Managing the Glob
City-ness comes unbidden to DuPage County
Like listening to a stranger talk about his operation, I suppose. Nearly four thousand words about regional government in one of Chicago’s collar counties was likely to interest only people who live there—about 790,000 at the time this piece was written—and people who find government interesting. But more and more Illinoisans find themselves living in DuPage-like urban globs, including DuPagers, whose numbers as 2020 approached had swelled to more than 930,000.
DuPage County is rich by Illinois standards, white, and increasingly crowded. It's also a pseudo-urban glob—35 suburbs becoming a city—remarkably similar to other globs that have risen since the 1960s outside Houston and Atlanta; in Fairfax County, Va., and White Plains, N.Y.; and along Route 128 near Boston and U.S. 1 by Princeton, N.J. Planners, academics and others have dubbed these places mega-centers, super-suburbs, out-towns, urban villages, satellite cities, spread cities, ring cities, and accidental cities. No matter what you call them, planning for such growth presents a challenge, particularly when these globs thrive next to—and depend upon—older cities that are not rich, not white, and even more crowded.
DuPage is a relatively new member of this super-suburb fraternity, says Robert Bruegmann, who teaches architectural history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Houston boomed in the 1960s and Chicago didn't," he explains. "Chicago is just starting to see that kind of development on a massive scale." In the past two decades, a wave of corporate relocations from the Loop to suburban campuses has transformed DuPage from bedroom to boardroom center, a physically dispersed, low-rise cityscape whose elements are connected—and separated—by roads and parking lots. To city lovers, these fragments somehow seem less than the sum of their parts. Many DuPagers are beginning to agree.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the apparent incoherence of the post-war suburb stems from unplanned growth. That's not true in DuPage: The county is one of the most meticulously planned places in the country. Planning is to DuPage what politics is to Chicago. It's what people talk about, it's what they get mad about, it's even what some of them do for fun. "I have to say that the county has made one of the finest planning efforts, not just in Illinois, but in the nation," says Dalip Bammi, head of DuPage's development department. There's little argument there: His department has been cited three times for excellence by the American Planning Association.
Ironically, the lesser attractions of life in DuPage County today—the traffic jams, the flooding, the vanishing green space, the growing visual blight—may result from too much planning. Consider zoning. Embraced by American communities in the 1920s, the "clean" zoning evident in many post-war suburbs has isolated the day-to-day activities that once were crammed into a single neighborhood, a single street or even a single building. Such zoning echoes the private sentiments of Americans who wish to isolate their homes and themselves from the irritating and the obnoxious. But idyllic environments often haven't materialized. Critics point their many fingers at lifeless suburban subdivisions, sterile shopping malls, and office districts that don't add up to a community.
By separating urban functions physically, zoning also required a commute, not only between job and home, but between anywhere and everywhere. When the daily mobilizations of a population are fueled by the automobile, as they are in the post-war suburb, the needs of cars, not people, become the basis of land-use decisions.
The results are louder suburban yearnings for open space, clean air, and dry basements (all that asphalt accelerates surface run-off, which aggravates flooding). Worse, in the opinion of most DuPagers, is the traffic congestion that attends these daily peregrinations. Inland Architect columnist Philip Bess explains that the present planning and zoning orthodoxy, now two generations old, incorporates a Progressive-era bias against the traditional city. The grid system of streets, for example, was largely abandoned by suburban planners; regulations on the books in many towns demand that subdivisions be connected to arterial streets at only one or two points. "That's a recipe for traffic jams," says Bess.
The traditional answer to the city-like traffic clogs is to build more and bigger roads. Yet that hope founders on the fact that new roads create more traffic. Another solution is to revert to the radial city of the 19th century, concentrate development along new light-rail mass-transit lines and hope that enough activity is spurred to make mass transit economical. Cultural and fiscal barriers to this approach are sizable. As Anthony Downs of the Brooking Institute explained last fall to a transportation conference in Chicago sponsored by the Urban Land Institute: "Public transportation is something Americans want other people to use to get out of their way." Downs concludes that only draconian measures, such as $5,000 automobile license fees, will convince people to give up the use of their cars. Of course, he admits such controls "would be politically unthinkable in a democratic society that loves the car."
For years now, Downs and others have argued that only land-use planners can "solve" suburban traffic problems. For example, planners could "unzone" their cities and allow concentrated mixed-use developments in which shops, offices, and homes are closer to the people who use them. Car trips in such compact cities are then rendered shorter, even unnecessary. Elsewhere, many planners and planning types are praising Seaside, Fla., a boom-country recreation of a 19th century New England town, with well planned public spaces and practical mixtures of houses, stores and workplaces—all within walking distance along narrow, interconnected streets.
