Reconnecting neighborhoods through economic development and transit enhancement - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Reconnecting neighborhoods through economic development and transit enhancement

National and local panelists explore transit-oriented development possibilities in CHA mixed-income communities.

On July 12, 2007, over 200 policymakers, developers, advocates, and public housing residents attended MPC’s 11th Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities forum, co-sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). A panel of experts explored the topics of transportation and transit-oriented retail and economic development, sharing strategies for improving transit options and economic development in the mixed-income communities created by the Plan for Transformation. MPC also released its July 2007 Update on the Plan for Transformation, which highlights the importance of transit and related development to the viability of these communities, and describes the new Reconnecting Neighborhoods initiative led by the City ofChicago, in partnership with CHA, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), and MPC.

MarySue Barrett welcomes attendees.

MarySue Barrett, MPC president, welcomed attendees, and Bernard Loyd, president of  Urban Juncture and member of the MPC Board of Governors, further framed the discussion as moderater of the panel. Sharon Gist Gilliam, CHA CEO, and (standing in for RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman, who was called to Springfield that morning) Leanne Redden, senior deputy executive director of planning and regional programs for RTA, gave opening remarks. The panelists were:

Pointing to the value of the kind of partnerships featured at this and other Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities forums, Gilliam reiterated the “end of isolation” as a guiding principle of the Plan for Transformation. The “superblock” planning idea of the 1940s and 50s is gone, she said, and new developments will ultimately be integrated into neighborhoods by reinstituting the city’s street grid and connecting public housing to the broader community. A necessary component of this process is transit access, and low-income families need timely and cost-effective ways to get to work. Moreover, the economic revitalization of formerly isolated neighborhoods depends on bringing consumers into these communities via adequate public transit options. Gilliam described the “transportation burden” for many CHA developments, especially city outliers such as Trumbull Park (106th street) and Altgeld-Murray Homes (130th street). She shared the story of a CHA high school graduate, recently accepted to Yale University, who had to travel an hour and a half from LeClaire Courts (west of Cicero Avenue, between 42nd and 45th streets) to her school every day. “Diminishing this burden is crucial” for connecting future CHA students to the fabric of the city and the opportunities it has to offer.

Redden outlined RTA’s Regional Technical Assistance Program (RTAP), which encourages a balanced, integrated approach to transit-oriented development (TOD). TOD increases density and mixed-use development in the vicinity of transit stations and helps create walkable communities while alleviating congestion and improving air quality. In nine years, over 50 RTAP studies have been done across the region, including the villages of Justice and Niles, and the city of Woodstock, where an 11-acre industrial site adjacent to a Metra station is being redeveloped. Redden also introduced the Reconnecting Neighborhoods initiative as the first large-scale RTAP project in the city of Chicago, focusing on three former CHA sites (Cabrini-Green, Henry Horner, and Madden/Wells/Lakefront) that are being redeveloped into mixed-income communities as part of the Plan for Transformation. The RTAP grant will fund technical analysis, as well as a public participation process, in order to identify opportunities and build consensus on optimal TOD and transit system improvements in each community. (For information on engaging in Reconnecting Neighborhoods, please contact Brandon Johnson at (312)863-6046 or bjohnson@metroplanning.org .)

Leanne Redden gives opening remarks. Seated (left to right): Carl Byrd, David Taylor, Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, Bernard Loyd, Sharon Gist Gilliam

Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, of Quad Communities Development Corporation (QCDC), described QCDC’s role in the redevelopment of the mid-South lakefront area , the “Quad communities” of North Kenwood and Oakland, and portions of Douglas and Grand Boulevard. Formed in May 2003, QCDC began an 18-month process of assessing the needs of the community through over 500 interviews with residents, businesses, and community stakeholders. The resulting quality-of-life-plan has led to numerous community development initiatives in these neighborhoods.

In 2004, QCDC commissioned MetroEdge to conduct a market analysis of the Cottage Grove corridor (between 44th and 49th streets), which found the community had a buying power of $675 million, with $450 million being spent elsewhere (known as leakage). The results of the market study were used to come up with strategies to lure retailers back into these neighborhoods. Working with the 4th ward Ald. Toni Preckwinkle’s office, QCDC helped to amend the 43rd and Cottage Grove tax increment financing (TIF) district by expanding the eligible uses, geographic boundaries, and budget. In 2005, in partnership with the Chicago Dept. of Planning and Development and the 4th ward aldermanic office, QCDC developed a master plan identifying three target nodes for mixed-use redevelopment along Cottage Grove Avenue. QCDC’s current efforts are focused on attracting developers to these target areas for residential and commercial/retail development . The community launched a clean-up and enhancement project for the corridor in 2006, through a partnership with CleanSlate (a subsidiary of the Cara Program), to maintain sidewalks, gardens and vacant lots. A beautification effort recruited youth through a local community group, Little Black Pearl, to design banners for the corridor, which were approved at a community meeting. The banners, renaming the corridor “The Grove: a place to grow,” were installed at the end of 2006.

