In the Covid era, the relationship between cities and megadevelopments makes even less sense

An old rendering of Sidewalk Labs' now failed Waterfront Toronto proposal. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Sidewalk Labs’ Waterfront Toronto project was the first high-profile megadevelopment to be undone (at least in part) by Covid-19, and it may not be the last. The project, battered by years of controversy over the Alphabet-affiliated company’s desire to turn a 12-acre (and later a 362-acre) Quayside area into the world’s first neighbourhood “built from the internet up,” gave up the ghost in early May, with Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff citing “unprecedented economic uncertainty” for the withdrawal.

Unprecedented economic uncertainty is, improbably, an understatement. With a coronavirus vaccine unlikely to emerge until 2021 at the earliest, there remains no way for the economy to come fully back to life without significant loss of life, a reality that has already disproportionally hurt lower-income communities of color. In this environment, large-scale projects like Quayside appear increasingly untenable, laying bare many of the criticisms brought against such developments: speculative by nature, they make even less sense in an economy decimated by the virus.

Although both are still active, I think of two similar megadevelopments currently planned for Chicago, where I live: Lincoln Yards and The 78, projected to cost $6 billion and $7 billion, respectively. Lincoln Yards, located adjacent to the wealthy Lincoln Park and Bucktown neighbourhoods on the city’s North Side, originally promised the construction of a Major League Soccer stadium and three Live Nation-owned performance venues, but both of those aspects were eventually scuttled, leaving a mixed-use residential and retail district built on the banks of the Chicago River. Meanwhile, The 78, so named as a proposed addition to the city’s existing 77 community areas, also offers a river-centric, mixed-use plan, with a technology and business incubator and towers reaching nearly 1,000 feet. It’s slated for construction just south of downtown, served by the addition of a new train station on the CTA Red line.

“Both The 78 and Lincoln Yards are long-term development projects that anticipate market conditions to fluctuate over time,” says Peter Strazzabosco, Chicago’s deputy planning and development commissioner. “Work is underway and expected to continue through multiple development phases for years to come.”

Combined, Lincoln Yards and The 78 would further transform a city already known for intense (and growing) racial and economic segregation, adding 16,000 units of luxury housing on land whose value has ballooned thanks to continued development in adjacent communities. Particularly worrisome for the city of Chicago is the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) resources for both projects, with the city voting to allocate $1.6 billion in future uncollected tax revenue to support construction. Now, with a possible failure to launch brought on by a global economic downturn, the question emerges: where do we go from here?

It’s a challenging problem for Toronto and Chicago, and for any other city whose financial future is tied up in massive projects that are jeopardized by current events. Also troubling are the long-term impacts such projects can have on planning processes, particularly in terms of democratic oversight. Even if these particular megadevelopments never come to light, the consequences of having pursued them are likely to reverberate for years to come.


In Toronto, one of the loudest voices raising these types of concerns is Bianca Wylie, the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, a lobbying and policy organisation focused on the intersections of technology and governance. Described by CityLab as “the Jane Jacobs of the Smart Cities Age,” Wylie has been deep in the trenches of the Sidewalk planning process, using detailed policy analysis, op-eds, and frequent media appearances to challenge official narratives about the project. While Sidewalk’s decision to leave Toronto gives Wylie and other critics a moment to pause and celebrate, there remain deeper questions about the democratic process and the ways in which it was overridden by Sidewalk’s approach.

“If democracy is one thing, it’s complexity,” Wylie says. “This project really showed how easy it is, if you've got enough money or power, to use that complexity against people, because there was no way to hold a coherent conversation with people talking about so many pieces at once.”

One of the biggest sticking points for those examining Sidewalk’s proposal was the issue of data governance. Throughout the planning process, Sidewalk was cagey about its data collection plans, taking over a year to announce a proposal for a publicly controlled “civic data trust” that critics argued was halfhearted. According to Andrew Clement, a professor emeritus of information at the University of Toronto and member of the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which advised Waterfront Toronto on Sidewalk’s data proposals, it appeared that the government willfully ceded regulatory oversight of these practices to Sidewalk, with the request for proposals [RFP] granting significant leeway to the private sphere. 

“The [RFP] talked very inappropriately but significantly about their partner co-developing digital governance arrangements with them,” Clement says. “There was a recognition that urban building was increasingly digital and they didn’t know this area, so they could look to the tech experts to bring them up to speed.”

Similar challenges around the limitations of public oversight have been present for both Chicago megadevelopments. Lincoln Yards and The 78 were integral to former mayor Rahm Emanuel’s legacy; Emanuel presided over the passage of the TIF packages during his final City Council session, after his successor, Lori Lightfoot, briefly suggested that she’d review both projects upon taking office. While Lightfoot’s campaign platform of reforming Chicago’s government, coupled with the election of six democratic socialist councilmembers, was widely seen as a referendum on Emanuel’s eight years as mayor, the passage of both TIF packages nevertheless bowled over the persistent opposition of countless Chicago residents and community organisations.

The approval process for both developments required support from several different City Council subcommittees, but the most controversial component was the TIF financing. TIFs, a complicated financial mechanism that is used across the US and extensively in Chicago, shift any increased property taxes raised inside a TIF district from the general revenue pool for up to 23 years, with the upfront financial commitment made by the city banking on projected property tax increases. The use of TIFs has long been one of the biggest sticking points for community activists in Chicago, who have cited the millions of dollars of TIF funds spent on vanity projects (including the $55 million renovation of Navy Pier) as evidence that austerity measures such as Emanuel’s 2013 closure of 50 public schools are morally and financially indefensible.

