Are there successful examples of down-zoning?

Ald. Hairston and her staff claim that there are numerous examples where down-zoning has revived struggling commercial corridors. Unfortunately they have not provided specific details, despite having promised to do so. We have conducted our own research, reviewing zoning maps and consulting with experienced planners. No examples we have found support the proposed down-zoning of 71st Street.

Summary

The existing zoning on 71st Street includes B (business), C (commercial), and PD (Planned Development). Ald. Hairston has proposed changing all of the parcels currently zoned B and C (the PD parcels aren’t included) to RS-3 (single-family residential – among the most restrictive zoning designations). Our research has focused on finding commercial corridors where zoning has been reduced from B and C to RS-3, but we have looked at all potential examples mentioned by supporters of the down-zoning proposal.

The sole remotely comparable example we have found – 35th Street in McKinley Park – is more of a cautionary tale than a model for development. The proposed down-zoning of 71st is not a proven strategy for economic development, but rather an unprecedented use of zoning policy towards alternative ends – and one likely to have unintended negative consequences. With the future of our neighborhood at stake, we believe that this down-zoning should be halted while a comprehensive and collaborative planning process, involving professional planners and meaningful input from the community, takes place.

Sign the petition and attend the 5th Ward Meeting: Tuesday May 23rd, 6pm, Bryn Mawr Community Church (7000 S. Jeffery)

Previous examples

Please see our initial post on this issue for comparisons to East 53rd Street in Hyde Park, East 63rd Street in Woodlawn, West 26th Street in Little Village and Lakeview on the North Side. 53rd, 26th, and numerous streets in Lakeview are all vibrant commercial corridors, all of which carry similar zoning to what 71st Street currently has (B, C, and PD). In contrast, 63rd Street does not, and continues to struggle with vacancy and economic stagnation.

Garfield Park

The Alderman cited Garfield Park as a neighborhood where down-zoning has been used to positive effect, but could not provide a specific street or intersection. We reviewed the zoning for the whole neighborhood, particularly along the main commercial arteries of Madison and Pulaski, and found nothing comparable. And even if we had found comparable examples, Garfield Park is struggling with high levels of disinvestment, crime, and vacancy – hardly a model to be emulated in South Shore.

(As a reminder, these maps were obtained from the terrific 2nd City Zoning website. Business and commercial zoning is blue, industrial is yellow, and green is residential. Darker shades indicate denser or more permissive zoning. Red areas are Planned Developments, which have gone through a special proposal and planning process, including community input, to build a development that would not normally be permitted by an area’s zoning.)

Bronzeville

Bronzeville was the second neighborhood example cited by the Alderman, again without a more specific location named. We reviewed current zoning for all of the neighborhood’s commercial corridors and noted that only 43rd Street has significant stretches zoned residential. 43rd Street was historically a minor commercial corridor compared to 35th and 47th, and it struggles today to attract economic development – once again not an example to be followed on 71st.

West 35th Street, McKinley Park

35th Street in McKinley Park was the only commercial corridor we found that now carries primarily RS-3 zoning. The zoning appears to have been instituted in 2004. Although we aren’t yet positive what designation it previously carried, the history of the neighborhood and the type of architecture tell us that it was built as a commercial artery. In the 13 years since the RS-3 zoning was put in place, economic development has not materialized – despite the fact that McKinley Park is a stable middle- and working-class area with low crime and good transportation. Economic development in the area has instead been confined to big-box developments on Ashland and Archer Avenues. The area of 35th Street that was down-zoned features numerous empty or under-utilized storefronts, and many that have been converted to residences – not a reassuring vision for the future of 71st Street!

