By Gregory Trotter, Chicago Tribune
December 10, 2014, 4:50PM
For Chicago’s northern suburbs on the Metra lines, the idea of encouraging development near public transit is nothing new.
But there are few options to be found for low- and moderate-income workers hoping to live near public transportation in these towns, according to a new report by the Winnetka-based Open Communities and the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
“It excludes a lot of people that would really benefit from those developments,” said Brendan Saunders, director of advocacy and organizing for Open Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for more affordable housing.
The new report, titled “Quality of Life, Equality of Place,” asserts there’s a disconnect between the transit-oriented development in the northern suburbs and the available affordable housing options.
The 40-page report, intended to be a “guidebook” for community planning purposes, encourages more mixed-income transit-oriented development and lays out best practices from towns in other states, including incentives that benefit both developers and communities, Saunders said.
Mixed-income development near transit benefits a wide array of people â€” working families, people with disabilities, senior citizens â€” while also boosting the local economy and reducing car use, Saunders said.
How the new report is received and to what extent it will be utilized remains to be seen. In recent years, residents in towns such as Winnetka and Arlington Heights have pushed back against affordable housing efforts, decrying the potential impact on property values among other concerns.
Saunders said he hopes this new report can help take the conversation in a new direction.
“What I joke â€¦ is when you say the “A word” â€” as in “affordable” â€” someone says ‘Oh, you want to make Cabrini Green,'” Saunders said. “That’s the exact opposite of what we want.”
“We’re not looking to build projects,” he said. “We’re looking to build developments that are open to all people.”
John Adler, Wilmette’s director of community development, said he wasn’t aware of the report but welcomed any new insights.
“Historically, Wilmette has embraced (affordable housing),” Adler said. “Our big problem is you really haven’t seen a lot of development â€¦ mixed-income or otherwise.”
An exception to that would be the parcel at 611 Green Bay Road, which the village has agreed to sell to M&R Development for $4.1 million, Adler said. The plan is to transform the site into a six-story building with five floors of luxury apartments atop a bottom floor of commercial use.
Though the plan includes no affordable units, the developer agreed to donate $80,000 to the village’s housing assistance fund, which helps low-income people, Adler said.
Beginning in 2008, Wilmette began amending its zoning regulations to allow for greater height and density, Adler said, with the hope of encouraging more downtown development.
Highland Park is currently in the process of doing the same, said Lee Smith, senior planner for Highland Park.
“It’s our feeling that by providing more density, you’ll have a greater range of unit types developed,” Smith said.
Highland Park, often referred to as a regional model of affordable housing practices by advocates, also includes “density bonuses” for developers in its zoning regulations â€“ one of the incentives recommended by the new report.
Developers are allowed to build beyond the density limit when required affordable units are provided on-site or off-site as part of the development, Smith said. For each affordable unit provided, a density bonus of one unit is allowed. Additional bonuses can be allotted through the planned development process.
That’s a good thing because it benefits the developer, too, Saunders said.
As for what defines mixed-income, Saunders said the report leaves that open to the respective communities to decide. The goal is to encourage more diversity, he said.
And when more residents have greater access to public transportation, career possibilities open up and the development becomes a boon for the local economy, said Kyle Smith, economic development project manager for the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
As the pace of development is picking back up, particularly in the luxury rental market, now is the time for communities to make sure private investments match the long-term public vision, said Smith, who co-authored the report with Saunders.
“It’s challenging to take the long view on development when the market is cyclical, but now is time,” Smith said.
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