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Chicago’s vacant land problem

Published on Mar. 6, 2020 by Steven Vance

Updated on Mar. 11, 2020

In 2018 when I was working in a City Open Workshop breakout group about land stewardship, Paola Aguirre helped us summarize and visualize the vacant land problem in Chicago as follows:

  1. The scale of the challenge is too large
  2. The pace of land stewardship [meaning someone other than the city acquires and maintains land] is too slow
  3. Available land acquisition processes are considerably opaque, unclear, or incomplete
This 4-part graphic illustrates the problem with vacant land in Chicago. Drawn by Paola Aguirre based on the research from our breakout group called Office of Land Management.

We called the group “Office of Land Management” — it suggests that a city as large as Chicago, or a county as large as Cook, needs a staff dedicated to inventorying land and selling it or giving it away as quickly and “safely” — to the right people, for the right reasons — as possible. Safely means there are financial, monitoring, and displacement safeguards to prevent corruption and mitigate land sales’ impact on gentrification.

In a 2016 analysis I found that there are over 30,000 vacant parcels in Chicago — almost half of them are probably owned by the city because the latest count of city-owned land (most are vacant but some are parking lots) is 14,548 parcels.

The Large Lots program, designed by Chicagoans and implemented by the Chicago Department of Planning & Development, has not been active in accepting new applications for over a year. It disposed of 1,267 parcels vacant, city-owned residentially-zoned parcels in four years.

If that was the only program to sell city-owned land and the goal was to have the city own no vacant land, then, per problem #2, it would take 30 years to get that land into other people’s hands at the rate of 1,000 parcels per year.

Most of the lots sold through Large Lots are not being developed, because new construction is expensive. Long ago, it was somewhat common to build a small house at the back of a lot and then build a larger house later (this didn’t always happen, though, as the photo below shows). That’s not allowed in today’s zoning code [1].

Not every house built at the back of a lot got a front house to keep watch over. This house is on Kedzie Ave, south of Armitage Ave, in Logan Square.

Prioritizing lots

An easy way to prioritize where new housing should go is by focusing development in areas near good transit service, to ensure that future tenants can take advantage of cheap and clean transportation. (Buses are also good transit service, but take longer to map, so I left them out.)

I looked at all of the privately-owned vacant lots in the 2018 tax roll and found 2,206 vacant and privately-owned lots in residential zoning districts within a quarter mile [2] walk of 96 CTA ‘L’ stations in 42 of Chicago’s 77 community areas [3].

Within that group of 2,206 vacant lots, 49 percent — 1,082 lots — are in one of the 10 community areas that are part of INVEST South/West (map), a program to mix new private investment with planned and future public investment and “reactivate neighborhood cores that have historically served as focal points for pedestrian activity, shopping, services, transportation, public spaces and quality-of life amenities for local residents”.

Date note: This analysis excludes vacant lots that were owned by the city in the 2018 tax year, meaning that any land since transferred to private owners and still vacant is not included; including Chicago-owned vacant lots would increase these numbers. It also includes only vacant lots that are 1,650 s.f. or larger because that’s the minimum lot area for most “R” zoning districts, and because there are a lot of weirdly shaped, vestigial lots behind other lots.

Where are the most ‘L’-accessible vacant lots in Chicago?

  1. East Garfield Park has 14.9% of the vacant residentially-zoned lots within a quarter mile of a CTA ‘L’ station (the Green Line carries residents to downtown in about 20 minutes), 390 out of 2,206
  2. Austin, 9.9%
  3. Grand Boulevard, 9.1%
  4. West Garfield Park, 8.8%
  5. North Lawndale, 7.6%
Vacant lots within a quarter mile (1,320 feet) of several Green Line and Blue Line station entrances.

The 390 vacant and privately-owned lots in East Garfield Park that are near the ‘L’ are concentrated around three stations:

  1. Kedzie Green Line station (64.9%)
  2. California Green Line station (24.4%)
  3. Conservatory-Central Park Drive Green Line station (10.8%)

East Garfield Park is not one of the INVEST South/West community areas, but Humboldt Park, a community area without an ‘L’ station, is.

Do you own a vacant lot near an ‘L’ station? What are your plans for it?


[1] The Chicago Zoning Ordinances allows only one principal residential building per lot except in Planned Developments and townhouse developments. Accessory buildings — like garages and greenhouses — are allowed to serve the principal residential building, but coach houses and rear houses are currently not an allowable accessory building type.

[2] A quarter mile, or 1,320 feet, was used because that is the primary distance used to determine if a property is eligible for the TOD ordinance, which grants parking requirement reductions for being near a CTA or Metra station, or a selected CTA bus route.

[3] Distances were measured as a direct line between the nearest point of a vacant lot boundary to the nearest CTA ‘L’ station entrance, which is the measuring standard for the Chicago TOD (Transit-Served Location) ordinance.

Chicago’s vacant land problem was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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