The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

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.

Today's reading list

If only it weren't another beautiful early-summer day in Chicago, I might spend some time indoors reading these articles:

Time to go outside...

Busy weekend

Just a few things in the news:

And hey, summer begins in three days.

No one wants McMansions

People who thought moving to far suburbs made economic sense in the 1990s and 2000s can't seem to sell their ugly, too-large houses:

"For most of the 1990s, if you looked at the geographic center of jobs in the Chicago area, it was moving steadily northwest, out from the city toward Schaumburg," homebuilding consultant Tracy Cross says. Like the corporate campuses that popped up in that era, the houses were often built big.

A generation later, tastes for both have faded: Corporations have shifted their offices to downtown Chicago in unprecedented numbers, and once-stylish suburban luxury homes are derided as McMansions. Affluent people now show a well-documented preference for living in or near the city, a preference that's fueling the vigor in the high-rise condo market downtown as well as in Bucktown and in Wilmette, among other places.

Phil Chiricotti felt the double-barreled blast when he sold his home in Burr Ridge. Chiricotti, who was a retirement-planning executive, built the four-bedroom, 6,800-square-foot home on 77th Street in 2002, "when Tuscan-style homes were what everybody was doing," he says. The house has arches, columns and balconies made of stone.

"I had murals painted in that house, I had exotic Romanesque stenciling done," Chiricotti says. "Everyone told me my taste was spectacular. But the operating costs to live in that house were $25,000 a year." He put the house on the market in 2009, asking just under $2.7 million, and sold it almost six years later at a real estate auction for $1.47 million.

("Exotic Romanesque stenciling?" Yes, that would qualify as spectacular taste, just not good taste.)

Schaumburg, Ill., is about 50 km northwest of the Loop in western Cook and norther DuPage Counties. It spreads west from I-290 along a spiderweb of ugly strip-mall-encrusted stroads, and contains a giant mall and a huge IKEA. The village adopted, without irony, "Progress Through Thoughtful Planning" as its motto when it incorporated in 1956, and then thoughtfully planned winding residential roads without sidewalks that appeal to people who drive to their mailboxes.

I've joked before that "Schaumburg" is German for "Why would anyone live in this town." (It actually translates to "foam town," which amuses me.) Schaumburg epitomizes Suburbistan to me: a place that tries to take the best parts of rural and urban life and, missing the point entirely, creates something entirely horrific instead. A place where no one really wants to live.

These sad people paid millions for houses so ugly they don't so much rebuke good design as represent the antithesis of design itself, in suburbs so soulless just writing about them makes me want to clap on one and three. So this news fills me with a feeling described by another German word: Schadenfreude.

Newest national park is closest to Chicago

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, just 50 km from downtown Chicago, became Indiana Dunes National Park in February:

Supporters of the switch, who have watched the proposal ebb and flow like Lake Michigan along the shoreline over the past few years, said they are excited by the change and hope the already popular attraction draws even more people, particularly those who make it a point to visit designated national parks.

Operations at the park, other than a change in signs, won’t be any different, said Paul Labovitz, park superintendent.

“There’s no real budget implications but perceptually, the change will probably result in more attention and more investment outside the park,” he said, adding the National Park Service also may invest more in the park’s infrastructure over time.

Also upping its marketing will be the South Shore Line, which is working on plans to encourage more people from Chicago, Michigan and Indiana to come check out the park using commuter rail, Nicole Barker, director of capital investment and implementation, said in an email.

“Thanks to the South Shore Line’s Bikes on Trains program, which allows bicycles on select off-peak trains, it is easier than ever to come visit the dunes by bike,” Barker said.

Trains from Chicago's Millennium Station to the Dune Park station take about 80 minutes and cost $9 each way.

Not Norway's best export

Due to climate change and gentrification, rat sightings in North America have gone up:

New York has always been forced to coexist with the four-legged vermin, but the infestation has expanded exponentially in recent years, spreading to just about every corner of the city.

Rat sightings reported to the city’s 311 hotline have soared nearly 38 percent, to 17,353 last year from 12,617 in 2014, according to an analysis of city data by OpenTheBooks.com, a nonprofit watchdog group, and The New York Times. In the same period, the number of times that city health inspections found active signs of rats nearly doubled.

Milder winters — the result of climate change — make it easier for rats to survive and reproduce. And New York’s growing population and thriving tourism has brought more trash for rats to feed on.

Chicago — crowned the nation’s rat capital in one study — has more than doubled its work crews dedicated to rats, who set out poison and fill in burrows in parks, alleys and backyards. It also passed ordinances requiring developers and contractors to have a rat-control plan before demolishing buildings or breaking ground on new projects.

Yah, thanks for that "rat capital" thing, New York Times.

Rats don't bother me, despite their urine often containing deadly bacteria. They clean up after us, feed crows and coyotes, and spread disease less than other local rodents. (Rabbits have made Parker sick a lot more often than rats.) And squirrels? Just ask a moose.

A road trip in search of perfect weather

Meteorologist Brian Brettschneider has figured out a road trip route that keeps you at a (normal) temperature of 21°C for a whole year:

For his data, Brettschneider pulled daily “normal” high temperatures from the National Centers for Environmental Information and Environment Canada. “Normals are a smoothed average of all days between 1981 and 2010,” he explains. He took temperatures from every weather station in the U.S. and Canada and “just connected the dots,” he says. “There were some decisions I made to maximize area and connectivity.”

