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(Re)Connecting Chicago: How Existing CTA Infrastructure Could Be a Catalyst for Change and Community Investment

Domenic Salpietra
Immediately west of the Loop in Chicago lies a rectangular tract of city neighborhoods that represents perhaps the city’s most connected patchwork of urban real estate. Ironically, it’s also one of the most underutilized as measured by the number of vacant properties and unused city-owned land.

Bordered to the west and east by Central and Ashland streets, this roughly 14-square-mile rectangle features three L lines—green (to the north), pink (to the south) and blue (through its center)—and 23 rail stations. It also has 5,500 pieces of vacant land that, taken together, would add up to more than 900 acres, according to public records. Of that vacant property, more than 300 acres is owned by the city. Four miles south of downtown lies a similar assemblage of real estate stretching through the Bronzeville and Englewood neighborhoods that, despite being in proximity to mass transit, has exponentially more vacant and unused land (nearly 2,000 acres) than most of Chicago (see map).

This juxtaposition of existing transit infrastructure and underutilized property should concern all Chicagoans, especially as the city considers new investments in transit to follow population and development trends. The Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) proposed 5-mile southern extension of the red line is expected to cost taxpayers at least $2.3 billion. That’s more than $400 million per mile.

Don’t get me wrong. Mass transit is an important investment with clear community benefits. Nothing moves people through a city more efficiently and economically, with less impact on the environment, as mass transit. But with 224 miles of existing CTA rail, Chicago already has nearly the same amount of rapid-transit line as New York (236 mi.) and London (250 mi.)—cities with more than three times its population.

In addition to strategically adding new lines to our transit system, perhaps we also need to focus on how our current transit infrastructure could achieve more? One way to address that would be for the city and the CTA to pro-actively work with local stakeholders to activate and encourage relevant development of vacant and underutilized properties within walking distance of existing L stations. This would help align future growth and opportunity in the city with our existing investment in the transit system.

Such an initiative is underway in south Chicago where CTA recently announced that it would seek greater public input for the redevelopment of vacant property surrounding its new 95th Street Red Line terminal (the most expensive station investment in agency history). CTA will partner with the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) to pilot a community-based approach to development for the area around the station. The CTA’s involvement of outside parties—and neighbors—in the development process and their recognition that this vacant land needs to be transformed for the good of the city is indicative of a fresh approach.

The city could further encourage smart development near CTA station in three distinct ways.

1.   Policy and Economic Incentives

The city’s policy and economic incentives dramatically impact growth and development around these stations. To effectively encourage development, idle vacant land, which creates a barrier between underserved populations and accessible transit, could be discouraged through tax policy that eliminates or reduces the credits currently available to vacant land holders. The city could consider expanding incentives for brownfield reclamation and redevelopment and eliminate TIF misuse by focusing public investment in the neighborhoods where it is most needed.

2.   Zoning and Land-Use Alignment

Chicago’s zoning strategies provide an opportunity for city planners and leaders to reevaluate the transit system to ensure these policies align with the highest and best use of land long-term. The city’s Transit Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance, which aims to spur development along high-traffic rail stations and bus routes through unique zoning codes and stream-lined approval processes, can and should be further expanded, building on momentum from the expanded benefits passed at the start of 2019. In addition, increased efficiency and leniency in zoning changes to areas adjacent to transit stops would further promote development of residential and commercial buildings and increase employment opportunities.

3.   Design and Development

Good design and urban planning can help realize the impact of these changes to policy, funding and zoning. The best development around CTA stations is dense and mixed-use, integrating multi-modal transit and establishing physical connectivity between the stations and surrounding neighborhoods. To ensure development meets density standards, an effective review process should be established, along with progressive design guidelines.

As a city we need to strategically leverage the resources we have, such as underutilized or vacant city-owned land surrounding transit stations and allow comprehensive strategic planning to play a stronger role in shaping the growth and prosperity of the city and its people.

Dominic Salpietra is the regional leader of planning in HOK’s Chicago studio. This article originally appeared on his LinkedIn page.

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