10-10-2013 03:56 PM

Chicago in Plan: An Insiders’ Discourse on City’s History, Challenges Ahead

Chicago has experienced a dramatic revival in the past two decades, rising from a Rustbelt city on the brink of bankruptcy during the 1981–1982 recession to the powerful global metropolis it is today. Indeed, the transformation has been astonishing: the city boldly conceived Millennium Park, promoted a 24/7 downtown, developed high-density residential communities, and tore down failed public housing projects wholesale. Developers and city planners played a major role in this renaissance, designing a built environment that has helped propel Chicago into the realm of “global cities,” ranked as high as seventh in a 2012 survey by A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm.
But as our recent book Planning Chicago (American Planning Association, April 2013) argues, Chicago cannot rest on these accomplishments. Indeed, sustaining the gains of recent years may be difficult. It is important to understand not only the development history and planning behind Chicago’s successes, but also the challenges facing its growth.
The Story of McCormick Place
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Start with the venue for the 2013 ULI Fall Meeting—McCormick Place, the nation’s largest convention center, with 2.7 million square feet (251,000 sq m) of space. In the past two decades, McCormick has been expanded with an impressive campus that now includes the recently expanded Hyatt Regency McCormick Place hotel and the West Building, which provides mid-sized conference facilities. Yet, McCormick Place remains oddly disconnected from the city’s main urban fabric, hobbled by poor planning in the selection of the initial site. The lakefront location—chosen in 1956 at the insistence of Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick and over the objections of the Chicago Plan Commission, which wanted to preserve the lakefront for public use—offers a picturesque venue, but the choice left the complex disconnected from major transit facilities and the city’s prominent downtown neighborhood, the Loop. A light-rail proposal fell through in 1996 amid political squabbling, leading McCormick Place officials to spend roughly $100 million on a dedicated roadway connecting the convention center to North Michigan Avenue, limited exclusively to private hotel shuttle buses.
McCormick Place.

Opportunities are readily apparent for reviving the area as a full-service convention district, and a recently revived McCormick leadership has begun condemnation proceedings to acquire and assist development of a large new convention hotel and a stadium to be jointly developed with DePaul University. A new station on the nearby Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Green Line is under construction and will replace one that was torn out in an earlier era focused on expressways. One block to the west is “Motor Row,” a collection of former auto showrooms that is ripe for development into the type of food and entertainment district found in other cities. Finally, Cermak Road leads right to Chinatown, only six blocks away. It is not difficult to envision a thriving, walkable convention district that is well connected to the urban fabric.
North of McCormick Place is Chicago’s Near South area, which has undergone a complete makeover during the residential boom of the previous decade. The area is anchored by Central Station, built over the past decade on reclaimed railroad land and now the largest urban mixed-use residential community in the United States. Tax increment financing (TIF) helped fund needed strategic infrastructure investments including the extension of Roosevelt Road and the reconfiguration of Lake Shore Drive, both of which were cornerstones to the “Museum Campus,” a now-pedestrian-friendly park that links the Field Museum of Natural History, the John G. Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. Planning and key public infrastructure—along with bold developer vision—paved the way to the transformation of the Near South area of Chicago.
Using Railroad Resources
The reuse of railroad land has been critical. Chicago’s downtown urban renaissance did not require massive federal urban renewal land assembly. The 1958 Development Plan for the Central Area specifically called for most of the development that one sees today. And the 1966 Comprehensive Plan of Chicago, which reflected fears of “white flight” from the city and proposed aggressive public and private residential plans to counter it, made planned communities on railroad land a key part of the city’s strategy. The development industry responded with a series of innovative and successful master-planned communities. The list of developments on former railroad land now includes (from south to north) Dearborn Park, Dearborn Station, Illinois Center, Lakeshore East, Marina City, River East, and others. In essence, Chicago has replaced its 19th-century railroad heritage with a 21st-century urban community—an effort made possible, in part, by pioneering city air rights zoning legislation, foresighted planning, and innovative master-planned central area residential communities.
Indeed, in and around the Loop one sees new residential construction everywhere; condominiums were built during the past economic expansion, and apartments are going up in the current one. A reported 13 projects are in development, which will add more than 4,400 units to the market. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago’s central area gained more residents over the past decade than any other downtown in the country, with the bureau reporting that more than 180,000 residents live within two miles (3.2 km) of City Hall.
Other bold moves supported by public/private investment have also mattered. Take, for example, Millennium Park. The visionary park—also built on railroad land, with a train line still running beneath it—features many dramatic, large-scale sculptures like Cloud Gate (known locally as “the Bean”), designed by British artist Anish Kapoor. During the park’s construction, editorialists grumbled that the park was overblown and overbudget, but Chicago philanthropists picked up $130 million of the $500 million cost, and, upon completion in 2004 criticisms evaporated as the park triggered a new wave of civic pride. New tourism soon followed, as did hotel development and the conversion of Class C office buildings to residential use. Hotel growth waned during the Great Recession but has since returned, with more hotel rooms under development in the Loop than in any other U.S. city—over 4,400 in the latest surveys, including 1,200 in predevelopment planning near McCormick Place. (See “*Checking In,” beginning on page 76.)
There is more to credit for Chicago’s transformation than tourism. As in some other growing cities, “eds and meds” have been a boon to Chicago. In this city, it has been not just the elite schools—the University of Chicago and the medical schools of Northwestern and Rush universities—driving growth, but also a range of local schools that have clustered in the south Loop and turned the area into one giant urban campus. The Chicago Loop Alliance, a special service area (SSA) organization serving the historic core of the city centered on State Street, estimates that over 50,000 students attend the downtown campuses of schools like Roosevelt University, DePaul University, Loyola University, and Columbia College. Investment in education infrastructure has completely transformed the south Loop, with the authors’ institution, Roosevelt University, constructing a 32-story “vertical campus” in 2012 that is visible from the lakefront.
Still, the core economic engine for the central area has always been the white-collar employment represented in the office market. After several quiet years, multiple office buildings are now being proposed, mostly clustered near the river and the suburban commuter rail stations. The 2004 zoning reform intended this shift to take advantage of vacant parking lots located there and to focus new high-density development closest to rail transit.
The Strain on Transit
Buckingham Fountain

