Monday, September 17, 2007

Parking, New Housing, and a few NIMBY Myths

Show me a new residential development in Hyde Park, and I'll show you a clutch of NIMBYs with a petition against it.

What are the usual NIMBY objections? Well, once you get beyond the rhetorically powerful but empirically dubious claim that new development poses a "danger to our children," somehow putting new housing on the same threat level as Osama Bin Laden, NIMBY opposition to new development typically boils down to the matter-of-fact issues of parking and density.

A mid-rise or high-rise tower, the NIMBY argument goes, will put more cars on the street, adding to the congestion that already exists. Too many people, plus too many cars, means a deterioration in the quality of life that now exists at an ideal point of equilibrium. From this perspective cities, and places within them like Hyde Park, shouldn't have too many people.

Unfortunately for the NIMBY argument, empirical data on household auto ownership show that NIMBYs often get things backwards. Which is why we need to keep a few simple facts in mind when considering NIMBY objections to new development: 1) that greater density of housing leads to less use of automobiles, not more; and 2) that greater density of housing leads to a correspondingly smaller demand for parking.

Here's how we support these assertions. (All figures below are taken from the 2000 US Census.)

In the City of Chicago, according to the 2000 census, 31% of people got to work without a car. They walked, they biked, they they took the train, bus, or shuttle; or they worked from home. This is something that is not possible in most suburban environments, and directly correlates to higher residential densities, because people's homes and jobs tend to be further apart in suburbs.

In the City of Chicago, the average rate of household auto ownership is 0.9. That is slightly less than 1 car per household. This number means that there are a substantial number of Chicago households that do not own a car. In many Chicago neighborhoods, the number of households that do not own a car is between 30 and 40%. In Hyde Park, it is 48%.

In fact, the greater the residential density, the lower the rate of household auto ownership. This is why high-rise housing needs less than 1:1 parking per unit. This is true not only of Chicago, but has been empirically demonstrated in Los Angeles, San Francisco, places like Metro DC and Arlington County, and, of course, New York City. Similar trends are detectable in the urban cores of most older US cities. The research suggests that it is probably a very general rule of urban life. This becomes clear if we look at comparable rates in nearby suburbs.

In a suburban community like Downers Grove, for example, the number of households without a car is only 9%. In Elmhurst, 6%. In Highland Park, 4%. In Wilmette, 2%. Returning to Hyde Park, the number jumps to 48%.

What You Get with Suburbia

Clearly, we don't need the same ratios of parking per household as are found in the suburbs. And if we build for those ratios, we would guarantee that more cars would be on the street. As far as congestion goes, adding parking is like adding a lane to the expressway: upping supply only ups demand.

The upshot of all this is that, in an urban environment with sufficient non-auto modes of transportation like Chicago -- safe and accessible pedestrian ways, bike lanes, public transportation, cabs, paratransit -- it is possible to build in such a way as to reduce the need to drive, thereby reducing auto congestion. Where people have alternatives -- in dense urban environments -- they drive less. Beyond a certain point, not owning a car actually becomes a feasible option for many city households. I know people who don't own cars. I even know some who don't even drive. You may, too.

What's more, all of these numbers used to be much higher before the onset of suburbanization. The critics of density within city limits have a poor appreciation for local history. Chicago's population has steadily dropped until quite recently, when it began to stabilize due to immigration. Looking at just Hyde Park, we see a drop in population of 34% between 1960 and 2000, or a decline of about 22,000 people.

There are 22,000 fewer people in Hyde Park than there were just 40 some years ago! That is the size of a small town, and similar trends are to be identified across the City and region. Neither Hyde Park nor the City are likely to ever reach these levels again, but this was the population level when Hyde Park was the prosperous, well-served neighborhood that old timers (really old timers) remember. Given this demographic history, the argument that Hyde Park can't support more density simply falls apart.

Hyde Park, like most of Chicago, was built to house far, far more people than it does today. In fact, as an economic and cultural system, Chicago is much more efficient where it has managed to preserve levels of density closer to those of the pre-suburbanization period. More households mean more property taxes, which means a higher tax base, which means better schools and services; it means more transit riders, which means more operating revenue for the CTA, and fewer budget crises; it means more people on the street, which means greater safety; and it means larger markets, which means more and better shopping close by.

Does this add up to a threat to our children? Hardly. Does it add up to more congestion? No. The NIMBY argument is a knee-jerk reaction to change with no basis in fact. The push by neighborhood groups for lower density and more parking means that NIMBYs are pushing suburban conditions in an urban environment, resulting in the worst of both worlds.

