Petitioners Make A Strong Case for 63rd Street ‘L’

Just over two weeks ago a petition was launched calling for the extension of the CTA Green Line from 63rd Street and Cottage Grove to Jackson Park. The petition rapidly reached its initial goal of gathering 500 signatures and is now being left open to gather more support. Talk of any new major investment in rapid transit is always exciting, but most of the time it is just that: talk. This petition makes a strong case for extending the Green Line east, however, and it may be a case worth giving serious attention.

I spoke with the three men behind the petition—Reuben Lillie, its author, and Mike Medina and Gabriel Piemonte, two Woodlawn residents who helped him craft the wording and background knowledge. (Streetsblog Chicago published an edited version of the story, and a complete version is available on Urbanelijk.) It’s easy enough to identify a good idea and propose a rapid transit extension, but does the plan Lillie, Medina, and Peimonte propose have teeth? Looking at it in details indicates it does.

The petitioners make a strong case that the project can be funded in part with private-public partnerships. It is unlikely this extension would do be a huge financial windfall for investors, but it is important to note the two potential investors for this project are non-profit institutions that would nonetheless benefit directly from solid transit services to their area.

The extension of the Green Line is a high-impact, low cost project for the CTA. Based on cost estimates for its other major projects, it doesn’t appear this project would cost most than $500 million and certainly it wouldn’t cost $1 billion, which is was CMAP’s estimates. The Red and Purple Modernization, for example, is expected to cost less than $220 million per mile to build and will include new elevated structures and stations. And more contributors can share this lower cost.

While the lack of a consistent local funding stream for major capital projects for Chicago transit is often a road block two new options may help proposals like a Green Line Extension more forward. A new type of TIF specifically for transit projects is being experimented with on the North Side for the Red and Purple Modernization. Second, the Transit Future campaign suggests a penny on the dollar sales tax for Cook County to specifically fund transit projects. Both ideas are realistic and could make the difference between not expansion and major growth.

The Obama Foundation is directly identified as a possible funding partner and it is implied that the University of Chicago would be another. At the moment, neither is served directly by the ‘L’ and both would benefit from the access provided by a Green Line extension. Students, visitors, and employees would be a short walk from the ‘L’ if the Green Line gets extended. To sweeten the pie, funding could be rewarded with naming rights. One point made during the interview was how powerful it to call a new terminus at Jackson Park “Obama Center”. A new station between Woodlawn and University could reasonably be named University of Chicago.

Furthermore, the petitioners call for new stations or expanded services at two to three locations, which would increase the use of this branch, bringing in more revenue through fares, which is vital for the extension’s long-term sustainability. And speaking of sustainable solutions, the petition reveals that a substantial segment of the route’s elevated infrastructure already exists in storage. While this would not save on construction costs it would save on materials procurements. Although it’s only a few blocks worth of structure, this is significant for a project that is only one mile long.

Finally, the costs of some of the more expensive elements of the project, including a bridge across the Metra Electric tracks, could be split between multiple parties. While the petitioners avoided making demands on Metra and the South Shore Line to avoid distracting from the main goal, a new bridge could (and should) be integrated into a transfer station connecting the three rail services. A new transfer station could replicate the model of Jamaica Center in New York City and in turn increase ridership resulting from improved transfers. This would be a vital link between the three South Side transit services.

Demographically, the area is also well suited to support rapid transit services. In addition to strong institutional draws the population density of the census tracts surrounding the route of the proposed extension range from 16,000 persons per mile square to over 20,000, which puts these tracts among the most densely populated in the area. The densities are already high enough to support rapid transit services. There is ample developable land in the area, too, which means population growth could be further supported.

The residents of this area would also benefit from transit access. Woodlawn residents experience a higher rate of unemployment, poverty, and transit dependence than residents in Chicago as a whole or in neighboring Hyde Park. Improved rapid transit access would increase the speed with which residents could access jobs and educational opportunities elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, the construction of the extension would produce numerous jobs in the neighborhood at least temporarily. Finally, it would decrease the burden of transit dependent residents who currently have to rely on buses or the more expensive but less reliable Metra services.

In total, a one-mile extension of the ‘L’ to the former terminus at Jackson Park would bring new ‘L’ services to upwards of 100,000 residents, multiple major institutions, and the lakefront within a one-to-two mile radius of the new line.

The proposed extension is likely one of the most reasonable transit expansion proposals in the region. In some ways, it’s arguably a better use of money than the Red Line Extension. Considering the low cost, split between multiple public and private parties, the existing materials, and the potential social and economic impact there is very little that says this is a bad idea.

Petitioners Take On Challenge to Restore Jackson Park Green Line

An edited version of this story was published by Streetsblog Chicago on Tuesday, July 26. This is the original, extended text.

