The recent protest at the Twin Towers worksite Credit: Aaron Cynic

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is a progressive approach to building new housing. Densely packed units with relatively few parking spaces are clustered close to rapid transit, making it easy for lots of residents to get around without a car. That means less driving in the neighborhood. And, since garage parking costs tens of thousands of dollars per stall and takes up precious ground space, fewer spots for cars means developers can build more apartments within a given footprint and pass on the savings to tenants, potentially boosting affordability.

So why did about 20 left-leaning activists blockade the worksite for the Twin Towers TOD project at 2293 N. Milwaukee on Saturday, April 9? They formed a human chain across the street and locked themselves to each other via PVC tubes and concrete-filled buckets, chanting “How high’s the rent? Too damn high.” Dozens more demonstrators cheered from the sidewalks, holding signs that read “Logan Square is not for sale.”

The protest, led by Somos (“We Are”) Logan Square and Lifted Voices, made the argument that the upscale ten- and 11-story rental towers, along with a high-end six-story transit-oriented apartment building down the street, will accelerate the already rapid pace of gentrification in the neighborhood. They say the transit-friendly aspects of the buildings, both located a few minutes walk from the Blue Line’s California station, are little more than greenwashing.

“The [transit-oriented development] concept is being perverted and used as justification to allow developers to run rampant with huge luxury buildings,” says Somos spokeswoman Justine Bayod Espoz. “These developments will ultimately push the families that most rely on public transportation further and further away from the transit hubs.”

But First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno and others argue that, in addition to being a smart strategy for reducing car dependency, these developments will actually help longtime residents stay in the neighborhood. Ten percent of the new apartments will be affordable. And by increasing Logan Square’s housing supply, they say, the buildings will actually take pressure off the local rental market.

The Twin Towers under construction
The Twin Towers under constructionCredit: John Greenfield

In 2013, Moreno got the city’s first transit-oriented development ordinance passed, which cut the usual one-to-one apartment-to-parking-spot requirement in half for buildings within 600 feet of an el or Metra stop. Last September the City Council beefed up the legislation, doubling that distance and eliminating the parking minimums for TODs altogether.

Reducing the parking burden helped fuel Chicago’s current rental building boom. About 30 new TOD projects are planned, under construction, or already built. But virtually all of them are high-end projects in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods.

Many of these parking-lite buildings feature small studio or one-bedroom apartments aimed at young professionals—particularly tech workers, according to real estate professionals I’ve talked to—less interested in car ownership than in living in a hot neighborhood with easy train access to downtown jobs.

That’s developer Rob Buono’s strategy with the Twin Towers, which will contain 216 units but only 56 parking spots. Market-rate apartments will rent for $1,400 for a studio and up to $2,500 for a two-bedroom.

At the 120-unit tower at 2211 N. Milwaukee—dubbed “L” by Property Markets Group to emphasize its proximity to the train—market-rate units will cost between $1,575 and $3,900. There will be 12 affordable apartments and 60 parking spaces.

“Transit-oriented development is a great concept, but affordability is key. Having easy access to public transportation should not become a luxury that is extended only to the affluent.”

—Justine Bayod Espoz, Somos Logan Square­

As a matter of policy, Alderman Moreno insists that 10 percent of units be affordable before he’ll grant a zoning change, rather than letting developers take the cheaper route of paying into the city’s affordable housing fund. Therefore the Twin Towers will include 22 affordable units that will run about $800 a month—a bargain for an upscale high-rise a block or two from the train in a trendy part of town.

Buono credited the TOD law with his decision to build the Twin Towers. “Absent that ordinance, it’s unlikely the building would have been constructed,” he says. (Property Markets Group declined to comment.)

Somos Logan’s Justine Bayod Espoz says her group is not opposed to building dense, low-parking housing near train stops. “TOD is a great concept, but affordability is key,” she says. “Having easy access to public transportation should not become a luxury that is extended only to the affluent.” Somos is calling for the amount of affordable housing in the Twin Towers and “L” developments to be bumped up from 10 percent to 30 percent.

And while the city requires that affordable rental units be within the means of households earning up to 60 percent of the Chicago region’s area median income, or $43,440 for a family of four, the group wants that threshold lowered to 30 percent. That would make the apartments affordable for Logan Square’s Latino families, who have a median income of $34,346, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Bayod Espoz points to a 2015 study from the Georgia Institute of Technology, which argues that the real estate industry follows a “herd mentality.” As high-end development picks up in a neighborhood, the reasoning goes, other property owners are encouraged to convert their apartments to luxury units or sell their buildings for tear-downs. James Leyba from Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology countered by pointing to a 2013 New York Times op-ed by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser.

“The best way to make cities more affordable is to reduce the barriers to building and unleash the cranes,” Glaeser wrote. “[That way housing] can become affordable to everyone, not just someone lucky enough to get an affordable unit.”

A hangout area in the 'L' development includes a repurposed CTA railcar.
A hangout area in the ‘L’ development includes a repurposed CTA railcar.Credit: Courtesy Logan Square L/Chicago Luxury Apartments

Moreno, meanwhile, says he’s interested in getting higher percentages of affordable units in future developments—”but if I had demanded 30-30 and the buildings [and their affordable units] didn’t get built, that would have been irresponsible of me.”

It’s a shame that the forward-thinking concept of transit-oriented development has become associated with luxury and displacement. It’s even more unfortunate that TODs are not yet being built for the poor and working-class residents and neighborhoods that most need better transportation access to workplaces and schools.

Hopefully it won’t stay that way. On May 19, the Center for Neighborhood Technology will host an “ETOD Laboratory,” a workshop on equitable transportation-oriented development, to discuss strategies “to ensure residents of all incomes and backgrounds can afford to live near transit.” More info here. v

Update: While Bayod Espoz previously stated that Somos Logan Square led the Twin Towers protest, Somos and Lifted Voices members now say the demonstration was co-led by Lifted Voices. We have edited the piece accordingly.

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.