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Sposato Drops Opposition to Jeff Park Bump-outs; More Safety Infra Planned

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A driver who failed to yield fatally struck Noah Katz and injured his mother. The planned bump-outs could help prevent similar crashes. Photo courtesy of the family

After a reckless driver fatally struck Noah Katz, 2, and injured his mother in a Jefferson Park crosswalk last month, 45th Ward alderman John Arena and the city front-burnered existing plans to install curb bump-outs at the intersection. But alderman Nicholas Sposato of the 38th Ward, located just south of Arena’s district spoke out against the project, arguing it would inconvenience motorists.

Fortunately, Sposato recently saw the light on the issue and dropped his resistance, and the proposal is moving forward. What’s more, several other pedestrian safety improvements are in the works for the area, including within Sposato’s own ward.

At about 4:10 p.m. on Sunday, November 13, Noah and his mother Rachel, 39, were crossing east in the crosswalk on the south leg of the southernmost intersection of Giddings Street and Central Avenue. Van driver Alexander Vasquez, 48, was heading west on Giddings and turned south on Central, striking them. Noah was pronounced dead on the scene; Rachel was hospitalized with minor injuries. Vasquez was issued citations for failure to stop at a stop sign, failure to reduce speed, and failure to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk, police said.

In mid-2015, 45th Ward residents had voted to use ward money for the sidewalk extensions at the intersection, which would shorten crossing distances and help calm traffic. To install bump-outs at the crash site, first rush hour parking restrictions need to be removed on this stretch of Central. The parking restrictions are currently in place northbound from 7-9 am and southbound from 4-6 p.m., with the theory being that clearing the parking lanes facilitates traffic heading to and from the Kennedy Expressway.

The restrictions on Central also exist in Sposato’s ward, which had previously expressed resistance to lifting the rush hour parking ban, Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh told me last month. In late November Arena introduced an ordinance to City Council to remove the parking restrictions on Central within his ward.

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Neighborhood Group Wants Fewer Units in Queer-Friendly Affordable TOD

Pennycuff affordable housing building in Logan Square

The proposed building’s new rendering is on the left.

Logan Square’s Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association is arguing that the neighborhood’s “current infrastructure” can’t handle approximately 120 more people moving into a planned LGTB-friendly and transit-friendly affordable housing development at 2013 N. Milwaukee Ave. A group of affordable housing developers has proposed an 88-unit building that would replace the current Congress Pizza and its parking lot.

However, Logan Square infrastructure is actually well-suited to accommodate those new residents. The neighborhood could potentially take in ten times that many people without a problem.

The building and its plaza will be named for John Pennycuff and Robert Castillo, two men who were partners in life and activism, advocating for LGBT rights as well as affordable housing in Logan Square. Pennycuff passed away in 2012.

The planned building is correctly called a transit-oriented development because it would be located just over one block away from the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch and have a mere 18 off-street parking spaces. In the past, the city’s zoning rules generally required residential buildings to include one car parking space per unit, with a lower minimum parking ratio for affordable housing buildings. However, the city’s recently passed TOD ordinance waives the car parking requirement for developments near rapid transit.

If we assume that each of the 28 planned studio apartments will have a single person living in them, the 48 one-bedroom units will be a mix of single and double occupancy, and the 12 two-bedroom units will have a mix of double and triple occupancy, that means that about 120 people will live at the Pennycuff Apartments. But that proposal doesn’t fly with the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association’s (boundary map), whose Zoning and Planning Committee recently submitted their opinion on the proposal to 1st Ward alder Joe Moreno.

They wrote, “Current infrastructure cannot sustain the increase in density and ZAPC would like to know how is this is being addressed by the City… The density is of major concern for the surrounding residents of the proposed project and is not received favorably.” The letter doesn’t explain why and how they feel that current infrastructure couldn’t accommodate the new residents.

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Discussing TIFs, Trump and Boneheaded Road Users on “Chicago Newsroom”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining veteran newsman Ken Davis on his CAN TV program “Chicago Newsroom” to discuss recent local and national transportation stories. We had a spirited conversation that threatened to become a heated debate when the question of whether lawbreaking cycling is a bigger problem than reckless driving came up. But overall it was a fun dialogue with an insightful interviewer. If you’re short on time, here are some of the highlights.

