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Transit Advocate: TOD Could Revitalize Area Around the 95th Red Line Stop

Cynthia Hudson of the Active Transportation Alliance and Michael LaFargue of the Red Line Extension Coalition at last week's town hall meeting.

Last week at a town hall meeting hosted by the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, West Chesterfield resident and transit advocate Michael LaFargue discussed efforts to improve transportation access and encourage investment on the Far South Side.

LaFargue, a board member with the Red Line Extension Coalition, and Active Transportation Alliance community liaison Cynthia Hudson were invited to share their experiences with NLCCC members who wish to improve transit service on the West Side. “We’ll steal some good ideas and then share them back and forth,” explained council member Valerie Leonard.

LaFargue, who also chairs a transportation committee for South Side representative Elgie Sims (34th), began his presentation by providing background on West Chesterfield, an enclave that many longtime Chicagoans may be unfamiliar with. The half-square-mile community sits directly east of the station in the area bounded by 87th Street, the Dan Ryan, 95th Street, and King Drive. It lies within the official Chatham and Roseland community areas.

“It’s a historically Black area,” LaFargue said. “We started moving into this area after World War I, before there were streets and sewers and lights. We love it -- we call it a great place to live and a great place to raise a family. But we’ve been challenged by crime and the economy. The recession of 2007 affected the community heavily.”

La Fargue noted that the 95th Street station, opened in 1969, is one of the area’s greatest assets. “It’s Chicago’s busiest transportation terminal, with 50,000 people coming through daily, 14 CTA buses serving the station, six Pace buses, and a Greyhound terminal.”

The 95th stop is currently undergoing a $280 million overhaul, which started in fall 2014 and is slated for completion in 2018. “We’re hoping that this station will wind up being the north end of the Red Line extension,” LaFague said. “The Red Line extension has been talked about since the 1960s. But even before that, circa 1900, we had the Burnham Plan that said there should be light rail to all sides of the city.”

“But the [Red Line] route ends at 95th,” LaFargue added. “That’s not the end of our city. There’s a whole group of people in the Altgeld Gardens area that are traveling an extra 35 or 45 minutes to work, and that’s not fair.”

LaFargue discussed how the current CTA proposal for the Red Line extension would parallel Union Pacific Railroad Tracks, with stops at 103rd, 111th, 115th (near Michigan Avenue), and 130th in Altgeld Gardens. It would require significant land acquisition, and the transit agency projects it would cost more than $2 billion.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 5.34.18 PM
The area around the 95th Street station is a challenging environment for walking and lacks pedestrian-oriented retail. Image: Google Street View

Along the way the new train line would serve the Greater Roseland Medical District. LaFargue would like to see a critical care center added, as well as a hotel where families of patients could stay. He also believe the 115th stop could help rebuild Roseland’s Michigan Avenue retail district.

“Roseland used to have a wonderful business district, about a mile long,” he said. “It had J.C. Penny’s, Gately’s [department store], and a wonderful hobby shop. Nixon stopped at i11th Street when he was running for president. People want to see it revitalized.”

LaFarque, who works as a real estate broker, said he believes that transit-oriented development in conjunction with the 95th Street station rehab could also be a major shot in the arm for the local economy. “Remember the old wild, wild west movies where there was a train station with development around it?” he said. “That’s TOD. It’s usually mixed-use residential and business.”

“TOD is supposed to allow a community, improve its walkability, and give you access to jobs,” LaFargue said. “We’re challenged in this area… [In the 95th Street area] walkability, and the availability of restaurants and shops where people would like to go is not there.”

However, there’s land in West Chesterfield by the station that the CTA recently acquired through eminent domain to use as a staging area for the reconstruction project. LaFargue says this land, which was previously occupied by eight businesses that were “horrible neighbors” would be an ideal place for new TOD in the future.

“This gives us the opportunity to work with the CTA, government officials, organizations, councils, the parks , and schools to develop a TOD that would improve our community,” he said. He noted that, at a recent board meeting, CTA chairman Terry Peterson endorsed the idea of TOD at the location.

Two years ago LaFargue and other community leaders surveyed hundreds of residents within a few blocks of the station to ask what they kind of improvements to the neighborhood they want to see. “They’re interested in safety, security, good schools, great parks, improving their home values, and community-oriented businesses,” he said. “This is important to them because the community is at a tipping point. If we develop the [station] area without community input, without businesses that would be good neighbors, we’ll get more of the same.”

Based on the survey results, the leaders sent Mayor Emanuel, the CTA board, and other elected officials a memorandum on their thoughts and expectations were for development around the 95th Street stop. In the future, the local leaders hope to develop a community benefits agreement with businesses, developers, and government officials to help ensure that neighborhood residents have a say in future development and help ensure it will be a net positive for existing residents.

“We’d like to see our property values rise and our schools improve,” LaFargue said, noting that it’s currently possible to buy a house in the area for as low as $5,000. “Our community is looking for safe, secure, and clean. Other communities may be looking for something a little different.”

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