Forging a route was no easy task, as weather stations hit normal high temperatures of 70 degrees over vast amounts of time and space. This visualization gives an indication of how America’s daily 70-degree highs shift throughout the year:

Might be a fun retirement trip. And it only requires driving 21,295 km.

A warm, cozy feeling at Mauna Loa

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that atmospheric carbon dioxide had reached 415 ppm on Friday:

In poetic punctuation to that point, Arkhangelsk, Russia, near the Arctic Ocean, recorded a temperature of 29°C Saturday:

In Koynas, a rural area to the east of Arkhangelsk, it was even hotter on Sunday, soaring to 87 degrees (31 Celsius). Many locations in Russia, from the Kazakhstan border to the White Sea, set record-high temperatures over the weekend, some 30 to 40 degrees (around 20 Celsius) above average. The warmth also bled west into Finland, which hit 77 degrees (25 Celsius) Saturday, the country’s warmest temperature of the season so far.

Across the Arctic overall, the extent of sea ice has hovered near a record low for weeks.

Data from the Japan Meteorological Agency show April was the second warmest on record for the entire planet.

These changes all have occurred against the backdrop of unremitting increases in carbon dioxide, which has now crossed another symbolic threshold.

Why is 415 ppm a "symbolic threshold?" Because for years, climate scientists have believed that at 415 ppm, we can't undo the damage; we can only slow it down a little. Even if we return to pre-industrial levels (280 ppm), we now have too much carbon in the atmosphere to stop radical climate change:

For the planet itself, 415 ppm is no BFD. Over the past 4 billion years or so, it’s been much, much higher. But for us humans, 415 is a very dangerous number. The last time CO2 levels were at 415 ppm, during the Pliocene period about 3 million years ago, there was plenty of life on Earth, but the Earth itself was a radically different place. Beech trees grew near the South Pole. There was no Greenland ice sheet, and probably not a West Antarctic ice sheet, either. Sea levels were 50 or 60 feet (or more) higher.

That’s the world we’re creating for ourselves by pushing carbon dioxide levels to 415 ppm. Right now, a lot of atmospheric warming is being absorbed in the oceans. But those oceans are like a big flywheel, and the heat will be radiated out. That means, among other things, goodbye ice sheets, hello condo diving in Miami.

One way to think about carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is as a thermostat for the planet. As you’ll remember from third-grade science class, carbon dioxide is exhaled by animals, including humans, and inhaled by plants. It is also released when plants and animals decay, volcanoes erupt, and, most importantly, when we burn fossil fuels. Last year, we dumped about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The more coal, oil and gas we burn, the faster that number rises. Before the Industrial Revolution, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 ppm. Sixty years ago, it was 315 ppm. For the past few years, it has been rising by about 2 or 3 ppm a year.

That might not sound like much. However, carbon dioxide molecules happen to be very good at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Scientists have understood this very well since the 19th century. Carbon dioxide molecules are like the prison guards of the Earth’s atmosphere — they let sunlight in, but they don’t let heat out. Scientists argue about exactly how efficient carbon dioxide is at warming the Earth, but there is basic agreement that a doubling of carbon dioxide levels from 280 ppm will warm the Earth’s atmosphere by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius.

We predicted this in time to slow it down or even stop it. Nice work, team.

Like RAGBRAI, but 8 times farther

The Great American Rail-Trail is nearing completion:

On Wednesday, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy gave the grand reveal for an entirely car-free way to get across the country—the Great American Rail-Trail—that would connect Washington, D.C., to Seattle. The path runs through 12 states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

The launch event kicked off at Capitol Hill in D.C., near where the Capital Crescent Trail begins the cross-country route, as part of a live-streamed broadcast of events at stops along the way, including Columbus, Ohio; Three Forks, Montana; and South Cle Elu, Washington.

The vision for a complete cross-country route was one of the founding dreams for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization hatched in 1986 to help convert former rail corridors into public trails for bikers, strollers, and other active transportation types. Founders David Burwell and Peter Harnik were railroad history buffs, and a coast-to-coast backbone was always part their vision. Not coincidentally, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

The group believes that they can finish the project in about 20 years.

First, let's kill all the townships

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 divided most of the land west of Pennsylvania into 6-by-6 mile squares called "townships." You can see the physical effects of the Ordinance any time you fly over the Great Plains: uniform squares of roads linking towns about 9½ km apart.

The Ordinance established townships to allow rural residents to get to their centers of government and home in the same day. In the era of travel by horseback, this saved days or weeks of travel for farmers and townsfolk alike.

In the era of travel by car, however, we no longer need the redundancy. Chicago magazine recommends getting rid of them altogether:

It’s not just urban counties that find remnant townships burdensome. Some rural counties want to get rid of their townships, too. Last month, State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, passed a bill that would allow McHenry County townships to dissolve themselves.

“My goal is to reduce the number of governmental bodies — it’s one of the reasons our property taxes are so high,” McSweeney said. “Consolidation, I think, is the key to reducing property taxes and administrative fees.”

Like most Illinois counties, Cook was originally platted with a grid of townships. The townships now contained by Chicago, including Rogers Park, Hyde Park, and Lake View, passed out of existence upon annexation. In the suburbs, townships still exist, even if all their land has been incorporated. In Cook County, remnant unincorporated bits of township could be required to join the nearest municipality, which would then take over township duties, as Evanston did.

There’s a saying that bureaucracy perpetuates itself, and that’s certainly true of townships. They’re so hard to get rid of because they’re a juicy source of jobs, patronage, and double-dipping for elected officials.

The Daily Parker agrees. Time to move on from one of the best ideas of the 1780s.