Transit-Oriented Development Around Metra Isn’t Always About “Density”

91st Street - Beverly Hills
The city will look at the potential for development and better access at residential Metra stations like 91st Street in Beverly. Photo: Eric Rogers

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development wants to dispel the notion that “transit-oriented development” only means high-rises. The agency will host two public meetings to gather ideas from residents who live near the city’s 77 Metra stations on the kinds of development and station changes they’d like to see in their neighborhoods. The meetings are part of a “typology study” to classify Metra stations relative to their surrounding neighborhoods’ shared characteristics and potential for development and public space improvements.

I talked to the city’s director of urban planning and design, Benet Haller, to find out why people should come out and participate. “Just because you say TOD,” Haller said, “doesn’t mean it has to be like the Loop or Lincoln Park.” He added that the city would like walkable development around all train stations, but “in terms of scale, it needs to be relative to the neighborhood as a whole.” These workshops will give local residents an opportunity to identify that appropriate scale and imagine how the station can integrate into the neighborhood.

Haller described what could be possible for the Beverly neighborhood, with its multiple Metra Rock Island stations. The first public meeting about Metra development was held in Beverly last week. “You try to make sure it’s pedestrian-oriented, you formalize sidewalks and plazas, facilitate kiss & ride, and legalize community gardens,” he said, listing small changes that make the station experience more pleasant for commuters.

The next meeting will also be held on the South Side, in Avalon Park, while the third and final meeting will be in Lincoln Square. The focus on the South Side was deliberate, as there are more Metra stations there, Haller said.

“There are Metra stations on the South Side without a connection to CTA buses, in really low-density residential communities,” he said. “Sometimes the Metra station is the only thing keeping the neighborhood stable; it keeps a certain number of houses occupied. We want to use our existing assets to the greatest possible extent.”

Haller listed some of the improvements that might come up for some of these tucked-away stations. The Metra Electric’s State Street station, at 120th Place and State Street in West Pullman, has a single track, a single entrance, and a barn-like shelter. For a station in a “low density neighborhood like that,” Haller said, “you’re not really talking about development sites. You’re talking about little improvements in that immediate environment.” He said you could create a pull-in area for kiss & ride, better indicate the station’s presence, or install a better shelter.

Haller reiterated that these meetings are “for people to think about minor considerations… that can have significant investments that impacts stations.” Many of those considerations, like signage, wayfinding, minor streetscape upgrades, and bike parking, might seem small on their own but “can make the whole better than the sum of its parts.”

Haller hopes that the DPD study, by packaging station improvements into “types” that are comparable across neighborhoods, will make station improvements more cohesive and meaningful to aldermen. “This is better than the aldermanic way of making a list of 3-4 projects,” he says, “and then voting on one. Maybe this is how we can get improvements around the Metra station instead of a new left turn on Western Avenue,” which honestly might cost about the same.

This video from the study team walks you through possible changes at a Beverly Metra station. 

Part of the study is about managing expectations. Haller pointed out that in 2009 the department, then known as Zoning & Land Use Planning, published a similar study of CTA stations. “You look at the Red Line,” he said, “where we’re aspiring for future development, [but] not trying to make every CTA station a big retail development.” The same goes for Metra stations, Haller said. “There are ones that are more retail oriented, and the adjacent ones less so — they’re not equal. Certain ones have no retail character and we’re not expecting that it become one.”

Haller said the downtown stations are included in the study, but “we don’t have much to say about them.” How open is Metra to the city’s study? “Metra is in a more conciliatory mood after the polar vortex” disrupted service and under its “new leadership,” he says. DPD wants to focus attention on the Metra station now: Many of these stations and neighborhoods have been neglected for years, and “it’s insane to waste existing stations and investments.”

The next meeting is Tuesday, March 25, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Avalon Park Field House, 1215 E 83rd Street. The last meeting is Wednesday, April 2, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N Lincoln Avenue.

  • No Ur Fax

    Perhaps they should also make Metra prices from Chicago zone B stations to other Chicago zone B or A the same price as a CTA ride.

  • I have to disagree. TOD is almost entirely about density. (The other part i would say is diversity of uses.) No one is advocating for building a 35 story residential building in Beverly. The problem is that zoning and nimby’s keep 4-5 story buildings away. Or they keep reduced parking developments away. Or metra surrounds their stations with a sea of parking or so on…

    The area around metra stations should look more like arlington heights, palatine, or park ridge and less like naperville, Rt 59, or wheeling. (I only chose stations i’m familiar with, i’m sure there are other good and bad ones.) Simply making it a nicer commuting experience is fine but, it’s not really TOD or particularly beneficial to the region.

  • david vartanoff

    All Metra within CTA service territory should be fare integrated to CTA cards/rates.

  • oooBooo

    Wheeling’s Metra service is on a freight line. Thus the train station is near industry, not homes and shopping.

    Not sure what you are saying for Rt 59, I guess the Barrington station? That’s right next to downtown Barrington. The only fault I can think of is that there just isn’t much to Barrington.