According to Johnson-Gabriel, transportation enhancements are crucial to the success of QCDC’s redevelopment efforts. Initiatives such as Reconnecting Neighborhoods have the potential to enhance QCDC’s work by incorporating the vital components of transportation and community access. While housing development in the area is “well on its way” (including three mixed-income sites: Oakwood Shores, Jazz on the Boulevard, and Lake Park Crescent), and QCDC is working hard to bring retail and jobs to the area, the lack of transit is an obstacle. Retailers want to know “how customers can reach them,” said Johnson-Gabriel, and they want consumers from outside the community to “come to the corridor.”

David Taylor, of HDR, commended the “incredible” partnership between the City of Chicago, RTA, CHA, and MPC, and the “dynamic transformation” that is taking place in Chicago. Taylor’s presentation began with an overview highlighting the important features and benefits of TOD . Transit is “a tool for building great communities,” and, as a single, sustainable investment, restores traditional neighborhoods, revitalizes by-passed properties, and redefines patterns for new development. Like any other transportation device, transit gives people access to property and development. However, the existence of a transit station does not guarantee TOD because the surrounding area also needs the potential for “intense, highly economic activity.” As a “national trend,” TOD is being adapted to both “mature” systems with existing infrastructure and newer transit systems that provide more options for stations and amenities.

Chicago is currently among the nation’s top 10 metro areas with TOD potential, though Taylor pointed out that many of the Chicago “el” stations are “transit-adjacent” rather than “transit-oriented.” Taylor also offered recommendations for local TOD enhancements in the mid-South lakefront area based on a neighborhood tour with QCDC. The wave of economic development in the Quad communities, led by QCDC, must be accompanied by transit access improvements. CTA and Metra should be engaged to discuss station and service options. While the current transit system provides north-south movement through these communities, the major issue is the lack of east-west connectivity from the stations to the neighborhoods. Taylor suggests improving the “public realm” of train stations, making them more accessible and useful for pedestrians and emphasizing “activity on the street” in order to connect the communities to the stations. He also described the possibility of a “signature service” for transit, specifically a streetcar.

The audience participated in a brief Q&A session following the panelists’ presentations. Below is a sampling of topics that were discussed:

  • Impact of the Olympic bid
    • Gilliam stated the CHA has not thought about how to “capitalize” on the Olympic bid, but indicated CHA may leverage money from the city to rehabilitate sites along the Olympic route. She discouraged people from getting “waylaid” by the Olympics as the “new next best thing” because it’s “more fun” to think about than CHA’s greater concern of “housing poor people.”
    • Redden noted the Olympic bid is a “short-term blip” on the RTA radar and there are more immediate concerns for transit in the region. However, RTA has been involved in conversations with CTA, Metra and Pace about Chicago’s bid. The likelihood is that transit adjustments for the Olympics would be temporary, bus-oriented, and based on the reality that many spectators will be making commuter-style trips from outside of the city.
  • Community opposition to new transit stations
    • Taylor said opposition to transit stations is more likely in newer communities because of a “fear of the unknown.” In his experience, many communities that initially opposed new transit stations later wanted them but lacked the infrastructure, making the projects more costly and complicated. He commended the public participation strategy outlined in Reconnecting Neighborhoods for building community engagement and support.
  • Incentives that attract public/private partnerships
    • Taylor said “champions” for public/private partnerships can be “anyone with a drive to make it happen.” Predictability regarding municipal codes and ordinances, as well as flexibility, are incentives for attracting strong partners for TOD.
    • Johnson-Gabriel said incentives are not always economic, and QCDC partners are motivated by the needs of the community, using QCDC as a tool to “get things done.” She said most of the community development projects so far have had little economic incentive for partners, but were necessary to prepare the Cottage Grove corridor for further investment and development.
  • Viable benefits of TOD
    • Taylor said TOD increases transit ridership, which reduces car ownership and traffic and saves energy. HDR is currently doing carbon footprint analysis to determine the real impact of TOD on reducing greenhouse gases and improving air quality.
  • Factoring in needs of older residents
    • Taylor explained the concept of aging-in-place for elderly residents is at the heart of TOD projects. Transit improvements are crucial for elderly residents who live in otherwise viable communities and are connected to neighborhood institutions (ie. churches, community organizations, retail corridors, etc.).
    • Johnson-Gabriel said the Quad communities have a sizable population of seniors and QCDC hopes improvements will make it easier for them to access goods and retail services in their own neighborhoods.
    • Gilliam commented that CHA was fortunate to build the majority of its senior buildings in areas that were “less desirable” 50 years ago, but are now in the center city along major transit routes.

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