Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Visit by Chicago Alderman Mary Ann Smith

“Most communities do not go for speculative development...the social cost is too high.”

Mary Anne Smith, Chicago’s 48th Ward Alderman for over twenty years, shared her expertise with the City Commission on January 4th as part of the Commission’s “Sustainability and Solutions” workshop and with CCNA (City Coalition of Neighborhood Associations) at the Coalition’s January 5th meeting.

Smith is known as a leader on sustainable development, affordable housing, walkability, the environment and green development. In addition to turning a declining North Chicago neighborhood into a vibrant hub of mixed use, affordable housing, walkability and more, she has developed a model for developer-neighborhood collaboration, and proactively participated in Mayor Daley’s remarkable Green Renaissance in Chicago.

Reproduced below are some of Jude Levy’s notes on Ms. Smith’s visit:

This was Ms. Smith’s first trip to Florida, first visit to Sarasota . She was mightily impressed. As she drove around, she especially enjoyed the clusters of historic buildings and the perceived empathy with the natural environment. One of her first points: “Government needs to be the watchdog for saving these important resources”.

What with global climate changes and shifts in demographics, there need to be creative solutions. Delighted to know that the City is working with ICLEI. “You are probably working on a local plan and the city of Chicago would be happy to work with you on a plan, through Michele Mician.” She referred to David Sucher’s book, City Comforts, which supports the Chicago mayor’s greening policies.

Yes, we must create walkable, livable communities. Traffic is a barrier and divides people. Traffic calming is preferable to stop lights. Need alternate transportation to free elders from owning a car.

What creates strong community identification. Historic buildings contribute. Who is being served by your policies? Hopefully, everyone.

In her ward they have down-zoned and rezoned to take zoning for 15 story buildings zoning down to five story buildings. How do they do this? By making the case that those being served want it this way. “Work things out early so it won’t have to be done confrontationally. Those who live in the district should have the greatest voice.” This isn’t about no-growth, this is about building for everyone and a sustainable future. Community and peer pressure can stand up legal challenges. The key is community consensus. There’s the fairness.

She explained how the city bought a slum landlord’s apartment building with TIF funds and created new working class housing. They used other affordable housing funds and tax credits. It’s LEED certified. They laid down three national historic districts (this gives commercial interests tax breaks).

We don’t want big box businesses; we want to preserve small local businesses. Then the money stays in the community. Only 30% of receipts from big box businesses are returned to the community.

Give the residents a visual preference survey. Where would they prefer to live, shop, walk, have a meal? Put the restaurants in first and the rest will come. Think about where your grandchildren could walk safely by themselves. As for diversity, her motto is: Be creative or die! Age, economic and racial diversity is key to success.

In Chicago , all of the stakeholders in her ward vote through a board. She considers their decisions binding on her vote. “Decisions made will last for 100 years. We have to take the long view. The local people call all the shots,” she said. They use charrettes to get all parties around the same table. What works? Putting high end places next to affordable housing.

Predictability is what developers want. “Deciding who you are and what you want to be, that is the competitive thing to do”.

“Only a badly informed decision-maker would make decisions negatively affecting the quality of life.”

As for storm water runoff, use permeable pavers. Chicago is repaving its alleys. Trees do a magnificent job of absorbing runoff, but you need trees with deep roots (note: palms don’t have deep roots). Use native plants. There are low tech, low cost solutions to these challenges. Start experimenting with porous concrete and asphalt. Encourage rain barrels to save rain water from going down the drains. (The City could encourage water vaults in new buildings.) She pointed to Chicago’s encouraging roof top gardens, even situating bee hives there. “It’s fun. There’s grant money available to these things. Encourage green buildings. Encourage pedestrian and bicycle transportation.”

Using less energy is a matter of safety for the city. She’s on a crusade. Sarasota is a natural for solar energy.

Greening the city enhances mental and physical health. Sarasota, unlike Chicago, has the possibility of landscaping lushly. “Your plantings last year round. I am envious. Continue greening,” she urged.

Who will pay for the landscaping? The greenscape on Michigan Avenue has turned the City around economically. Maintenance has to be thought through in advance, she remarked. They had put in underground irrigation, created special service areas. Many corporations have underwritten the landscaping.

And…Mayor Daley is “drop dead serious about greening”. The landscape ordinance turned everything around. The Mayor proposed it at the beginning of his first term and, despite all the scoffers, stuck to his plan, and now Chicago is the role model for cities across the country.

[Article submitted by Jude Levy]

Lunch on the bay at Lido Key Bait Shop.

From left: Mary Ann Smith, Ernie Constatino, Susan Chapman, Dick Clapp, Gretchen Serrie, Lou Ann Palmer, Pandora Siebert.

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