Ninety percent of new projects around Chicago transit stations have been located on the North Side or West Loop with little activity around stops on the South and West sides. So the city is taking another step to stave off gentrification and segregation to better serve communities near public transportation.
A proposed ordinance called Connected Communities is before the city council, and it seeks to extend incentives for jobs and housing around bus stops and L stations. The overall policy is known as Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD, which places requirements on developments near CTA stops in an effort to make neighborhoods more vibrant, increase density and reduce parking spots.
City officials and transit advocates have been working for years to use a racial equity lens to give incentives to develop precious land near transit. They’ve coined this approach as “equitable transit-oriented development” or eTOD. While transit stops on the North Side have helped to lure development and that interest has helped spark increases in property values and rents, things have remained relatively stagnant in the city’s communities of color. In the proposed ordinance, a number of small but mighty policy changes are on the table such as ending the ban on three-flats near transit in high-cost neighborhoods.
“One of the lessons learned through this process is we need to do even more work in making zoning accessible to Chicagoans because many of our residents don’t know they’re living in areas that are exclusionary,” said Roberto Requejo, program director for Elevated Chicago, which is a longtime eTOD advocacy group.
In addition, the ordinance would prevent tearing down two- and three-flat buildings in high-cost TOD areas to convert into single-family luxurious housing without a zoning change. Preserving multi-family housing allows middle and working-class families to live in desirable neighborhoods.
And in an effort to prevent city council members from blocking affordable housing, the ordinance would require that every affordable TOD development in a high-cost area gets an up or down vote in the city zoning committee.
“The vision here is having a city that can address the multiple crises that we’re going through right now. One of the crises is around climate change. We cannot continue building a car-centric city because our kids and their kids are going to inherit a hot city, a flooded city, a polluted city. We need to turn that around and build around transit,” Requejo said.
The other crisis he said is around public health.
“Some of the things that we’ve realized during the pandemic is that folks who live in transit-rich areas had better vaccination rates and lower COVID rates than folks who live in transit deserts,” Requejo said.
Equitable TOD also addresses racial justice by building neighborhoods differently.
The ordinance would also expand TOD to more highly-used bus lines, not just L stops. South and West side residents are more likely to ride the bus than their North Side counterparts.
“The heaviest use bus in the system is 79th Street,” said Jacky Grimshaw, of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “The ability for merchants to have small businesses, for people to have affordable housing along that route is something that is going to benefit this South Side.”
Chicago Avenue and 95th Street are other corridors with opportunity, she said.
Active Transportation Alliance (ATA), a local advocacy group, said the ordinance is a generational opportunity to create more affordable housing near transit and get more people walking, biking, and riding. The ordinance would change curb cuts and prioritize pedestrian safety near rail stations.
“The safety impacts of this ordinance shouldn’t be overlooked. Our city is filled with transit stations and stops and many of them can’t be safely and comfortably reached via walking or biking. Changes like limiting curb cuts, parking, and drive-thrus near transit would make our streets much safer and more comfortable for people walking and biking,” said ATA’s Kyle Whitehead.
The proposed ordinance builds upon other policies to improve TOD. Two years ago, the city released a policy plan that says any TOD project that comes along has to look at the racial impact. There’s an annual city performance review and a strategy to get public land to developers committed to benefitting surrounding communities and adding more flexibility in zoning and permits.
Transit advocates are hoping for a vote in the city council later this month.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of the proposed ordinance under consideration. It’s the Connected Communities Ordinance.