Wednesday, May 09, 2012

High-rise developments like Wolf Point should include transit to avoid traffic congestion

Cities should be full of buildings, not surface parking lots. People in close proximity make cities the economic engines of the world. Surface parking lots are lost opportunities. Particularly in the core of cities, we should get as many buildings up and full of people as possible.

In Chicago, Wolf Point on the Chicago River just north of the Loop is a prime spot for high-rise development. The Kennedy family owns the site and has proposed building three towers according to this Tribune article. Alderman Brendan Reilly has begun the process of community input to determine whether he should support the project.

A group called Friends of Wolf Point has been organized to convey the views of existing residents to Alderman Reilly. The main concern of the organization is traffic congestion, as there isn't much room for hundreds of cars to navigate the very dense River North neighborhood.

Thus, the fundamental nature of cities -- density -- relies on a network of trains, buses and streetcars as thousands of private automobiles are simply too large and bulky in a dense urban environment. The benefit of a train or bus or streetcar is that it passes through and does not need to be parked in the densest, most valuable part of the city. Private automobiles require lots of parking spaces, which are essentially a waste. They also generate a lot of automobile traffic, putting the streets at or beyond their potential capacity, creating gridlock.

Traditionally, public transportation investment has been divorced from the process of real estate development. The government largely invests in buses, trains and streetcars independently of property development; real estate developers take advantage of the investment by building property around those assets.

This proposal presents an opportunity to merge the two processes for site-specific, innovative transit investments. Instead of only imposing parking requirements on proposed real estate developments, I suggest that cities should impose transit requirements as well. The real estate developer should be required to invest in local bus routes to connect to the closest train station or a small streetcar line to connect to other transit routes. As an example, the Wolf Point developers could be required to finance the operations of a new CTA bus line in perpetuity that will serve the expected thousands of new residents and visitors and connect to the Merchandise Mart Brown line station. The CTA already contracts with private institutions to provide specific bus service like the University of Chicago for the #170, #171 and #172 routes. A similar neighborhood shuttle -- based on the particular needs of the River North neighborhood -- can be developed and financed by the real estate developers (the annual contract cost of these buses are, I believe, in the mid-six figures, as fare revenue covers about half the roughly million-dollar cost of running a neighborhood bus route, plus or minus 100%).

Even better, where circumstances permit, would be laying track and running a portion of a streetcar. These streetcars could be extended over time as real estate development continues or circumstances warrant. The ideal city street isn't dominated by automobiles but rather by pedestrians. Imagine, as an example, what Clark Street could look like with a modern streetcar, as promoted by the new organization the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance.

As we live in the end of the oil era (just ask the Mexican government, which passed one of the world's strongest and most progressive climate and energy laws last month), investing in public transportation in the densest part of our cities is fundamental to our economic growth. We should harness the excitement and money of real estate developers to that public policy objective.