For a proposed development to qualify for TIF financing, projects are supposed to meet at least five of 13 loosely defined criteria outlined by the state of Illinois. In the case of Lincoln Yards, the document provided to justify its approval was written by a consultant hired by the project’s developer, Sterling Bay, a fact undisclosed to councilmembers at the time of the vote. A Chicago Tribune investigation found that the project would have failed to meet one of the five criteria just six weeks after its approval, as reassessed property taxes suggested that the land, adjacent to some of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, would have likely been developed without TIF subsidies.

In total, these mismanaged processes have reflected the outsized sway held by private developers in shaping the future of the city. The Hideout, a beloved dive bar and music venue located across the street from Lincoln Yards, led a vibrant and vocal movement against both TIF districts. Their eventual approval suggested to many watching that the city’s priorities are largely out of alignment with the needs of its residents.

“The only way that [TIFs] work is by increasing property values, and doing so in a capitalist political economy means that those who can ride the wave of appreciation can do quite well,” says Rachel Weber, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has studied the impact of TIF districts and financialization on urban governance. “At its core are some basic inequities, feeding into all these negative things: reinforced income inequality, racial polarization, and segregation.”


With Sidewalk departed, and the long-term fate of Chicago’s developments still uncertain, where do both cities go from here?

While government at local, provincial, and federal levels have yet to devote specific financial resources to implementing Sidewalk’s vision for Quayside, all three levels of government already spent $1.25 billion CAN to build flood mitigation infrastructure at the proposed site to prepare it for future development, money that Wylie says was rarely discussed during public debates about the state’s role in the project. Sidewalk’s departure may serve as an opportunity to reset public discussion, but Wylie worries that chronic underinvestment in the public sphere, and the ways in which private developments frequently offer infrastructure improvements as part of their proposals, will continue to entice the city to work with companies intent on extracting as many public resources as possible.

“When cities are underfunded for important infrastructure, it allows people to come in and say, ‘We're going to fund this, and along with it comes all this other stuff,’” Wylie says. “That vulnerability is going to be even worse with Covid, especially with procurement for things like education and healthcare.”

A view of the area slated for the Lincoln Yards development, from a 2019 City of Chicago presentation on the project. (Chicago Plan Commission)

Should Lincoln Yards and The 78 falter in the coming years, Chicago will face similarly difficult questions about its financial commitment to both projects. With cities around the world staring down severe revenue shortfalls in the wake of the coronavirus, the decision to commit billions in city money to unrealized megadevelopments will come under even greater scrutiny. According to Strazzabosco, both TIF Redevelopment Agreements (RDAs) will not reimburse the developers for city-approved infrastructure improvements until they are constructed, suggesting that the developers are primarily responsible for the fate of their projects. In addition, both RDAs have force majeure clauses in place, potentially freeing the city and the developers from their obligations to the projects in the case of unforeseen circumstances.

“The eligible costs within the TIF districts supporting Lincoln Yards and The 78 are for public infrastructure exclusively,” Strazzabosco says. “TIF funds will be allocated on a reimbursement-basis after the developers front-fund and complete each project identified in their respective redevelopment agreements.”

Beyond these projects, the deeper question of how TIFs are being used by Chicago cannot be ignored: according to the city’s most recent annual TIF study, more than a third of its taxable revenue in 2018, or about $841 million, was collected as TIF revenue, effectively sequestering it from the rest of the city’s budgetary needs. While Mayor Lightfoot has introduced several reforms to the use of TIFs, including making a public-facing website available for residents to track their implementation, organizations such as the Chicago Teacher’s Union criticized the changes as inadequate. Weber argues that the widespread use of TIF districts in Chicago creates revenue flow issues for most city departments already struggling to adequately fund their initiatives, challenges that will only increase as the city examines a potential $1.6 billion deficit brought on by the virus.

“Over time, TIFs have made it harder for government agencies to have an adequate cash flow, which puts them in a tough fiscal situation,” Weber says. “With the Covid emergency, there is an opportunity to rethink how the city uses that TIF money – maybe there's something else we could be doing with this right now since it won’t be a great time to invest in new construction.”

Of course, Chicago and Toronto are not the only big cities deeply implicated in multibillion-dollar development plans to remake the urban fabric. One Sidewalk critic, the researcher and designer Michele Champagne, was particularly concerned about the visual narrative of the development, noting the ways in which the company saturated news media, even articles critical of the project, with an eclectic array of imagery that made the case for redevelopment.

“Sidewalk blanketed the media with anything and everything, promoting Alphabet's interests and demoting democratic interests,” Champagne says. “The consultations and reports and stats and images were so numerous and diverse, they prevented any meaningful public understanding or participation. It's a new form of public relations – or propaganda ­­– which hasn't yet been digested.”

Given the use of former industrial sites at Quayside, Lincoln Yards, and The 78, as well as the construction of the heavily subsidized Hudson Yards project in New York City over existing rail infrastructure, Champagne worries that the ways in which the public can picture different city futures is being reshaped by the visual narrative of megadevelopment. By suggesting that the city’s industrial past can only be reimagined in the form of speculative real estate projects, other approaches to the uncertain future of the city are crowded out at a moment in which large-scale development grows increasingly disconnected from city residents’ most pressing needs.

In the case of Lincoln Yards, the commitment to residential and commercial real estate development meant the demise of city’s first-ever Planned Manufacturing District, an important tool used to maintain land available for industrial uses. While PMDs in other parts of the city have slowed the loss of many blue-collar jobs and created new opportunities for business incubation, using the land for luxury real estate suggests that the city’s priorities have shifted.

“What the industrial images are telling you is, ‘You do not want that,’” Champagne says. “It suggests that this land is sitting unused right now, nobody is there. This is a no man's land, and therefore, why not us?”

Annie Howard is a freelance journalist and master's student in urban policy and planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.