A recent Crain’s Chicago Business column by Greg Hinz noted, “[T]ough times bring the freedom to think thoughts that you couldn’t possibly ponder when times are good and money is flowing.” And it’s true: While the economy forces a painful hiatus on new building and development, now is the opportune time to bring everyone to table and reach consensus on big-picture plans for a more sustainable and prosperous future.
MPC’s 2010 work plan has no shortage of bold ideas. We will continue to advance proposals for infrastructure projects such as streetcars, bus rapid transit, and high speed rail, which have the potential to transform communities and the entire region. We know improved transportation options not only will help households and businesses save money, they also will spark new economic development near stations and along corridors, and reduce the region’s carbon footprint.
Imagine the land between McCormick Place, Michael Reese, and Washington Park brought to life by a comprehensive bus rapid transit network, with reliable, express service to downtown and new connections between existing commuter rail stations. Imagine a mixed-use development with workforce housing on the proposed Olympic village site, open access to the Lake on the city’s South Side, and pedestrian-friendly streets lined with shops and services – all components of an attractive neighborhood. And there’s likely more room on the village site for a future presidential library!
Though these are big ideas, we must go beyond laying the groundwork – or expect to miss out on opportunities to fund these visions. Because of the recession, federal dollars are targeting projects that can be realized quickly to put people to work. For instance, just this month the U.S. Dept. of Transportation announced $280 million as part of the Sustainable Communities Initiative to fund shovel-ready transit projects that improve transportation choices, promote affordable housing, support existing communities, and improve the environment. The President’s jobs plan is another bite at the apple, but it’s coming quickly. Are we ready?
Metropolitan Chicago has the right elements in place. Both Chicago’s Central Area Action Plan and discussions leading up to the 2016 Olympics bid have identified bold ideas for a 21st Century region with less congestion, and better connections between housing and jobs. Yet most, save for some resurfacing projects, must be further in the planning process to qualify as shovel-ready. Plus, we need to identify resources to advance these efforts, but the State of Illinois is broke; even a 20 percent match is difficult to attain.
For years, we’ve been chasing federal dollars, developing capital infrastructure proposals to fit flawed and inflexible federal funding streams. Now, the Obama administration is putting skin in the game toward sustainable community development – and we’re playing catch up.
The new expectation is that regions and states will come to the table with investment proposals that solve a variety of community development needs. Leadership from the Mayor’s Office – and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning – can help complicated projects like these happen. Truly coordinated regional planning requires coordination among local and state agencies, municipalities, employers, and civic groups. We certainly have our work cut out for us in 2010.