The Republic of Chicago

For decades, Chicago could be best described as a little monarchy. The Daley dynasty for many is as much a natural element of Chicago life as hot dogs without ketchup on a poppy-seed bun or bay-windowed bungalows. Years pass under the leadership of the first and second Richard Daley. There were periods in between when power transitioned to others, but America’s Second City eventually came back into the family fold. Since the second Daley left office Chicago turned more into an oligarchy under the leadership of current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Business interests have the full support of the administration and City Hall has received the ire of many interests around town who see  the Loop prioritized over schools and neighborhoods. He became the unstoppable Rahmfather. Then the impossible happened. Da Mayr was challenged and for the first time in the history of Chicago’s required 51% threshold to win without a runoff da Mayr was below that 51% threshold.

Welcome to the Republic of Chicago.

In this city, the office of the mayor comes with a lot of power and strength, and generally speaking that means whoever holds that office can hold out for a quick and painless electoral victory (unless you totally foil post-blizzard clean-up). But not tonight. The power of the public vote may not have unseated a mayor, nor guaranteed the Fifth Floor to a new one, but it did make a statement–loud and clear–that it is possible to take on the mayor and give them a legitimate and serious challenge.

Much of this comes from a dislike for Emanuel that runs deep into the core of many Chicagoans. The closing of schools, the perpetual crime plaguing many neighborhoods on the South and West Sides–Englewood, Austin, and others. There is the sense that the Loop gets all the attention while the neighborhoods are overlooked. The CTA plods along and economic growth is meager in many parts of the city all the while a new ‘L’ station and basketball arena get funding near McCormack Place. This election is in as many ways a referendum on Emanuel as mayor as it is a rallying cry around any one candidate.

Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia did well tonight. His results placed him within arms length of City Hall. He has a long way to go for a full-on victory and much of that will depend on the opposition coalescing behind him and his ability to maintain the votes he already won. Regardless of how he does at the end though, the fact the city has reached this point is not just important, but impressive. Chicago, the Democratic machine town that reveres its Mayor like royalty, or at the very least remains ambivalent enough not to fight it has gone and done something that is rarely done. It has risen and voiced its discontent and anger and said, “wait, we’re not happy and we want change”. Rather than flee to the suburbs there is a push to really think about the possibility that change can come from within and actually be to the benefit of the entire city.

Whoever comes out on top will have a hell of a job ahead of them. The pension crisis still hasn’t passed, deficits loom for the schools, and the fiscally conservative new governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, has already put forward a financial plan that would make huge cuts to city services and welfare programs that are sure to hit Chicago hard. There is demand for CTA expansions, but service is still less than ideal on already existing routes. The mayor will have to maintain job growth and private investment and attract new residents and retain old ones through all this too. And it won’t be any easier on citizens either.

Still, we have shown that we are willing to assert ourselves and take back the city. We as citizens want a more active role in government. We want a government that responds to the needs of its residents. One that recognizes the importance of comprehensive transit systems, one that acknowledges how precious a resources parks and green spaces are, and one that understands the role strong public schools play in community building.

Come April, the likelihood that Emanuel will resume his duties as Mayor is strong. For all intents and purposes, despite the hatred, he hasn’t been universally awful. He has been a proponent of investments in the ‘L’ and a strong hand in bringing businesses into the Loop. But that has proven insufficient in relation to his other policies and priorities: closing and inordinate number of CPS schools despite increases in financing for charter schools, jumping through hoops to guarantee access to parkland for private museum projects, or investing TIF money into vanity projects for private institutions. And despite Garcia’s strong record in politics, there is no promise he is the messiah this city needs. He could be, but we can’t know for sure.

What is important is the city came out and voted (even if turnout was low) and set a new tone: the mayor and his support base can be challenged and will be challenged. It may be time for the Republic of Chicago.

And honestly, the change feels good.

Good Development and Bad Design: How the Sauganash Glen project missed the mark on design

A ground breaking even this past Friday marked the beginning of the end for a large vacant lot in the far Northwest Side community Sauganash. Located along Peterson Avenue adjacent to the Sauganash bike trail (technically the Valley Line Trail) and two and a half blocks west of Pulaski Road, the project dubbed Sauganash Glen is a much-needed boost to the neighborhood. It fills in a huge hole along Peterson Avenue and will provide new housing in a neighborhood popular with families because of its proximity to good schools, green space, the Loop, and north suburbs. The project, however good it is for the community’s growth, totally missed the mark in regards to design though. Although it incorporates some smart design elements, the overall project fails to do the absolute best to improve Sauganash. Alderman Margaret Laurino is probably thrilled by the project, as it will show she’s good on development during her re-election campaign, but it also is indicative of her failure to really push for truly stellar results.

