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Chicago Area Leaders Share Benefits of Suburban Transit-Oriented Development

Harvey TOD study area

According to the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus Chicago Region Climate Action Plan (CAP), a key municipal strategy to build climate resilience is building dense, mixed-use development around transit.  Transit-oriented development (TOD) has three key components:

TOD helps build a community where people bike, walk and use transit more easily because they can travel shorter distances to meet their daily needs, which helps reduce driving.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) reports that transportation accounts for 28.8% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the region and is second only to building emissions. A growing strategy to achieve decarbonization in the transportation sector is TOD. By prioritizing TOD and leveraging the second-largest rapid transit system in the U.S., Chicago area municipalities can increase the vitality of their communities while also advancing climate resilience. Read on for a recap of the event, which is available as a recording here. Recordings for the other events in this series promoting sustainable transportation and development are available here

 Why TOD?

In Homewood, a town with busy Metra and Amtrak stations connecting to downtown Chicago and to major educational institutions, the value of TOD is clear to residents, developers and political leaders. In opening remarks, Homewood Mayor Rich Hofeld described the importance of TOD to his community:

“This development activity enhances our town’s restaurants, shops and strengthens our economic base. We and developers had expected a great interest in TOD from singles and couples who live in the area and work in Chicago. And also those who reside in Chicago and wanted to move to the suburbs. But an unexpected factor was the interest we were receiving from seniors. Seniors have expressed an interest in downsizing, wanting to live in our downtown, and having access to our Metra to frequent Chicago.”

The panel of speakers included Homewood’s Director of Economic and Community Development, Angela Mesaros, the City of Harvey’s Community Outreach and Special Events Coordinator, David Clay II, and Harvey’s Director of Economic Development, Nicholas Greifer. As noted by Audrey Wennink, Transportation Director at the Metropolitan Planning Council, who moderated the panel, Equitable TOD (eTOD) expands on the TOD framework to tackle climate change, racial justice, public health, and economic recovery with a single tool. As described in the City of Chicago’s eTOD Policy Plan, eTOD “enables all people regardless of income, race, ethnicity, age, gender, immigration status or disability to experience the benefits of dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development near transit hubs.” ETOD is even more critical now given escalating auto and gas prices, to enable households to live closer to affordable transportation options.

Community Examples

Homewood’s Angela Mesaros, described the village’s vision to create a vibrant downtown community by redeveloping multiple sites near their Metra and Amtrak stations as mixed-use with medium to high-density. So far, they’ve invested in active transportation infrastructure, community centers, and educational, social, and cultural amenities. One such amenity is a community science center in a former funeral home located less than two blocks from the Homewood Metra station, which provides an educational experience for local residents while also serving as a regional draw. In all its TOD efforts, Homewood understands the importance of providing appealing transit infrastructure, upholding a commitment to diverse housing, maintaining shared parking spaces and cultivating public-private partnerships. Mesaros believes their first TOD project models the public-private partnerships essential to TOD:

“Village officials recognize the importance of the first TOD project as a catalyst to jumpstart re-development. That project recently broke ground and construction is underway for a four-story mixed-use building with 36 apartments and a restaurant on the first floor.”

Mesaros noted that Homewood will start an RTA-funded TOD plan by the end of 2022. The plan will assist Homewood  assess new opportunities for TOD, review market conditions in transit use and retail, pursue implementation complete streets, improve wayfinding, and balance preservation and new development.

Harvey Special Events Coordinator David Clay II believes that transit-oriented development is the key to building back Harvey to be the hub of the south suburbs. Clay highlighted how institutional partners like the local high school and hospital were central to developing Harvey’s recently released TOD plan. Below is a map of what Clay described as the “key” to Harvey’s future: an unconventionally shaped TOD region, intentionally designed to incorporate key institutional partners and the main business corridor of 154th street.

Also featured on the map are current TOD investment projects: the Harvey Transit Center, a collaboration between Pace and Metra, is a development with the aim of revitalizing Harvey; the former YMCA building is to be converted to affordable senior housing; and the Harvey lofts will provide affordable housing for young professionals. In addition to these key projects, the development framework focuses on retail and commercial development, creates signature downtown public spaces, leverages Harvey’s mobility hub, and prioritizes a complete streets program. But Economic Development Director Nicholas Greifer noted that developing density often faces opposition and planners may have to educate residents on the benefits of increasing density in a vibrant downtown.

Greifer described the importance of Harvey’s diverse approach to achieving density:

“We want to leverage the transit assets with more density. And the way to do that is not just to get the multi-story, five-story buildings, but also get density in other ways. […] also smaller forms of density like townhomes or narrow lot homes.”

Both Greifer and Clay attributed Harvey’s successful TOD plan to the prioritization of housing, inviting investors and community partners to have early conversations about development, promotion of Harvey’s existing assets, and confirmation of development concepts in the early planning stages.

Lessons Learned

When developing eTOD, it is essential to provide affordable housing. Panelists were asked how they approach providing housing for all income levels in their transit areas. In Homewood, the market rate housing provides a natural supply of relatively affordable housing without government incentives. Additionally, one new developer will be heavily financed by the Illinois Housing Development Authority’s (IHDA) low-income housing tax credit. This will guarantee a supply of high-quality, affordable workforce and senior housing in Homewood.

Homewood and Harvey demonstrate that eTOD is a vital tool for placemaking, increasing active modes of transportation, improving traffic safety, diversifying housing options, increasing transit use, reducing pollution and noise from vehicles, increasing amenities, meeting the high demand of transit from seniors and millennials, increasing the disposable income of residents, and increasing economic resilience. A new tool enables communities to quantify the social and environmental benefits of eTOD in Cook County using the eTOD Social Impact Calculator, developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Harvey and Homewood officials expressed confidence that individuals would gladly walk a short to moderate distance to a reliable transit station. As such, planning must be comprehensive at both high and granular levels to ensure infrastructure investments provide an environment that encourages walkability.  Clay highlighted the value of prioritizing walkability:

“Harvey has learned that when you rely on the most basic form of transportation, the most elemental form of transportation, which is our legs, cities thrive. Development happens in a much more friendly, much more sustainable, and ultimately a much more resilient manner.”

During a discussion about engagement for Harvey’s TOD during the pandemic, Clay described how the city managed to engage the community via a series of public meetings, in which participants both played a role in the planning process as well as providing community input. Events were hosted both virtually over Zoom webinars and via a handful of in-person masked meetings.

Panelists closed with their final advice for other communities hoping to implement a TOD plan, urging fellow municipalities to: be patient, think outside the box, be practical, create strong written planning products, and approach TOD with confidence.

For recordings of previous events, links to resources, and to sign up for the October 13 event on ADA transition planning, visit the event website.