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MPC forum highlights Reconnecting Neighborhoods recommendations

On Dec. 5, 2008, MPC and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), co-hosted a Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities forum, which focused on the Reconnecting Neighborhoods initiative. Led by the City of Chicago Dept. of Planning and Development, Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), HNTB, Inc., and MPC, Reconnecting Neighborhoods is aimed at improving transit, pedestrian and retail amenities in three CHA mixed-income areas: Near North, Near West, and Mid-South neighborhoods. As the culmination of this year-long planning and community outreach effort, the forum introduced the final Reconnecting Neighborhoods recommendations of this initiative for each study area.

Todd Brown, vice chairman at ShoreBank Corporation and member of MPC’s Board of Governors, moderated the panel discussion, which featured opening remarks from William Little, managing director of development for CHA, and Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). Sam Zimbabwe, technical assistance director for Reconnecting America, provided a national perspective, and representatives from each study area gave their on-the-ground perspectives and reviewed recommendations for their respective neighborhoods: Ald. Walter Burnett (27 th Ward), for Near North ; Crystal Palmer, resident leader at Westhaven Park, on Near West; and Gordon Ziegenhagen , assistant vice president and project manager at Draper & Kramer, Inc., on Mid-South.

The panel discussed how projects like Reconnecting Neighborhoods, which work to better plan for and tie together housing, transportation, and commercial development, can and should be more competitive locally and at the national level. Brown, co-chair of the Reconnecting Neighborhoods Intergovernmental Advisory Committee, briefly outlined the initiative and emphasized the process of engaging community residents as a first step, saying “their ideas are at the heart of the recommendations.” He stressed “the recommendations help to position these communities for many emerging opportunities, including a new federal administration with intimate knowledge of Chicago and its neighborhoods, and the 2016 Olympics bid. These recommendations will not only affect those who live and work in these study areas, but will extend beyond these specific neighborhoods, and, in effect, benefit the entire city.”

CHA’s Little stressed the Plan for Transformation is more than just “bricks and sticks”, but rather “a plan to rebuild networks and create sustainable communities.” Access to public transportation is a strong asset for communities, and a lack of it creates a huge challenge to the sustainability of these communities, especially on the South Side. Little emphasized the need for long-term transit investments to create viable communities, and recognized the efforts and recommendations of Reconnecting Neighborhoods as concrete ways to achieve these goals.

Schlickman described RTA’s overall goals to create a multimodal, seamless transportation system that supports and connects to housing and economic development to enhance community livability. RTA works to achieve thist by supporting innovative planning efforts through four grant programs, including the Community Planning grant, which funded Reconnecting Neighborhoods. “Going forward, we have to make sure transportation planning is integrated with land use, housing, and community development planning,” he said. In addition, because the region’s current transit system is very expensive to maintain, let alone enhance, new funding measures are necessary, particularly through a capital initiative, to adequately improve transportation in our region.

Ald. Burnett stressed “transportation is a social justice issue,” and his Near North constituents have real concerns about equitable access to transit. “It’s always good to see residents come out and have an opportunity to express a vision,” he said, emphasizing their involvement in Reconnecting Neighborhoods. Ald. Burnett also highlighted the suggested improvements to the CTA system in his neighborhood, including a new Brown line station at the Division/Orleans intersection, additional entrances/exits at the North/Clybourn Red Line station, and a bus route on Clybourn Avenue (which is already in progress). Other recommendations include improvements to the street grid around the mixed-income developments and Clybourn/Division intersection, and attracting affordable, sustainable retail.

Palmer outlined priority recommendations in her Near West community, such as a new Green Line station at Damen Avenue and Lake street , and a new Pink Line station near the United Center . “It’s important to think about how to get people in and out of the community as efficiently as possible,” she said. She also spoke about the need to create a more inviting, community-centered atmosphere around the United Center and Malcolm X College . She pointed to other recommendations to implement streetscaping on Damen Avenue and, like the Near North, the need for more affordable retail options, especially along Madison Street .

Ziegenhagen, of Draper and Kramer, emphasized the need for flexible transit options for Mid-South residents and how reinstituting a historic streetcar line along Cottage Grove Avenue would help support economic development efforts while “rebuilding and restoring what Bronzeville used to be.” He compared this streetcar concept, potentially spanning from 63 rd steet to McCormick Place, to that of Portland , Ore. ’s streetcar system, which has greatly supported economic and residential development. Other recommendations for the Mid-South community include a CTA Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, express bus service along Cottage Grove , and a long-term study of Metra Electric service.

In his presentation, Zimbabwe described how the U.S. is at a crossroads for transportation policy and that future development should (and will) reflect transit-orientated development (TOD), which is at the core of Reconnecting Neighborhoods’ recommendations. Development linked to transit not only is beneficial to the individual or family by decreasing transportation costs; it also can help revitalize and create strong communities by attracting retail, creating affordability, providing access to jobs, and expanding housing, shopping and mobility options. Reconnecting Neighborhoods is advocating for national transportation priorities that include investment in mass transit and walking/biking, expanding development – including affordable housing development – at transit nodes, and increasing access to transit across income levels.

While many of the recommendations are major, long-term transit investments, the panel emphasized the array of important opportunities occurring now at the local and federal level that can directly support these recommendations. Reconnecting Neighborhoods ties in directly with policy discussions to reduce carbon emissions, create more sustainable affordable housing options and models, and provide new transportation alternatives to the car. These goals fall directly in line with objectives of the new Obama administration, and are being advocated by national organizations like Reconnecting America and the Transportation for America campaign. In the meantime, MPC is excited to partner with all three neighborhoods on advancing many of the short and mid-term Reconnecting Neighborhoods recommendations. The City of Chicago is expecting to present these recommendations to the Chicago Plan Commission for review and approval this spring.

MPC Research Assistant Elizabeth Frantz contributed to this article.

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