Developers recently unveiled plans for a trio of high-rises to be built at Wolf Point, adjacent to Merchandise Mart at the fork of the Chicago River. Before Chicago was Chicago, Wolf Point was the center of regional commerce and activity. Despite its importance in the genesis of Chicago, the 3.9 acre site is now an unsightly parking lot:
Given its location near the heart of downtown Chicago (only 1/3 of a mile from the loop, as the crow flies), I was surprised to hear that one of the key complaints (you knew there would be complaints, right?) is the increased traffic the development may bring to the neighborhood.
American cities and towns have a long and rather uncomplicated relationship with new developments. It goes like this: developers propose a shiny new development, city officials claim the increased traffic will be detrimental to the neighborhood and withhold approval until the developer dedicates money to street upgrades to handle the traffic, the city continues to cry foul over traffic concerns as a proxy for other unpalatable aspects of the development, the developer concedes on some of said aspects and finally wins approval from the city.
This process is well-known and totally expected in most communities and isn’t entirely unwarranted. If you live in a town of 20,000 people and a developer wants to build 2,000 new housing units it makes sense that he should also compensate the city for some of the infrastructure changes needed to accommodate the newcomers.
However, this connection becomes quite tenuous in places with an already high density of people and jobs. It becomes outright extortion in a place like downtown Chicago. Do residents really mean to convince us that building a couple of towers right next to the scores of other towers in their neighborhood is really going to have an appreciable effect on traffic? Streets in River North are already clogged to near standstill during rush hour. I find it hard to believe that adding a few more cars to the mix will even be noticeable.
This issue calls to mind an article I read in The Atlantic Cities this week. Although secondary to the author’s main thesis, he makes the point that cities and their residents are far better at adapting to traffic congestion than planners, engineers and policymakers give them credit for.
There are several reasons to oppose the Wolf Point development as presently proposed and I genuinely hope that the process yields a more inviting and iconic development than what’s on the table currently. But neighbors hiding their objections under the cover of “traffic congestion” is simply moronic.
p.s. Although not transportation related, I should also note that some residents have expressed concern that the towers will block their views of the river and the rest of downtown to the east. To that I ask, didn’t the construction of your tower do the exact same thing to your western neighbors? Did you honestly think a riverfront parking lot would remain undeveloped forever? Although I generally dislike the tea party platform, I think we would share a healthy skepticism of residents unfairly wielding government’s regulatory power for their own gain by restricting another’s right to do (within reason) as they please on their own property.