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TIF Passed, Making It Likely RPM Will Be Funded Before Trump Takes Over

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A Red Line train this morning. The CTA says the RPM project will allow them to run 15 more trains an hour during peak periods. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago straphangers can breath a sigh of relief. This morning aldermen voted 46-0 to pass the tax-increment financing district that will help fund the $2.3 billion Red and Purple Modernization project, which will provide critical capacity and speed improvements.

Today is the deadline for the CTA to apply for the $1.1 billion federal Core Capacity grant that will cover the first phase of construction, but Chicago needed to line up a local match in order to win the grant. The TIF will be used to pay back a $622 million federal loan that, along with $468 the transit agency plans to borrow, will be used for the matching funds. Since the feds are expected to approve the Core Capacity grant by January 15, the Council’s decision means that RPM will be probably funded be funded before the Republicans, whose platform called for eliminating federal transit funding, take over.

RPM would rebuild the Red and Purple Line tracks from Lawrence to Howard, upgrade signals, reconstruct four station and create a flyover just north of the Belmont stop to eliminate conflicts between Red, Purple, and, Brown Line trains. The CTA says the latter feature will allow them to run 15 more trains an hour between Belmont and Fullerton during rush periods, which will be crucial for addressing overcrowding on the at-capacity Red Line as the North Side’s population grows.

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By the Belmont flyover will eliminate conflicts between Brown, Red, and Purple trains. Image: CTA

Before the vote, 14th ward alderman Ed Burke, a Southwest Side politician who’s chair of the finance committee, argued that the TIF was necessary because crowding on the Red Line “has frustrated and inconvenienced thousands of members of the riding public,” adding that the line is “an invaluable economic engine that benefits the entire city.” He also noted that only five of the 14 stations between Belmont and Howard are wheelchair accessible, a problem that rebuilding the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stops will help address.

Burke added the RPM project is expected to create 5,700 new construction jobs, and promised there will be a strong workforce diversity outreach program to ensure that a fair number of positions go to people of color and women. “The future of Chicago public transit may well rest on the decision made in the Council today,” he said.

48th Ward alderman Harry Osterman, whose district includes Edgewater, where two of the station reconstructions will occur, noted that slow zones on the North Red Line affect transit downtown and on the South Side as well. He added that, unlike traditional tax-increment financing districts, the transit TIF won’t divert money from the schools.

Osterman noted that creating more capacity on the Red Line will help get cars off of roads like Lake Shore Drive. “But if we don’t act now, the federal money is not going to be there,” he warned.

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As CTA Pushes to Pass TIF for RPM, $75M Earmarked for South Red Extension

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Rendering of the 103rd Street station for the Red Line extension, if the eastern route is selected. Image: CTA

As we’ve covered the CTA’s efforts to get a transit TIF (tax-increment financing) district passed to help fund the Red and Purple Modernization project, some readers have commented that the $2.1 billion initiative would be a case of the city lavishing money on North Side transit while neglecting the South Side. Surely other Chicagoans feel the same way. But yesterday the CTA announced a new $75 million investment towards the $2.3 billion Red Line Extension on the South Side transit, which may help blunt those criticisms.

The transit agency spent $425 million on the successful South Red Line reconstruction project in 2013, is currently working on the $280 million 95th Street station renovation, and has recently completed or started several other projects in historically underserved neighborhoods. But South Siders have had a legitimate grievance that the long-awaited Red Line Extension project, which would continue the line from 95th to 130th Street, has crept along at a snail’s pace for many years.

There was finally some significant movement on RLE in October. At that time the CTA released the draft environmental impact statement for the project in order to seek feedback from the public on the two potential routes being considered for the extension, either east or west of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The agency held a public hearing on November 1 and will continue receive feedback on the project until this Wednesday, November 30. Feedback received during this review period will be included in CTA’s analysis of the final proposed route.

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The proposed routes for the Red Line extension. Image: CTA

November 30 also happens to be the deadline for the CTA to submit an application for $1 billion in federal Core Capacity funding for the RPM project, which would pay for its first phase, in order to line up the money before the anti-transit Trump administration takes over. The transit TIF for the RPM project would be used to pay back a federal loan to cover the required local matching funds for the Core Capacity grant.