The Seaside approach was implemented in DuPage a decade ago by Robert A. Olson's Green Trails development in Lisle. Designed in 1978 by Balsamo/Olson Group, an Oakbrook Terrace-based architecture and engineering firm, Green Trails is just 780 acres large and features "neighborhood shopping" at its core. The retail district is surrounded by 2,000 homes and 450 apartments, and all are connected by a 28-mile network of asphalt paths that comprise a walkable internal traffic infrastructure.
Like Seaside, Green Trails succeeds at creating original notions from old ones. But Olson's development ideas seem more in tune with suburban desires than Seaside's, which risk imposing a theme-park cuteness on residents. Could DuPagers survive in these new Disneylands? One suspects they want the same things Chicagoans want: mobility, freedom and a home on a nice street. They just don't want to live in Chicago to have them. According to this construct, the placelessness of an Oakbrook Terrace—only 30 years old and still, essentially, a subdivision with an attitude—is unimportant as long one of the "places" it has less of is Chicago.
But DuPage can't hide from the city, because the city is becoming DuPage. Community leaders increasingly face an apparently impossible assignment: How can bustling DuPage retain its suburban charms and still solve the pseudo-urban-glob problems that threaten to disfigure those charms? Will the rest of DuPage County move forward by borrowing from the past? Or will it, as the local anti-growth movement fears, march backward into the future by becoming more urban?
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One of the advantages of life in the Midwest is that most things happen somewhere else first. It is possible to read the future of DuPage in the experiences of other super-suburbs. It's up to DuPagers, however, to decide whether their county can avoid the horror stories and turn the glob into an accessible, livable community.
As Thomas H. Morsch Jr., executive director of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, told an audience last fall: "The world has changed. You don't go out and slap highways down in cornfields anymore." Wetlands preservation and similar steps to ameliorate the impact of road construction now account for as much as one-third of the costs of such projects. Add the price of garbage disposal and sewage treatment and you can understand one regional planner's recent warning that the environmental effects of development "have become consequential in everyday terms."
Here and there one sees hints of more environmentally benign ways to use the land. Wetlands projects now underway along the new North-South Tollway [today's I-355] are breaking ground in the science of restoring these complex ecological systems. And maverick engineers, such as Wheaton's Sheaffer and Roland Inc., are perfecting on-site storm- and waste-water treatment systems that save water and money.
But alas, a look into the crystal ball shows traffic besting the most inventive minds. In parts of California, officials worry that traffic tie-ups are imposing limits on economic development. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley has even proposed banning commercial trucks from expressways during rush hours. DuPage County has not yet achieved that sort of steady-state gridlock—the average commute is only eight miles, a drive around the block by L. A. standards—but traffic congestion is detracting from the county's vaunted quality of life. Average rush-hour speeds at several busy roads are a slug-slow six miles per hour. You could walk faster.
Wider roads, improved traffic management, staggered working hours, van pools and a host of other bandages will provide relief, but as long as people are physically dispersed, the roads will remain jammed. As the costs of land increase, so will the financial pressures to build more intensively. And as the costs of public services increase, so will the pressures on local officials to approve denser developments that return greater tax revenues per acre.
The result will be more activity in DuPage County. It also means a different kind of DuPage, one built to essentially urban densities. Future density even has its own love-it-or-hate-it symbol: the 31-story Oakbrook Terrace Tower, designed by Helmut Jahn and built at the DuPage equivalent of State and Madison streets. It is the first structure of that height in these parts—and a half-dozen similar high-rises either are being discussed or planned.
Of course, higher land costs don't always lead to higher density development. DuPage has its share of single-family houses being replaced by shopping centers and office parks, but it also has $100,000 homes being bought and razed to make room for $400,000 houses. And while the market may push DuPage toward higher densities, DuPagers can be expected to push right back. Complains planner Bammi: "It's density that impacts the system." He notes that DuPage's land generally is over-zoned for nonresidential uses, in part to accommodate the extravagant growth predicted in the 1960s. His staff is updating the county's comprehensive land-use plan, hoping to redirect bigger development away from vulnerable low-density residential districts and reduce it to what Bammi calls "the holding capacity of the land."
Still, most of the county's problems can be traced to its low-density pattern of land use, a policy that inevitably encourages suburban sprawl and its nastier accouterments. But rather than reduce the public costs of development by altering local planning patterns, most DuPage officials are upping the ante by exacting greater concessions from private developers. Naperville, to pick just one example, was a leader in requiring that new park lands become a condition of subdivision approval. The range of such exactions has widened. Developers, who were obliged under most subdivision regulations merely to build sidewalks and curbs, are now required to dedicate land, make in-kind donations, pay hook-up fees and special assessments, and even build their own drainage systems.