Garfield Boulevard, Washington Park

The area immediately west of King Drive on Garfield Blvd. (55th Street) in Washington Park has also been mentioned as an example. However, the majority of this area in fact carries B zoning. The portion of it that is now zoned RS-3 is largely vacant land on the northwest corner, including only a gas station and the Garfield Green Line station. The area is well-known to be a future development site for the University of Chicago, which now controls the majority of the property on these blocks. As with 53rd Street, the influence of the U of C – a strategic developer with enormous resources – makes this an inappropriate comparison to 71st Street. And even if we were to accept this as a relevant example, the idea that an expanse of vacant land is a positive vision for what can be achieved through down-zoning is disturbing, to say the least.

West 47th Street, Back of the Yards

The Back of the Yards community has also apparently experimented with down-zoning on the portion of 47th Street between Western and California. Another historically commercial corridor, it remains about 90% zoned for business and industrial uses. There are a handful of parcels now zoned RS-3, some of which are vacant, and some of which have non-conforming uses grandfathered in. We aren’t sure when or why down-zoning was applied here. (It’s also possible that most of the down-zoning done here simply reduced the allowable density and range of commercial uses, without changing the classification to residential.) At any rate, it is not comparable in scale to Hairston’s proposal, and does not appear to have been a success, given the dearth and low quality of development.

Down-zoning in gentrifying neighborhoods

Logan Square Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has recently been in the news for his “heavy-handed” use of down-zoning in order to control development in one of the hottest corridors in the city, Milwaukee Avenue. Other examples of aldermanic down-zoning that you may have read about recently include East Pilsen and Avondale. (Another example in Wicker Park highlights some of the more worrisome aspects of down-zoning.) These actions are each controversial in their own way, but are not comparable to Ald. Hairston’s in scale, type, or intent:

  • They propose to down-zone individual properties in order to block specific proposed developments, whereas Hairston’s unprecedented proposal would impact dozens of properties along a 1.2 mile stretch on both sides of the street.
  • They mostly do not involve a change of zoning type, just a change in allowed density – unlike Hairston’s proposal. Zoning is a tool to control density, so this is an appropriate application of the law. Changing zoning category in order to gain complete control over businesses, as Hairston proposes, is an “off-label” use of the zoning code, opening up the possibility for unpredictable unintended consequences.
  • These changes have mostly been in response to vocal concern from constituents and community organizations. Hairston made her proposal without meaningful community input.
  • Down-zoning restricts economic activity, and thus is a strategy best used in communities with excessive development. That is not the problem we have in South Shore today.

The North Lakefront in the 1970s

Some supporters of down-zoning have referenced supposedly successful examples in north side lakefront neighborhoods in the 1970s. Indeed, significant down-zoning did take place from Edgewater to the Gold Coast in reaction to the proliferation of four-plus-ones (effectively banned in 1971) and very large apartment towers (largely stalled along the north lakefront by 1979). Much detail can be found in The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago, but a few key points highlight just how different these examples are from what is being proposed on 71st Street:

  • The north lakefront was undergoing a significant development boom during the 1970s, leading developers to build the largest, densest residential buildings they could get away with. None of these circumstances apply to 71st Street today.
  • The opposition to four-plus-ones and apartment towers emerged from active community organizations, which came together to create neighborhood plans and hold aldermen and developers accountable to their visions. This, again, is quite different from how 71st Street is being managed today.
  • Finally, these examples all involved reducing the maximum allowable density of development – not changing its category. Land that was zoned for high-density residential use had its density reduced, but remained residential. Commercial streets were not changed to residential zoning – which is what is currently proposed for 71st Street.

Conclusion

We continue to find no successful and relevant examples of large-scale down-zoning of a commercial corridor to residential. With no evidence to support the proposal to down-zone 71st Street, we call instead for a comprehensive and collaborative planning process, involving professional planners and meaningful input from the community.

Call to Action

Sign the Petition

 

ATTEND the 5th Ward Meeting: Tuesday May 23rd, 6pm, Bryn Mawr Community Church (7000 S. Jeffery)

SHARE this information with your friends and neighbors:

TELL the Aldermen: No to down-zoning on 71st and Yes to a comprehensive planning process!

 

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