Rising Prices in Edgewater and Andersonville? Don’t Sweat It, They Can Be Avoided

I took the news that housing prices in Edgewater and Andersonville are on the rise very personally. For awhile now those two neighborhoods have been my ideal place to live. They’re close to the ‘L’ and lake, but hold their distance from the Loop. They have an urban feel, but still you can find those resplendent, leafy residential streets lined with stately homes. And, if I stood in the middle of Clark and Foster and shouted “Are you friends with Dorothy?”, I’d be almost guaranteed at least one “yes” in response. And, most importantly, they remain remarkably affordable.

Obviously, I want none of that to change. Maintaining affordability in Edgewater/Andersonville necessitates avoiding the problems that plague other areas of the city, but also by encouraging diverse residential development. This can be a slippery slope towards varying degrees of “gentrification” however. There is ample evidence to show the former can be achieved without the latter.

There’s no need to pretend that at some point continued demand to live in Edgewater/Andersonville might push prices up forcing out people who can no longer afford the area. Indeed, based on observations of Chicago’s LGBTQ* community, the trend towards rising prices and wealthier residents is already evident. In his book “There Goes The Gayborhood?” Amin Ghaziani effectively describes a movement of LGBTQ* Chicagoans northward from Old Town to Rogers Park along the lakefront that mirrors a consistent trend: queer people move into more affordable neighborhoods investing in them before moving on to still affordable neighborhoods further north while more affluent, and often straighter, residents move into former queer enclaves.

By this anecdotal evidence, Andersonville has reached a point that is not all that dissimilar to Boystown a decade or so ago, while Rogers Park is playing the role of Andersonville in the recent past. Assuming the model outlined above holds fast, there will be a rise in the incomes and rents in Edgewater/Andersonville in the coming years like in Lakeview and parts of Lincoln Park previously; that is, if nothing is done.

So while change can’t necessarily be stopped, that doesn’t mean these neighborhoods have to become bastions of the wealthy like Wicker Park/Bucktown and Lakeview/Lincoln Park. Right now, Edgewater/Andersonville still have median household incomes and rents that are lower than the surrounding neighborhoods, this according to Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks, which uses data from 2008-2012. With average household incomes at about $37,800 annually residents only spend 20-25% of their income on rent. This is quite good, especially considering the amenities available in the neighborhood, but based on the article in question, this is what’s at risk of disappearing.

Interestingly, it’s debatable if the DNAinfo article accurately reflects changes in the affordability of Edgewater/Andersonville. While the article gives the impression that housing prices are beginning to skyrocket and will force many residents out of the neighborhood, Daniel Kay Hertz, a Senior Fellow at City Observatory and author of City Notes, thinks otherwise.

“It sounds like what they are doing is just taking the straight average of all the listed properties. But…that technique is open to really wild swings [in the market]. If you look at Zillow’s numbers for the area, which are based on a repeat-sales algorithm that takes into account the random basket of homes that happen to be for sale at any time, the increases in prices are way, way less dramatic.”

So, from another perspective this change is not as troublesome, nor reason to run for the hills. Indeed, based on my own calculations using the data from Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks, residents living at or near the average median household income could absorb about a 20% rent increase without having to dedicate more than 30% of their income to housing. This doesn’t take into account the costs of purchasing property, nor changes in income levels. What it does show though, even in a vague sense, is a little leeway many residents could probably work with.

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On first look, Edgewater and Andersonville appear to have a rich and divese housing stock, but the neighborhoods are just as threatened bz downsizing and a lack of diversity as other neighborhoods.

 

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Edgewater’s acccess to transit and the lake make it a highly atractive neighborhood.

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Andersonville has a lively and attractive commercial area, but it could use a more diverse residential mix to support it. (Source: gatewayhostels.com)

To build on the neighborhoods successes though, affordability has to be maintained. Where rents are pushing out businesses in Wicker Park and housing stock is becoming overly homogenous in Lakeview, Edgewater/Andersonville still provide housing types for a range of residents. This in turn spurs more economically sustainable neighborhood. This fits into what Hertz said makes neighborhoods affordable: “a lot of many different housing types, and a lot of subsidized housing,” as well as walkability and transit access. This is a decent description of these North Side neighborhoods.

Looking at the Institute for Housing Studies map of the Edgewater community area, there’s no indication that Edgewater/Andersonville risks developing overly homogenous housing stock, but under the right conditions, the neighborhoods could quickly get split into two worlds: high-rises east of Broadway along the lake and single-family homes west of there. Taking a closer look, the problems for the neighborhoods appear. Neither Clark Street nor Broadway, both primary commercial strips, have much in the way of housing, while much of the stock in Andersonville is either single-family units or two- or three-flats. These are easy targets for downsizing projects.

