The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

A Chicago factory is making 3-flats

This is kind of cool, and could really help the city:

Skender, an established, family-owned builder in Chicago, is making a serious play in a sector associated with young startups: modular construction. The company is building steel-structured three-flats, a quintessential Chicago housing type that consists of three apartments stacked on top of each other in the footprint of a large house. It believes it can deliver them faster and at lower cost at its new factory than by using standard methods of construction.

Even with humans and not robots doing the work, the company is confident that continual refinement will yield efficiency. A three-flat apartment building can now go up in 90 days, Skender claims, instead of nine months. Swanson estimates that the three-flats will cost $335,000 per unit to build, not including land. In time, company leaders hope that economies of scale and increased efficiency will bring down that price.

As well as economies of scale, proponents of modular architecture tout its freedom from weather-related delays, unpredictable site conditions, and fragmented supply chains. Those all stand to benefit Skender. No subcontractors will work in the factory, which will avoiding squabbles between HVAC or plumbing specialists who might blame each other when something goes wrong. But that also means Skender assumes all the risk. That has undone some past experiments in prefab and modular building.

At the factory’s opening, 25 people worked there, and Skender plans on hiring five more per week till it’s fully staffed at 150, all union labor.

I might not want to live in a pre-fab building (I'm partial to 100+-year-old historic buildings), but lots of other people would. At $335k to build, a 3-bedroom apartment could sell for $500k and make some money for the builder. $500k implies rents around $3,200 per month, but that or more is what many landlords already get in affluent parts of the city.

I'll keep my eyes open for the first Skender apartments that open near me.

Did they find the Ark of the Covenant?

History buffs Daniel Pogorzelski and Jacob Kaplan got permission to enter a space previously occupied by former Chicago alderman. They discovered that no one had ever cleaned the space out after the alderman died:

Longtime city clerk and former 35th Ward Ald. John Marcin, one of former Mayor Richard J. Daley’s closest political allies, had worked out of the building for years. There were rumors all of his stuff was still in there, virtually untouched since his death in 1984.

Pogorzelski and Kaplan, writers and editors for local history website Forgotten Chicago, tried for years to get ahold of the property owner, but they struck out each time.

It took awhile, but finally in 2014, with the help of Avondale Neighborhood Association President Liz Muscare, they got in.

And, much to their surprise, the rumors were true: Marcin’s office at 3534 W. Diversey Ave. had been left untouched. Old photos, campaign literature (some dating back to the 1930s when Marcin ran for congress), meticulously compiled scrapbooks, oil paintings and even neon signs were all sitting there, collecting dust.

Last week, Pogorzelski and Kaplan packed it all up in a U-Haul and delivered it to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Richard J. Daley Library. The two donated the collection in hopes of deepening Chicago’s understanding of local politics.

“There’s all of the appointment books during his time as city clerk, the people he met with. You can kinda see how the city operated at that time,” Kaplan said.

“It’s not just ephemera. It’s stuff he used as city clerk and alderman that people will find really informative.”

For years, I thought I was going to be an historian, even going so far as to take the GRE and meet with a few East Coast history departments during my last two years in college. This kind of documentary bonanza can make someone's career. I'm glad it's going to an organization that can use it.

Just one thing, though: who paid the rent on the building for 30 years?

New taxes in Illinois

Starting today, my state has some new laws:

  • The gasoline tax doubled to the still-too-low 10¢ per litre. Oh my stars. How could they. Ruination. (You will detect more ironic tone if you read my post from yesterday about how much gasoline I use.) For comparison with other OECD countries, the UK adds 57.95p (73.3¢) per litre, Australia gets 41.2¢ (28.6¢ US), and even Canada levies 45¢ (34¢ US). But hey, we doubled the tax, so now we can pay for our state pension deficit fixing our infrastructure.
  • Cigarette taxes went up to $2.98 a pack, and e-cigarettes now have a 15% excise. Also, we raised the legal age to buy tobacco to 21, though you can still have sex and get a drivers license at 17 and sign a contract at 18, so kids still have lots of ways to ruin their lives. (Former governor Bruce Rauner vetoed these measures last year.)
  • Schools now have to provide 5 clock-hours of instruction to count as a "school day." Having gone to Illinois schools as a kid that provided 6 to 7, it's hard for me to grasp that until today, schools only had to provide 4.
  • Finally, our $40 billion budget took effect today, the first time in 5 years that a state budget has taken effect on the first day of the fiscal year.

This is what happens when the party that wants to govern takes power from the party that wants to shower gifts on their rich friends. More on that in my next post.

