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UP-N Rebuild

Metra throws some bones to unhappy neighbors for the UP-N Rebuild. They’re not all biting.

Brenda Barrie, who helped lead the charge to demand a town hall format, and other residents at the April 2022 community meeting on the UP-N Rebuild. She recently said she has mixed feelings about Metra’s new project plans. Photo: Igor Studenkov

This piece includes earlier reporting by Streetsblog contributor Igor Studenkov.

If you choose to buy a home a few feet west of a railway corridor, it makes no sense to raise a fuss when the railroad plans to exercise its right to move its tracks further west on its property, even if that means you're going to be living close to trains. But that's exactly what homeowners in the affluent Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods who live directly west of Metra's Union Pacific North Line have been doing since the railroad announced plans to relocate the tracks as part of its rebuild of the line.

Recently Metra notified these community members that, in response to their feedback, the commuter railroad made some adjustments to its plan. But some of these neighbors reportedly still aren't completely satisfied.

Metra and Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the rail line, have been developing a plan to replace bridges, shore up embankments, and improve viaducts between Fullerton Avenue (2400 N.) and Addison Street (3600 N.) The UP-N line previously had three tracks, but the westernmost one was removed in the 1980s.

Map of the project area. Image: Metra

Metra is planning to do what it previously did between Grace Street (3800 N.) and Balmoral Avenue (5400 N.) in Edgewater and Uptown. There the railroad built a new west track, then replaced the center part of the bridge that would hold the new east track, and then removed the old east track section. With this method, there are always two tracks in service throughout the entire process.

The current plan calls for replacing 11 railroad bridges, refurbishing the newer Addison/Lincoln bridge, improving the viaducts, adding lighting, and making the sidewalks wheelchair-accessible. The project will also lower Roscoe Avenue (3400 N.) and Cornelia Street (3500 N.), which are located south and north of the spot where the CTA Brown Line passes over the Metra tracks. In addition, the work includes refurbishing the embankment structure and adding retaining walls on the west side of the embankment, plus a few sections of the east side of the embankment. Metra says the work is expected to take place between 2024 and 2028.

The new track layout at a typical UP-Rebuild location, with 13 feet between the west property line and the proposed new track centerline. Metra says its revised plan would "offset the west side retaining wall at least two feet east from the property line where immediately adjacent to residential property between Belmont Avenue and south of Diversey Parkway." Image: Metra

While the new infrastructure will stay within the current Union Pacific right of way, the project will put trains closer to many balconies and decks. The center of the westernmost track will be moved 20 feet west, that is, 13 feet east of the west edge of the embankment.

Some neighbors who have used the UP-owned land as an extension of their backyards, including gardening on railroad property next to their homes, will lose that privilege.

An April 2022 community meeting about the project, currently estimated construction to cost $337 million, was supposed to be in an open house format. But the roughly 40 residents in attendance insisted on a town hall-style format, where they could publicly voice their concerns that the project will impact their quality of life and lower property values, and they refused to take no for an answer.

Last week Metra disclosed that it was responding to the neighbors' complaints about the plan with some changes to the design. "We aren’t changing our basic approach that will require the track shift to the west," railroad spokesperson Michael Gillis told Streetblog. But here are their new proposals (Metra's language with a few of our comments in brackets.)

• "Offset the west side retaining wall at least two feet east from the property line where immediately adjacent to residential property between Belmont Avenue [3200 N.] and [just] south of Diversey Parkway [where the Wolcott Diversey W Condo Association is located.]"

Aerial view of the south end of the Belmont-to-Diversey retaining wall 2-foot-plus offset area. Image: Google Maps

• "Install solid safety barriers above the west side retaining wall, where immediately adjacent to residential property from Belmont Avenue to south of Diversey Parkway (height and materials will be determined at a later date.)"

Metra says, "The retaining walls are anticipated to look similar to the newly installed walls along the UP North Line between Grace Street and Balmoral Avenue, [shown], where the first phase of the bridge replacement project has been completed." Image: Metra

• "Repave and restore roadways and sidewalks under every new bridge (previously only included at four bridge locations.)"

Current conditions of sidewalks and roads at the new bridge locations. Image: Metra

• "Install lighting improvements under the Addison Street bridge (similar improvements were already planned at other bridges.)"

• "Include additional landscaping improvements in areas adjacent to the railroad."

Check out Metra's updated project website and Frequently Asked Questions page here.

These seem like reasonable compromises. And the fact that the price of the project has increased by $74.7 million from the $262.3 million announced at the April 2022 public meeting to the current $337 million suggests Metra is willing to spend a lot of additional money to help keep the neighbors happy.

Metra says $271 million are currently allocated for the project, including $6 million from 2019 Federal Transit Authority 5337 State of Good Repair Funds, $156.1 million from Rebuild Illinois Bond Funds, and $117 million from the Mega Program created by the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

But according to a recent Block Club Chicago report by Jake Wittich, Metra's effort to win over the neighbors hasn't completely worked.

Brenda Barrie, who lives west of the tracks and helped lead the mutiny at the April 2022 meeting, told Block Club she has mixed feeling about the news. “I feel like it’s been a little bit of a lost cause, but I also think we’ve made some progress.”

But Christie Calmeyn, who owns a home on Barry Avenue (3100 N.) just west of the UP-N, told Wittich Metra's proposals “don’t feel like an improvement at all." She said she was upset that the changes were announced on the Metra website without having a public meeting to discuss the ideas first.

It's unfortunate that UP-N neighbors aren't completely happy with Metra's plan to compromise with their requests. But the bottom line is, if you don't want to live close to train traffic, don't buy a home a few feet from railroad right-of-way.

Read the Block Club Chicago article here.

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