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Chicago’s best future might be a train stop away

Downtown is going to be the major generator of new jobs for the foreseeable future. For the first time in the modern era, more than half of the city’s jobs are downtown.

A view of downtown Chicago from rooftop of the Robey Hotel in Wicker Park.
A view of downtown from the rooftop of the Robey Hotel in Wicker Park. Chicago’s future depends on using mass transit, such as L trains and Metra, to tie neighborhoods to the growing job pool in the greater downtown area, Ed Zotti writes.
Colin Boyle / Sun-Times

Chicago, pretty much everyone agrees, is two cities — one on the way up, the other on the way down. There’s a growing belief we need to harness the rising city to revitalize the declining one.

The trick is how to do that without strangling growth. I think there’s a way.

Call it a grand bargain in urban planning. Everyone will have to pitch in. What we come up with won’t solve our problems overnight. In particular, it won’t close the budget gap or end crime. But I’m convinced it will secure Chicago’s future, enabling the city to keep moving forward while providing opportunities for everyone, not just the affluent.

Today, I offer a high-level outline of that vision, with details to follow in the weeks ahead. Little of what I’ll suggest is radical or novel. Much has been on the table for years. Some of it, we’re already doing to a degree.

But it only makes sense when seen as a whole.

Let’s start by considering two of Chicago’s most important trends: the shrinking of the black middle class and the growing importance of downtown, writ large, for providing jobs for the whole city.

Since 2000, more black people have bailed on Chicago than any other U.S. city, including Detroit. Most are middle-class families with children.

That’s appalling. However comfortable life might be on the North Side, our toes hang over the abyss if massive swaths of the city are emptying out.

There’s no fast or certain solution, but there’s hope. The south lakefront, predominantly African American, is stabilizing. For all its problems, the area has abundant assets — the lake, parks, museums, universities, baronial homes and the coming Obama Presidential Center. One more boost could put things over the top.

There’s an obvious source for that — the Metra Electric, the underused commuter rail line from the Loop to the south suburbs.

Ed Zotti for the Sun-Times

Within the city, Metra Electric has close-spaced stations and once functioned as an independent rapid-transit system. Not anymore. The fare is higher than the CTA’s, and you can’t transfer to a bus or L without paying a second time. Except at a few stops, hardly anyone in the city uses the Metra Electric.

For decades, South Siders have been asking for a better deal on the Metra Electric — more frequent trains, integration with the CTA. For just as long, they’ve been brushed off.

The Metra Electric has enormous potential. Roughly 24 miles of it are in the city, passing through affluent or rising communities such as the South Loop, Kenwood and Hyde Park, struggling middle-class ones such as Chatham and Avalon Park and some that are increasingly poor, such as Roseland.

No one seriously thinks better Metra Electric service by itself will turn the South Side around. But there’s a good chance it will stimulate investment on the north end of the line. For neighborhoods further out, it’ll offer a faster ride downtown.

And downtown is going to be the major generator of new jobs for the foreseeable future. Chicago’s booming core has gained 134,000 jobs since 2010. The entire rest of the city gained about 43,000. For the first time in the modern era, more than half the city’s jobs are downtown.

We can’t keep up that pace indefinitely. But even allowing for the occasional rough patch, downtown will add 60,000 to 90,000 jobs per decade if the trend of the past 25 years holds. That’s an extraordinary opportunity. Downtown is accessible from all over the city via transit. That’s a big improvement over most of the postwar era, when most job growth was in the suburbs, accessible only by car.

It won’t happen without investment, especially in rail mass transit. The city is increasingly dependent on its rail system but has outgrown it.

Downtown has always been reliant on transit — 62% of workers there use it to get to their jobs, mostly by rail, the L in particular.

Since 2006, the number of Chicagoans commuting by L has risen 79%, while the number driving or taking the bus has dropped. Commuting by taxi, presumably including Uber and Lyft, has risen by just 10,000, much less than the L.

The L and Metra collectively provide nearly a million rides per weekday, more than in any other U.S. city except New York.

