What makes NIMBY-watching interesting, aside from it's year-round nature, are the ways in which its advocates present their arguments as common-sensical, when they are usually without much empirical justification.
A case in point is the petition printed in this week's Herald (September 19, 2007), truly a classic of its genre, and intending to convince Alderman Toni Preckwinkle that four strictures should be obeyed in the development of the McMobil site on 53rd Street. The petition is brought to us by a returning guest, Ms. Jill White, who formerly appeared in "Keeping Vacant Lots Vacant," and is now backed up by roaming NIMBY-at-large, Jack Spicer.
In this case, the petitioners are intent to 1) increase congestion by allowing more cars on the block rather than fewer; 2) make the development of new housing less affordable; and 3) bring in fewer new homeowners to pay property taxes to support local schools and shop at local businesses.
Two of the suggested strictures, surprisingly, are reasonable. The remaining two, unfortunately, are ridiculous. Let's take a look at them.
The 50 foot maximum height allowance under current law will prevent the excessive blocking of sunlight from nearby homes, keep the increase in population density to a manageable level, and will allow the project to blend well with the existing buildings on either side of the lot. It will also help to keep traffic light, particularly at the risky crosswalk at Kenwood Avenue, and in the alley that connects Kenwood and Kimbark (already frequently blocked by delivery vehicles).Editorial Comment: All of the stated reasons why the proposed building should be kept to 4 stories/50 feet are arbitrary. The "manageable level" of population density referred to is not specified. Presumably it means not so many as to bug the neighbors who live there now. We've laid out a lot of reasons on this blog why Hyde Park can and should support more household density. This petition makes no reasoned case to the contrary and should not be taken seriously unless it does.
As for the idea of "blending well with the...buildings on either side of the lot," this is laudable in general, but is here being advocated in a partisan sense. Hyde Park is full of 8, 10, 12 story buildings beside 4 stories buildings. Something similar at this site would therefore be quite in keeping with architectural precedents in the neighborhood. Here's a home-made map of where these taller buildings are located in relation to the McMobil site:
Unless one does some arbitrary height-based jerrymandering, any definition of the "character of the neighborhood" based on a 50 ft. height limit does not unambiguously apply to the McMobil site. It is not justified by the current pattern of land-use in the area.
Insisting on at least 1.5 parking spots per residential unit. This will ensure that available street parking -- already strained to the maximum -- will not be further taxed, and that automobile traffic will not increase to a point that it puts the safety of school children crossing the street into Nichols Park at risk.
Editorial Comment: It's rather curious the way school children always pop up in these petitions, threatened by lack of sunlight, cruel and oppressive walls, racing cars, or any number of other NIMBY demons. We would point out, purely as an aside, that congestion tends to slow things down, most likely making it safer for children, and that cars drive faster in lower density areas. But that is beside the point. The insanity here is the idea that parking ratios should be increased to 1.5 spots per unit from the current requirement of 1:1.
In the Code rewrite of 2004, every progressive urban planning organization in the Chicago region pressed very hard to keep this ratio at a maximum of 1 to 1, based on extensive research showing that lower ratios reduce congestion and discourage auto use. Lots of progressive urban planners would have liked to have seen an even lower ratio than that. In fact, the City average is already less than 1:1, as we pointed out in a previous post. So what makes the petitioners think it should be different here, in a dense urban neighborhood served by transit where lots of folks don't even own cars? What NIMBYs don't realize is that these higher ratios guarantee more cars, not less.
The crowning irony of these strictures is that they are very likely to discourage anything from getting built at this site. This shouldn't be surprising, as obstructionism by now is a time-honored local specialty of Hyde Park NIMBYs.
By upping the parking, and downscaling the building, the petitioners have simultaneously increased the developer's costs, and lowered the developer's revenues. Not only this, these strictures discourage what little prospect there already is for moderately affordable new housing, because whatever gets built will be more expensive than it would were the building taller. The developer thus has every reason to build on as much of the lot as is allowed, leaving less room for a back-yard and green space.
So there you have it. As stated above, our petitioners ask us to demand a development that would 1) increase congestion by allowing more cars on the block; 2) drive up the unit selling prices; and 3) bring fewer new shoppers into our neighborhood to support local business and fewer homeowners to pay property taxes to support local schools.
Way to go, Jack and Jill.