The plan, developed by K. Hovnanian Homes, calls for 35 homes along a cul-de-sac extension of Kildare Avenue and along Sauganash Avenue. The homes, which will likely range from $700,000-$900,000 each, will be build in pseudo-historical styles based on the mixed architecture of the neighborhood–the area is dominated by homes built during the middle decades of the 20th century. Homes will range in size from about 2,500-4,500 square feet each with a detached three car garage.

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The Sauganash Village subdivision, south of the project site along Peterson Avenue.

Despite a number of very traditionally suburban characteristics, the project certainly does maximize on potential density considering it consists entirely of single-family detached homes; it also departs from the walled off community design visible across the street in the Sauganash Village subdivision. Rather than place all the homes behind high brick walls facing into the project site, this subdivision will be a relatively open plan without major barriers to the street, indeed along Sauganash Avenue the homes will be street facing rather than into the development. This will make for a significantly more active and human scale street scape compared to the other side of Peterson. Additionally, the homes designs appear consistently tasteful and will hopefully offer enough architectural variety to not verge on being cookie cutter.

Beyond these details, the developments design still leaves much to be desired and it is disappointing there was less pressure from the alderman’s office to ensure the best design possible. There are … things in particular I would have changed with this design:

1) Street-facing houses on Peterson: All along Peterson and Caldwell avenues from Devon to Rogers homes face the street. Considering private alleys would eliminate the need for either driveways onto Peterson or on-street parking, facing the front façades towards Peterson would’ve been a wise move. This seems like urban planning 101. This was an easy opportunity to counter the walls that suck the life out of Peterson on the Sauganash Village side of the street. It would also help promote using Peterson at a more human scale. In fact, it could have been used as an impetus to improve Peterson and begin employing more complete street design elements along a busy corridor with a number of business including better on-street parking, new bus shelters and landing pads, new planted medians with pedestrian islands and possible curb bump-outs at Peterson and Sauganash.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 11.26.01 PM2) Build bike/pedestrian access to Sauganash Avenue: This is a huge sticking point for me. The project plans to build the extension of Kildare as a cul-de-sac. Okay, fine, but why was a pedestrian/bike path not included so people could directly gain access to Sauganash Avenue? This is an entirely ridiculous application of suburban planning practices in Chicago’s grid system. Even the inward facing Sauganash Village on the south side of Peterson includes access to both streets it opens onto.

3) Less parking: I admit, it is unclear at this point if each residence is automatically going to include a three-car garage as reported in DNAinfo Chicago, or if that is an option, but in an area accessible to a bike trail, which is part of a growing network into the city and suburbs, a 5 minute walk to the Pulaski #53 bus, adjacent to the Peterson #84 bus and a less than 10 minute bus or car trip to the Metra Milwaukee District North Line, there seems to be no reason to build homes with anything more than a two-car garage. Although that in its own right might be considered large by some, a two-car garage maximum is about right for this community. Sauganash won’t become a biker’s paradise anytime soon, but it doesn’t have to become more car-centric either.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 11.14.30 PM4) Better access to the bike trail: According to DNAinfo Chicago, the reason a fifth bike trail entrance isn’t getting built is because the proposed site is controlled by ComEd, which was unwilling to cede access to build an access ramp. Although that is obviously out of the control of a lot of parties, it is still troublesome no alternatives were sought. The Sauganash bike trail is part of a potentially expansive network on the Northwest Side and into the suburbs and poor access would be a huge disappointment.

Good urban planning need not always be big and bold; nuance and subtlety can achieve quite a bit. This project has its better elements, but it is painful to see something being built that lacks basic elements of successful urban design and ultimately falls into the bad habit of employing excessively suburban practices in an urban environment. Sauganash may be a thoroughly residential community, but it too needs to be treated as part of the urban fabric and one that gets the best out of smart urban planning practices.

Improving American Rail, pt. 6: Building out better regional rail

High-speed rail (HSR) is glitzy and glamorous. There is no question that it has captured the public’s imagination to an extent. It is a commendable accomplishment to see such a serious discussion revolving around the development of modern and competitive rail infrastructure. However, if the final goal are trains akin to those famous ones in France, Japan, and now China then the first infrastructure developments have to be, out of necessity for the survival of the whole system, significantly more functional and less glamorous: it’ll have to be regional rail.  Stations are important, organizational structure is important, but a functional regional rail system is the glue keeping the whole thing together.

