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Next Stop, Union Station: Revitalizing Chicago’s Transportation Hub

As a hub of transportation for decades, Chicago’s Union Station has long had the potential to be an even bigger economic engine for the region. Now a City of Chicago-led plan, created with strong input from World Business Chicago’s infrastructure team and a civic advisory committee, both guided by MPC, is advancing to satisfy demand for passenger growth at Union Station and to improve access to jobs around the region.

In 2013, Activate Union Station highlighted the potential of Union Station's Great Hall to be a better public space.

“Union Station is a big connector that gets people to job centers,” said Jeff Malehorn, president & CEO, World Business Chicago. “More people go to Union Station than to Midway Airport.” In fact, with 140,000 daily passengers, if Union Station were an airport, it would be the 10th busiest in the U.S. It is also the third-busiest rail terminal in the country.

One indicator of how Union Station will be needed in future years: Metra forecasts a 40 percent increase in trains by 2040 to meet growing regional transit demand. Improvements to Union Station will be key to meeting that demand—and catalyzing economic development in the city’s West Loop.

The Chicago Dept. of Transportation (CDOT) began working on the Union Station Master Plan in 2010 with Amtrak, the owner of Union Station, and Metra, the station’s largest tenant. According to CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, CDOT’s vision for Union Station includes weather-protected connections between modes of transportation, access to local bus and rapid transit lines that better serve airports, and safe passage for pedestrians and bicyclists. “We are looking at ways to expand the capacity of Union Station to take advantage of ridership growth—and sustain it,” Comissioner Scheinfeld says. “We want to keep Chicago as the center for economic development and job growth in the region. Building the capacity of Union Station can help us do that.”

Rebekah Scheinfeld

“We want to keep Chicago as the center for economic development and job growth in the region. Building the capacity of Union Station can help us do that.”

—Rebekah Scheinfeld, CDOT Commissioner

In coordination with CDOT’s planning process, World Business Chicago and MPC tapped local experts on financing and redesign to help create a vibrant public space, one that invites interaction with users and the surrounding city. “Redeveloping Union Station is about making it a vital transportation and economic engine in the West Loop,” says Malehorn. “It’s also making it a place that people want to go.”

“With organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Council and World Business Chicago, Chicago benefits from having a lot of civic involvement and groups that are very conscious of public space and economic development,” says Scheinfeld.

Carol Ross Barney

MPC’s participation in the Union Station study is important because MPC “is always sensitive to the quality of the environment.”

—Carol Ross Barney, Founder & President of Ross Barney Architects, Inc

Carol Ross Barney, an architect who also sits on MPC’s board and consults with CDOT on the Master Plan, calls Union Station “a gateway to Chicago.” She adds that MPC’s participation in the Union Station study is important because the council “is always sensitive to the quality of the environment.” She says that Union Station has “glorious spaces that are underused—and crowded ones that are overused. In addition, the neighborhood surrounding Union Station is one of the few places next to the central business district that has developable land.” Barney says that “the better the city becomes for people who live there, the better it will be for the marketplace and the region.”

What’s next for Union Station? MPC believes that performance-based funding should be embraced by the U.S Congress and the Illinois General Assembly, taking into account economic development, sustainability and equity factors. Innovative funding tools may be needed, like public-private partnerships and value capture, in which increases in private land values generated by public transportation investments are “captured” to repay the cost of the public investment.

“The city has been growing and expanding to the west for some time. There should be room for more retail and entertainment,” said Marlon Smith, managing director, Loop Capital, and chair of MPC’s Union Station working group. “MPC has been doing key work to encourage redevelopment of Union Station—getting folks to the table, spurring discussion, helping to create a framework.”

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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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