Such downsizing projects are already proving problematic in Lakeview. Lincoln Park, and Lincoln Square. There, the diversity and number of available housing units is decreasing. This not only strangles the housing market and can result in demand induced housing cost rises, but it can also harm the economic vitality of the area. Near the Southport and Paulina Brown Line stops for example, the overall number of units dropped by 2% and 4% respectively, according to Streetsblog Chicago, which simultaneously reported calls by local merchants for more social diversity in the neighborhood to support all kinds of businesses.

Building more is no clear solution. According to Hertz, the impacts of increased development at a hyper-localized level still aren’t well understood. At the very least, at a regional level, more housing does equal more affordable housing. Nonetheless, because of Edgewater/Andersoville’s demographic make-up the potential rises in rent wouldn’t be a huge shock and probably offset by other benefits stemming form more housing.

To prevent similar conversations from happening in Edgewater/Andersonville, the 46th and 48th ward aldermen, Harry Osterman and James Cappleman respectively, have to begin supporting development that diversifies the housing stock and ensures it stays large enough to stay on top of demand. This is, of course, in addition to improved transportation in the area. Fortunately, tools are in place to support the latter efforts. The city’s greatly increased Transit Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance now covers much of the north lakefront and a development plan for Broadway exists that will hopefully guide smarter planning from Foster to Devon in addition to other projects.

Unfortunately, neither alderman seems to be doing a very good job of implementing the development side of this, or at least demanding better. While Cappleman has been brining new housing to Uptown, he’s received a lot of criticism for not being supportive of sustainable housing in the area and turning a blind eye to homelessness. Osterman just seems clueless. Since he’s been alderman he’s overseen the construction of much of the same on Broadway–strip-malls–in spite of  transit access and the viability of more housing in this area. Indeed, Broadway and Clark are the two best areas in these neighborhoods to absorb new, residential rich developments.

Granted, the aldermen might not be able to do much. In my conversation with Hertz he expressed skepticism that aldermen can do all that much to impact development, especially since the development can be a purposefully slow affair conducted by the “risk averse”.

At the very least, the aldermen could be more supportive of the ideal kinds of developments and make it known that in their wards, they’re open to ways of better using available land and redeveloping sites in ways that are attune to the neighborhoods’ characteristics. What’s most important though is that residents stay aware of what’s happening around them, but also shed any potential NIMBY responses there might be to new projects in exchange for a more nuanced recognition of what needs to done to preserve the neighborhoods’ character into the coming years. What’s still so great about the far northern lakefront neighborhoods is they’re still a bit of a diamond in the rough. They can’t be preserved like a museum piece, but the tools available to allow them to sustainably change with the times.

Don’t Forget the Boulevards (Just a Reminder)

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Plan of Chicago 1909 (source: afterburnham.com)

Since I first wrote about better utilizing Chicago’s boulevards for biking much has in Chicago: new rails-to-trails projects are being planned in in Pilsen, Little Village and Englewood, Divvy is expanding, and curbed protected bike lanes are finally making an appearance. Additionally, the city announced plans for 50 miles of new “low stress” bike lanes (often the same as barrier-protected bike lanes, or PBLs), thus swapping quantity for quality. In spite of all this though, the boulevards still don’t seem to be getting any love? Progress is being made in terms of biking, but then again, just focusing on this mode undercuts the potential for the entire boulevard system.

Chicago’s boulevards are an amazing piece of infrastructure that are sadly under utilized. Beginning in Logan Square at Western Ave. on the North Side, the system of boulevards and squares connects some of Chicago’s most important parks and numerous neighborhoods and the lakefront at Jackson Park while creating an arch around the city’s core.

The product of Daniel Burnham’s vision for Chicago and archetypal urban design of the city beautiful movement, the boulevards currently fall flat. Unlike in European cities like Paris or Vienna, which also have famous boulevards, Chicago’s are a quiet affair with light traffic of all kinds, even in popular neighborhoods like Logan Square where the focus is Milwaukee Avenue.

Humboldt Blvd Looking South (Source: Google Maps)

Humboldt Boulevard looking south towards the 606 is virtually empty. (Source: Google Maps)

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A segment of the Vienna Ring Boulevard (Ringstraße); the Ring is broken into different segments for its entire length, which includes bike and pedestrian lanes, streetcar lanes, and traffic lanes each lined with trees. (Source: Michael Podgers)

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This boulevard in Lisbon, Portugal features an attractive park-median with a variety of usable spaces. (Source: travelvivi.com)

Aside from the incorporation of the boulevards into some transportation plans such as the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bikeways For All or the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Cycling for 2020 as well as smaller, localized concepts there is currently no guide specifically addressing the boulevards.

