Transit-oriented development to be extended to bus corridors

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Ashland Avenue would be included in the city’s transit-oriented development policy under a plan OK’d Thursday by a City Council committee. | Sun-Times file photo

The CTA has been hemorrhaging bus riders — with a 21-percent drop over the last six years — as riders frustrated by the snail’s pace of bus service and fearful of crime switch to ride-hailing services.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Zoning Committee tried to do a little something to stop the bleeding — and stimulate neighborhood development as well.

With only one dissenting vote, aldermen approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to expand the city’s transit-oriented development policy to include “high-ridership, high-frequency” bus routes.

Chicago’s five-year-old transit-oriented development policy is currently confined to areas around Metra and CTA rapid transit lines.

It increases the density of new developments and requires fewer parking spaces in those areas with the goal of reducing traffic congestion and car ownership, bolstering mass transit ridership and reducing carbon emissions.

If the full Council approves the mayor’s plan, the umbrella will be broadened to include bus corridors where ridership is highest and buses run more frequently and where neighborhoods could use new commercial development and additional housing.

Corridors covered include: Ashland Avenue between Irving Park Road and 95th Street; Western Avenue from Foster to 79th; 55th Street and 79th Streets from Cicero Avenue to the lakefront; 63rd Street from Cicero to Stony Island Avenue; and Chicago Avenue from Austin to Fairbanks Court.

The new designation would also cover seven segments of the North Lake Shore Drive corridor, including portions of Sheridan Road and Marine Drive. So would five segments of the South Lake Shore Drive corridor, including segments of Stony Island Ave. and Jeffery Blvd.

Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) cast the only “no” vote.

She argued that transit-oriented development along rail lines hasn’t been studied nearly long enough — particularly its dubious impact on family and affordable housing — to make Chicago the nation’s first major city to extend the concept to high-density bus corridors.

“We do see this along Milwaukee Avenue. You have these buildings. You have this density. But I don’t see the families that are so important to keep in our neighborhoods,” Mell said.

“We’re moving a little too quickly. … What I would have loved to see is more in-depth study about it, and then requiring maybe two-bedroom and three-bedroom [units] for our families that are being displaced and also to address affordable housing.”

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) countered that the 10 transit-oriented developments in his Uptown ward have worked wonders and “completely transformed my community.”

“Retail has now come in. Wilson Avenue has so many independent coffee shops, we call it, `Coffee Bean Row.’… We have a lot of restaurants that are also first -generation immigrants that thrive on this,” Cappleman said.

“Our vacancy rate for apartments is the lowest it’s been since I’ve been alive and since my parents were alive. We’ve never had such low vacancy rates before. There’s a huge demand. This helps address that demand.”

As for concerns that transit oriented development, too often, involves luxury housing, Cappleman said: “Yesterday’s luxury housing is today’s affordable housing.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) represents a South Side ward that includes portions of Back of the Yards and Englewood long-plagued by gang violence.

He argued that “almost 40 percent of this map” of designated bus corridors “has seen almost no development other than the traditional liquor store corner store.” Those neighborhoods “deserve something better,” he said.

“Anyone who thinks development in those neighborhoods is a bad thing has not been there lately. There’s nothing left. There are people who are still there trying to hold onto their communities because they’re the last holdovers from when the housing crisis exploded,” Lopez said.

“They want their neighborhoods back. They want development back. They want a reason to stay. If this is a tool that allows that to happen, then we should be all for it. … Not every community has the luxury of saying, `This is too much development.'”

Emanuel’s final budget includes a $5 million investment to make bus service “faster and more reliable on high-volume routes.”

The plan to eliminate “slow zones at bottle-neck intersections” will be rolled out this spring on some of the same high-density bus routes covered by the new transit-oriented development policy. They include: the No. 79 bus on 79th Street that serves 7.8 million annual rides and the No. 66 Chicago Avenue bus, with 6.9 million rides per year.

The $5 million will be used to install designated bus lanes “on approaches to certain intersections” and new signs and pavement markings.The money will also be used to “optimize” the location of bus stops and bankroll curb extensions and “other operational and safety improvements.”

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