West Loop seeks transportation infrastructure improvements
January 4, 2018

Photo courtesy Roger Romanelli
Under the Kedzie Avenue station on Lake Street, Roger Romanelli of the FMA recently saw a semi-trailer truck hit the elevated train structure.

By Eva Hofmann

At a town hall meeting on November 20, West Loop and West Side citizens and business owners called upon Congressman Danny Davis, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and other officials to bring massive government investment to the West Loop and West Side in 2018 totaling at least $225 million.

The meeting focused on the community’s critical need for transportation infrastructure, including building new Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Green Line stations at Damen Avenue and Western Avenue (estimated $50 million each); CTA Green Line Lake Street reconstruction ($100 million initial investment); and modernizing the West Side’s only Metra station at 360 N. Kedzie Ave. to comply with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ($25 million).

“This will bring urgently needed access, jobs, housing, and public safety to the West Side and beyond,” said Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Fulton Market Association (FMA). “Our public transit is important, and we’re getting massive traffic gridlock.”

In addition to Congressman Davis and Mayor Emanuel, officials in attendance included: Jesse Smart of 27th Ward Alderman Burnett’s office; 28th Ward Alderman Jason Ervin; State Representative Melissa Conyears-Ervin; and Cook County Commissioners Richard Boykin and Dennis Deer.

Damen station funding

The meeting succeeded on a couple of fronts, according to Romanelli. “Our community got a timeline from the CTA for construction of the Damen-Lake station,” he said.

According to the proposed timetable, workers would build the station by 2020, which is similar to the past timeline for the CTA station at Morgan and Lake. “They announced Morgan in 2009 and had it done in 2012,” said Romanelli.

While officials support building the Damen station, they expect to pay for it with the community’s tax increment financing (TIF) fund. “The City wants to use $50 million of that to fund the Damen station,” said Charles LeBlanc, a 27th Ward citizen who attended the November meeting.

“The announcement was startling because there is such a high demand for TIF funds to fix local streets and alleys and for expansion,” said Romanelli. “We haven’t taken an official position in terms of responding this funding proposition—we want the Damen station as soon as possible, but how we fund it is important. Our local property owners should have a big voice on how that money is spent.”

Questions about funding sources occurred with building the Morgan station in 2009, according to Romanelli. In the end, the federal government came up with $8 million to help pay for it. “It looks like we’re going back to the same kind of rodeo,” he said.

“That Morgan-Lake station was directly responsible for attracting Google’s Chicago headquarters to Fulton Market and helping Google expand,” said Romanelli. “With the CTA station within 600 feet of the building, the City of Chicago on-site parking requirement was slashed by 50%, allowing the developer to renovate the building profitably. Fulton Market Association wants to foster similar economic development around new CTA Damen-Lake and Western-Lake stations.

“If we build those stations at Damen and Western, we will see an explosion of economic development on the West Side, and that’s our goal,” he said.

Western Avenue el station, Lake Street girder reconfiguration

While FMA works to negotiate funding for the Damen station and ensure officials complete the station according to the proposed timeline, local residents and businesses also seek a station at Western Avenue. “A Green Line Western el stop would spur new jobs, housing, and public safety,” said Romanelli. “Western is Chicago’s busiest north-south arterial, so a CTA station is critical for city-wide transit. The Western Avenue Green Line station will dramatically reduce traffic in the city. We want that.”

Joining FMA to form a Green Line coalition is the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce. “There are important things that need to be done in our area, such as moving the girders on Lake Street,” said Chamber President Siri Hibbler. “Our residents have had accidents because of those girders. The Department of Transportation has removed quite a few, but as soon as you get to Garfield Park, those girders remain. Businesses are not able to move products in and out, and some are threatening to leave.”

One such business owner, Ray Carlson, president of Chicago Turnrite Company, 4459 W. Lake St., said, “Operating our business under the CTA Green Line structure is inefficient and dangerous for our employees. The structure does not allow trucks to back safely into our docks, forcing us to unload trucks on the street in oncoming traffic. This serious problem could eventually lead to us relocating our business.”

