Chicago’s streets are clogged with cars, but the city has come up with a proposal that may well put even more on the street: it wants to change the zoning code so that many new residential units will have to have two parking spaces instead of one, as the current law requires.
Some environmentalists and transportation activists see this as one of the dumbest ideas to come out of City Hall in years. “It’s going to turn Chicago into a version of Los Angeles, Dallas, or Phoenix,” says Michael Burton, a northwest-side activist who works with several community groups. “Instead of controlling traffic, I think this proposal would encourage people to buy more cars, thus creating more traffic. If you have two parking spots and only one car, maybe you’ll think of buying another car. In other words, build it and they will come.”
The proposal is the brainchild of the Mayor’s Zoning Reform Commission, an advisory group appointed by Mayor Daley in 2000 to rewrite the city’s outdated zoning code. Part of its task is, as Daley put it, to “address the availability of parking while considering traffic congestion and increasing access to public transportation.”
Over the past three years the commission–cochaired by 36th Ward alderman William Banks and David Mosena, the mayor’s former chief of staff, now president of the Museum of Science and Industry–has held a series of community meetings to solicit views on how the zoning code might be changed. Last year it published a progress report that included 60 pages of recommendations.
The parking proposal is in a chapter titled “Enhancing Transportation Options.” The commissioners made it clear that they’re simply trying to be logical and accommodating: “While a principal goal is to encourage use of mass transit, we also recognize the need to accommodate the automobile and to tailor solutions to different communities.”
As they see it, the current “across-the-board” rule that there has to be one parking space per residence isn’t working, because different people have different parking needs. “The existing ‘one-size-fits-all’ standard doesn’t recognize that there are differences when it comes to car ownership and types of housing,” states the report. “As a result, the ordinance’s minimum parking requirements sometimes underestimate and, other times, overestimate the need for additional parking spaces.” And indeed, rich families in big homes probably want more than one off-street parking space because they can afford two or even three cars, while most ordinary folks probably want only one parking space.
And so the commission proposes increasing “from one space per unit to two spaces per unit” the number of spots required for new single-family houses and town houses. For new “multi-unit residential buildings” the commission recommends “retention of the existing 1:1 requirement except for large (more than two bedroom) units. For these units, which may need to be defined on the basis of floor area, we’re suggesting that the minimum parking ratio be increased to 1.5 spaces per unit.” The commission also “suggests lower parking requirements for developments near a CTA rail station or an intersection of major bus routes.”
It took activists and transportation planners a few months to read through and digest the recommendations. “I think it’s a good idea to revamp the zoning ordinance,” says Burton. “Basically that controls how the city’s built and how land can be used. But the parking change is a step back, not forward.”
For one thing, he says, the vast majority of Chicago households don’t own more than one car. According to the 2000 census, 44 percent of households have one car and 29 percent have no car (21 percent have two and 6 percent have three or more). For another, the new requirement would drive up housing costs at the very time the city’s looking for ways to create more affordable housing. “According to the commission, an open-air parking space adds anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000,” he says. “It’s even more for garage spaces. The higher the construction costs, the higher the cost of the housing. So this requirement would jack up housing costs, even though it’s not really needed.”
Burton concedes that many Chicagoans own or want to own more than one car, and he says that if developers want to add more parking units to satisfy the demands of upscale residents they’re free to do so. “I just don’t think it should be required,” he says. “It’s really going to shape the kind of city we have for our children. Will that mean we won’t have backyards for them because we need a couple of units of cement parking?”
Burton and his allies also contend the new requirement would be counterproductive. “If you have more parking you have a greater incentive to buy more cars,” says Payton Chung, land-use chair for Break the Gridlock, a probicycling organization. “If we don’t require more off-street parking, then developers wouldn’t build it. People would just park on the street–or maybe they wouldn’t buy a second car.”
Chung argues that the city would pay a price for encouraging people to buy more cars. “When there are more cars in an environment they make a place less fun to walk around or bike around,” he says. “People are more likely to drive, and the cycle ensues–the downward spiral of more cars leading to the need for more parking and then even more parking.”
If anything, Chung says, the city should discourage the construction of more parking spaces, because that would deter people from buying cars. “Maybe a family will get by with one car or no cars instead of two cars,” he says. “Or maybe they’ll share a car with another family. There are car-sharing programs already.”
So far the city has been cool to Chung’s and Burton’s ideas. “It’s just too out there for most people,” says one City Hall insider. “Most Americans love their cars. They want to buy more, not less.”
In fact, the new parking recommendation was made to head off complaints by residents on the north side. “Every time a new development goes up, that’s the first thing people complain about–where’s the parking?” says the insider. “People don’t care about abstract economic arguments. They want more parking.”
But Burton and his allies say the public does understand the relationship between cars and congestion. In the past few months he’s put together the Zoning for Transportation Equity Coalition, consisting of 30 not-for-profit organizations, including the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. In mid-April the coalition came out with a 12-page policy statement of its own that called on the zoning commission not to raise “existing off-street parking standards for residents and businesses” and recommended that the new zoning code allow developers “the flexibility to build car-light or car-free housing.”
Will the coalition get what it wants? It’s hard to say. The commission’s recommendations will soon move into the City Council’s zoning committee, also chaired by Banks, which will hold hearings on them in the summer. Ultimately, any changes to the zoning code have to be approved by the full council, which of course does pretty much whatever Mayor Daley tells it to. That the commission made the recommendation means it probably already has Daley’s support, so the parking-space requirement will probably pass unless the activists manage to embarrass him.
After a recent Sun-Times article Banks backed down a little, saying the two-for-one requirement wasn’t “written in stone.”
“We take that as a good sign,” says Burton. “Alderman Banks has always been very cordial. He’s been a good facilitator for this process. I think they know this issue’s not going away.”
Eugene Pincham, a retired appellate judge, wants the city to know he isn’t quitting his fight against residents-only parking zones. “It’s still a big issue,” he says. “I don’t think the city has the right to take public property and allocate it for private use.”
The battle started on September 28, 1997, when Pincham got a $25 ticket while attending a Sunday morning service at Trinity United Church of Christ, at 94th and Eggleston. He parked just down the street from the church on a stretch of Eggleston that’s reserved for residents on Sunday.
That parking zone was pushed through the City Council by 21st Ward alderman Leonard Deville at the request of residents upset by all the cars parked along their street on Sundays, when Trinity draws as many as 12,000 people to its three services.
Pincham challenged the ticket before a city administrative hearing officer. He lost, but in 1999 he filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of residents-only parking zones. The case kicked around for a couple of years before a judge ruled against him.
Pincham decided not to appeal, though he still resents what he sees as the unbridled and unreasonable power of the city. And he’s not alone. His suit brought him supportive letters and calls from all over the city. “I’m opposed to government taking public property–and Eggleston’s a public street–and assigning it to private use to the exclusion of others,” he says. “This particular case is particularly reprehensible because there’s no practical justification for it. The residents on that block have garages.”
The February elections gave Pincham a boost, because Howard Brookins Jr. defeated Deville. “The parking zone was a major issue–a lot of our church members live in this ward, and they’re tired of the tickets,” says Pincham. “The guy who won is a member of our church–that boy’s been a member of this church since he was born.”
Pincham says he’ll ask Brookins to revoke the parking zone. He also says he plans to revive his case as soon as he finds a parishioner ready to go to court. “I want to have one of the members get a ticket and take it to court,” he says. “I still think I’m right. The judge ruled against me–that’s all. I think I can win next time.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.