Chicago’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance, originally passed in 2013 and refined and expanded since then, was meant to incentivize development and densification. The ordinance, which functioned primarily by reducing or eliminating parking requirements for multifamily and retail development near the city’s train (and later bus) lines, was successful in spurring development along high-traffic transit lines like the Blue and Red Lines on Chicago’s north side. But as development accelerated, valuations and rents rose higher and higher, contributing to gentrifying displacement, while other areas of the city didn’t see the same level of economic opportunity.

A bikeshare station near 1611 W Division in Chicago. Chicago’s TOD plan incentivized low-car development but critics want to see greater equity in future densification. (Logan Nagel)

Now, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully in the rearview mirror, a group of Chicago planners, policymakers, and community stakeholders developed a transit-oriented development plan for the 2020s. The city’s new Equitable Transit Oriented Development Plan, published in June of this year and driven largely by the mayor’s office and the community collective Elevated Chicago, might be a little closer to what the original TOD plan should have looked like. The plan’s purpose is to explore ways to stimulate development particularly in the south and west sides of the city.

Hear more about eTOD at the 2021 ULI Fall Meeting in Chicago.

The plan’s numerous suggestions, such as increasing bike parking, expanding the TOD radius from a quarter mile to a half mile around transit stops, and a number of incentives and regulations aimed at promoting affordable housing development, are still a ways off from becoming policy. But the direction the city is taking with development, both conceptually and geographically, is now clear to see.

According to Drew Williams-Clark, managing director of urban resilience at Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, a sustainable development non-profit and member organization of Elevated Chicago, “the vast majority of Chicago TOD development has been on the north and northwest sides, Blue Line and Red Line. What we are concerned about is how do you harness the upmarket to ensure that investment accrues to who needs it? What we are not great at is making sure that transit reliant people, primarily people of color and with low income, get what they need.”

While eTOD seeks to bring densification to other parts of the city, one of the things that the plan aims to avoid is spreading Chicago’s north side luxury-centric TOD development throughout the city. To that end, the neighborhoods that the eTOD plan hopes to spur development should, ideally, look more blended than purely luxury or just affordable. Economically mixed areas stay attainable for lower income residents while remaining attractive to those with more flexibility. In turn, these areas remain more attractive for developers, retailers, and employers.

Mixed areas are also more resilient than homogeneous ones. Take Chicago’s transit ridership, for instance. According to research from the Illinois Regional Transportation Authority, transit ridership took a nosedive due to the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, as workers particularly on the north side moved to remote schedules. Of those people who kept on riding the buses and trains, the majority have been typically lower income and essential workers located largely on the south side.

More resilient neighborhoods see residents commuting in a range of different ways. Says Hugh Bartling, associate professor and director of the Sustainable Urban Development program at DePaul University, “the more transit variety you have will allow you to withstand challenges that are unexpected. Look at hurricanes flooding the New York subways. There will always be things you can’t anticipate. The greater extent to which you can rely on different modalities for moving around, the better.”

Chicago’s eTOD plan could be a solution to many of these challenges. But neighborhoods more economically mixed than Wicker Park and Logan Square will need some sort of geographic glue, an anchor that is more accessible than  upscale retail. And while green spaces are one option, associated with lower crime and plenty of other positive outcomes, they tend to take up a lot of space and can themselves displace residents.

Chicago’s Milwaukee Ave. Vibrant TOD districts need a solid anchor to draw attention and investment. (Logan Nagel)

The option that might be best-suited to fit the needs of Chicago’s eTOD future is the community center. These can be large or small and go by a range of names to fit the needs of the neighborhood. They can offer a wide range of programming and serve as venues for remote work, classes, parties, and beyond. And perhaps most importantly, they’re attractive to people all along the socioeconomic spectrum. In order to incentivize this kind of development, the eTOD plan suggests zoning restrictions be relaxed for vacant land near transit stops.

In fact, the previous administration under Mayor Rahm Emanuel was particularly interested in promoting branch library expansion, which led to a number of co-located affordable housing/library projects around the city. Evergreen Real Estate Group developed two of these projects, combining affordable senior housing with library branches in Irving Park and West Ridge. The projects received tax credit support but did not take advantage of TOD incentives.

Evergreen’s director of development David Block told me that the property they developed was the first permanent library in the neighborhood, after the local branch’s previous small storefront was destroyed in a fire years before. He explained that co-locating with a public library, as opposed to building a private library like some luxury buildings do, benefits the community while providing a resource to the residents as well. “A privately developed and funded library may or may not get used,” he said. “It is entirely dependent on who lives there and if anyone wants to go there and take advantage of it. The public library, on the other hand, is a true neighborhood resource.”

eTOD anchors need not be libraries. Williams-Clark pointed to the Bronzeville example of the former Anthony Overton Elementary School site as an example of a neighborhood anchor community center done right. “The Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative has established a locus around Overton Elementary School,” he said. “They have reclaimed that building with a giant asset map mural of the community, and they offer community programming, economic mobility classes, and other services from that space.”

Block added, “Developers could look into adding park district facilities. If you think about a luxury building with a pool and other amenities, it has many of the same facilities as the typical park district field house. You get luxury scale amenities for your building but it is free and open to the public, and that is where equitable comes from.” Once again, this type of project adds a perk for residents and is an activity magnet for the broader community.

Chicago’s eTOD plan is a step in the direction of better, more vibrant neighborhoods. And it includes explicit mention of support for local community organizations and small businesses, just the types of stakeholders likely to help run the community centers Chicago needs. Now, it’s up to Chicago’s development community to decide how they fit into a new generation of Chicago eTOD that is more than just luxury apartments and trendy restaurants.

Hear more about eTOD at the 2021 ULI Fall Meeting in Chicago.