Twenty years ago, the Chicago Tribune reported Woodlawn residents waking to “the thunder of falling steel;” the noise was the controversial demolition of the Jackson Park branch of the Green Line east of Cottage Grove. The demolition has regained attention after Hyde Park resident, Reuben Lillie, launched a petition and website calling for its restoration. In addition to its call for expanded rapid transit service, the petition also reflects broader issues on the South Side: local anxiety over development in Jackson Park, questions of gentrification, and indignation towards the patronizing treatment of South Siders by City Hall.

The Jackson Park branch was part of the original ‘L’. Planned in 1880s with its initial terminus at 39th Street, the ‘L’ was immediately extended to Jackson Park when Chicago hosted the 1893 World’s Fair. For a century after trains used this structure until deferred maintenance and deteriorating infrastructure paved the way for demolition crews to move in during the fall 1997.

Still, the demolition of the ‘L’ branch is a curiosity. It destroyed one of the city’s most historically significant pieces of infrastructure and it provided the only direct rapid transit link between to the lakefront parks. Furthermore, the demolition came at time that would not suggest interest in shrinking the system: the Blue Line had been recently extended, the Orange Line was brand new, and a renovation of the entire Green Line was underway.

According to a contemporary report from the Chicago Reader, a number of parties are behind the elevated’s demolition. Inaction at City Hall and sort-sighted leadership at the CTA allowed the structure to fall into disrepair. Subsequently, the priorities of local organizations and influential individuals such as Bishop Arthur M. Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God and Rev. Leon Finney, Jr., chairman of the Woodlawn Organization, and proponents of demolition, helped bring down the ‘L’.

A native of Pennsylvania, Lillie moved to the South Side three years ago and has thrown himself into becoming a proud Chicagoan. A musician and theologian, he recognized the logic in having the “L” run all the way to Jackson Park following the announcement that the Obama Presidential Center would be built in the park. “I was kind of waiting in the wings hoping the sensible thing would be done,” Lillie says.

He became more “aggressive” in his activism (laughing at his own word choice) when it became clear no plans for the ‘L’ were in the works. This is when Mike Medina, a 12-year Woodlawn resident, noticed Lillie’s comments about the ‘L’ online and reached out about his interest in the Green Line extension. Medina was “struck by the optimism” and salience of his ideas. He then showed Lillie’s comments to Gabriel Piemonte, a seven-year Woodlawn resident who would also help.

The petition states there is no “viable infrastructure for welcoming people to the Jackson Park vicinity” and that ‘L’ service “encourages visitors to Jackson Park…but also enables our South Side neighbors to move more freely to, from, and within Woodlawn.“ Arguing there is no better time to address this, the petition calls for the restoration of service to Jackson Park.

Proposing the construction of a new piece of infrastructure is valiant albeit difficult. In particular, transit expansion is notoriously expensive and mired in politics. Kyle Whitehead, Government Relations Director at the Active Transportation Alliance, lays out some of the challenges to expand rapid transit. The first hurdle is creating a proposal for the extension and pursuing a public engagement process, all necessary steps. Money is the biggest challenge for moving forward, however.

“Funding is typically the biggest barrier to…building new [transit lines],” says Whitehead, adding that local funding is especially difficult. While federal grants can help municipalities fund transit projects they all require significant local matches. Currently, there is no dedicated source of revenue for transit to meet local match requirements. At the city and county level “we struggle to come up with those funds,” explains Whitehead.

Indeed, Chicago is full of examples of projects stuck at the drawing board although they have well developed plans. Nonetheless, implementation remains elusive. Moreover, the Green Line restoration to Jackson Park only entered the lexicon of official planning projects with its inclusion in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s list of regionally significant projects last year.

The men behind the petition show no naïveté and they are aware of the associated challenges. Nonetheless, they remain steadfast in the belief that this is an essential first step for Woodlawn. Indeed, when discussing the restoration of the Green Line they reveal an understanding of the dynamics of transit expansion in general, the potential impact on Woodlawn specifically, and the relationship to projects in Jackson Park.

More broadly, the petition is about bringing back local control to the planning process. “The nerve that [this idea] struck with us…was the idea of South Siders being a part of the conversation,” Piemonte says with Medina adding that it is in contrast to residents being “spoon feed [ideas] by private investors.” While such comments expose frustration with how City Hall conducts planning processes on the South Side it is being channeled into an effort to positively restore local participation and allow South Siders to be leaders in these processes.

“One of the questions that is coming from this is people now asking, ‘well, how should Woodlawn be developed,’ and that is very exciting,” Piemonte says. The focus remains on the ‘L’, and while some have rebuked the idea as a silver bullet solution to Woodlawn’s problems Lillie maintains the idea is an essential element to the neighborhood’s revival and health. “It’s not panacean,” Lillied says, “it’s just key.”

