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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.

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