A plan for the boulevards is overdue.

The boulevards are one of the best, overlooked assets in Chicago, but they offer so much more. They can’t be treated as mere elements of other plans and projects though, because that undercuts the potential for how the city can utilize them. What makes the boulevards unique is how well they can be used as public spaces, green space, and corridors of active transportation. This needs to be viewed in a way that takes in the boulevards’ full extent. A complete program could radically change the character of the city.

Chicago Blvd System (Source: Google Maps)

Chicago’s boulevards make arc around the Loop and connect Logan Square on the Northwest Side to Hyde Park and Lake Michigan on the South Side via Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Washington Park, and Jackson Park.

Although over time piecemeal changes to the boulevards could change a lot, a master plan would help bring about cohesive change to how they’re used in a way that allows for more radical ideas to be examined and potentially carried through. This includes everything from road diets along the boulevards to improving recreational spaces along the system, building kiosks for cafés and other small businesses to developing an advanced boulevard based transportation system like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or streetcars.

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Here’s an idea of how big one football field is, in case like me, you couldn’t visualize it. (Source: buckeyesnews.com)

What such changes would look like varies depending on the segment of boulevard in question. Humboldt Blvd between Palmer Square and Humboldt Park is a good candidate for conversion to green space for example. It’s wide, but underused express lanes are little more than speedways, while the local lanes serve real purpose. Converting these four lanes (approximate width 10 feet per lane and about 0.7 miles long) into green space would add 147,480 ft 2 or 3.4 acres (or, two and a half football fields) of new parkland to the city.

This is only one segment of the boulevard system though and is a project that functions in relative isolation from the rest of the system. As a transportation corridor, the boulevards still hold real potential both unto themselves and as parts of other city projects. On Western Blvd. for example, the double-wide layout from 31st to 55th streets could be used for building out a BRT network that would eventually extend the entire length of Western Ave. (in addition to an Ashland BRT route of course). This roughly three-mile long segment has potential other redesign options, but would be a good place for a starter BRT route.

Another example of this is the potential of the boulevards to be used for reintroducing the streetcar to Chicago. A route following Garfield Blvd./55th St. from Hyde Park to Midway has great potential for success for multiple reasons a particular one being the ability to build dedicated lanes due to the available space on the boulevards. Four miles of a 9 mile route from the Museum of Science and Industry to Midway could easily be built with dedicated lanes (critical for developing a successful streetcar network) and another 1 mile of dedicated lanes could be shared with BRT on either Western or Ashland avenues.

Chicago Blvds (Source: Michael Podgers)

The boulevards offer the potential to introduce new transportation modes to Chicago and experiment with other urban planning/design concepts not widely seen in the city yet. (Source: Google Maps, Michael Podgers)

This doesn’t even speak to the ability to build a “Circle Line” along the boulevards using streetcars rather than a new ‘L’ line, which would be significantly more expensive. It’s too bad discussing the boulevards’ future isn’t part of a very active conversation about Chicago’s future. The boulevards and streetcars are not included as part of the Active Transportation Alliance’s Transit Future campaign and Chicago Streetcar Renaissance has focused on starter lines along Clark St., Lake Shore Drive, and in the Loop. A 55th/63rd Hyde Park to Midway streetcar would be a huge asset to the South Side and probably a heavily used route considering it would connect three ‘L’ lines, the South Shore Line, Metra Electric and all of it to Midway.

Regardless of what’s included a plan for the boulevards is necessary. All of the boulevards have the space to facilitate the easy and unobtrusive construction of better bike and pedestrian infrastructure and transit infrastructure not to mention improve accessibility to public green spaces also. Such types of complete streets and seamless modal connectivity is what advocates are calling for in Chicago, but the conversation keeps overlooking a critical asset in establishing these things. Fundamentally, the boulevards are not being capitalized on.

Stepping back and acknowledging what the boulevards can be in Chicago alters the role they play in the city’s structure. Not only are they visually lovely elements of early American urban planning, they’re spaces ripe for improved infrastructure and experimentation with projects so far unseen in the city.

