has 4.1 miles).
  • Support the creation of dedicated transit lanes as part of North LSD reconstruction.
  • Develop a strategy for transitioning Chicago’s bus fleet to electric-only by 2030 or earlier.
  • Upgrade the Metra Electric District line with frequent service and discounted CTA transfers.

Investment and Sustainability

Chicago’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has laid out a plan and identified $37.7 billion in capital projects for the CTA, Metra and Pace (the RTA’s suburban bus and regional paratransit division). Transit investment by nature makes sense from a sustainability perspective: Reducing traffic congestion, reducing vehicle-miles traveled and greenhouse gases are a priority for many cities. Maintaining, modernizing and expanding transit service makes it that much more attractive, and makes any transit-adjacent development that much more valuable. A larger strategy that links transit investment and development makes TOD initiatives significantly more effective.

The Red and Purple Modernization Program (RPM) is one way that transit is already being prioritized in Chicago. The $2.1 billion design-build project will reconstruct, modernize and build 1.9 miles of elevated tracks, including bridges and support structures, along Chicago’s busiest transit corridor. Led by Walsh-Fluor Design-Build Team, Stantec and our design partners are working on plans that include reconstruction and modernization of four of the oldest stations on the Red Line. In addition, a new bypass or “flyover” structure will relieve congestion at a century-old rail junction north of Belmont Station, alleviating service delays at a portion of the system that carries more than 150,000 daily riders.

As part of the RPM Phase 1 project, a TOD plan was prepared for several parcels adjacent to the rail corridor that have been acquired to accommodate the infrastructure improvements. Led by Chicago-based Solomon Cordwell Buenz, a multi-disciplinary consultant team created a TOD plan as part of the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) pilot program for TOD. CTA’s goal was to promote redevelopment in neighborhoods along the Phase 1 project that is feasible, thoughtfully designed, contributes positively to the community and promotes a transit-rich lifestyle. Once the infrastructure construction is complete, this plan will be used to create a community-driven guide for future development on TOD sites.

Future Opportunities for TOD

One of the fascinating aspects of TOD is that while the idea is generally supported, opinions about the right level of density vary by community. While residents of Chicago’s Loop wouldn’t be surprised that a TOD project reached 40 to 50 stories in height, that would not typically be the case in one of Chicago’s suburbs such as Evanston, Oak Park or Arlington Heights, where 10-20 stories is more common. Since public support for these projects is key to their success, gauging this type of input from local residents is an important part of the process.

Interestingly, many of these suburban communities—which are often referred to as “villages”—are generally on commuter rail lines, making them good candidates for TOD projects. In fact, Metra often has large Park-and-Ride lots next to their stations that provide convenient access for passengers. These surface parking areas could easily be developed to facilitate the Park-and-Ride users in structures, while maximizing the real estate value by placing mixed-use buildings above. The additional multi-family residential, hotel or office uses would help to support the restaurants and retail stores that residents in these communities enjoy and desire more of.

Of course, scale and context are also important considerations. Some municipalities are certainly more welcoming to high-density development than others. Residents in the various Chicagoland villages are likely to be much more supportive of TOD that transitions gracefully from station areas in a downtown core to lower-density existing buildings, as well as buildings that reflect the image and character of the community. As an increasing number of people realize that we need to increase our urban densities over time, TOD holds some promise as Chicago and cities like it look to alleviate congestion, impacts on the environment and affordable housing challenges.

Another innovative idea in TOD—alternative financing methods—is also on the rise across the country. In our previous installment in the series, we outlined how P3s are a more developed tool in Europe and Canada than they are in the U.S. But we’re quickly catching up, navigating financing models that work to bring projects on line more quickly by using a capital stack that consists of public and private sources that result in a win-win for all parties. Continuing to explore how we can bring diverse funding sources to serve public and private sectors is a worthwhile endeavor and a key element in unlocking the potential of TOD.

It takes a holistic approach to design and build a city with a world-class transit system that works for all members of the community. In the same manner, municipalities should continue to work with transit authorities and private investors to develop the housing we need. The more we can work together to promote dynamic, walkable and higher-density urban neighborhoods in proximity to our transit infrastructure, the better it will be for our collective quality of life. Residents of our urban communities deserve access to quality housing, interesting commercial areas, usable open spaces and mobility options that are independent from car ownership.

About the author: Todd Meyer is a consultant based in Chicago and a Principal with Stantec’s Urban Places practice, a network of experts that provide professional services focused on public realm and private development strategies for clients across the U.S. and Canada. He is currently part of the design management team for Phase 1 of the RPM project with the CTA.

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