All this new development has strained the city’s transit systems, and a major challenge for Chicago in the 21st century will be modernizing and adding capacity to them. The density and scale of transit activities, including commuter rail, CTA elevated and subway lines, and CTA bus routes, is evident throughout the city, but particularly in the central area where most workers use transit for their daily commute. Among U.S. cities, only New York City has more commuters who use transit, according to a first-quarter 2013 report from the American Public Transportation Association.
But these systems are now running at capacity during rush hours. The CTA’s Red Line and Brown Line trains, for instance, are so crowded that many riders must watch trains pass by in the mornings, while Union Station, which serves suburban rail commuters, has run out of platform capacity. Venturing near Union Station around 5 p.m., one will quickly notice sidewalks overflowing as commuters scurry to catch trains.
Chicago’s Central Area Plan (2003) and the much-delayed follow-on implementation plan, the Central Area Action Plan (2009), both recommended significant new transit investments to support continued office employment expansion and residential growth. Billions of dollars’ worth of new investments is needed, but the funding future is uncertain. Continued economic vitality downtown will require a new subway tunnel in the west Loop (that will also connect the two commuter rail stations, now oddly separated) and expanded station capacity for high-speed rail.
In the meantime, Chicago is investing in far less expensive bike infrastructure. Beyond the designation of more than 200 miles (323 km) of bike lanes, the city has recently joined the bike-sharing movement. In June 2013, the city rolled out “Divvy Bike,” with short-term rental kiosks through the city. The city’s terrain and roads are ideal for cycling, though culture clashes between cyclists and auto owners persist. (See “Chicago’s New Bloomingdale Trail,” Urban Land, July/August 2013.)
Between downtown residential development and bike sharing, Chicago is increasingly reflecting a European style of urban space, with high-priced homes and offices in the core and more modest and even poor communities in the surrounding neighborhoods. Yet, vast swaths of empty land and abandoned homes remain on the city’s west and south sides. The 2010 census indicates a continued citywide population decline, losing more than 180,000 black residents in particular since 2000. This followed the exhilarating news of the 1990s, when the city gained more than 110,000 new residents after decades of decline. That growth was largely driven by Hispanic immigration, which has slowed in the post-9/11 era and thanks to recession.
The city has a challenging decision-making environment, especially when it comes to planning and development. “Aldermanic privilege”—the practice of giving each of Chicago’s 50 aldermen exclusive power over zoning decisions in their wards—creates uncertainty over property rights and stifles broader planning efforts. This framework is complicated by a weak executive planning function—the current department does not even have “planning” in its title and is operating with 40 percent fewer resources than it did in the pre–Great Recession era. Chicago’s last comprehensive plan was done in 1966—nearly 50 years ago—and much planning now is being funded by individual TIF districts, resulting in a further splintering of the planning function. The good news, however, is that the underlying economic vitality of the region helps the city overcome these obstacles much better than many other Rustbelt cities have managed, but as we argue in Planning Chicago, these obstacles are still a needless constraint on the global ambitions and potential of the city.

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