Medina and Piemonte, who are both involved in other community engagement efforts, see this is as a critical strain in conversations for how the south lakefront and Woodlawn will develop. The restoration of the ‘L’ has to include projects such as the Obama Presidential Center and vice versa. “How do you not notice the ‘L’ has been torn down,” Piemonte asks, stressing the hole its absence creates in Woodlawn.

The initial goal of 500 signatures was achieved so quickly that a discussion of next steps was forced. This includes getting the attention or support of three particular groups. First, it is measuring community support, which the petitioners feel exists. Second is the Obama Foundation, which also seems receptive to the idea; according to Lillie the director of planning and construction for the Obama Presidential Center, Roark Frankel, showed enthusiasm for the idea after speaking with Lillie at a ward meeting. The Obama Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

The third target is Mayor Emanuel and the CTA. A report on DNAinfo included a statement from CTA Spokesperson Irene Ferradaz, who said that while the extension is not being considered the CTA “always looks for opportunities to improve the system to meet ridership demand.” The important message for Lillie is that “they didn’t say ‘no’.” Remaining optimistic, he interprets this as an opening to begin pushing for the establishment of a committee to plan the project.

Now, the petition is being kept active longer with a new goal of 1,000 signatures. The date by which the petitioners want a response from the Mayor’s office, the CTA, and other parities is September 27, the 20th anniversary of the Jackson Park branch’s demolition. It also falls before the planning for the Obama center gets under way in earnest allowing them to include the ‘L’ in their plans.

The proposal for the ‘L’ is part of a visionary idea for the South Side that fits well with the vision the Obama’s have set out for the Presidential Center, according to the petitioners. Indeed, for them, it is a visionary idea for the whole city to acknowledge. “One of our [city’s] foundational concepts is forever open and free,” Piemonte says referencing the idea that the public should have complete access to the lakefront, “that these spaces are for everybody…and if people can’t get to it, it’s not fair.”

At this Lillie adds forthrightly, “anything that happens here without the ‘L’ in some manner is a Pyrrhic victory.” Access is synonymous with fairness and essential to the equity of plans for Jackson Park.

South Side residents share a sense that they have to be self-reliant, and it is up to them to arrange the resources and services they need and desire on their own, the petitioners maintain. And now they think it will be impossible for the city to ignore local demand to restore the ‘L’ with the new activity in Jackson Park. “They kind of started the poker game,” Piemonte says. “They say they’re doing this, because they care about the community”, Lillie remarks, and “we’re calling their bluff.”

For Lillie, the extension of the Green Line to its former terminus is a prodigious project. Not only does it correct years of neglect and false promises to the South Side, it fits into a more epic image of Chicago that speaks to its better qualities. The Obama Presidential Center’s location in Jackson Park references history with its link to the World’s Fair, which was Chicago’s coming out to the world. For some residents, the Obama center is viewed similarly. The ‘L’ is presented now as important as it was during the fair.

Bringing [the ‘L’] back is recapturing Daniel Burnham’s vision,” Lillie said “it was there to welcome the world to Chicago.”

 

Which Western? – Perhaps it’s time to rename some ‘L’ stops

One quirk of Chicago’s ‘L’, the city’s rapid transit system, is the presence of multiple stations with the same name. For example, there are not two, nor three, rather five stations called “Western”, one each on the Brown, Pink, and Orange lines and two (yes two) on the Blue Line. This idiosyncrasy isn’t particularly unusual for the Chicago Transit Authority. The New York City subway and Los Angeles Metro each have multiple stations with the same name. It does stand out to foreign visitors however, and it took a German, in their infinite practicality, to make me realize how insane this nomenclature actually is. Which brings me to my main point: how should the CTA rename its ‘L’ stations to prevent confusing repetitiveness?

This seems like a simple enough task, but the ‘L’ can define an entire neighborhood and so can the name of the associated station. Renaming the stations is a task in officially defining space and place and doing so in relative perpetuity. (I’ll address that irony in one moment.) A new naming system at one needs to be systematic, to make the naming of new stations simple, but also create a certain understated cohesion that makes navigating the city easy still. It also needs to take into account the changing nature of neighborhoods and consider that what was once colloquially know as “Clark and Belmont” somehow morphed into East Lakeview between the time I graduated high school in 2010 and moved home in 2016.

