Can Chicagoland Grow by Filling In? What we learned last week - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Can Chicagoland Grow by Filling In? What we learned last week

Metropolitan Planning Council

Did you know that the city of Chicago only grew by 82 people last year? Or that the region grew by .22 percent, far behind our peer cities? As Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) President MarySue Barrett presented at “Can Chicagoland Grow by Filling In?” on Tuesday, Oct. 6, the Chicago region’s stagnant growth has far-reaching impacts on our economy and quality of life.

American Community Survey Analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Last week, 70 municipalities, practitioners and policy advocates convened at MPC to share ideas and best practices for shaping the built environment to support a strong, growing Chicago region. We heard from a diverse set of voices, including Rolf Pendall, Urban Institute; Mayor George Van Dusen, Village of Skokie, Ill.; Mayor Tom Weisner, City of Aurora, Ill.; and Mary Ellen Martin from developer Morningside Group, about their experiences driving infill redevelopment.

As Rolf Pendall described in his framing presentation, there are two immense transitions underway in American cities. Baby boomers are retiring and transitioning out of their single-family homes at the same time that millennials are forming households yet staying renters for longer. Chicagoland has a unique opportunity to take advantage of what Pendall called the “boomer-millennial handoff” to build on our existing infrastructure and housing stock to meet the needs of our changing population.

Pendall provided an exciting new lens to discuss demographic trends and their impact on the built environment. Too often, infill and sprawl are discussed in boring terms by urban and transportation planners when, as Pendall described, these trends actually impact aging, diversity, access, commuting and quality of life. So, what policies can we adopt to make infill development a reality in Chicagoland?

As mayor of the Village of Skokie, George Van Dusen has supported rapid redevelopment of the city’s downtown area, which was in need of new investment. Following the success of a multi-tenant research and development park in the downtown area, Skokie leaders embraced an effective plan for implementing incentive programs for further revitalization, which includes streetscaping, increased walkability and bike friendliness and looking into the expansion of existing tech parks.

Similarly, Mayor Tom Weisner of Aurora made the case to his residents that the downtown density of Aurora needed to “grow up”—in other words, the height and density of new developments in the area needed to increase. Similar to Mayor Van Dusen, Mayor Weisner believes that as Aurora residents become more and more attracted to downtown living, the demand for centralized housing units increases, only furthering the city’s commitment to infill redevelopment.

With strong political support, planning and the adoption of critical policies and programs, both Skokie and Aurora have made great strides toward revitalizing their downtowns and attracting new residents and small businesses.

Even with strong leaders and policies, is there a market to support infill development? Mary Ellen Martin answered this question by showcasing a few of Morningside Group’s successful residential projects in the western suburbs of Elmhurst, Wheaton and Oak Brook that are proposed or being constructed. Not only do these projects draw residents in by providing a place to live, work and play, but they also provide an opportunity to upgrade existing and often outdated city infrastructure. In one example, she didn’t have comparable sales or buildings since the city hadn’t built multifamily rental in more than 35 years yet, as Pendall pointed out, there is an increased demand for rental housing across both Chicagoland and the U.S.

Infill development is not without its hurdles and challenges, from community and resident opposition to building height and urbanization to economic hurdles, such as high land costs and utility infrastructure fees. In order to overcome these hurdles and receive acceptance by community members, the proposed project must be a good fit by way of design, scale and overall aesthetics within the surrounding community. We must work together as a region to tackle these challenges together because the benefits far outweigh the challenges. From reducing traffic congestion and housing costs to providing amenities to increasing public health and walkability, supporting infill development is one strategy toward building a stronger Chicago region.

MPC thanks Wight and Company and Morningside Group for sponsorsing this event.

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