Since the CTA is rushing to get aldermen to approve the new North Side TIF this week, perhaps it’s not coincidental that yesterday Mayor Emanuel and the CTA announced a new milestone in the Red Line Extension project. It’s possible that they hoped this news would help counter criticisms that they’re overly focused on improving North Side transit.

Here’s the news on RLE. The CTA board has approved an amendment to its FY2016-FY2020 Capital Improvement Plan to include $75 million for preliminary engineering and analysis necessary to make the final determination on the route and to complete the final environmental impact statement. The engineering work is also required for CTA to apply for another $1 billion-plus in federal funds to help pay for the $2.3 billion project.

The transit agency expects that procurement for further environmental planning and engineering work will happen in 2017. The $75 million amendment will be funded by CTA bonds.

City Council will vote on the RPM TIF at a special meeting that takes place this Wednesday at 10 a.m. at City Hall.

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Ben Joravsky’s an Astute Pundit, But His Transit TIF Takedown Is Misguided

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Ben Joravsky with Mayor Daley at a 2010 budget hearing. Photo: Hunter Clauss via Chicago Reader

For many years Ben Joravsky, my columnist colleague at the Chicago Reader, has provided an important service to the city with his insightful political commentary. He’s been as a key watchdog for local government, speaking truth to power on issues like Richard M. Daley’s effort to bring the Olympics to town, and educating the public about complex topics like the tax-increment financing program.

Although Joravsky and I have often differed on matters like the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts proposal, I’ve never felt the need to respond in full to any of his articles until now. But the column he ran yesterday about the CTA’s rush to get a transit TIF passed in order fund the Red and Purple Modernization while Obama is still in office contains some questionable logic that needs to be addressed.

Joravsky argues that the funding push is an example of Mayor Emanuel acting on his motto “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” taking advantage of post-election anxiety to pass what amounts to a huge property tax hike. “How can the mayor and aldermen say they’re not raising property taxes when actually they’re about to do just that?” he asks.

Joravsky is an influential figure, so it would be a huge loss if his article sways enough City Council votes to kill the TIF plan and, by extension, the crucial $2.1 billion RPM project, which surely wouldn’t get funded under the anti-transit Trump administration. (I didn’t provide input for Joravsky’s column but I gave him and our editor a heads-up about this Streetsblog post prior to publication.)

RPM would rebuild the Red and Purple Line tracks from Lawrence to Howard, upgrade signals, reconstruct four station and create a flyover just north of the Belmont stop to eliminate conflicts between Red, Purple, and, Brown Line trains. Under Obama, the U.S. Department of Transportation is likely to provide $1 billion in Core Capacity funding to cover the first phase of construction if Chicago applies by November 30. But first we need to line up local matching funds.

Earlier this year the state passed the transit TIF law, which allows Chicago to designate a zone near the RPM project area in which part of any future increase in property tax revenue will be captured in a special fund. The city estimates that this TIF will generate $625 million over its 35-year life span. This captured revenue would be used to pay back a federal loan to cover the local match for the Core Capacity grant.

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North Side CTA trains are often packed during rush hours. Photo: John Greenfield

While tax-increment financing was originally created to help “blighted” communities, Joravsky implies that the transit TIF would have a reverse-Robin Hood effect. He notes that the new district would only exist on the North Side and would include decidedly un-blighted neighborhoods like the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview, allowing them to keep most of their additional tax revenue in the area rather than sharing it with poorer parts of the city.

However, the faster and more frequent ‘L’ service enabled by the RPM improvements will benefit everybody who rides the Red, Purple, and Brown Lines, and hundreds of thousands of residents across the city live within a ten-minute walk of the Red Line alone. And then there’s all the citywide congestion, air quality, health, and economic benefits of encouraging more transit ridership and less driving.

Joravsky correctly notes that, unlike traditional tax-increment financing districts, the transit TIF wouldn’t divert any money from the Chicago Public Schools, an issue that he’s done a great job of highlighting in the past. Under the new law, the CPS gets the same proportion of any additional property tax revenue that they would receive if the transit TIF didn’t exist.

“But the city, county, and parks won’t get the tax dollars they’d otherwise get from this area,” Joravsky adds. “That means that when the mayor looks to spend more money to pay for something like hiring police, he’ll likely have to raise property taxes to compensate for the money he’s not getting from this TIF district over the next three-plus decades.”

