A proposed site of L-Evated Chicago improvements
The bifurcation of Chicago runs deep. The prosperous are prospering, and those who aren’t, well, they don’t. In fact, one in five Chicagoans live in poverty, including one in three African-Americans. And African-Americans are three times as likely as whites to live in deep poverty.
Despite these troubling realities, there is also new momentum for change. This week the Metropolitan Planning Council announced it was part L-Evated Chicago, a new collaborative that will use existing transit stations to create hubs of opportunity. The goal is to conduct planning around targeted El Stations in neighborhoods that need reinvestment.
Chicago is one of six cities receiving awards under the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), a three-year, $90 million initiative that will bolster local groups and in their efforts to ensure that major new investments in transportation, housing, health and sustainability are made in ways that improve equity, health and environmental outcomes for all residents.
Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is not a new concept, but it’s also not automatic and a lot of care and consideration must be invested to ensure development is successful. In fact, a quick walk along the city’s Greenline, for example, shows that a lot of transit station are not reaching their full potential. L-Evated Chicago will take a comprehensive station area planning approach around key stations with development potential. The focus of the effort is on equity, environment and health.
I started as the new transportation director at MPC last week after working for a dozen years as a transportation planning consultant. On the second day of my job at MPC I had the opportunity to take a daylong tour with the project team through some of the focus areas for L-Evated Chicago: East Garfield Park, South Lawndale, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and Bronzeville. In looking at transportation assets through a lens of community development I came away with a few observations:
- Transit is not always appreciated as an asset by communities and potential riders. On more than one occasion we heard that only people without other options ride transit. Some people involved in TOD projects hadn’t ever used the adjacent transit station. Transit must be made as appealing as the new stores, restaurants and businesses being developed.
- TOD must involve constant scrutiny of how the development connects with and enhances the transit station. It is critical to avoid “transit adjacent development” that is next to but not truly oriented toward the station. Even if TOD is largely about development, if people do not want to ride transit, that is an obvious problem that will affect success of the development.
- If perception of safety is the barrier to transit use – and it probably is in a lot of underinvested neighborhoods – then it will be critical to think aggressively about how safety in the entire station area (1/2 mile radius) can be boosted through improvements like lighting, high visibility crosswalks, cameras, and police presence. Ultimately safety will be benefited when a lot of people are accessing the developments around the station and there is a lot of foot traffic in the station area.
- Transit stations must be well integrated into the neighborhood. Creative strategies are needed to truly connect the street-level community with elevated stations and to reduce the negative impact of often dark and littered viaducts. Public art can make a huge difference and be an opportunity for community engagement and ownership. Lighting, paint, signage, and pedestrian connections are all relatively low-cost ways to make the area appealing.
During our tour, I also learned that there are a lot of people with big ideas making things happen in Chicago with very limited resources. Many individuals have incredible passion and creativity and are committed to improving their communities. While Chicago residents can easily respond to news reports by feeling certain areas of the city have insurmountable problems, I believe change is always possible. I was energized to learn about a large number fantastic community initiatives in the L-Evated neighborhoods, some of which are established and others which are just emerging. For example:
- The Bronzeville Incubator at 51st and Calumet (Green Line 51st Street Station) supports entrepreneurs in the culinary and sustainability industries. It provides shared work and event space and a cluster of food-related businesses is emerging around the location.
- The Arts Block in Washington Park (Green Line Garfield Station) is incubating creativity through efforts including an Artist in Residence Program and providing significant programming for local residents.
- Esperanza Health Center (Pink Line –California) in South Lawndale provides comprehensive health services including mental health services to the community.
- The Hatchery (Green Line - Kedzie Station) is developing a 75,000 square foot facility on six acres of vacant land adjacent to the station for food entrepreneurs and classes. The Accion community development financial institution, which is financing the development and hopes to lend to more community businesses in the neighborhood, will also locate there.
- The Homan Square Community Center (Blue Line Kedzie-Homan) provides wide range of health and recreation services and anchors the Homan square affordable housing development located on the former Sears Campus. Additional scattered site affordable housing is planned.
The SPARCC initiative chose L-Evated Chicago following a competitive application process in 2016. L-Evated Chicago will align capital, policy and programmatic resources with the unique interests and needs of the funded communities. The collaborative including the Chicago Community Trust, where the initiative will be housed; the Metropolitan Planning Council and Center for Neighborhood Technology, leading policy and planning groups; Enterprise Community Partners Chicago and IFF, both local nonprofit lenders; University of Chicago Arts and Public Life, an arts and culture community partner, and the City of Chicago Department of Public Health has been awarded $1 million in direct grant and technical assistance funds over the next three years. I look forward to being part of the team helping leverage the El to grow these communities over the coming years.