Thursday, June 24, 2004

Zoned Out

Once again I feel compelled to rant about the issue that least interests all of my friends: the evils of zoning. Zoning actually determines what kind of built environment we live, work, play, and shop in, but most people are unaware of the impact it has on their lives.

They have unveiled the new zoning code here in Chicago, and I think it has gone overboard. In an effort to prevent the continued bulldozing of charming old houses to make way for giant condo buildings, they have outlawed "battleships," new buildings that eliminate the backyard in favor of larger units. They decided that this was unfair to neighbors who used to be able to look up and down the rows of postage stamp back yards and spy on their neighbors. They are also downzoning lots of places, limiting the number of units allowed on a lot.

I have been hoping for some kind of historical preservation, but I have a couple of problems with this. One, the historic facade is the valuable part to me, not the backyard. People today are used to more space and bigger houses. Not allowing them to expand the house to cover the whole house makes the city much less attractive for many people, especially families with children. Two, not allowing the construction of three-flats limits population and will decrease the availability of affordable housing, again especially for families. Supporters of the zoning changes hope that they will slow rising property values and keep taxes down, I think they are mistaken. Combined with changes that may allow first-floor residences on formerly "commercial" streets like 43rd, and you see two things: continued population loss and creeping suburbanization.

The paper today reported that the census bureau estimates Chicago has been losing population since the 2000 census, and is less 2700 people. Many mayors have complained about the way these things are estimated, and they were certainly wrong about this in the 1990s. However, there are some reasons to believe this estimation might be accurate. Whenever a poor family of four moves out of an address and are replaced by DINKs (Double Income No Kids), the population of that address has fallen by 50%. I believe Chicago has been losing children because its schools continue to suck and many of its streets continue to be rather unsafe. But the zoning changes will add to this problem by preventing larger homes or multiple homes to be built on standard lots. As a result, modern midwesterners accustomed to larger houses will feel like they are forced to leave the city in order to find comfortable housing. The city has missed an opportunity to spur the construction of middle class housing while preserving existing cottages and bungalows for working class families. In addition, by limiting multiple family buildings, they force density down - a family of four cannot be replaced by two units of DINKs for example. Lower density means less demand for local businesses. Allowing too much housing construction on commercial streets will result in neighborhoods that are housing housing housing, with everyone driving a couple miles to a big box store to do their shopping. The zoning code was being rewritten for the first time since 1957 to stop sprawlification, mallification and decline - the old code was seen as detrimental to the vitality of the city. But the new code, by overreacting to overdevelopment, may actually accellerate the decline of the city and turn a vital living city into a horrifying bland hell.

Whew. You may return to your regularly scheduled international crisis.
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