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If You Build It They Will Come

If the city wants to encourage walking, biking, and public transit, maybe it's time to cap the real estate devoted to parking.

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The intersection of Polk and Clark is just a few blocks from el stops, commuter rail lines, bus stops, stores, restaurants, Grant Park, and the Loop. "I don't use a car around here--you don't need a car," says Steve Fors, who lives on Polk just west of the intersection. "People don't even come here thinking they're going to need cars."

Yet the city has given the developers of two major residential high-rises at the intersection the green light to put in parking lots with a combined total of almost 600 spaces. "There's something wrong with this," says Fors. "We need better planning."

Actually the city has some fairly well thought out ideas for the area. In 2003 the planning department drew up the Near South Community Plan, which calls for "policies and guidelines for improvement and redevelopment" of the land between Congress and the Stevenson Expressway on the north and south and the Chicago River and Lake Shore Drive on the west and east. It doesn't call for new parking spaces to accommodate cars. On the contrary, it calls for adding open space and widening sidewalks to accommodate pedestrians. It also recommends that Polk "be enhanced as the primary east-west pedestrian route" from State Street to the river, and it even recommends converting the parking lot at 720 S. Clark, on the northwest corner of the intersection, into a park.

But the city's ignoring its plan. It's allowing Terrapin Properties to convert the parking lot into Burnham Pointe, a 34-story condominium and retail complex with 295 parking spaces. It's also allowing Concord Homes to build a 300-unit complex with 300 parking spaces across the street from Burnham Pointe. And it's doing nothing to enhance Polk as a primary pedestrian route: after Burnham Pointe is built, pedestrians will have to weave between cars entering and leaving its parking garage, whose entrance will be on the north side of Polk just west of Clark. (The plans for Concord Homes haven't been released yet, so it's not clear where that garage entrance will be.) "We'll have cars coming out of the parking garage, waiting to turn east or west on Polk, while we'll have cars coming from the east and west on Polk wanting to turn into the parking garage," says Fors. "On busy afternoons you'll have tie-ups with cars backed up all the way to Clark trying to make that turn."

Neighborhood residents complain that the two developments will also create a canyon effect. "They say they should have open space on Clark Street," says Peter Ziv, who lives in the same building as Fors. "How is a 34-story tower open space? Why make the plan if you don't follow it?"

Planning department spokeswoman Constance Buscemi says the 2003 plan doesn't apply to Burnham Pointe because no zoning change was required to build it. "This particular project is not under our jurisdiction," she says. "They're operating under existing right-of-ways and procedures."

For the past several months residents have been pestering Terrapin to move its building to the north so that it won't block their view, and to have the parking lot open onto Clark instead of Polk. They've also met with their alderman, the Second Ward's Madeline Haithcock, and planning department officials. They've created a Web site and posted placards in their windows--say no to polk street canyon.

One of Terrapin's owners, Michael Ezgur, says it would be impractical to move the building to the north, and if they did, it would only block the view of some other building. Nevertheless his company took the residents' idea to the city. "We listened to their concerns," he says. "We went to the city, and they suggested that Clark Street is the wrong approach for the garage. They look at Clark Street as more pedestrian. They thought it was better for traffic and safety to put access on Polk Street. We've been very reasonable. We have put our money where our mouths are coming up with alternative plans."

Ezgur also says the residents have exaggerated the traffic problems the development will cause. "They don't want their views blocked--it's as simple as that," he says. "They come up with all these other issues, but it's all about the view. And I can understand that. They have a nice view. They want to keep that nice view. But think about it. You bought a building overlooking a parking lot--you have to know that sooner or later someone is going to build on that parking lot."

Environmentalists say the squabble points to a bigger problem: too many cars in the city. They say the streets weren't designed to handle the flood of cars already on them and that no one needs the aggravation of more traffic jams or the health problems that come with more pollution. Much better, they say, to walk, bike, or take public transportation. "Will people move to the South Loop if there's no parking there?" says Michael Burton, a member of Break the Gridlock, which lobbies for more open space. "I think the answer is yes. So it makes no sense to build parking if people don't need it."

Like Fors and Ziv, Burton says he's all for developing the South Loop. He just thinks the development shouldn't add parking. "If you have parking spaces you'll encourage people to have cars," he says. "If you don't have parking spaces they probably won't have cars, because they'll have no place to put them. We want a livable city. We want a clean city. We want to encourage people to take public transportation."

He says the Daley administration is bending over backward to accommodate cars and drivers. It took out the Buckingham Fountain crosswalk at Lake Shore Drive because, as city officials have repeatedly said, pedestrians were forcing motorists to wait for them. It's threatening to ticket jaywalkers, again according to city officials, because they're slowing down cars. And it's refusing to restrict the number of parking spaces a developer can put in, even in high-density areas. In fact, the zoning law actually requires developers to put in one parking space for each new unit of housing (a rule that can be waived in areas like the South Loop where there's so much public transportation, though few developers seem interested). "I think the city should be discouraging developers from building parking spaces," says Burton. "Instead of having a parking minimum for each new development, we should have a parking maximum. In other words, limit the number of parking spaces. What if instead of giving people a parking place, a developer gets them a lifetime el pass? Think how that would change people's habits."

Buscemi says limiting parking spaces isn't part of her department's mission; instead it wants to make sure there's enough off-street parking that people aren't clogging the streets as they drive around looking for a place to park. "You can't say, 'This building is dedicated to people who don't have cars,'" she adds. "I don't know if that would be a deterrent to owning a car."

But other cities clearly see the benefits of restricting parking. New York limits the number of spaces developers can put in, and the maximum in some areas is one space for every five apartments. Omaha specifically exempts developers in the central business district from having to put in any spaces at all.

Most Chicago developers I've talked to say it's naive to assume people here will buy housing that doesn't come with parking. When I asked Ezgur if he could sell all of the Burnham Pointe units without parking he immediately said no. "People want parking," he said. "It's basic supply and demand." But then he backtracked. "Well, it is a very pedestrian friendly area. People are walking to Dearborn and State streets to have their coffee and their breakfast and to shop. So my second response, after thinking about it, is that I do believe that people would move there even without parking."

So why provide 295 spaces?

"There's a market for it," he said. According to him, Terrapin expects to sell each parking space for around $35,000, generating over $10 million.

Burton figures Terrapin could have made just as much money building more housing units or shops instead of a garage. "Just because people will buy a parking space if you offer it doesn't mean you have to offer it," he says. "Because people make bad choices doesn't mean you should encourage them to make bad choices. We're about 50 years behind the times on this issue. Other cities are way ahead of us. We have to be willing to step out of the box."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Laura Park.

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