  • R.A. Stewart

    True about Wheeling (I’m not so familiar with Barrington). Another factor is that Wheeling doesn’t have anything remotely resembling a downtown.

  • Boom

    on the double!

  • Dennis McClendon

    Route 59 is the “cornfield station” Metra built between Aurora and Naperville to provide a huge park-n-ride lot.

  • Nathaanel

    A wheelchair ramp to a concrete platform would be a good improvement for THAT station (State St.). The sidewalks are already OK there.

  • Nathanael

    Historically, there’s been gross neglect of the Metra stations within the City of Chicago. If this is changing that… well, damn, that is good. This is extremely overdue.

  • FG

    Monthly passes have been very close in price (if not less) for years and ridership is still low.

  • FG

    than CTA single-ride fares I meant to say.

  • onehandtyping

    I think City stations serve different populations. Not all folks are trying to get downtown. I ride the BNSF and use the Western Ave station in Pilsen. I never see anyone riding toward the Loop but there are always 15-20 people riding out to the suburbs in the AM. Simply cleaning up the station would be a huge improvement. There is crumbling rock and concrete and tires and garbage all over under the viaduct. It’s hardly inviting. No signage either. People are probably scared to go to the station because it looks abandoned.

  • Anne A

    I hear you. That station is creepy and uninviting at street level. Clean-up, adding decent signage and better lighting would improve it a lot.

  • “Simply cleaning up the station would be a huge improvement. There is crumbling rock and concrete and tires and garbage all over under the viaduct. It’s hardly inviting.”

    I think this is what Haller was getting at when he said, and I’m rephrasing it, “let’s look at these stations individually and in groups so that we can recommend a host of changes to propose to the alderman and neighbors instead of à la carte style where one small station improvement is pitted against one other neighborhood improvement.

    I think of it akin to CTA’s “Station Renewal” program.

  • Head to a meeting!

  • What Haller was saying is that density is relative. A 3-4 story building in Beverly around the Metra stations there is *very* dense compared to the surrounding development. Maybe I should have titled the post “TOD isn’t always about high-rises.”

  • JacobEPeters

    This is my dream for once Metra is on Ventra. As well as a premium monthly pass which would allow unlimited rides on CTA, Pace, Metra, and Divvy within the city. Possibly within communities served by CTA and Divvy, potentially Oak Park and Evanston.

  • Good, don’t let it happen again ;-)

    When, i read the headline i was like, “Come on, those folks at Streetsblog know better.” But yes, you’re right on, density is relative. Keep up the good work!

  • Confusion is bound to happen when exurban terminology (TOD) is applied to urban environments. Us transportation advocates should team up with someone like Frank Lutz to invent some messaging for what denser, no-parking, urban developments should be called. (You can leave your ideas in the replies).

    On another note, we are working on an adaptive reuse project a block away from the 91st Street Metra station (the one in the headline photo). That site was selected precisely because we could lessen our parking requirement (because our new use has a lesser parking requirement than the existing use. The TOD ordinance did not exist when the project started). We run into plenty of business owners who would love to find locations where they wouldn’t have to supply new parking. The key might be connecting these businesses to locations that have reduced or no parking requirements. Whether because they are close to transit or are rehabilitating existing buildings, it would help create and maintain pedestrian environments. Perhaps there could be greater emphasis on reusing existing infrastructure instead of building new or tearing things down. There are creative ways to get around parking requirements.

  • FG

    It’s been a while, but aren’t there a slew of very large courtyard buildings along Longwood Drive south of 107th Street?

  • I don’t know – I’ve only visited Beverly 1-3x. Beverly also has several Metra stations around which to guide development.

  • FG

    I’m positive there are now, I remember seeing for sale listings for them as well as going by them many times.

  • neroden

    Not a local! I have relatives in Chicago, so I visit, but I don’t live anywhere near.

    My grandmother was advocating for improvements 30 years ago. Not much luck so far. Hence my “extremely overdue” comment…

  • Anne A

    Being very familiar with the 103rd St. station, it was interesting to see their analysis of existing conditions and proposals for changes. The station plaza would be a very welcome change, replacing a handful of diagonal parking spaces that create traffic conflict. Proposed placement of bike racks, and the addition of a lot more racks is a big improvement over the current inadequate, poorly placed rack.

    Enhanced crosswalks would be a plus, perhaps with speed tables. There is a frequent need for ped crossing on either side of the station, and drivers tend not to stop unless blocked by a train.

    The mixed use development northeast of the station has been a mixed bag so far. As new construction goes, it’s reasonably attractive. Construction was stalled for a long time. Now that the initial building is done, it’s been filling in – except for the retail spaces – big disappointment. I have no idea what the rents are for those spaces, but the trend for new space in a TOD location has been for rents to be high enough to be a deterrent to independent businesses. I hope that’s not the case with new spaces around 103rd St. station. One of the big attractions in that business district and others in Beverly and Morgan Park has been unique businesses that you don’t find elsewhere. A generic row of “could be anywhere” franchise businesses does not create an appealing destination or enhance the neighborhood. That’s what we got at the SE corner of 95th & Western and response has been lukewarm at best.

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