Like I have mentioned in a pervious article, the whole process begins by breaking up Amtrak and keeping only limited oversight, funding, and coordinating powers in a national body out of Washington, D.C. (or another city). The major powers to operate and maintain the system would be handed over to regional systems: New England and the Mid-Atlantic (i.e. the Northeast Corridor), the Midwest, the South, Texas and Southern Plains, the Great Plains, the Mountain States, California and the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Such a system would look much more like Europe, where national rail operators run autonomous systems with high levels of coordination and partnership through the EU and other trans-European entities helping to coordinate trans-national projects and services. This would be where DC still plays a role.

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This is the map I featured in the original post. Regions are outlines in black, high-speed rail routes (150-200 plus mph) are in red, major intercity routes are in orange, and trans-national routes are in blue. Canadian high-speed routes are in pink.

At a more localized level, each of these regional rail services could be further partitioned into operating districts organized around either a major urban center or cluster of smaller cities. Each of these could in fact be further subdivided into smaller districts that are even more localized, or used to coordinate how regional and intercity services work in relation to urban rail and transportation services. From a superficial perspective it does appear like a number of unnecessary layers and operating organizations, but the whole purpose of layered operations is to ensure a level of coordination wherein transfers between modes is actually convenient.

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The green circle shows everything within 200 miles of Chicago (approx. 3 hour drive). Image from dupageblog.com.

Take a region like the Northeast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin. At no point are any of the three major cities more than about 2 hours from each other by car. Travel between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago is frequent and done for a variety of reasons and considering their close proximity if the infrastructure was available could be done without ever having to step in a car. But it isn’t there.

Issues have arisen in developing better connections including funding, planning, political bottlenecks and so on. One of the benefits of having a larger entity coordinating funding and services above the local level, but outside of the direct control of states and their own political turmoil, is the potential to orchestrate the development of service types with broad mutually beneficial outcomes. While commuter rail does a good job of shuttling people between the suburbs of a city into the urban core and intercity rail or high-speed rail adequately moves people from city center to city center, there is nothing in between. That in between stage though is necessary for the success of other modes of transportation and making sure people can live car-free to a greater extent.

Regional Rail from Chicago

What would regional rail out of Chicago look like? Multiple lines could theoretically radiate from the Chicago connecting numerous cities and towns within 150-175 miles of Chicago. At major cities like Milwaukee or Madison passengers from smaller cities can use the regional system to connect with HSR lines and long-distant intercity lines. Regional Rail is shown in RED, long-distance intercity rail is in GREEN, high-speed rail is in BLUE.

This type of system is necessary to support other options: transit use begets more transit use. While subways and LTR are great in cities and HSR remains an ideal option for connecting the centers of major cities regional rail systems necessarily weave these all together. While HSR passengers might use urban rail upon arrival, not all travelers are going point-to-point just between major city centers. This middle ground rail option is what connects smaller points in between to the larger nodes where transfers between multiple options are possible. Such systems have the potential to be huge boons to maintain economies and bringing new investment to areas struggling like Michigan while also supporting newly prosperous areas like the string of cities in the central part of North Carolina.

North Carolina Regional Rail

This image shows the three major metropolitan regions in North Carolina and one in Virginia, all of which would benefit from the connectivity that results form a strong regional rail system.

By no means should regional rail options be viewed as a half-assed approach to high-speed rail nor a competitor for dollars. Although I don’t believe many people view it that way, I do think people misconstrue the role and purpose of different kinds of rail operations. There an honest recognition of the role of different service types needs to be maintained. The concept of regional rail is to connect people within already interconnected regions and act as a middle ground between local and urban transportation options and long-distance/intercity options. This is why I’ve only provided examples of regions where end-to-end trips could reasonably be made in less than 2-2.5 hours at speeds somewhere between 80-100 mph. The distance between endpoints is thus limited to about 175 miles, which is fine. Anything longer might run the risk of becoming an inconvenient hybrid of regional and intercity rail (more on intercity rail later).

Putting a renewed focus on regional rail systems–the “in between system”–is the best next step in advancing the passenger rail in the United States. Regional rail is the keystone of a strong multi-modal and equitable intercity transit system, because a regional rail system achieves many things the other modes don’t: it services smaller communities and even cities that would otherwise be passed with HSR or even a traditional long-distance intercity train, they can travel at speeds competitive with cars (80-100 mph), while not requiring the same costly infrastructure investment as HSR, and regional rail can double as commuter rail for communities outside the normal reach of commuter rail or where none exists or could be supported in isolation. But, it stills serves more than the express purpose of getting commuters in and out of a city center.

The best tool to connect cities, people, and transportation options in a more complete web regionalized rail systems that bring equitable transit further from city centers and complements urban rail options and long-distance trains, whether conventional intercity trains or HSR. Without a strong regional rail system other transportation options fail by virtue of existing in a vacuum disassociated with each other.