What NIMBYs don't point out in their petitions is that the suburban conditions that they long for come with a host of their own problems: greater auto usage, even worse congestion, worsened air quality, higher rates of household spending on transportation, and higher greenhouse gas emissions.

Does this sound like an acceptable vision of the common good?


Elizabeth Fama said...

Does the 2000 census count University students? That would contribute a lot to the low HP car numbers, wouldn't it?

People who worry about congestion may be assuming that new residents will move into the neighborhood already owning two giant SUVs (a common American affliction). But even if that's the case, it wouldn't take many months of living in HP for the new people to figure out they're not using their second car, and to get rid of it.

SR said...

Here’s the thing about low density in Hyde Park though. It’s a fully intentional thing, built into the infrastructure of the neighborhood by the urban renewal policies carried out by the U of C years ago. As a matter of fact I own one of the single-family townhouses that replaced apartment blocks back when (in 1965 in the case of my house; all of those townhouses along 55th, 54th & 57th Streets and on Kimbark north of 53rd date from the same era and were part of the renewal agenda to force housing prices up and poor people out by drastically reducing the amount of available housing).

The condo developments you’ve been talking about that are under consideration or in progress now only amount to at most fewer than a hundred units. (Though I’m only aware of the proposed one on the old McDonald’s site on 53rd, and another one where all the storefronts have been bought up and emptied on the East side of the IC tracks on 53rd; maybe there are more than that being planned. I haven’t heard any protests about the latter development, I’ve been thinking the developers may have stumbled on the housing bubble burst or something). It doesn’t seem to me like they’re enough to make much of a difference one way or another in terms of shopping, public transit use, etc.

I poked around online to see how much denser the kinds of neighborhoods you’ve been comparing Hyde Park unfavorably to are, and it’s like 10,000 more people per square mile (as your numbers in this article also indicate) in places like Bucktown. Where are we supposed to put these extra people? It’s not like we have a lot of empty lots around the neighborhood; everything’s either apartment buildings, condo-ized apartment buildings, or individually-owned single family homes like mine (and I’m not going anywhere).

The University has already revealed its strategy for increasing the housing stock in the neighborhood for faculty and staff, and they’ve gone horizontal rather than vertical, building the condo developments on 47th & 63rd and offering U of C people special financing on them. At the moment the U of C strikes me as the only actor in the neighborhood with the actual power to tear things down and replace them with taller things on the kind of scale you’d need to return to the higher density you’re talking about (reputedly they own about 60% of the property in Hyde Park), but evidently they aren’t interested in doing that. It’s possible that in fact the U of C administrators have never changed their philosophy about preventing Hyde Park from being a “destination” neighborhood as a basic security measure for the campus.

So I guess my question is, how do you get from A to B under these circumstances, and where is the tipping point (assuming anybody knows)?

Elizabeth Fama said...

I can think of three other proposed developments (the first two were initially opposed by neighbors, don't know their status):
1) the church on Blackstone and 57th
2) a tower on Cornell, east of Bret Harte
3) the Shoreland.

C-Pop, can you name some others?

I have a similar gut impression that the U of C is tentative about encouraging a beefing up of housing, so they try to sponsor "safe" projects, which may have little immediate impact on the housing stock (but may have a longer-run impact if they succeed in stretching the definition of "on campus"). Before they bought Doctor's Hospital, I thought it would have made a great spot for condos.

chicago pop said...

To SR's question: I would argue that the question of where to put people is secondary to, "do you *want* to build for more people? Past and present protest groups have made it clear that they do not. I take issue with this in general, but also in terms of rationale: the arguments are typically that the city can't handle more housing. This is not supported by the facts. Supporters of this argument implicitly sign on to Urban Renewal and its suburbanite model.

Otherwise, you try to do what you can with what we have, and build in a city as if it were a city. To do otherwise is to hollow it out, as we have seen.

Other proposed developments:
*53rd and Kenwood. The McMobil site, where a developer has proposed a tower of, as I recall, 8 stories.
*55th and Cornell, where a much larger building is proposed.
*64th and Stony, as mentioned here:
*Lake Park and 51st (though I don't recall if residential is included in this one)

SR mentions that areas of low density are intentional. This is true. But Hyde Park still has good bones, and is still much denser than most suburban areas. This is why it has low numbers on auto ownership and is relatively well-served by transit. To try to erode this base is, I argue, wrong-headed.

