Just the Ticket

Just the ticket
Transit-oriented housing eases commuters’ pain — and villages gain

By Dan Rafter
Special to the Tribune
Published March 27, 2005

When Jessica and Justin Mead moved out of the city last summer, they made a promise to each other: Neither would have to suffer the strains of a long daily commute.

They kept their promise by moving to a townhouse development in downtown Evanston. The Meads now live three blocks from a Metra station and one from a stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Purple Line. Both can get to their downtown jobs in 20 minutes.

“We’ve always wanted to take public transportation to get downtown,” said Jessica Mead, an attorney. “Parking fees there are astronomical. And neither of us likes the headaches that go along with driving. A short commute is such an advantage. It leaves you with so much extra time in the day.”

The Meads are hardly alone. A new national study reports that home buyers are increasingly looking to get to and from work as quickly as possible.

And though many home seekers will accept long commutes — along with higher gasoline prices — to find a home they like and can afford, many are rejecting the hour-and-a-half or more trips that many suburbanites have long suffered. Builders are creating new transit-oriented developments across Chicago’s suburbs in response.

These developments earn their name because they are within walking distance of public transportation, thus eliminating the hassles of rush-hour traffic for their residents.

The 2004 American Community Survey, sponsored by the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America, reports that 79 percent of U.S. residents point to a commute time of 45 minutes or less as the top priority in deciding where to live. This ranks far higher than does the desire for a large house on more than 1 acre of land, a benefit that the report says is important to just 57 percent of residents.

Of those planning to buy a home in the next three years, 87 percent rank a shorter commute as their top priority. When asked to choose between two communities, six in 10 potential buyers chose a neighborhood that offered a shorter commute, sidewalks and amenities such as libraries, shops and restaurants within walking distance. These respondents chose such a neighborhood over a sprawling community with larger lots and a longer commute.

Even in the farthest-flung Chicago suburbs, builders and developers are aware of the growing desire of homeowners to slash their commutes.

And though commute times for residents living in these far-off communities may be longer than the 45-minute ideal, many feel their trips to and from work will be less stressful in a train.

“The convenience of a transit-oriented development can’t be beat,” said David Strosberg, president of Chicago-based Morningside Group, a developer that has built several such developments in Chicago suburbs. “Think about all the time your typical suburban resident spends commuting to the job. The opportunity to walk to the train and get to work in half an hour is something that can’t be beat. And that’s why these developments are so popular.”

It’s little wonder homeowners would be frustrated with their daily commutes. Workers are spending more time stuck in traffic than ever.

The Texas Transportation Institute made headlines last year with its study of average commuting times across the country. The study found that the average Chicago-Indiana area commuter spent 56 hours a year in traffic.

It’s no wonder then that the Federal Transit Administration predicts that the number of buyers and renters seeking housing near public transportation will rise to almost 15 million by 2025.

In the Chicago area, buyers have several such choices.

In west suburban Elmhurst, Morningside Group is building Crescent Court, which comprises 123 condominiums kitty-corner from Elmhurst’s Metra station. The first units will be ready for occupancy in late summer.

John D. Said, Elmhurst’s director of planning, zoning and economic development, said he’s anxious to see even more projects such as Morningside’s. Transit-oriented developments, according to Said, bring several benefits not only to residents seeking less stressful commutes but also to entire communities.

“It’s hard to narrow down a short list of positives,” he said. “Overall there is a benefit to having more residents and more activity in your community. You have more people downtown to patronize your local businesses and shop at local stores. There are then increased local sales taxes.”

And the best news as far as Said is concerned? These benefits come without the biggest negative brought by strip malls and massive shopping centers: increased vehicle traffic.

“Even single-family homes like the one I live in generate many more vehicle trips than do multifamily condo buildings in downtown locations,” according to Said. “The traffic generation is much less for these kinds of units than it would be for a subdivision neighborhood or for a large-scale retail store.”

