More density does not equal more [car] traffic

January 14, 2014 at 10:48 pm

McCaffery Interests is planning to redevelop the large Children’s Memorial Hospital site in the heart of Lincoln Park, which now sits essentially empty since the hospital relocated downtown. You can view a thorough rundown of the project by reading this post at Bike Walk Lincoln Park, the presentation from tonight’s meeting, or watch the developer’s promotional video on their website.

The planned plaza to feature retail and places to sit. And parking.

The planned plaza to feature retail and places to sit. And parking.

Above you can see a photo of the planned central plaza, to be situated just east of Lincoln between Fullerton and Belden. What is hidden is the parked/idling cars in the background, right in front of the planned retailers. How enjoyable would you find a public plaza circled by cars whose engines may be idling (producing exhaust) or whose drivers are honking when they can’t exit because someone just ran into the coffee shop “for a second”? Just a thought (I heard nobody bring this up, but I did not stay for the entire meeting).

Kempf Plaza, Lincoln Square.

Kempf Plaza, Lincoln Square.

Precisely the thing that makes the neighborhood plaza in Lincoln Square, a plaza similar to the one proposed by the developer, so enjoyable is that it is situated on a car-lite street with slow-moving traffic and cars close in physical proximity but far from the mind. It’s why parents have no problem letting their kids run all over the plaza while they sit and enjoy some ice cream to music. It’s the community’s backyard (in a neighborhood of many single family homes with backyards).

The CMH redevelopment site will add 194 new parking spaces in addition to the 850 that exist currently at the massive multistory parking garage on Lincoln. The development will add street-level retail to the ground floor of the parking garage, but there will still be 850 parking spaces there, as well as 97 new spaces at each of two reconstructed buildings to the east of Lincoln – 97 underground spaces off Fullerton for a senior assisted living building, and 97 off Orchard for a luxury condominium building. That’s a 22% increase in parking capacity.

When prompted by a member of the community, a spokesman for the developer stated that seniors “like having their car when they’re older” and that is why they’ll want those spaces. When prompted about the employees of the assisted living facility and where they’ll park, he said “at that pay scale, they probably won’t be driving, they’ll be taking the ‘L’.”

Interpret that as you will; the audience’s reaction was less than agreeable.

Other members of the community who spoke up against the redevelopment were concerned about the traffic, but seemed to be confused as to what causes traffic. One woman said that “with buildings at that height, you’ll be creating so much traffic!” I understand the intention, but I want to reiterate: tall buildings don’t create traffic. Cars create traffic. If we want less [automobile] traffic on the streets, we need to build less capacity for them, including parking. By investing in alternatives, Lincoln Park residents will need cars less. As the developer pointed out, “let us not forget we are close to 3 ‘L’ lines and 5 bus routes.”

Which brings me to the #74 Fullerton bus, which currently turns around at Halsted and does not go any further east. Here is a map showing that the bus could probably be extended 4000 feet east to Cannon Dr, where it could turn around at a small parking lot just north, connecting with the 22 (Clark) and 36 (Broadway) buses:

Essentially, existing residents who drive are worried about things that cannot entirely be predicted. The developer cannot predict how the future residents will use their cars, how they make their daily trips, how its employees will arrive, or the use hours of the retail (e.g. coffee shops may generate more morning traffic). We can encourage more people to use public transportation, in part by making it reach more destinations (as an extension of the #74 bus would do) or highlighting the fact that the nearby Fullerton station is just a few minute’s walk from the development. We can also encourage more bicycling, which the developer is “still working with CDOT on,” but nothing noteworthy was planned. Most importantly, the amount of parking has to be reduced. The developer stated that many of the senior residents just like having a car but don’t drive it often (no source). It’s no wonder. In this neighborhood, local grocery stores and everything necessary for daily life is within walking distance. There is certainly enough demand to live here that the development could do without all of the proposed parking. If a car is something nice to have, but not used often, perhaps it would be in the developer’s interest to market car share services.

It’s also possible that the feared increase in traffic is a simple excuse in the NIMBY arsenal* to oppose a mid-rise development in an area of 3-story flats and single-family homes. What is certain is that traffic is sometimes good. Traffic of all kinds means demand, something this area could use after CMH left. What we need to look at is offering more connectivity to existing transit services, potentially expanding insufficient service, and showing Lincoln Park, Chicago, and future developers that major developments like this in dense neighborhoods can be successful without having more parking than dwelling units, especially when near transit.

Until we divorce ourself from the notion that a housing unit must have a parking space (and therefore fulfilling the “density is traffic” prophecy), we won’t see this kind of progress. While the developer added more parking and reduced the number of dwellings (since the 2012 plan), they seem to be reacting to the false notion that more density means more traffic. Only more parking density means more traffic.

* Of course I am not against the right of people to express concern about tower developments impacting things like sunlight, which was brought up at the meeting and should be studied.