The current naming system uses the major street a station stops at for a name. This occurs with few exceptions (e.g. Logan Square) and the occasional intersection (North/Clybourn). Even where a landmark is included the intersecting street is usually tacked onto the name as well (e.g. UIC-Halsted or Cermak-McCormick Place). It’s simple enough, but not when you are overlaying a radial transit system on a city with a continuous street grid that results in multiple stations on different lines in different parts of the city with the exact same name. “Western” is the most garish example, but it is far from the only one. Chicago’s ‘L’ includes:

  • Four ‘Kedzie’ stations; plus one ‘Kedzie-Homan’
  • Three ‘Cicero’ stations (two were formerly on the same line)
  • Three ‘Pulaski’ stations
  • Three ‘Chicago’ stations
  • Three ‘Addison’ stations
  • Three’ Damen’ stations (two were formerly on the same line)
  • Two each of ‘Irving Park’, ‘Oak Park’, ‘Austin’, ‘Montrose’, ‘Ashland’, ‘Harlem’ (on the same line), and ‘Belmont’

While a simple system has its benefits, transit systems have power in creating a sense of place, and the importance of not causing unnecessary confusion. One solution to this predicament is combining landmarks with street names, which is more common on the South Side with station names like ‘Sox-35th’ or ’35th-Bronzeville-IIT’. This results in long cumbersome names though.

I propose an alternative: 1) name stations first after the street they stop at. It is relatively straight forward and allows people to orient themselves in the city easily. If you get off at Kimball, you know you’re 3200 west. If you get off at Damen you know the connecting bus is the Damen bus. But, in cases where there is more than one station on a street 2) name the station in relation to the designated community area. For example, the stations named ‘Pulaski’ become “West Garfield Park’ on the Green Line, ‘North Lawndale’ on the Pink Line, and ‘Archer Heights’ on the Orange Line.

ctatrainmap

All five Western stations on the CTA ‘L’.

Ah, but a there is a problem even with this example. There are multiple ‘L’ lines and stations in certain Community Areas. The ‘Pulaski’ station on the Blue Line was left out and there are four stations on the Pink Line in North Lawndale. The ‘Pulaski’ station was arbitrarily renamed, because there are more than one stations with the same name. There are two final suggestions to alleviate such conflicts: point 3) is to name stations after identifiable sub neighborhoods, especially ones that are not likely to change and 4) rename stations to align with adjacent Metra stops, where they exist.

The latter solution only results in the renaming of a few stops (e.g. the ‘Montrose’ station on the Blue Line becomes Mayfair); the former solution still is imperfect, because it holds that neighborhoods are permanent. We all know neighborhoods change and can do so gradually or rapidly. Changing the names of transit stations is a costly and time consuming affair (which is why it doesn’t happen all that often and would likely have to happen at the same time changes would be made anyhow, such as with the opening of a new station). Thus, renaming station after relatively ephemeral neighborhood names could be problematic in that over a short period of time those names could becoming meaningless.

Who still calls Andersonville ‘Girlstown’, for example?

Then again, this could be good for neighborhoods. Station names indicating an ethnic or minority community aren’t unprecedented. The Red Line stop in Chinatown indicates the exact ethnic community living there: a Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American community! This at a time when many Chinatowns nationwide are disappearing or moving (but not in Chicago).

There is perhaps then an incentive for minority or ethnic communities to stay in place longer is something as seemingly permanent as the name of an ‘L’ station reflects the local demographic. For example, renaming the ‘Belmont’ station on the Red, Brown, and Purple lines in Lakeview to ‘Boystown’ might act as a catalyst for renewed investment in the area by LGBTQ residents and business owners. It would also solidify the stop as the gateway to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, up the road at the ‘Addison’ stop the name ‘Wrigleville’ seems apt.

It is unlikely the name of every station on the ‘L’ will properly reflect the community surrounding said station. Communities change, developers push new neighborhood identities, the system grows and contracts (hopefully no more), and the grid still prevails. Then again, anything is better than having five stations named ‘Western’ in the same system.

Therefore, here are my proposals:

LINE PREVIOUS NAME NEW NAME NOTES
Red Morse Rogers Park Create more identifiable commercial center
Red Bryn Mawr Edgewater Create more identifiable community center
Red Lawrence Uptown Create more identifiable community center
Red Addison Wrigleyville
Red Chicago Magnificent Mile Create stronger link between station and N. Michigan Avenue
Red Cermak-Chinatown Chinatown Simplify
RBP Belmont Boystown Reinforce character of LGBTQ neighborhood
BP Sedgewick Old Town Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Kedzie Albany Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Western Lincoln Square Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Damen Ravenswood Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Addison Roscoe Village Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Chicago River North
Blue Harlem Norwood Park
Blue Montrose Mayfair Associated with neighborhood and Metra station
Blue Belmont Avondale Create community identity
Blue Western Bucktown Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Blue Damen Wicker Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Blue UIC-Halsted UIC East-Greektown Associated with neighborhood and UIC
Blue Racine UIC West-Little Italy Associated with neighborhood and UIC
Pink 18th Pilsen Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Pink California Douglas Park
Pink Pulaski North Lawndale-Little Village Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Kedzie East Garfield Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Pulaski West Garfield Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Oak Park Oak Park-Lake Street Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Harlem/Lake Oak Park-Central Combine with Metra
Orange Halsted Bridgeport Create stronger link between station and neighborhood