Still no successful examples of down-zoning?

In public and private discussions, Ald. Hairston has repeatedly promised to share the evidence she consulted in developing the plan to down-zone 71st Street. To date, she has not identified any examples of down-zoning of comparable scale and type that have resulted in a thriving commercial corridor.

Several general examples have been mentioned by the Alderman and others, so we did our own research with the help of planners and policy experts – who have universally been skeptical of the down-zoning proposal:

“Drastically changing the zoning from mixed-use/commercial to strictly residential will have serious long-term detrimental effects on the corridor.”
-Kurtis Pozsgay, AICP, Member of the Economic Development Committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

You can read about our earlier findings here, but three cases are worth addressing further below.

West 35th Street, McKinley Park

35th Street between Ashland and Damen in McKinley Park was historically a commercial corridor (with some single-family homes mixed in). Despite being in a stable, low-crime community with good transit, down-zoning has not brought economic development to the 35th Street corridor in the 13 years that it has been in place. The area of 35th Street that was down-zoned features numerous empty or under-utilized storefronts, and many that have been converted to residences. If this is what will happen to 71st Street when it’s down-zoned, we should be very concerned!

West 47th Street, Brighton Park

Further research into this corridor turned up an eye-opening Chicago Reader article from 1998. It details the harms that down-zoning, ostensibly done to keep out bars, did to this already struggling business community. It would seem that, in the years since 1996, many of the down-zoned parcels have been returned to commercial/business zoning, likely at great expense to local entrepreneurs.

Most worrisome is the fact that this down-zoning was first proposed in 1993, but not passed by City Council until it was abruptly called for a vote in 1996 – three years later! How long can a proposed zoning change ordinance remain dormant?

East Garfield Boulevard, Washington Park

The example most frequently and specifically cited by the Alderman and her advisor, Susan Campbell of the Cook County Department of Planning, is Garfield Boulevard west of King Drive in Washington Park. Ms. Campbell stated in the 5th Ward meeting on May 23rd that this corridor contains many new businesses that have come in since down-zoning – a laughable claim on its face.

Above is an image of the relatively small area on the north side of the street that was down-zoned to RS-3 with the involvement of the University of Chicago. The gas station has been there since before the down-zoning, and is the only business actually operating on down-zoned property.

The south side of Garfield Boulevard was either never down-zoned, or has since been restored to business/commercial zoning. It too consists mostly of empty land and vacant storefronts, with a few shining exceptions.

The Washington Park Arts Incubator and Currency Exchange Cafe are terrific recent additions that have brought cultural enrichment and good food to the neighborhood. All three were developed by the University of Chicago and artist Theaster Gates as part of a long-term master plan. They are not fully-independent enterprises, but exist with the backing of an institution with enormous financial resources – and a long history of using its political power to remove and replace long-term residents and businesses.

Garfield Boulevard is not a place we should look towards for the future of 71st Street. There has been almost no development for decades, and what little there is – though it may be quite popular – is the work of a powerful player from outside the Washington Park community. This is not what we want for 71st Street.

Gentrifying Neighborhoods

At the 5th Ward meeting on May 23, Ms. Campbell mentioned several neighborhoods on the north side where she believed down-zoning had been used to positive effect, including Ravenswood, Logan Square, and Wicker Park. She was unable to provide specific dates and precise locations, making these examples difficult to evaluate. But what we do know is that she was referring to actions taken within the last decade, when all of the neighborhoods she cited were experiencing rapid development – the opposite of the problem we have on 71st Street. Down-zoning in those areas was surely used to put the brakes on excessive development and density. To apply it to a neighborhood experiencing vacancy and economic stagnation – as we are on 71st Street – is perverse.

Conclusion

We have a simple question: Why has the Alderman’s office not yet provided the community with relevant examples and research supporting down-zoning as the best possible plan for 71st Street?

We suspect no examples exist because this is an unprecedented and experimental use of down-zoning to spur (rather than slow) economic development – a use which none of the professional urban planners with whom we’ve spoken support. We as a community deserve to know if this is the case, and to decide if it is a risk we are willing to take. We need the facts and we need to have a say via a comprehensive and collaborative community-wide planning process.

“Downzoning a business district in a way that prevents businesses…from opening is a good way to have few to no new businesses, and a disingenuous way to start a conversation with a community about the state of local businesses.”
– Steven Vance, Urban Planner, Founder and CEO of Chicago Cityscape

Make your voice heard: Sign the petition! And come to the next 5th Ward meeting on Tuesday June 27th, 6pm, at La Rabida Children’s Hospital (6501 S. Promontory Dr.)

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