Lunchtime reading

Articles that piqued my interest this morning:

Back to writing software.

One-third San Francisco and two-thirds Detroit?

So says urbanist Pete Saunders on the economic bifurcation in Chicago:

[T]he two economic narratives emerging across two wildly different sets of Chicago neighborhoods are being reflected in changing demographics. The downtown and Near North Side, stretching from the Loop to neighborhoods such as Bucktown and Logan Square, has boomed in ways similar to superstar cities such as New York, D.C., Seattle, and Austin, while large stretches of the rest of the city have suffered from decreasing middle class populations, disinvestment, and in the worst cases, abandoned property and increased crime.

“On its own, the portions of the city that includes the Loop, north lakefront, West Loop, and Logan Square have the population of San Francisco, are about the size of Manhattan and nearly as dense, and have been booming,” he tells Curbed. “It’s as safe, vibrant, and walkable as any of the other cities you’d associate with success.”

[R]ecent economic growth has been unevenly distributed. According to recent UIC research, in 1970, roughly half the city was considered middle income. In 2017, that distinction applied to just 16 percent of Chicago. Income segregation and extreme, concentrated poverty have become more pronounced. Saunders called it Global Chicago versus Rust Belt Chicago.

“A few years ago, I published something on my personal blog that characterized Chicago as one-third San Francisco and two-thirds Detroit,” he says. “I caught some flack from Rahm Emanuel for that, and I get it. Nobody wants to be associated with Detroit; it’s my hometown, so I know how that goes.”

Saunders recently pointed out on his blog that we Gen-Xers started the Back-to-the-City movement, ultimately blazing a trail that our Boomer parents and Millennial (and now Gen Z) followers benefited from.

WaPo finds inequality on the Chicago River

The North and South branches of the river have distinct personalities:

Multiple canoe and kayak rental outfitters operate from the river’s north branch, downtown and in Chinatown, just south of downtown. And enthusiasts are even planning a competitive swim in the river. In these areas, people worry not about pollution but rather the risk of collision between water taxis, tour boats, kayakers and pleasure boats.

In the dirtier water downstream, barges filled with limestone, sand or other heavy material dominate the river, and most residents keep their distance.

Both Little Village and the Calumet River corridor are designated industrial zones, and residents would like to see green industrial development such as solar farms and light manufacturing. They’d also love to have riverside cafes or parks, [resident Olga] Bautista said, but that dream feels far off.

Of course, the Potomac is so much cleaner, isn't it? Never mind the Anacostia...

Lake still rising; daily record set

Lakes Michigan and Huron (hydrologically one lake) are on course to have record water levels this month:

After late snowstorms and record-setting rainfall this spring, Lake Michigan’s water levels are projected to rise to a record level this month.

The rising water, which could swell more than 635 mm above its long-term monthly average, is expected to tie the previous June peak set in 1986.

May’s record-setting torrential rainfall was a catalyst for Lake Michigan’s surge in water levels, said Keith Kompoltowicz chief of watershed hydrology with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ district office in Detroit.

The National Weather Service’s Chicago office on Friday tweeted that water levels already had hit a record — but the service was referring to a daily measurement, and the Army Corps only counts a full month’s average levels for record purposes.

Here's the official chart as of yesterday:

Meanwhile, Lake Ontario has broken its record already, and by a lot:

And all that fresh water just goes down the St Lawrence right into the Gulf Stream...

Ribfest 2019 after-munching report

This year, I went whole hog and got a 3-day pass to Chicago's main Ribfest. So this past weekend, I had a lot of ribs.

First, I should note that on days 2 and 3 I took friends. This is important because if you share four 3-bone samplers with someone you don't feel like you ate an entire pig as you stagger home from the event. Or five samplers. Not that I ate that many ribs on Friday...maybe.

Second, the weather Saturday and Sunday ranged from cool and damp to cool and rainy. Between that and arriving Friday evening just after opening, I didn't see the balls-to-the-wall crowds that I've usually encountered. Here's Saturday evening, after the rain stopped:

Contrast with, for example, 2013:

(Parker, having just turned 13, didn't go this year, poor old dog.)

