For Generations, The South And West Sides Have Been Shut Out Of Housing Near Public Transit. A New Plan Aims To Change That

Read the full article by Mina Bloom on Block Club Chicago

ENGLEWOOD — An ambitious city plan is aiming to spur affordable, accessible housing and resources near public transportation, a strategy officials say will start to reverse segregation and decades of neglect in underserved neighborhoods.

City officials unveiled the “first ever” Equitable Transit-Oriented Development policy plan Monday. You can view the plan here.

“Equitable” is the key concept, city officials said. The sweeping, 64-page plan was crafted in response to city data showing neighborhoods on the North Side and Downtown have seen an explosion of transit-oriented development, while underserved Black and Latino communities on the South and West sides have been almost completely shut out.

The goal, officials said, is to change the way Chicago approaches transit-oriented development so it benefits people of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in neighborhoods across the city.

Some policy ideas are geared to facilitate new housing near train lines, such as allowing for small-scale, multi-family housing and requiring parking to be paid or leased separately.

Other ideas are more broad and meant to complement new transit-oriented development, such as increasing access to shared bikes and scooters, and upgrading pedestrian infrastructure in development zones.

More than 70 stakeholders collaborated for 18 months to develop the plan, which starts a three-year process. The plan helps fulfill a requirement to examine the disparities of the city’s transit-oriented development ordinance, which was amended last year.

“I do think it’s a first step, but I don’t think it’s an impotent first step by any stretch,” said Drew Williams-Clark, of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, one of the groups serving on the working group.

“The thing that I think people need to take away from it is there is an effort to ensure that people who have lived in these communities — and especially low-income Black and Brown households — are able to take advantage of whatever comes out of this. There’s a strong concern that places that have been able to take advantage of this have been largely affluent and white.”

‘Not The Exception But The Norm’

City Council approved Chicago’s first transit-oriented development ordinance in 2013. It was expanded in 2015 to include a larger radius of where developments can be built and again in 2018 to include bus corridors.

In crafting the equitable development plan, officials found 90 percent of all new transit-oriented projects went to neighborhoods like North Center, Logan Square and Uptown, and very few developments were built near train stations on the South and West sides.

Some of the North Side and Downtown neighborhoods that have attracted transit-oriented projects also are seeing their longtime Black and Latino residents displaced, according to the report.

Perhaps no other part of the city has attracted more transit-oriented development in the years since the ordinance was enacted than the Blue Line, particularly in Logan Square and Wicker Park.

Previous 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno ushered in large apartment projects along Milwaukee Avenue, most of them catered to millennials without cars. The new development came in the midst of Logan Square losing more than 20,000 longtime Latino residents.

The MiCa Towers, at Milwaukee and California avenues, debuted in 2016. The development is among several transit-oriented developments along the CTA Blue Line.MINA BLOOM/BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO

Current 1st Ward Ald. Daniel La Spata said his predecessor’s handling of this type of development is part of what inspired him to run for office.

“We saw anything but an equitable development process where development and zoning was concerned,” La Spata said.

One goal of the latest city plan is to bring economic investment to neighborhoods that need it without displacing longtime residents.

“I’m glad to see at first glance, in the city’s report, that they recognize that inequitable [transit-oriented development] comes with a cost, that when we push working-class families away from transit, when we don’t create space for them, we are seeing new economic and health costs that we need to bear,” La Spata said.

Roberto Requejo, program director of Elevated Chicago, offered three main recommendations to make equitable transit-oriented development “not the exception but the norm.”

First, the city must build its capacity for handling projects that prioritize equity, Requejo said. The plan recommends creating an office that brings together all the city departments typically involved in these types of development. It would also create an infrastructure for tracking and evaluating these kinds of projects that are already in motion.

Second, the city must make it easy for developers to take on equity-focused projects. Requejo said the policy will help guide the city’s planning rules to make this kind of development less of an afterthought and incentivize projects near transit in under-invested areas.

Third, leaders must make this type of development central to any long-term city planning. Chicago hasn’t had a comprehensive plan since 1966, when development in the city was deliberately aimed at improving white neighborhoods while exploiting Black and Latino areas, Requejo said.

“We haven’t unpacked all the racism and inequity that was in land use, zoning, planning,” Requejo said. “We haven’t transformed that process into one that does the exact opposite of that.”

‘It Takes More Than Just Plopping A High-Rise Next To A Train Station’

Community leaders say if the mayor is serious about bringing those same resources to the South and West sides, people in those communities need to be at the forefront of crafting the solutions.

“The history of planning and development in Chicago has been about keeping people outside of the table, and especially people of color out, so others could make decisions for them and not necessarily with their community interests in mind,” Requejo said.

“You should not come to the community with a process that you already cooked in your organization. You should develop the design with the community. We want to make sure that these transit-oriented projects are led by the community and owned by the community and do not displace people when they get built.”

The city is accepting public comment on its plan through Oct. 29. You can submit comments to

Pilsen Alliance Director Moises Moreno said he was skeptical about any city plan on development policies, especially while more immediate concerns around housing relief have yet to be adequately addressed.

While Moreno said more affordable housing was needed to address displacement, he said the city and state officials first need to prioritize helping struggling families leaving the neighborhood because they can’t pay rent as a result of the coronavirus.

Families are in survival mode and are being displaced from Pilsen because there is no rent or mortgage relief, he said. Once the city weathers that crisis, then local leaders can focus on development goals.

“It’s a crisis of displacement … for renters who haven’t been able to work since March,” Moreno said. “Not $500 or $1,000, we need comprehensive relief.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said the plan was light on details.

Sigcho-Lopez, whose ward includes Pilsen, portions of the Near West Side, Chinatown and West Loop, said “concrete policies and specific guidelines” were needed to ensure that future transit-oriented development helped address the issue of displacement facing neighborhoods like Pilsen.

Without clear guidelines, Sigcho-Lopez fears it might be a missed opportunity to help the most vulnerable.

“We need consistent polices that address the big elephant in the room, which is affordability,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

Last month, several aldermen said they felt shut out of major decision-making under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s leadership. Sigcho-Lopez said this plan offers an opportunity for aldermen to be brought into the conversation to shape policies benefiting South and West side communities facing displacement.

“The complexity and diversity of each neighborhood has their own challenges. One size doesn’t fit all. We need to craft policies based on feedback … and a robust community conversations,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

Gabriel Piemonte, activist and former 5th Ward aldermanic candidate, agrees the success or failure of this hinges on community engagement.

“It takes more than just plopping a high-rise next to a train station,” he said. “If Lightfoot is serious, she’ll listen to community input.”