Most recently, the DuPage County Board in late November passed hefty new "traffic-impact fees" that should raise roughly $13 million annually. Exaction fees in suburban Chicago remain modest compared to those levied elsewhere. Schaumburg's assessments for traffic-improvement projects reportedly average $1 per square foot of developed space; meanwhile, the state of New Jersey has proposed charging developers of Hudson River real estate as much as $8 per square foot for sewer and trolley projects.
But the new DuPage attitude has some building pros muttering about geese and golden eggs. "They're pricing the big players out of the market right now," says Olson, whose Green Trails layout included 120 acres donated to Lisle for new parks and schools. He estimates that up-front costs of sewer hook-up and traffic fees for a 100-lot subdivision now will run as much as $300,000, "and that's before I can even get a [zoning] review."
Boosting the costs of building in DuPage, Olson says, will lead to more piecemeal projects, fewer developer-provided amenities and pressures from developers for more intensive land uses. These, of course, are the things most DuPagers don't want. Developers also may go shopping in other counties, especially if communities such as Naperville proceed with plans for their own traffic fees.
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However much DuPage County changes in physical shape over the next few decades, its political and governmental landscape it likely to change even more. Suburban development so far has sprawled across municipal and even county lines. The crazy quilt of jurisdictions means that public authority over land use is fragmented. It also guarantees a certain level of fiscal inequality among DuPage municipalities. "Everybody wants to be Oak Brook [whose healthy commercial taxes cover the entire cost of running the village]," explains Larry Christmas, executive director of the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. "We zone everything in terms of tax consequences instead of livability. We need to take the competition for development out of planning."
The only way to do that, of course, is to take the fragmentation out of government. Virtually all of DuPage's more pressing problems are regional. Some form of metropolitan government that would tie county, township and municipality into one functional entity is the standard remedy offered by government rationalists, most notably DuPage County Board Chairman Jack T. Knuepfer.
It is impossible to imagine the proud baronies of DuPage surrendering sovereignty to a formally structured regional government. And the record shows that county boards elsewhere have not been dependable vehicles for good land-use policy. Decisions by old-boy boards often are incompetent or corrupt. More recently, the seats of their single-member districts are ripe for capture by organized interest groups, usually those opposed to further growth.
In the 1970s, state authorities from California to New Jersey became frustrated by the inability of local officials to contain sprawl. States began to assert their interests in local land-use decisions, at first to protect special areas, such as Green Mountain farmlands, as happened in Vermont. The legal potential for such an assertive state land-use policy exists in Illinois: the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's groundwater-protection plan is essentially a land-use ordinance and the state's Department of Transportation can wield its authority over construction within the state's flood plains. But even these powers will be exercised cautiously, especially in places like DuPage County, as long as there is a Republican governor in Springfield.
Instead of succumbing to genuine regional government or state interference, DuPage seems more likely to rely on a more perfectly suburban remedy: voluntary cooperation. Regional issues have been addressed in recent years by a bewildering array of regional entities ranging from the county's Mayors and Managers Conference (a kind of DuPage United Nations) to limited special-purpose districts, such as the DuPage County Water Commission. The system works, sort of. "I don't think that everything that's happened has been bad," says Bammi. DuPage's clanking coordination machine has produced consensus on a North-South Tollway, he notes, "and in another three or four years we'll have Lake Michigan water in DuPage County. Another problem solved."
Such a system, however, places burdens on planners, who often spend more time preaching than prescribing. Explains Bammi: " We try to foster the idea that municipal officials should be acting locally but thinking regionally." It is a reminder that planners' powers are mostly exhortatory—and it is indeed significant that most of the awards Bammi's department has won have not been for innovations in land-use design but for innovations in intergovernmental coordination.
Illinois isn't exactly an innovator when it comes to land-use and planning. Chicago's most recent contributions, naturally, focus on urban forms, such as the vertical villages designed by Bertrand Goldberg at Marina City. Our suburban designers have not pioneered since 1869, when Frederick Law Olmsted created Cook County's Riverside. Cluster development and similar departures from the spaciously sited single-family house and yard win local approval, of course, but standard subdivision and zoning regulations are the norms. "It isn't that the planning being done here is bad," insists Robert Olson. "The problem is . . . government bodies aren't able to accept new design criteria."
There is another reason why DuPage must craft more creative planning and development policies: The flow of public capital to its suburbs is drying up. Federal sewer-construction grants have been converted to loans, interstate highway money has been spent, municipal waiting lists are growing, local funding shares are rising, roads are aging and the county's new water system is unfinished. Providing for such needs locally means more bond issues, more fees and more tax increases. Land for expressway rights-of-way today costs $10–$12 a foot, and the North-South Tollway may be the last major road to be built for a long, long time. Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Theodore G. Weigle recently suggested local officials tax the use of cars to generate the road funds that conventional taxes cannot supply.
