Elevated Chicago program director encourages Mayor-elect to increase mobility options through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD)


Roberto Requejo, program director of Elevated Chicago, served as co-chair of Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s Transportation & Infrastructure Transition Committee.  In this role, he led several meetings of the committee, then joined other committee leaders in writing a memo  summarizing its recommendations.

TO: Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot

FROM: Roberto Requejo, Program Director, Elevated Chicago; Co-Chair, Transportation & Infrastructure Transition Committee [1]

SUBJECT: Increasing mobility options through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD)

Elevated Chicago is proposing the promotion of equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD) as a tool to increase opportunities for communities of color and low-income residents. With 145 train stations and 129 bus routes serving every neighborhood, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) provides an unmatched opportunity to build a different city by concentrating investments within the half-mile radius of its stops and hubs. The model can be applied also to Metra stations and other transit hubs. eTOD will build a global, inclusive city where all residents thrive independently of their race or zip code.



Infusing the values of equity, transparency, accountability, diversity and inclusion, and transformation in this initiative


Many of the inequities of Chicago, from the racial wealth gap to the dramatically lower life expectancy in communities of color, can be tracked back to significant deficits in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the fields of planning and development, and more acutely, in transportation and infrastructure. Lack of DEI hurts people of color, strains the budgets of the public and nonprofit sectors, and damages the bottom line of corporations. Chicago’s built environment is both cause and effect of these DEI gaps, many of which have been in place for over a century. Yet the main decision-makers in this space (incl.  government leaders, planning and engineering firms, developers, funders, and investors) lack a common understanding of DEI; a joint vision, framework and commitment to it; and spaces and resources to collaborate on it. Elevated Chicago is proposing the creation of a DEI framework, curriculum and plan with “hard goals” that are adopted jointly by all City departments impacting the built environment. This framework should guide the actions of planning and engineering firms, developers, architectural and design firms, anchor institutions, and financial entities undertaking infrastructure and built environment projects in Chicago. The goal is increasing (1) diversity and inclusion internally, within organizations (in staff, leadership and culture) and (2) equity externally, in communities, by applying criteria and tools centered in equity when making policy, investing, distributing resources, contracting services and establishing partnerships.



What is happening today that we need to keep?


Chicago must harness the local and national momentum around eTOD and become its global leader. The recent eTOD ordinance passed by City Council in January 2019 includes a mandate to develop an Equitable Policy Plan for TOD by August 2020. The Mayor’s Office and Elevated Chicago have created a working group (WG) that is collaborating to produce the plan. The work of this cross-departmental WG should be properly resourced and supported by the Mayor’s Office to produce an Equitable Policy Plan that will guide development around transit hubs for decades to come, by ensuring full engagement of community-based and civic groups, coordinating resources among City departments, and keeping retention of community residents and businesses near transit as a key goal –with a focus on communities of color and low-income residents.

It is also necessary to sustain and incentivize more cross-departmental collaboration and coordination across all the agencies engaged in impacting infrastructure, transportation and the built environment, especially the City’s departments  of Planning and Development, Transportation, Public Health, and Housing, along with the Treasurer’s Office and CTA. Such coordination is being cultivated in Elevated Chicago’s Leadership Council, whose members represent these very departments. Coordination is essential to link different types of infrastructure investments (housing, transit, green infrastructure, commercial development) and programs (CDBG, TIF, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, Thrive Zones, Opportunity Zones), all of which are now currently operating in silos and, sometimes, against each other.



What do we need to implement immediately (first 100 days)?


A number of equitable TOD demonstration projects led by community-based organizations are in need of immediate investment and well-resourced community engagement. The Elevated Chicago capital pipeline, for example, includes $150 million in impactful eTOD near CTA hubs: affordable housing, green infrastructure, business incubators and community facilities. These projects include Emmet Street homes (Logan Square station); C40, Eco-Orchard and Oaks of North Lawndale (Kedzie Corridor); Latinos Progresando Community Center (California Pink Line station); and the Overton business incubator, historic Garfield CTA station, and KLEO Center (along the Green Line South stations). These projects are centered on racial equity and community engagement, and align resources on the ½ mile around CTA stations for multiplied impact.

To ensure the success of these projects we are urging the City to prioritize walkability, public safety and placemaking initiatives around transit hubs to increase ridership and active transportation options, building on the work that Chicago Dept. of Public Health is doing around several CTA stations. The City should also consider adopting new tools and criteria for investments. Elevated Chicago members Enterprise Community Partners, IFF and The Chicago Community Trust are piloting a Capital Screen for equitable investment that can be used to direct further capital infusion. Other members are testing Racial Equity Impact Assessments to gauge the effect of capital projects for low-income residents and people of color.

Additionally, the City should consider creating a well-resourced TOD Director position to simplify and streamline the implementation of equitable TOD; coordinate between City departments, private sector, and other public and civic institutions; and identify “stackable” incentives and programs to be deployed in pilot areas and projects within the ½ mile of transit.



What can we plan for longer term implementation?


A longer-term priority is the integration of eTOD as a key pillar within a much-needed comprehensive plan for the City of Chicago, aligned with CMAP’s 2050 Plan. In spite of the investments in transit and active transportation infrastructure, our city is still an auto-oriented one and lacks a firm, clear commitment to TOD at the core of all its planning and development efforts. While other global cities like London, Hong Kong and Singapore have made TOD a core planning principle, Chicago lags behind.

As part of this effort, we must undertake the radical transformation and enhancement of community engagement and ownership principles, tools and processes that guide the planning and development process in neighborhoods. Building on the findings of the City’s recent Baseline of Public Engagement Efforts and on Elevated Chicago’s Community Engagement Principles & Recommendations, the City should (1) further engage stakeholders in the consolidation and redesign its community engagement efforts, (2) create a culture of community engagement across City departments, and (3) continue testing and piloting innovative methods to engage community residents in planning, development and infrastructure, such as the Corridor Development Initiative by the Metropolitan Planning Council.


What challenges might we encounter in executing on this initiative?


Challenges for implementation of these priorities include inertia and silos in City departments, many of which lack a collaborative culture or DEI framework; significant and rapidly growing inequities, displacement and depopulation trends in neighborhoods, which make eTOD interventions more and more urgent; limited trust in the public sector, corporations and anchor institutions in communities, especially in the most disinvested areas; decline in public transit ridership and perceptions of some stations and hubs as inconvenient, unsafe or unpleasant by community residents; and negative and inaccurate narratives in media and social media about disinvested communities, transit and TOD.

Without a strong equitable TOD approach, our current infrastructure and transportation plans and the mega-developments planned across Chicago will continue displacing people in gentrifying communities and bypassing disinvested neighborhoods, making us less diverse and equitable, and damaging the city’s social cohesion, competitiveness and reputation. eTOD is the tool that can revert these trends and position Chicago as a global leader in equitable development.

[1] The cross-disciplinary, multi-lens character of eTOD makes the recommendations in this memo applicable also to the following Transition Committees: Housing; Business, Economic and Neighborhood Development; Environment; Public Health; and Public Safety

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