Chicago’s first Equitable Transit-Oriented Development plan is moving toward implementation - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Chicago’s first Equitable Transit-Oriented Development plan is moving toward implementation

Spanning two mayoral administrations, 18 months, over 80 voices, and a pandemic, the Director of Community Development and Engagement Kendra Freeman writes that Chicago's new ETOD plan offers a path toward equity in transit-centered development. 

Image courtesy Rudd Resources

If you love where you live, it may be because your neighborhood was designed to connect you to what you need. Transit-oriented development is a common urban planning term that can feel like an abstract mouthful, but the idea is simple: promoting mixed-use development near transit improves people’s lives. Living and working within close access to transit and amenities saves people money, expands their access to opportunity and jobs, supports thriving businesses, and improves people’s health.

Given the many benefits, building up the areas around transit hubs across our city and region should be a no brainer, right?  Well, not exactly. While transit-oriented development is happening, it hasn’t been equitable. In Chicago, place matters. Residential segregation has a lasting impact on local housing and commercial markets and evidence shows that transit-centric development, while the smartest way to grow, can exacerbate the economic divides across our deeply segregated city.  In an evaluation of recent transit-oriented development projects[i], the City of Chicago found that 90% of new transit-oriented development was built on Chicago’s North side, Northwest side, Downtown and the West Loop. Practically speaking, this means that neighborhoods in strong, stable markets get stronger while investments bypass South and West side neighborhoods with more market challenges despite the transit assets they hold.

The solution? We have to change the systems and policies that hold inequities in place.  Equitable Transit-Oriented Development starts with applying an equity lens to transit-oriented development, in order to ensure that people throughout our region enjoy the benefits of this positive development practice.

Why are we talking about Equitable Transit-Oriented Development right now in Chicago?

On September 15th, the City of Chicago released its first-ever plan for Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD). The report was produced by the City of Chicago in partnership with Elevated Chicago, a consortium of seventeen organizations working to advance racial equity, climate resilience, and health in development of Chicago’s transit-served communities.

A working group of over 80 city staff, community leaders, developers and policy advocates participated in creation of the plan over an 18-month period. Because equitable transit-oriented development is only as strong as the community input that informs it, the City’s ETOD plan was shared for open public comment until October 29. The City will take this feedback into account in finalizing the plan and moving to implementation.

What’s special about this Equitable Transit-Oriented Development plan?

The plan is organized by three strategic priorities. Here’s what you need to know:

Build City capacity: Coordination, Reporting, and Community Engagement

The City employed an interdepartmental strategy to develop the plan. This structure should inform coordination and collaboration on future projects. Annual reporting on development outcomes will increase transparency and help to measure progress on equity goals. There is also an opportunity to create some standards for ongoing community engagement as recommendations are tested on different projects.  

Make ETOD more required, easy, and more equitable:

Policy should enable mixed use development near transit hubs. That means evolving from a one size fits all model to applying market-based interventions that support affordability where needed and economic development in underinvested areas. Support for small business and community-based developers is important as well as creating equity measures to address who benefits from and who develops projects.

Make ETOD a pillar of the citywide planning process:

As the City prepares for a comprehensive planning process ETOD should be a central component. Related policies such as the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, Neighborhood Design Guidelines, Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, Stormwater Ordinance, and Building Code could positively or negatively impact the desired outcomes of a citywide plan and should be reviewed and revised to align with citywide goals for equitable development. 

What’s the backstory behind Equitable Transit-Oriented Development in Chicago?

In 2013, the City of Chicago passed a Transit-Oriented Development ordinance, but the rule centered heavily on train stations, excluding wide swaths of the city where bus travel is more common. In 2019 an amendment was passed, expanding transit-oriented development benefits to the land around key bus routes. As part of the 2019 package, the City committed to conducting an analysis of projects that benefited from TOD incentives and to build out recommendations that addressed gaps that reflect racial and economic disparities.

How did this plan come to life?

The City’s ETOD plan is the result of hard work by over 80 people, across two mayoral administrations, over 18 months, including a switch to virtual covenings during the pandemic. The final document includes over 50 recommendations, vetted using an evaluation criteria that included a rubric for equity impact, and implementation impact. Targeted outcomes included anti-displacement, climate resilience, community investment, desegregation, economic growth and recovery, health equity, and wealth building. MPC and Elevated Chicago worked with both administrations from strengthening the ordinance language to include an equity framework to designing a collaborative process to develop the plan.

Partnership with Elevated Chicago bought a broader range of voices to the table in crafting the recommendations and shaping the plan. Elevated leveraged resources to provide stipends for community based organizations to fully participate, TOD experts from our SPARCC national network added technical support and capacity, and we added an artist and graphic designer to the team to ensure that workshops were accessible and visually stimulating. These benefits are reflected in the final report which balances infographics with data, images, and easy-to-read tables that highlight the main components of the plan. All of this resulted in press coverage including stories in Chicago Tonight, Block Club, and Streetsblog.

Public comment ended on October 29th but this is just the beginning. The City and the ETOD working group will continue to collaborate to test varied recommendations tailored to specific markets and geographies. Chicago has a great opportunity in moving the ETOD Policy Plan forward.  Thoughtful implementation with strong community partners and a transparent process are integral in maximizing the City’s ability to take advantage of this great opportunity, and will lead to a more complete and equitable development process.

Kendra Freeman serves as co-chair of the Elevated Chicago Steering Committee

[i] City of Chicago September 2020 ETOD Policy Plan

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