True there's not much space left to build in HP. One of the points that I've been trying to make in various posts is that we need to think about building *around* HP, and that we can't think of the neighborhood as an island anymore.

But more to the point of my last post, the question of "getting from A to B" is distinct from *wanting* to get from A to B.

The McMobil site has spurred a local group to ask for a substantial drop in the scale of the project; expect a parallel request for more parking. Similar objections have been made to the 56th Cornell project, and are likely to arise v-a-v the 55th and Cornell project. Do we want to make as much progress as we can with this handful of projects, or sit back, say the die has been cast, and let stuff happen elsewhere?

James said...

I'm on your side, but a couple of the claims here should probably be portrayed a little differently.

Yes, it is true that car usage goes down when density goes up. But that's car usage per person, not per block. If a block gets denser, the number of cars on the block will probably increase. You can make the argument that Hyde Parkers should embrace density for environmental reasons, that it's good for the region and the planet. But it won't help with finding a free parking space.

Secondly, I know that HP used to have about 50% more people but that's not really the most important fact for discussions about retail. Until the sixties, household size was generally larger. The number of housing units is really a more interesting stat. Housing units will tend to correlate with buying power, I think, better than population because there probably used to be a lot more children in HP.

James said...

On parking, let's reframe the issue by standing back for a second and acknowledging what street parking is. Which, if any, of these assertions should be disputed?

1. The City of Chicago owns its residential streets.
2) Therefore, the city owns the parking spaces on those streets.
3) The city would be within its rights to charge whatever it wanted for street parking.
4) The city, without really thinking about it, has decided, generally, not to charge for street parking, but rather to give it away free on a first-come, first-serve basis.
5) When the government gives away a finite resource for free, shortages will develop.

Market-based pricing for street parking would help solve two problems at the same time. It would give the city another source of revenue so that we don't have to keep raising sales or property taxes. And it would "solve" the shortage of parking spaces by spurring the construction of more off-street parking and giving people an incentive to cut down on the number of cars they own. Government subsidization is keeping the market from finding a natural equilibrium.

When people oppose development because of concerns over street parking, we should call those people on what they're doing. They're there to protect their government subsidy of free street parking, something they have no right to expect.

chicago pop said...

James writes: "When people oppose development because of concerns over street parking, we should call those people on what they're doing. They're there to protect their government subsidy of free street parking, something they have no right to expect."

So well said, I may have to quote you on this at some point. Parking is a commodity and should be traded at market rates. I intend to post some reflections drawn from Donald Shoup when this issue next comes up.

Household, rather than brute population stats are probably a more refined way to get at the
trends we're discussing, it's true.

chicago pop said...

James writes: "Yes, it is true that car usage goes down when density goes up. But that's car usage per person, not per block."

In fact, it's true for households, rather than persons, and means that a new development that is well situated to enable reduced trip taking by car (for groceries, or work) can slice 30% of its on-site parking, if not more. If done well, it might not put additional cars on curbs at all.

curtsy said...

To but quibble, C-Pop -- when you have referred to the "55th/Cornell" project do you really mean 53rd/Cornell (which I believe the developer, L3, also holds the option on the McMobile/X-Mas Tree Crossing site)? There IS powerful logic in building highrises adjacent to the Metra stations along Cornell. However, one would reasonably suspect that the traffic volume using Cornell as a thru street would increase. This could be problematic at 56th Street/Cornell and where Cornell jogs at 51st Street.

chicago pop said...

Yes, scratch the 55th/Cornell and replace with 53rd/Cornell on our list of pending developments. Another site: Shiloh Baptist Church on the 4900 block of Dorchester has also come up as a condo conversion a few times.

As far as increased traffic around residential towers on Cornell, in the case of buildings that close to transit, most of the trip generation would probably be off-peak, and therefore not the source of nightmarish congestion that lots of neighbors get nervous about. It is possible to have tall buildings on narrow streets. Street parking is tight, but traffic moves. 25% of most household trips by car are for work and if you're taking the train and shopping on foot, you're basically not adding many cars to the street.

pc said...

Elizabeth, yes, students are counted by the Census. Everyone reported where they live as of 1 April 2000, and for many UC students that was Hyde Park. However, I will say that I talked with the census taker at my dorm that spring, and he said he'd only gotten a few responses.

Great post, and great work you're doing -- from an admirer in Bucktown, where the six-flats are still being bulldozed to build monster single-family houses.

Peter Rossi said...

this is a wonderful statistic!!!

you have caught the NIMBY's doing what they do best- ignore the facts