Having three days, I got to try a lot of ribs:

  • City BBQ, locations in Downers Grove and Orland Park: smoked, tug off the bone, firm meat; original sauce was sweet-tangy, "brush fire" sauce was a little spicier. Not great, 2½ stars.
  • Austin Texas Lightning (two visits), itinerant: Smoked for 4 hours, then grilled. Tangy original sauce, good kick on the spicy one. Tasty meat but a lot of salt. Not bad. 3 stars.
  • Famous Dave's, national chain: Pretty good meat, tug-off-the-bone; sauces all right, sauces OK but with lots of HFCS, so I have to ding them for that. 2½ stars.
  • Fireside Grill (two visits), right in my neighborhood: tug off the bone, good crunchy finish on the grill, ladled-on sauce with good spice and flavor. My favorite from Friday. 3½ stars; will visit soon.
  • Big Joe's Backyard BBQ, Homer Glen, Ill.: Dry meat, overcooked; sauces was eh, way too sweet. Good-sized bones. 2½ stars.
  • Base Hit BBQ (two visits), Austin neighborhood of Chicago: Fall-off-the-bone, really tasty meat, nice char, excellent sauce. My favorite from this year's Fest. Worth a trip out to the West Side. 4 stars.
  • Mrs Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro, Chicago: My favorite from years past, and still good, but their sauce tasted sweeter to me this year (which is not a good thing for my palette). Fall off the bone meat, really tasty. 3 stars.

On Sunday I also stopped by itinerant Chicago BBQ, which was just as itinerant as in years past, and just as acceptable. 3 stars.

Now: was the $100 3-day pass a good deal? It came with $50 in food tickets (which I used, and then some, because 3-bone samplers cost $8), free entry to the festival (a $30 value), skip-to-the-front access for drinks (saved some time), and air conditioned bathrooms (nice to have with their real soap and running water). I will probably do it again next year, especially if we have a hot June, which will make the cooler bathrooms maybe worth $20.

But before that, on July 4th, I'll bring Parker to the Windy City Ribfest less than 400 meters from my front door.

Über alles

What could possibly go wrong with inviting every Über driver in Chicago to one party?

Monday evening, John Morrison saw a convoy of cars with Uber stickers taking over Lake Shore Drive near Hyde Park, all headed to the same place as him: the Museum of Science and Industry.

The Chicago resident had been invited there by a friend who drove for the ride share company, which was hosting an appreciation party for employees at the museum at 6:30 p.m.

But before Morrison could even get near, he had to fight a free-for-all of traffic in the eastern part of Hyde Park. The worst of it was at the 57th Street and Cornell Drive merge, where Morrison said cars were going the wrong way and ended up facing other cars bumper to bumper. A bus drove north in the southbound lanes to bypass the traffic. Police cars scaled sidewalks as officers tried to direct frustrated drivers.

Things didn’t get much better once he made it inside the museum, almost an hour after hitting the congestion on Lake Shore Drive near the 53rd Street exit, he said. Morrison said the museum was “jampacked to the gills” and that caterers and museum employees appeared overwhelmed by the mobs of people heading toward the dinner buffet.

After the event, Morrison Tweeted: "A massive traffic jam filled entirely with @Uber drivers trying to get into a overfilled parking garage to get free stuff is the embodiment of the late-stage capitalist nightmare that is Uber." Yes. And entirely predictable—except, and no surprise here, to Über management.

The mechanical voids that make billionaires' erections bigger

Developers have learned to game New York City's zoning laws to construct buildings far larger than the plain meaning of those laws should allow:

Now, in a Second Gilded Age with magnates looking to park their millions in Manhattan real estate, developers stop at little to deliver the high-status goods, which these days are calculated in height and views.

As a result, New York is facing the “mechanical void” problem. It may sound like an embarrassing medical condition, but the voids are actually just air above floors occupied by equipment (mainly heating, ventilating, and cooling systems). That air becomes extraordinarily valuable when it can boost apartments higher above view-blocking neighbors. Raising the ceiling of mechanical spaces (which usually need only 10- to 15-foot ceilings) to as high as 350 feet becomes not absurd but savvy.

New York City does not generally limit building heights, but instead controls bulk and density by what’s called the floor area ratio (FAR). This means that a residential developer can build nine times the square feet of the lot area in an R-9 district. Depending on how the building bulk is arranged, the usual result is a building of about 15 stories.

Ridiculously tall mechanical spaces, which are not counted toward FAR, are not the only abusive (though ostensibly legal) tactic developers use to push buildings to ever greater heights.

If you think this through, however, these developments still go through the zoning board. So yes, the legal interpretations twist the law into painful shapes for the sake of bragging rights, but also a city agency lets them do it.

This reminds me of one of Chicago's ugliest buildings, at 2314 N. Lincoln Park West, which juts out from the rest of the buildings on the block (some of them historic) and looks like someone measured wrong. I haven't confirmed this, but I think the error was measured in thousands of dollars, and involved an alderman or two.