The problem with this logic is that these taxing bodies can’t get their fair share of any additional property tax dollars if that additional revenue isn’t generated in the first place. Here’s why that might be the case if the transit TIF isn’t passed and RPM doesn’t get funded.

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After Referendum Calling for More Affordability, Activists Blockade TOD Site

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Activists at last Saturday’s protest. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Last Saturday work ceased at one of Logan Square’s newest construction sites for a high-end transit-oriented development. Representatives from the anti-displacement groups Somos Logan Square, the Autonomous Tenants Union, and Grassroots Illinois Action blocked access points to the site at 2501 West Armitage Avenue. (Disclosure: I am a member of GIA.)

At this location, a former vacant lot located a short walk from the O’Hare Branch’s Western station and an entrance to the Bloomingdale Trail, Spearhead Properties is building a 78-unit building with relatively few car parking spaces. Rents are expected to start at $1,300 for a studio. The activist were there to protest this project, as well as larger phenomenon of upscale TOD construction along the Blue Line corridor, especially in the First Ward, where alderman Joe Moreno has supported this type of housing. They say the TOD trend is accelerating the pace of poor and working-class people being displaced from the neighborhood.

Protesters picketed the site while chanting slogans like, “Hey Moreno! What will it be? Luxury or family?” and “¿Que queremos? ¡Viviendas económicas!” (“What do we want? Affordable housing!”). Others took more extreme measures. Two activists locked themselves to cement barrels in the front and back of a construction crane, while four more were locked down in front of one of the site entrances. The demonstration and blockade continued for about four hours, with no arrests made.

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Maria Calvilla, 58, locked to a cement barrel behind a crane. Photo: Lynda Lopez

The current wave of upscale TODs on and near Milwaukee Avenue was spurred by a recently passed city ordinance which waives the usual off-streets parking requirements and allows additional density for projects near train stations. This transit-friendly, parking-lite housing makes it easy for tenants to live without owning a car. Groups like the Metropolitan Planning Council have also argued that building new market-rate housing in gentrifying neighborhoods takes pressure off the existing rental market and helps prevent tear-downs — multi-unit buildings being replaced by luxury single-family homes.

However, the activists say the pricey new apartments are contributing to higher property values, property taxes, and rents in the area, which are forcing out many longtime residents, especially Latinos. In May DNAinfo reported that between 2000 and 2014, the number of Latino residents in Logan Square dropped by about 19,200, a 35.6 percent decrease.

“We are tired of our community being taken from us,” said Alma Zamudio, a member of Somos Logan Square. “We have tried everything. We collected signatures against the Twin Towers [a controversial high-end TOD near the California Blue Line stop.] We have had people go to community meetings. [Moreno and the developers] aren’t willing to negotiate with us.” Zamudio said that blockading TOD construction sites is a way to draw attention to what they see as a displacement crisis in the midst of the Logan Square development boom.

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After Noah Katz’ Death, Ald. Sposato Prioritizes Moving Cars Over Saving Lives

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Noah Katz

It’s bad enough that it took the death of a small child at a Northwest Side intersection to spur the city into moving forward with prior plans to improve safety at that location. But it’s downright shameful that 38th Ward Alderman Nick Sposato is still pushing back against the project on the grounds that it will inconvenience drivers.

At about 4:10 p.m. on Sunday, November 13, Noah Katz, 2, and his mother Rachel, 39, were crossing east in the crosswalk on the south leg of the southernmost intersection of Giddings Street and Central Avenue in the Portage Park community area, according to police. Van driver Alexander Vasquez, 48, was heading west on Giddings and turned south on Central, striking them. Noah was pronounced dead on the scene; Rachel was hospitalized with minor injuries. Vasquez was issued one citation for failure to stop at a stop sign, two for failure to reduce speed, and two for failure to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk, police said.

According to local alderman John Arena’s office, in mid-2015 45th Ward residents voted via the participatory budget process to use the district’s discretionary “menu money” to install curb bump-outs at several locations, including the crash site. Spurred by Noah’s death, Arena and the Chicago Department of Transportation are working to get the curb extensions, which will shorten pedestrian crossing distances and help calm traffic, installed at Giddings/Central as soon as possible.