 

Trains: They Bring Us Together

As the Munich bound train from Venice neared the Brenner Pass and the Austrian border, I could tell the woman across from me was growing nervous. She fidgeted and was noticeably more anxious when the conductor announced the train would be standing at Brenner station, the border control. For this woman, a Syrian refugee traveling with her daughter and husband, every moment on the Italian side of the boarder increased the chances of getting stopped and derailing a journey that is unimaginable for the vast majority of us.

Since moving to Vienna, many of my encounters with refugees have occurred in train stations and on trains. They’ve come to remind me of two things. One is that there is a certain egalitarianism to train travel that is one of its great virtues. The other, which is related in a way to the first, is that train travel creates spaces for unexpected personal interactions between strangers that are absent from other forms of transportation.

In the discourse about rail travel and its benefits, the focus remains on the most tangible benefits: improved urban environments, sustainable transportation, better connectivity, better travel times. It’s easy to overlook some of the more subtle benefits, especially since they’re less tangible and can be fleeting. Some of these–helping others carry luggage on and off trains, shared seating arrangements and compartments, even the bar car–radically change our relationship to travel and those we’re traveling alongside in dynamic ways, which isn’t an overlooked benefit of rail travel, but is certainly under appreciated.

When debating the value of air versus rail based travel, aspects like the bar car or private seating compartments on trains are sold as comforts that benefit passengers on a individuals basis. We don’t discuss the communal benefits that also result. These are immense. They manage to bring people together in unexpected ways. Traveling within Austria and Germany, I’ve had fantastic conversations with people who could only happen, because of seating arrangements you don’t see on buses and planes. On one occasion, an unexpectedly overcrowded train resulted in more people piled into the bar car than was probably allowable. Rounds of beers and some vivacious drinking songs resolved any frustrations with a train well over a comfortable capacity.

Starting in September these rail based encounters changed dramatically. The swelling numbers of refugees fleeing to the safety of Northern Europe dominated trains international trains. A trip to Oktoberfest from Vienna was a logistical battle (closing even on border within the Schengen Zone, Europe’s barrier-free travel area, creates huge problems), but also a moment when the full humanitarian weight of the refugee crisis came crashing down. Staking out a place in the bar car (an always reliably beer filled alternative to an actual seat) I became a de facto translator. I’m convinced word spread that there was a German-speaking American on the train who could translate; over the course of two hours I found myself on phones talking to people’s families Hamburg, looking up train connections, translating tickets, ordering food, and, most importantly, hearing people’s stories.

The bartender was nice enough to give me a free beer for all of this, but it was the experience of seeing and hearing what was happening that became my impetus to help even if it was in the most minuscule manner possible. I don’t think such encounters would have or could have happened on any other form of transportation. This speaks to something vital about what makes rail based travel so valuable.

On my way from Venice back to Vienna, I found myself sitting with a Syrian family clearly headed to Germany. In English, they could say their please’s and thank you’, yes’ and no’s. Beyond that, there was no available form of communication beyond pantomime. They were amongst the kindest people I have ever met. Beyond their general politeness and sense of regard for the people around them, some of whom probably resented their presence, they offered to share all their food and drink with me. Never have I seen such levels of generosity. Briefly we became entwined in each other’s world. When we reached the border the nervousness of the mother made me nervous. At that point I knew I would intervene on their behalf in spite of not knowing what to say if an Austrian boarder guard were to question and challenge their ability to passage. The 15 minutes passed though without incident and we moved across the pass into Austria.

In Innsbruck I bid them farewell with the hope they feel at home in Europe, can make a new life full of happiness and joy, and that they’re provided the same generosity. I feel grateful for these experiences, because it reconnects me to the larger issues playing out in our world. It is so easy to fall into the habit of consciously ignoring what is happening around us. Communal spaces are essential in helping us forge these connections, even if such spaces are very functional tools, such as for transportation. In spite of being a highly social species, we have a bad tendency of cutting ourselves off and staying in boxes. Being forced out of them, even if only to travel, is a healthy experience.

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The help I’ve provided during the refugee crisis is in the gran scheme of things somewhat pathetic. While I’m proud I helped when I did, I’m highly aware more needs to be done.

For those looking to provide assistance, I’m providing links to resources in the USA, Germany, and Austria. Note, that many of these articles were published in the fall 2015, so information may have changed since then.

Deutschland/Österreich:

http://www.refugees.at/

http://www.trend.at/politik/oesterreich/so-sie-fluechtlingen-5855733

USA/International:

http://www.today.com/parents/refugee-crisis-how-you-can-help-syrias-children-t42261

http://mashable.com/2015/09/03/refugee-crisis-how-to-help/#S8z5Oy0ZVOqi