Past a certain point, of course, it is private capital that sustains a boom. If the experience of other super-suburbs is a guide, the only force likely to make a decisive impact on DuPage County's future is DuPagers themselves. The county is approaching its urban adolescence, that stage at which the people who moved there have begun to complain that the good life is being ruined by the people who are moving there now. The not-in-my-backyard syndrome has been an inescapable political consequence of rapid growth across the country. No-growth issues have been behind recent upsets of established party factions in DuPage—and form a substantial part of the constituency for more developer exactions and low-density zoning. And the NIMBYs of DuPage have been joined by corporate heavyweights: AT&T, for instance, recently joined Lisle homeowners fighting against a zoning decision that would have created a four-tower office complex in their backyards.
In short, the sheriff has arrived. The big developers may pack up and head west if DuPage County gets too civilized. Major players already are assembling tracts in Kane and McHenry counties. "Land is more reasonably priced there," says Olson. "And the people are more reasonable." Kane and McHenry counties, under this scenario, are likely to become suburbs of DuPage, not of Chicago.
The suburbs are doomed to become cities. The process of city-building has not changed much in 150 years: The urban structure remains an expression of the dynamics of money, land and technology. DuPage will steadily become more urban in character, as traffic and land costs compel more compact forms of land use. Local political opposition can slow this process, perhaps redirect this process, but it cannot stop this process. The population will become more diverse, at least in terms of class, either by court compulsion or in response to pressures from corporate citizens who need workers for entry-level jobs. Local politics, of course, will become even more complex and contentious as a result.
Might a DuPage County someday rival its parent? It seems far-fetched to discuss DuPage outdoing the Loop as an office district at a time when the East-West Corridor has only one square foot of office space for every five available in the Loop. But what about shopping, services, and entertainment? The Galleria-Post Oak area, 6.5 miles from downtown Houston, does more business than all but the busiest dozen downtowns in the country. It is now as dense as Houston's old core; its multi-story malls, served by massive parking decks, even resemble a downtown. Says historian Bob Bruegmann: "I can't see why that can't happen in DuPage."
Are places like DuPage new cities then, or just old cities in an early stage of evolution? Bammi does not believe that, say, Oak Brook will ever achieve the levels of diversity and density associated with the traditional city. "There is no bottomless pit here," he argues. "There will be only so many jobs to go around." Bammi does, however, foresee the entire county growing to function as a single urban entity in spite of its political divisions, never quite a city but much more than a suburb. As it does, Chicago, the city of neighborhoods, could become merely the biggest in a neighborhood of cities. ●
More to the story: Low-income homes on the range
The corporate exodus to the suburbs shortened many managers' commutes, but the reverse trip from Chicago by car or mass transit either is time-consuming or altogether impossible. De facto exclusionary zoning, brought about by sky-high housing and other costs of living, has created an economy with lots of chiefs and few Indians. The results were especially evident this Christmas retailing season, when area malls reported a shortage of clerks, although DuPage employers complain year-round about difficulties in filling lower paying jobs.
Local resistance to affordable-housing schemes might be mollified if they were viewed as a solution disguised as a problem. The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, for instance, proposes local governments push for construction of 15 low-income units for every 100 jobs created—and sell the idea as a remedy to labor shortages and traffic jams.
Public and government enthusiasm for such plans is decidedly tepid. Welford Sanders, an associate director of the American Planning Association, believes the private sector could provide affordable housing if there was a matching public commitment. "The difference between Illinois and California," he explains, "is that California has a state law mandating affordable housing; a developer who chooses to include such housing as part of a market-rate development has the right to ask for higher densities from local officials as a trade-off."
No such commitment has been forged yet in Illinois, although a few employers have demonstrated initiative. Some 40 years ago, for instance, Hinsdale Hospital (now part of Adventist Health Systems U.S. Inc.) began buying and building houses near the hospital and renting them at 30 to 50 percent below market rates to its low-wage employees. Of course, that would be more difficult to pull off with today's housing prices.
Generally, it's more practical to lower the cost of housing than to scrounge for more rental subsidies from the federal government. Public-private partnerships (usually with the public partner donating land) are one way to do that. So are revisions of local codes that allow construction of smaller-than-normal housing units. In New Jersey, where suburbs are under a court order to make cheaper housing available, developers have been ordered to set aside units for below-market rentals or make cash payments to a program that will build them. And Christopher Leinberger, a California consultant who has written extensively on satellite cities, proposes what amounts to worker barracks, to be built on land abutting existing shopping centers or even atop parking lots—creating, perhaps, a suburban version of Chicago's Back of the Yards community. ●