The Lake Street structure between Talman Ave. (2600 W. Lake St.) and Laramie Ave. (5200 W. Lake St.) dates to 1893 and 1894, a decade before Chicago had much vehicular traffic. As a result, Lake Street vehicles driving eastbound have no escape from vehicles driving westbound (and vice versa) due to the center-lane girders. Side mirrors on vans and trucks are ripped off daily in two-way traffic due to the street’s narrowness.

On November 17, Romanelli witnessed and recorded a 60-foot semi-trailer truck hit the Lake Street structure at the Kedzie-Lake intersection, requiring police and community assistance to dislodge the truck. “I’ve got two more videos of trucks getting smashed on that structure,” he said, noting trucks hit it frequently, causing traffic chaos and unnecessary police and truck repair costs.

Department of Transportation representatives attended the November meeting to discuss the CTA structure. “They agreed to take our concerns to the mayor and to look into the issue,’ said Romanelli.

ADA compliance

Similar to the antiquated Lake Street structure, the West Side’s only Metra station at 360 N. Kedzie Avenue was built in a very different era. The station ranks as 100% inaccessible to people with disabilities and does not offer weekend service. Revitalizing this station would provide much needed transportation access to residents and employees as well as tourists coming to the Garfield Park Conservatory.

“Congressman Davis is fully supportive of our plans for the Green Line and Metra stations,” said Romanelli. “He would like to see unity on all these issues.” Romanelli said that Davis urged the community to lobby Aldermen Burnett and Ervin—as well as state senators, state representatives, and county commissioners—to make sure they support these upgrades.

“We discussed funding and we would expect to try and have every possible entity, including the Federal government, State government, County government, as well as the City and local government involved in it,” Davis said. “We all know what the climate is currently like. We know that finding public resources is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but we also know that if we start planning and keep laying out the benefits that these developments could bring, we’re optimistic about making it happen.”

Davis noted that the recent passage of the Federal tax bill “will reduce the amount of money that the Federal government will have to work with, because we’re going to cut corporate taxes big time. That will take a lot of money out of the treasury, so we will still experience a tremendous deficit. But these things have a way of working their way around, so I’m optimistic.”

The plan for the Green Line and Metra “is an ambitious plan and there’s a lot of good energy around it,” Davis said.

“West Side residents are willing to invest in our community, and businesses are coming back,” said LeBlanc. “But we need government officials to put our tax dollars to work for long neglected improvements like the two CTA stations.”

“We know that the West Side is one of the most economically disadvantaged parts of the United States,” said Romanelli. “Unfortunately, some of the higher crime rates are in our city and region. We really believe it needs modernization.”

“It was a very positive meeting and we are very pleased to be working with the Fulton Market people as well as the residents,” Davis concluded.

Cleanup under viaducts

West Loop and Near West Side residents and business also are asking Mayor Emanuel and 27th Ward Alderman Burnett to clean two viaducts at 360 N. Hoyne Ave. and 360 N. Oakley Blvd. to remove massive garbage, stolen shopping carts, stolen garbage cans, and abandoned mattresses.

FMA also wants City officials to clean the viaducts weekly in order to avoid the garbage pileups that have occurred for years.

FMA is working to bring investment westward from Fulton Market to Garfield Park; however, street conditions like these make employees, residents, and businesses hesitant to invest.

“Voters and taxpayers deserve better service from City officials to keep these viaducts clean every week and to prevent crime,” said Romanelli.

In addition to debris under the viaducts, local residents and business owners allege that drug dealing occurs between 5 and 7 p.m. regularly. FMA leaders met with 12th District Police Commander Stephen Chang, who encouraged residents to call 911 or the 12th District Undercover Unit.

For 2018, FMA wants City Hall to earmark $10 million in Kinzie Corridor Neighborhood Improvement TIF funds to modernize the viaducts and repair local streets, alleys, sidewalks, streetlights, and sewers.

FMA information can be found at http://fultonmarketchicago.org/. For more on the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce, log on to https://gfpchamberchicago.org/.