As Chicago grows around its transit systems, the city is working to ensure that development can expand equity of access rather than contract it.

Transit-oriented development (TOD) allows cities to grow, building the population of residential neighborhoods and creating new mixed-use community centers without increasing pollution or congestion. It encourages infill construction and increases connections to jobs. Unfortunately, it also raises the prospect of displacement; investment in central cities is often associated with rising rents and changing demographics.

In Chicago, we’re working to address both issues: Not only do we want to grow our city around our transit system, but we also want to make sure that TOD can expand equity of access rather than contract it.

What is undeniable is that our city’s neighborhoods, like those of many cities around the country, need growth. While Chicago’s downtown is growing rapidly, most of the city—including the wealthy communities on the North Side—has actually lost population over the past decade. Indeed, our city as a whole has about 900,000 fewer inhabitants than it did in 1950.

At fault are declining household sizes and suburban growth, trends experienced in many cities, but also limitations on new construction, particularly in areas near our transit system. Outside of downtown, more than 50% of land near our transit system is zoned for buildings of about two stories or fewer. And some 98% of residential areas in the city require at least one parking space per housing unit completed, significantly increasing costs of construction and encouraging car dependency.

Zoning Limitations

50% More than 50% of land near our transit system is zoned for buildings of about two stories or fewer.

As a result, we’ve experienced a declining tax base and fewer people to support local jobs in retail and services. We’re also seeing increased inequality: As jobs and people have moved out of the city to areas only accessible by car, the ability of low-income households to find jobs is limited, and this problem is worsened when fewer jobs are within an easy commute by bus or train.

One way to address this problem is to encourage TOD by reforming regulations, streamlining City review and offering new incentives to encourage affordability. The Metropolitan Planning Council’s new TOD Calculator offers a first-of-its-kind tool to help communities and developers have a shared understanding of how new development on sites across Chicago can support local retail, build the municipal tax base and encourage affordable housing. Users can input information about a proposed building and get results specific to the demographics and conditions of the relevant neighborhood.

However, for TOD to happen, zoning regulations have to support dense, mixed-use construction around our transit system. Last month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a major zoning proposal that, if passed by City Council, would allow more density and require significantly less parking on development sites near transit. Initial estimates by MPC suggest that these reforms could attract up to 70,000 new housing units to areas near transit over the next 20 years, and add $200 million in local annual tax revenues.

All these new housing units will help limit the impact of TOD on displacement.

All these new housing units will help limit the impact of TOD on displacement. By encouraging an increase in supply to meet the clear demand to live near transit, new development will lessen rent increases in existing apartments. In cities from Austin, Tex. to Washington, D.C., this type of construction has been shown to limit the rise in housing prices.

The ordinance also would include a significant inclusionary zoning component, providing a bonus for that would allow developments to be denser if 10 percent or more of its housing is affordable. This change will help add housing opportunities for low-income families in neighborhoods with excellent access to jobs, transportation and amenities. It will ensure that more of our region’s jobs are located in places near transit—giving people with and without automobiles the ability to get to work.

This is a great first step, and it will put Chicago at the forefront of communities working to make TOD the default planning paradigm. But more is necessary to address concerns about displacement.

A city TOD point person is needed to shepherd major projects through what can be a time-consuming, expensive and risky City review process. This person should be focused on encouraging developers to build affordable units into their buildings and should lead a sustained civic collaborative working for equitable TOD.

Simultaneously, Chicago is in need of new financing tools designed explicitly to encourage TOD, similar to those already in use in the Bay Area and Denver. These should be focused on affordable housing in expensive and gentrifying neighborhoods to address the need to build integrated communities, and on retail and other community amenities in predominantly low-income neighborhoods that currently lack them.

Combined with the regulatory reforms already under way, these changes will help grow Chicago in a way that not only encourages access to opportunity through transit but also addresses concerns about displacement. Well-planned development near transit is just one element of a broader effort to build a more equitable society, but it can play an important role in shaping the way we grow so that it benefits everyone. Chicago is a case study in how to approach this issue from a comprehensive perspective.

Photo: Chicago 2011 by railsr4m3, Flickr. CC by SA-2.0.