A closer look at the McMobil project’s density

To the Editor:

Amid all the discussion of the proposed development of the so-called McMobil lot, there are two issues of real substance, and they are the ones that are subject to zoning: the height of the proposed building, and the floor area ratio (FAR). The developer is petitioning for a “planned development,” which essentially means they want permission to build to three times the current height limit and to more than double the current FAR limit. Since zoning requirements are intended to maintain the character of an area, it is worthwhile to consider the parties involved and their interests.

There are at least three major stakeholders here. One is the developer whose interest, no matter how thoughtful they are about urban design, is to turn a profit. Another is the University of Chicago, which wishes to provide the kinds of amenities that it thinks will attract and please its students and employees. (Aligned in interest with the university are the merchants who support any increase in population that might provide potential customers.) The third is the surrounding community that actually lives and spends time on 53rd Street. This group is interested in the quality of life in the immediate neighborhood; part of that interest in quality of life is an interest in maintaining the character of the area. Throughout the visioning process the entire community, not just those who live near the McMobil site, has consistently and strongly spoken in favor of maintaining both the scale and character of the area.

When we consider these three parties and their interests, we actually see little disagreement on the basic points. The surrounding community is largely in favor of the university’s goal of more people living on 53rd Street to support present and future businesses. We assume that both the university and the developer would welcome a project that meets the current zoning restrictions as long as it met their other requirements. Where the groups do not see eye-to-eye is on what trade-offs are acceptable. No one wants a tall building for its own sake, but for the university and the developer it is a price well worth paying to get the things they consider more fundamental. The problem here is that the surrounding community will pay this price, not the developer and university. Let us consider the two issues of size and height separately.

On the issue of size, the developer and university want to install many more residents than current zoning allows. They are confident that these new residents will in general walk on 53rd Street and use public transportation rather than driving, and if the surrounding community shared their confidence there would probably be little if any opposition to allowing these extra residents. However, since the university and developer will derive benefits from the extra residents no matter what, while the surrounding community will bear the costs if it turns out that these residents will drive more and walk less than the university and developer predict, the community is right to be skeptical of the rosy claims about the low-impact lifestyles of these new residents. On the issue of height, the university and the developer are being disingenuous. The community has stated clearly and resoundingly throughout the visioning process that they do not want a tall building on that site, no matter how cleverly workshop organizers tried to present the issue as “density” without any mention of height. If a short building would give the developer a greater return on investment than a tall one (if, for example, there were an appropriate Pigovian tax [ed. note: a tax to offset external costs] on height above the zoned limit), you can be quite sure the proposal would be for a short building. If the university shared the belief of many in the surrounding community that a development in scale with the surrounding area on 53rd Street would be more likely than a high-rise to attract renters who would walk and shop on 53rd Street rather than drive, we would probably see such a proposal.

The height of the building could be substantially reduced by the investment of money – the parking could be buried at a cost, and the developers could be easily induced to have fewer units, and thus fewer stories to the building, if they were given other financial guarantees. We bring this up not because we think it is realistic for the university to front this money, but to point out that there are alternatives to externalizing all costs to the surrounding community.

Discussions of the McMobil development too often focus on parking as if it were the central issue. It is not central, it is simply the most obvious manifestation of the problems attendant upon a development that is out of scale with its surroundings and is in clear violation of current and accepted zoning regulations. Scale and character are the central issues; let us make sure that they are on the table in each discussion and that any proposed trade-offs involving them are presented explicitly and transparently.

Michael Scott
Jack Spicer
George Rumsey
Jay Ammerman
Janet Geovanis

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