Rail’s popularity has exposed its inadequacies, such as crowding on L lines serving the North Side and Northwest Side. But here’s the real problem: Chicago’s rail system was designed on an old hub-and-spoke model. Service to the Loop is convenient. Service to growing areas just outside the Loop, not so much. Some places, you can’t get to at all.

That didn’t matter when most downtown jobs were packed into the district tightly defined by the Loop elevated. But the share of downtown employment within the literal Loop has been falling for years.

Most new jobs are in buildings on the Loop’s fringes, in many cases well beyond. Eventually, the city’s downtown job base will be spread over a huge area, bound roughly by Armitage Avenue, Ashland Avenue, the Stevenson Expressway and the lake.

Many of the sites where multibillion-dollar real estate projects are planned are virtually impossible to get to. Developers have cobbled together schemes to provide transit, some of them quite elaborate. But they’re all working independently. It’s as if a roomful of contractors was trying to build the interstate highway system without a common map.

The responsibility for a coordinated plan to expand the rail system lies with City Hall.

So here are three elements of the grand bargain.

Metra Electric line, CTA need to be integrated

Key decision-makers, including the mayor, are lining up for this. Mostly, it’s a question of figuring out how. No one is talking about replacing the Metra Electric’s equipment with L cars. The simplest approach would be for Metra to operate the city portions of the line on the CTA’s behalf using existing crews, trains and schedules.

The Pedway already connects the Metra Electric’s downtown terminal to Loop L lines. Ideally, you’d be able to use your Ventra card to transfer between them without paying a second full fare.

For the CTA, taking over the Metra Electric would be cheaper than building a new line but still would cost tens of millions of dollars annually.

A way to cover that surely can be found. The section of the line near downtown will support high-density development. If the thing is properly planned — a big if — Metra Electric city service eventually would have enough riders and revenue to permit operation on the same basis as any CTA rail line.

Till then — well, billions in private investment money are riding on better rail service on the south lakefront.

Add a rail line linking L, Metra, connecting to sites in expanded central area

Chicago’s core is crisscrossed with old rail lines, many underutilized or not used at all. Much of this infrastructure could be repurposed for rapid transit at reasonable cost.

Several years ago, I led a team that explored a new downtown rail line — we called it the Connector — for the Chicago Central Area Committee, a business group. Much of the line would have run along the river — for example, north from Union and Ogilvie stations, east along the main branch to Michigan Avenue and Streeterville.

Over six months, we met with two dozen property owners and representatives of major railroads, the CTA and Metra. We solved many of the major engineering problems. (That old railroad bridge hanging over the north branch of the Chicago River near Wolf Point? We figured out a way to use it.)

Pretty much everyone was on board. Metra, in particular, was enthusiastic. But we couldn’t get City Hall to give us the time of day.

Today, who knows.

Promote development of high-density neighborhood centers along CTA, Metra

The CTA and Metra have nearly 200 rail stops in Chicago. If we can encourage dense, mixed-use development near those stops, we’ll accumulate a stock of housing that’s relatively affordable for downtown commuters of all incomes. The pedestrian traffic engendered by a busy rail stop will encourage entrepreneurs to open businesses, employing more workers.

The result: a thriving, accessible city center surrounded by satellite centers forming the nucleus of lively neighborhoods.

Some will scoff. The Chicago zoning ordinance already provides for transit-oriented development, letting developers put up bigger buildings with fewer parking spaces if they’re within a specified distance of a transit stop. Enacted just a few years ago, the ordinance is said to have enabled construction of 8,000 apartments.

But they’re hardly affordable, objectors say. They’re mostly luxury units along streets like Milwaukee Avenue in Bucktown and Logan Square. An idea has taken root that TOD=housing for rich hipsters=bad.

The process admittedly has shortcomings. It requires that building sites be individually rezoned, a laborious process that deters all but the most expensive housing.

That can be fixed. There’s a way to launch the rail projects I’ve described. How? Later in this series, we’ll do a deeper dive.

This is the second column in the series City at the Crossroads by journalist Ed Zotti, who takes an in-depth look at trends affecting Chicago and critical choices the city faces.

letters@suntimes.com.