Some of Chicago’s most vibrant neighborhoods are around CTA ‘L’ stations.
Land near transit is special, and five years ago, the city wanted to spread the magic. It passed an ordinance called Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD. It’s a wonky term, for sure, but the ordinance allows developers to increase density and to reduce the number of required parking spots for new housing.
Developers like it because they can spend less money on parking. The city likes it because those savings, in theory, attract more developer interest. On top of that, less parking means fewer cars, a healthier environment, and more walkable neighborhoods.
“The image is a city that is thriving around transit nodes through the provision of density, growing as a city,” said David Reifman, commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
When people live near transit, they’re less dependant on cars, more easily connected to work, and “able to use public transit as their primary means of getting to those jobs and getting to the amenities they like,” Reifman said.
If done right, Reifman said TOD can transform how a place looks and feels.
Since the city expanded the original TOD ordinance in 2015, there’s been more than $2 billion in development supporting more than 11,000 construction jobs and generating 8,000 new units of housing, according to the city. So TOD is certainly being done. Whether all communities are participating in that development and benefitting from its results is open for debate.
For example, WBEZ has found that the ordinance is not benefiting some neighborhoods along the Blue and Green ‘L’ lines in a racially equitable way.
Under the TOD ordinance, more than 1,000 housing units have been approved near the California Avenue Blue Line station in Logan Square, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the Northwest Side. Since 2000, the Latino population there has fallen by nearly 20,000. No longer a majority Latino community as it was from 1980 to 2010, Logan Square in recent years has attracted thousands of young white professionals and scores of investments. The area bustles with cafes, bars, and urban nightlife.
On the surface, it appears as if TOD is a raging success. But some are asking, for whom?
Christian Diaz, a housing organizer at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, worries that all the new studios and one-bedroom apartments are too small and too costly for working-class Latino families.
“Overwhelmingly, we feel that that does not include us, it does not include people of color, it does not include families. And we hope the city will take steps to address that problem,” Diaz said.
But he said there’s an opportunity for the city to get TOD right.
The city owns a parking lot, known as the Emmet Street parking lot, in Logan Square. Housing advocates want the city to sell it for $1 to a developer who will turn it into 100-percent affordable housing. They envision a building, of mostly three-bedroom units, for families that otherwise might be priced out of Logan Square. If the city didn’t own this land, it’s hard to see how such a project could happen. Property values have gotten so high in this popular neighborhood that affordable housing developers simply can’t find financing to purchase privately-owned land at market value.
Washington Park is a black neighborhood on the South Side with good transportation and proximity to downtown. Just like Logan Square, it’s less than 20 minutes from downtown on the L. But that’s where the similarities end.
Even though the TOD ordinance offers the same benefits, there’s been very little TOD development along the Green Line on the South Side compared with the building boom occurring along the Blue Line on the Northwest Side. In fact, much of the land near some Green Line stations on the South Side remains vacant.
And the strong interest from the private sector to take advantage of the ordinance in Logan Square has not been matched in South Side communities. The two South Side Green Line locations with TOD have received significant public investment from local and federal government resources. They include Woodlawn Station and KLEO Art Residences.
“We don’t have a real estate problem. We have a finance problem,” said nonprofit developer Ghian Foreman.
The scars of black South and West Side neighborhoods are evident: poverty, unemployment, and blight. Also visible is the lack of private capital and the years of neglect. That’s what’s been left behind after a century of segregation, redlining, white flight, deindustrialization, and disinvestment. Some believe that the TOD ordinance alone can’t reverse those conditions.
Kendra Freeman, a program manager with the Metropolitan Planning Council, knows the impact of those forces on black communities in Chicago. She’s part of a team at the nonprofit that quantified the economic impact of segregation and issued a list of recommendations to promote racial equity.
Freeman gets to the heart of the issue — TOD is merely an incentive, not investment.
“TOD is a tool. It doesn’t create the market. In other areas in the city, the market was there. The market is not always there in South and West Side communities,” she said.
Freeman’s organization is one of 16 that have come together under the name Elevated Chicago to collaborate on solutions to these problems. They call their vision, eTOD, for equitable Transit-Oriented Development.
Roberto Requejo, the program director for Elevated Chicago, said it’s critical to look at TOD through a racial lens.
“For many decades, our cities have been built in a way that every time there’s been a large deployment of capital, whether it was public housing or train stations or university campuses or hospital campuses or highways, or on and on and on, the outcomes of those investments were always better for white people and damaging for people of color,” he said.
Requejo said Elevated Chicago believes that redevelopment through TOD does not have to follow that pattern. To that end, his group is focusing on seven ‘L’ stations on the South and West sides where community partners are mapping out what residents want near their stations, and where Elevated Chicago is hoping to draw investor financing.
“If you let us test how can we make TOD equitable, we will show you that the results will be beneficial to everyone,” Requejo said, “and in particular will elevate the outcomes in health, in climate resiliency, in access to arts and culture, for residents of those communities, which are majority people of color.”
It’s a vision that has injected new energy in some of Elevated Chicago’s member organizations on the West Side, which has also struggled to attract investment.
“I believe we have reached a moment in the West Side Chicagoland area where people are feeling desperate to see change and investment and see things go in a positive upward direction,” said Kevin Sutton, executive director of the Foundation for Homan Square in the North Lawndale neighborhood.
“All you need is a catalytic moment, and then some resources and ideas, and will of the community, and will of folks who have the resources to make a difference to come together and then just do it,” Sutton said. “And so I’m hopeful that Transit-Oriented Development will be just one of those catalytic moments that can help transform our community.”
This story has been updated to include more information about the declining Latino population in Logan Square.