Why has the Damen Green Line station project been delayed by two years?

Rendering of the east view of the station.
Rendering of the east view of the station.

Update 3/10/21, 6:15 PM: Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson Mike Claffey provided the following update, based on info provided to CDOT by the Chicago Department of Procurement Services: “The advance work for the new station is now complete. This included utility relocations and underground work to reinforce column foundations within the project limits. The bid phase for the construction of the station is almost complete with bids being opened March 10 (today!) If the bidding process stays on track, we anticipate issuing the Notice to Proceed in the next 60 to 90 days, which would allow us to break ground on the stationhouse project this summer. It will take 24 months to complete the project.”

A city official added that it took longer than initially anticipated to reach the point where the city was able to advertise for bids, and the COVID-19 pandemic also affected the pace of the process.

In 2017, former mayor Rahm Emanuel and 27th ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr. announced plans for a new Damen Green Line station. In addition to building the station, the Chicago Department of Transportation is reconstructing a half-mile stretch of Lake Street from Ashland to Damen, a $12.9 million project. The total $72.9 million expenditure is funded by the Kinzie Indistria Corridor TIF plus state funding.

The station is being designed by Perkins + Will, with art by Folayemi (Fo) Wilson, and was slated for completion in 2021. But four years and two groundbreakings later, there still are no signs of construction. I’ll explain what’s going on in a minute.

The original Damen station opened in 1893 as a part of the Lake Street Elevated Railroad, which would eventually become the Lake Street branch of the Green Line. The dense Near West Side provided a steady ridership base along the line, as evident by the fact that for many years stations were spaced only a few blocks from each other.

The original Damen Station. Photo: Charles E. Keevil
The original Damen Station. Photo: Charles E. Keevil via Chicago-L.org

Unfortunately, the Damen station was one of several West Side Green Line stops closed by the newly formed Chicago Transit Authority in 1948, as an effort to shorten travel times on the line. The station closures left a 1.5-mile gap between the California stop and the Ashland station. Many of the surrounding buildings would be demolished over the next decade.

In 1957, the Henry Horner Homes were built across this stretch of Lake Street, providing housing for many low-income Black residents. But while these neighbors lived near the tracks, trains did not stop there, leaving many residents in a transit desert.

The city began tearing down Henry Horner in 1996, and replaced it with the mixed-income development Villages of Westhaven. The new Damen station will finally provide ‘L’ access to many public housing residents, as well as United Center attendees and workers in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor. Streetsblog Chicago has previously discussed the additional benefits the new station would bring to the Near West Side.

Although the station was supposed to be completed this year, the current site shows few signs of progress. Dim lighting, damaged sidewalks, and empty lots still surround the site four years after the station’s announcement. The only potential sign of construction is fencing around a lot on the southwest corner, possibly a staging area for equipment.

A current view of the site at Lake Street and Damen Avenue.
A current view of the site at Lake Street and Damen Avenue.

Frustrated with the lack of information on current plans, I did a little bit of digging to see when construction will begin. According to the city’s Department of Procurement Services, which is managing contracts for the project, the station had only opened bidding about two weeks ago.

Streetsblog reached out to the Chicago Department of Transportation last month about the construction timeline. CDOT  spokesperson Mike Claffey said, “We are currently advertising for bids on this project. If the bidding process progresses as planned, we plan to start construction of the station house sometime this summer – and it will take 24 months to complete.” This suggests that the Damen station will not be completed until 2023. A similar timeline had been indicated by DPS presentations.

Although it is reassuring that the station is still in the works, there was no explanation for reasons behind the delay. There’s no obvious sign that financing snags were an issue, since funding sources seemed to have been already allocated. CDOT and DPS provided no additional info. Six years for between the announcement and completion of a new station is an unusually long timeline, and does not bode well for reopening other Green Line stations, such as the old Racine stop, located on the South Side on the border of Englewood and West Englewood, which local residents have been pushing for.

While the Damen Green Line station would have had a relatively low ridership if had opened in 2021 due to COVID-19, the stop would still have been useful to many West Siders. During the pandemic, stations on the Lake Street Branch had a smaller drop in ridership than compared to other routes on the North and Northwest Side. Many West Side residents are transit dependent and/or essential workers, but also face limited commute options due to transit disinvestments in predominately Black communities.

Although the United Center is closed to attendees, a new mass vaccination site recently opened at the stadium. The United Center is currently the largest vaccination site in Illinois, with a goal of vaccinating 6,000 people per day. Since the closest ‘L’ stop is currently the Illinois Medical District station on the Blue Line, the Damen stop could have provided additional access to vaccinations if it has opened this year as originally planned.

Although a timeline is set, the Damen station is currently a missed opportunity to improve transit equity. While the city isn’t saying exactly what the holdup was, hopefully city planners will learn from this experience in order to prevent other underserved communities from experiencing delayed transit access.

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