We know the economy is turning around in the northern suburbs because we’re seeing cranes and hearing jack-hammers on lots that have been vacant for years. To give but two examples, Focus Development is building a 175-unit rental building on Clark and Ridge in Evanston, and in Skokie, Oberweis opened a dairy store on West Dempster.
With the mortgage meltdown in 2007, we saw numerous developments throughout our region grind to a halt. Remember “Center of the North Shore,” the ambitious proposal for the 14-acre site at the intersection of Skokie Boulevard and Dundee Road in Northbrook that would have included a theater, fitness center, stores, and luxury condos? Do you recall the CVS that was proposed for the former Ford dealership site on Green Bay Road in Wilmette, vacant since 2005? How about the 168-unit Park Ridge development proposed on Touhy and Washington? Even the teardown and redevelopment of modest single-family homes, ubiquitous throughout our area since the ‘90s, took a hiatus.
But with every crisis is an opportunity, and for our suburbs, these last five years of limited development offered a chance to reflect on the future, including the housing options for the people of all ages who live and work in the community.
Northbrook is one community that did just that.
Following several years of local meetings and research, in early 2011 Northbrook approved a new Comprehensive Plan updating its old plan from the 1980s. In the section on “Neighborhoods, Housing & Community Diversity Goals & Strategies,” the Village recognized that its housing needs changed significantly. Although in 1979, the price of a single-family home was in balance with local paychecks, by 2007, home values outpaced incomes by a factor of five. This means that current Northbrook residents, especially seniors or people with disabilities living on fixed incomes and families newly divorced, widowed or unemployed, cannot live in their own communities. Moreover, the number of jobs in Northbrook doubled in the last thirty years, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, but not the number of housing units.
Northbrook decided to make its top neighborhood and housing priority, as laid out in the Comprehensive Plan, to “provide housing that meets the needs of the entire population of Northbrook,” including “creative responses to Northbrook’s housing needs for affordability, variety, and housing that is appropriate for different ages and family types.”
Now Northbrook has an opportunity to make good on its community goals.
A new developer has emerged for the Skokie/Dundee site. In partnership with Mariano’s grocery store, Morningside Crossroads Partners is looking to develop a multi-use project that would include a 10-story rental building with 416 units, all of which would be priced expensively. David Strosberg, the principal of Morningside, is quoted in the Pioneer Press as testifying before the Northbrook Village Board, “Market studies have said luxury apartments in the north suburbs are in high demand. This development will address the demand.”
An almost identical proposal has come before the Village of Glenview, also led by Mariano’s. On the former Culligan site, now anchored by Astella Pharma’s U.S. headquarters, a 290-unit four-story rental building is being proposed, but targeted to “professionals, couples and singles,” according to Doug Bobar of Lennar Homebuilders, in his testimony to the Glenview Plan Commission on November 27th.
So what will Northbrook and Glenview do? They know that there is a strong market for moderately priced housing – more than for luxury housing. Will it be business as it was before 2007, with the exception of substituting luxury rentals for luxury condos? What should our communities do?
Similar decisions are facing all our suburbs. Prudently, Wilmette put a plan in place for its downtown area to promote transit-oriented, mixed-use development once the market turns. Winnetka adopted a property maintenance code to protect renters, in what’s now seen as an important housing resource worth conserving. On one item, our suburbs can be categorical. The federal Fair Housing Act is clear: developers entities cannot discriminate against families with children, with certain exceptions related to senior housing, or people with disabilities. So nix to only serving “professionals, couples and singles.”
But what about making room for housing for people who simply aren’t rich?
Indeed, according to an AARP survey, nearly 90% of individuals aged 65 or older agree with the statement, “What I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible.” The same holds for those who work in the community, especially those with local roots. A woman who grew up in Winnetka, taught for decades in a local school, but had to move when she divorced because of the paucity of housing options, wrote the following, in a letter to the Winnetka Village Board two years ago, “I believe it is healthy for a community to have many voices…voices that include people (teachers, city employees, clergy) who bring financial diversity, among other qualities, to the village of Winnetka. We are not your servants. We teach your children, protect your children, and support their spiritual growth. And together we create a healthy environment in which all of us may grow and live.”
In their book The Regional City, planners Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton described the transformation of metropolitan regions from “hubs with spokes” to “a series of interconnected places, a metropolitan constellation that will not function effectively unless it is consciously designed.”
“The suburbs are reaching a transitional state. Like an adolescent, they have grown so large and uncoordinated that they no longer deliver the qualities that people sought in them. In older suburbs, privacy, mobility, and affordable housing have become increasingly displaced by isolation, gridlock, and skyrocketing prices. Just as the region emerges as the superstructure of our communities, the suburbs have begun to evolve into something more complex and varied. This evolution involves a kind of infill and redevelopment that overlays the simplistic zoning of the past with richer and more compact choices in housing, transit, and urban form.”
Organizations such as the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism have experts that can work with municipalities to make live-near-work strategies and development that put community first.
Without this kind of planning, business as usual that entices only the wealthy resident and corporation is not only morally wrong, but can backfire on the local economy. It’s those studio and one-bedroom condos for “professionals, couples and singles” that have fallen into foreclosure in our suburbs. And as The New York Times reported last week in an in-depth study of local and state tax incentives to entice corporations, hundreds of billions in incentives went down the drain, resulting in few of the promised jobs ever materializing, but paid for by concurrent cuts in public school spending.
Northbrook should stay the course with its own, laudable Comprehensive Plan. It can lead by example, as can Evanston. The Focus rental development mentioned in the first paragraph? According to the City of Evanston, It will include nine affordable units, share half the cost of resurfacing the abutting streets, and comply with the City’s new adopted Green Building Ordinance.
In the words of Calthorpe and Fulton, without a change in how we do business, “a landscape of isolated land uses becomes a landscape of isolated people.” None of us wants this. Indeed, it is in our power to foster welcoming and inclusive communities.