Another benefit? Transit-oriented developments typically place less strain on a community’s services. Said points out that because relatively few school-age children live in a transit-oriented development such as Crescent Court, those developments place little additional burden on local school districts. But the other residents of such developments still pay taxes to these school districts. Schools, then, end up with far more gains than they do burdens.

Transit-oriented development is playing a big role in downtown Geneva, too, where Sho-Deen Inc. is putting the finishing touches on the River North Condominiums, a series of three multistory residential buildings with a total of more than 100 units. The project is about a half-mile from Geneva’s Metra station, ideal for commuters not eager to battle rush-hour traffic on Interstate Highway 88.

City planners hope to see additional transit-oriented developments in Geneva’s downtown.

“Developments like these reinforce a sense of place in a community,” said Dick Untch, Geneva’s director of community development. “I think there’s only going to be a greater push for these developments. People want to get to work without the hassle of fighting traffic. It’s no surprise that there are so many success stories with these kind of developments all over the Chicago metropolitan area.

“We have downtowns with train stations that are doing mixed-use developments that incorporate commercial buildings on the ground floor and residential units above them. We’re seeing communities taking creative approaches to handling parking. City planners are being so creative and really working to bring these developments to their downtowns.”
Projects such as those in Geneva and Elmhurst are considered by many urban planners to represent the future of transit-oriented development for one reason: They are in-fill developments. This means they are built in existing downtown environments, with developers often renovating existing buildings.

“When you talk about transit-oriented development you are not going to get too many new green sites right now,” said Sam Santell, director of planning with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. “A lot of transit-oriented development involves retrofitting what is there now. As far as I’m concerned, that’s good news. I really think the redevelopment aspect of these developments is important.”

Municipalities, though, must first sell transit-oriented developments to their residents, he said. Most are high-density projects. And when residents hear “high density” they often balk.

In Geneva, municipal officials are careful not to approve in-fill, high-density developments that would harm the historic charm of the city’s downtown business district. For instance, Sho-Deen’s River North project is in a part of downtown that once was industrial.

“We have to be very selective and surgical about where we put high-density housing,” Untch said.
This in-fill approach has led to serious business for many developers. Tom Roszak, owner of Evanston-based Roszak/ADC, is one.

Roszak concentrates his efforts on developing urban in-fill properties that are close to public transportation. These type of developments, he said, allow him to cater to his company’s key demographic: dual-income couples either with no children or one small child. Roszak estimates that nearly 50 percent of his buyers are such couples.
And these couples are looking for short, stress-free commutes.

“It’s a lifestyle we see a lot of, so we cater to it,” Roszak said. “The husband or the wife has a car and the other spouse takes the `L’ or the Metra downtown or somewhere along the transit line. We’ve done a lot of developments in the Chicago area and Evanston that sit along the transit lines. Couples like them because they don’t require them to have two cars.”

Of course, though most new transit-oriented developments will be of the in-fill variety, there are exceptions. And Jim Willey is facing the challenges and the potential rewards of one.

As mayor of Elburn, a village of about 4,000 some 44 miles west of Chicago, Wiley he has the opportunity to bring something rare to his community: a transit-oriented development built on an empty 200 acres.

“A lot of the developers we’ve seen would rather build half-a-million-dollar homes in a cornfield,” Willey said. “They’re not attracted to working on the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly, higher-density projects we want for this area. This isn’t surprising. Developers would rather make a quick subdivision. That’s where their easiest profits come from. We’re not interested in that, though. We are not looking for a subdivision in a cornfield here. We want a real community.”

Elburn has this opportunity thanks to Metra. The commuter rail line’s final stop on its Union Pacific West line used to be Geneva. But Metra officials are extending the line two stops, to Elburn.

Metra officials, then, are building a station in this community, and expect to have the facility — and the extension — in service late this year. The Metra facility will sit on about 50 acres, a plot next to the empty 200 acres that Willey is hoping to see transformed into transit-oriented development.

“This is an amazing opportunity for us,” Willey said. “We are not in any hurry, then, to approve something just for the sake of approving it. That would serve no one. We are much more concerned with having something creative and dynamic here. We are talking about having something that will inspire people to take pictures.”

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