To install bump-outs at the crash site, first rush hour parking restrictions need to be removed on this stretch of Central. The parking restrictions are currently in place northbound from 7-9 am and southbound from 4-6 p.m., with the theory being that clearing the parking lanes facilitates traffic heading to and from the Kennedy Expressway.

The restrictions on Central also exist south of Arena’s district in the 38th Ward, which has previously expressed resistance to lifting the rush hour parking ban, Arena’s chief of staff Own Brugh told me last week. Therefore, Arena planned to negotiate with Aderman Sposato to only have the restrictions lifted in the 45th Ward on Central south of Lawrence.

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Take a Virtual Bike Ride on the New 35th Street Bike and Pedestrian Bridge

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The new bridge, viewed from the lakefront. Photo: John Greenfield

Thanks to an elegant new bridge over Lake Shore Drive, in the shadow of the Stephen Douglas memorial pillar, it’s now possible to bike directly down 35th Street from Bronzeville to the Lake Trail.

Billed as the city’s longest pedestrian bridge, spanning 620 feet and six Metra and South Shore Line railroad tracks, the single-cable suspension bridge was officially opened last week. It’s the first of five new bridges planned over the drive on the South Side.

Designed by Teng and Associates, the S-shaped span replaced a rusty old bridge build in 1933, which required users to climb a set of stairs and one end and descend a staircase at the other, making it impassible for wheelchair users and inconvenient for bike riders. The new bridge has a 20-foot-wide deck, and the A-shaped center support pylon is about 120 feet tall. The $26 million project was bankrolled with federal and state funds.

The bridge creates a new connection to a new arts and recreation center at Ellis Park, featuring a gym with basketball courts, an indoor pool, rooms for art and education programs, a fitness center and studio, a meeting hall, and music and theater performance spaces.

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The CTA Is Rushing to Secure Red/Purple Funding Before Trump Takes Office

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The proposed RPM transit TIF district leaves existing TIF districts alone. They could be redrawn, or they could be absorbed when they expire. Click to enlarge.

Donald Trump’s political base is mostly rural and suburban residents, many of whom have no love for transit, and he picked a road lobbyist to lead his transportation transition team, so it’s likely funding for urban transit will be harder to come by under the new administration. That could jeopardize chances to fund the Red and Purple Modernization project (RPM). In anticipation of this problem, the Chicago Transit Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are racing against the clock to get the city’s first transit tax-increment financing district approved by a federal funding deadline, and before Trump becomes president.

Recently passed state legislation allows Chicago to create tax-increment districts four specific transit projects. Unlike regular TIF districts, the transit TIF law prohibits the new zones from diverting any funding from the Chicago Public Schools.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation is likely to provide $1 billion in funding which would cover 50 percent of the RPM project cost. This would come in the form of a “Core Capacity” grant, a funding source for expanding capacity on existing transit systems, designed several years ago with the CTA project in mind. The transit agency wants to rebuild the Red and Purple Line tracks between Lawrence and Bryn Mawr in Phase 1, and from Bryn Mawr to Howard in a future phase.

The CTA would also upgrade signals in Phase 1 and build a flyover track just north of the Belmont station to eliminate conflicts between Red, Purple, and Brown Line trains (see diagram below) and increase capacity. In addition, the CTA would rebuild the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stations

In fairness, Trump hasn’t actually said that he’s going to slash transit funding, but his transportation policies are ambiguous. The official Republican party platform calls for the federal government to stop funding transit, but Trump hasn’t signed on to that platform. He has said he intends to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over 10 years, which would include all types of transportation, but politicians and experts have expressed doubt that his proposed funding mechanism would work.

The CTA will be eligible for Core Capacity funding if it submits an application by November 30. The city’s consultants estimated that the RPM transit TIF district would generate about $623 million over the district’s 35 year life span, which would be used to pay back a federal loan to cover matching funds for the $1 billion Core Capacity grant.

As the better transit service created by RPM increases property values in the surrounding neighborhoods, additional property tax revenue would be generated. In accordance with the transit TIF law, the Chicago Public Schools would get the same share of this additional “increment” as it would if the transit TIF district didn’t exist. The transit TIF would get 80 percent of the remaining increment money, and other taxing bodies would get 20 percent.

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