Are NIMBYs in Chicago getting out of hand? What started as groups of concerned citizens have lately turned into angry mobs shouting at people, waving signs, and even making threats. The demeanor of these groups make it so that ordinary citizens interested in what’s happening in their communities are intimidated to the point that they no longer attend community meetings. If they give the wrong answer to a pointed question from a random stranger they face ridicule from strangers. Never park your car near a community meeting if you’re undecided, or worse — in favor — of a new building in downtown Chicago.
NIMBY groups are not to be trifled with in Chicago. Some hold significant political sway and have gotten everything from corner bars to 75-story skyscrapers killed for various, largely selfish, reasons. But it wasn’t always that way. Perhaps it was the evaporation of home equity in the wake of the Great Recession that combined with anger and idleness to breed the current crop of super-NIMBYs. The kind we’ve seen actually spit at speakers at development meetings.
The origin of the term NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) is a little hazy, but is believed to have originated with the hazardous waste disposal industry in the middle of the last century. The term spread as rapidly as its adherents did and evolved into what we have today in Chicago: FRUIT (Fear of Revitalization Urban Infill and Towers) and BANANAS (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).
And so, inspired by a recent article in L.A. Weekly, and not by the pearl-clutching dramatists of the West Loop, or the “I got mine, sucks to be you” crowd of Streeterville, we present a Field Guide to Chicago NIMBYs.
These are the most common NIMBYs. People who somehow believe they have a right to perpetually uninterrupted views out their windows. Some are gullible and believe when the real estate agent told them their view was “protected” or that “nobody is allowed to build anything taller than a church on this side.” This is Chicago — we have churches that are 29-stories tall. Some are so rabid they claim it’s “illegal” to block a view. Others seem to be angling for some kind of financial reparations from the developer of the infringing building. The rule of thumb is: If you’re worried about someone blocking your view, that means you live in a building tall enough that you’ve blocked someone else’s view.
These are similar to view NIMBYs in that it’s all about the visuals. But these people are afraid of being “plunged into perpetual darkness.” Architects spend lots of time doing “shadow studies” to determine how they can make sure their building has the least shadow impact on the neighbors. It’s a pretty exact science. You can do this yourself with the free Google Earth program. Again, nobody promised you sunshine and rainbows. If you’re looking for wide open spaces, that’s what Will County is for.
Traffic NIMBYs exist in a world where the streets they travel are constantly at the maximum possible number of cars they can handle, and if any more buildings are built, every person in that building will want to use the roads at the exact same time as they do, leading to a state of eternal gridlock. They know it takes xx number of minutes to get to work, and are completely incapable of leaving three or four minutes early to account for traffic.
But more people means more cars, right? Maybe. More and more Chicagoans are adopting car-free lifestyles and as they do, the streets are becoming less crowded. Just take a deep breath and realize that you’ll get there when you get there. If your trip was so important, you’d have flashing lights and a siren on your car.
To be fair, we have seen developers try to pull some pretty sneaky stunts when it comes to parking. And yes, parking rates in downtown Chicago currently hover just below clinical insanity. But it’s downtown Chicago. What are you doing with a car, anyway? If you need the car to get to work, you picked the wrong apartment. If you need it to go grocery shopping, then you’re just making stuff up. Tens of thousands of people live in downtown Chicago without a car, and somehow manage to feed themselves, raise families, take road trips, and even go to Costco without owning a rolling smog machine. It’s not the 90s anymore. Time to get with the program.
There’s a persistent myth among condominium owners that people who rent are bad for neighborhoods. At first it was an excuse for racism. “Renter” meant “black south sider.” Now it actually means “renter” and these people actually believe renters are undesirable. One of the reasons real estate developers like renters is because very often they turn into buyers. That’s why some development companies have programs where a percentage of a person’s rent can be set aside for a down payment on a condo in the same neighborhood.
But the flawed logic persists that renters only pay rent, so they’re not invested in the neighborhood. Renters have leases. They’re bound to the neighborhood for a year or two at a time. Condo owners have mortgages, meaning they can up and leave whenever they want to sell. Now who’s more loyal to the neighborhood?
And if renters are so awful, you better tell the John Hancock Center, the Park Tower, Trump Tower, Water Tower Place and half of the Gold Coast. Because somehow thousands of renters are living there without bringing down real estate values. And those are all nicer places to live than your faux loft.
People are noisy, it’s true. And not every 18-year-old with a brand new car stereo is equally polite when they’re eager to impress a girl with it at 2:00am. But you know what’s noisier than new neighbors? Garbage trucks. The L. Buses. Ambulances. Fire trucks. Freeways. Jackhammers. You know — the things that make a city. If peace and quiet is what you’re after, then northern Wisconsin has your name written all over it. If you want to live in a city, you’re going to have to realize eventually that you’re not alone.
Public Safety NIMBYs
At any given public meeting about a new building there will always be someone in the audience who’s smarter than the experts. Some armchair risk analyst who reckons he knows better how dangerous something is than people who spent 15 years in school studying these things and a dozen years in the field getting practical experience. We’ve seen every agency from the Chicago Fire Department to the FAA second-guessed by people who know better than they do because they watch The Discovery Channel. Well, Mr. Smartypants, did you know that 50% of the nation has below-average intelligence? Guess which half you’re in.
Property Value NIMBYs
Another thing people in less-dense areas complain about that people in denser parts of the city don’t. They like to imagine that more people in the neighborhood will mean their property values will go down. The logic doesn’t hold up because the most densely populated areas of the city are the ones with the highest property values. You want that hip new restaurant chain to open an outlet in your area? Oh, so sorry. It went to another ZIP code because it had more people. That’s how real estate works.
These days, some Chicago NIMBY groups have adopted the pejorative initialism as a badge of honor. “NIMBY and Proud,” as it were. Or as a sign at one West Town meeting co-opted it recently: “Neighbors Involved Making a Better communitY.”
On the other side of the coin are BEASTs (Build Everything to Achieve Skyscraper Town). These are people who are in favor of pretty much any project that is ever proposed. They wax lyrical about things like “maximizing density” and “urban footprint potential” and “fully utilizing building envelopes.” More often than not, they won’t be affected in any way by the project in question because they live in outlying neighborhoods or even the suburbs. They treat the growth of downtown Chicago like some giant game of Sim City, and if a building isn’t at least 90 stories tall and shaped like something from Mars, it’s not worthy of being erected.