City-Owned Vacant Land in Chicago

When people think of vacant and abandoned land, at least in the context of American cities, images of de-industrialized Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee are typically what spring to mind. These are places that have experienced decades of decline in population and manufacturing jobs, and more recently, waves of foreclosures during the Great Recession. As a city that shares some of these characteristics but has avoided a comparable fate, Chicago is an interesting case. Like many of the social conditions that persist, the distribution of abandonment and vacancy is incredibly uneven. Pulling data from one of the APIs in the city’s Data Portal, the first map shown here illustrates this dramatic difference geographically. While North Side neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Lake View and Edgewater contain city-owned vacant lots numbering in the single digits (Edgewater apparently has 0, in fact), there are literally hundreds of unoccupied and abandoned parcels in some of the city’s south and west side neighborhoods. The three adjacent community areas of Englewood, West Englewood and New City, just west of I-90 in the heart of the South Side, contain over 3000 city-owned vacant lots, accounting for close to half of the city’s total:

Once you peer into the zoning classifications attached to these lots, a couple of trends emerge. Among lots zoned for residential use, there are clear clusters of higher density parcels along the east side of the I-90/94 corridor south of the Loop, as well as the area surrounding I-290 on the western edge of the city. Lower density lots (detached single family homes designated RS-1, RS-2, and RS-3), are much more evenly scattered throughout the city. It’s interesting to focus in on the Englewood-New City cluster again, where this difference is most apparent. Despite containing the bulk of vacant land, it appears that the lots concentrated in this area are almost entirely zoned for single family homes. It’s perhaps no surprise that this was one of the hardest hit areas during the foreclosure crisis, still struggling to recover years later. The city is well aware of the crisis, and has recently brought back its Large Lot program that allows residents on certain targeted blocks to purchase vacant, city-owned lots for $1 each.

Finally, since I had the data in front of me, I thought it would be interesting to filter for lots zoned for industrial/manufacturing use, as well as lots that are located in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. Again, the vacant industrial lots are located in the high-concentration west and south side neighborhoods already discussed, clustered around the highway. Given how large these lots are, and the low probability that thousands of industrial jobs are going to return to this area any time soon, one has to wonder how the continued presence of industrial abandonment will impact the area’s recovery.

TIF districts – which redirect increases in property tax revenue in an area over a given period towards a special fund that’s allocated at the discretion of the mayor and city council – are a controversial issue for obvious reasons. The city clearly has hundreds, if not thousands, of vacant parcels located in these districts, but speculating on the significance of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this post. Could be something worth returning to though.

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