“To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts four conditions are indispensable:
1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two…
2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there…”
-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
In my neighborhood, we have seen some new leadership on the local Chamber of Commerce. This is good because chambers of commerce have an outsized roll to play in the development of healthy districts. So when my local chamber posted a survey soliciting residents and business owners their thoughts about establishing a special service area and is currently holding public meetings, I figured it is time to explain what an SSA is and what it is not, along with how planning a district is planning for people.
First, a special service area in Chicago (also known as a business improvement district) is a local tax district that funds expanded services and programs via a localized property tax levy. SSAs are different from tax increment financing (TIF) districts in that the levy is on top of current property tax rates and does not sunset, nor is an increment reserved. However, special service areas are like TIFs in that they can use the additional funds for capital projects in their districts as well as enhanced services like landscaping, sidewalks, facade improvements, and the like.
The purpose here is not to explain what SSAs or TIFs are, or the differences between them (see here for that insightful analysis) but rather to explain the benefits of such a district to the community at large.
Jefferson Park satisfies some of the conditions as laid out by Jane Jacobs. It does the following:
- Function: it is the economic hub of the neighborhood as well as a transportation nexus.
- Urban Design: the area around Jefferson Park is very walkable, although it is debatable whether there is much work walking to or how safe it is to walk to it.
- Architecture: Jefferson Park mingles a diverse set of businesses, cultural and governmental functions well including Copernicus Center, Jefferson Memorial Park and the Jefferson Park Transit Center as examples of civic and cultural architecture fit for people. Other institutions catering towards cars might include CVS and McDonald’s.
What an SSA does is strengthen the district via local means. No longer is the district solely dependent on City Hall for its upkeep. Its residents have taken government into their own hands for their own purposes – that of strengthening the neighborhood. Thus, SSAs, like TIFs are a great example of “small c conservatism” in that they address and apply local funding to local problems.
What is important to note about SSAs and similar business improvement districts is that they exist to solve a very local problem with a very local solution – a tax levy on behalf of local businesses to support themselves and their community via local improvements that spur increased development. These sustainable solutions are the answers and direction future developers, investors, neighbors and business owners can look on with certainty as they make decisions on whether to locate here.