“I want to do something positive," says former flyover opponent Ellen Hughes. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

The day before President Obama gave his farewell speech at McCormick Place, his administration announced a parting gift for Chicago: about $1.1 billion in grants that, along with roughly $1 billion in local money, will pay for the first phase of the CTA’s Red and Purple Modernization Project, a much-needed overhaul of these el lines north of Belmont. Phase one includes rebuilding the tracks from Lawrence to Howard, upgrading signals, and reconstructing the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn, and Bryn Mawr stations to make them wheelchair accessible.

In addition, the federal dollars virtually ensure that the CTA will build the hotly contested $570 million Red-Purple Bypass, better known as the Belmont flyover, an overpass designed to eliminate conflicts between Red, Purple, and Brown Line trains just north of the Belmont station. The agency says the bypass will allow them to run 15 more trains an hour between Belmont and Fullerton during rush periods, which will be crucial for addressing overcrowding on the Red Line as the north side’s population grows. Leading Chicago transportation experts and advocates have endorsed the flyover plan.

Central Lakeview residents have fought a fierce battle against the bypass, which will require the demolition of some 16 buildings and the acquisition of 21 properties on or near Clark Street north of the station. They’ve passionately argued that the 40- to 45-foot-high, roller-coaster-like structure is a waste of money that will be a blight on the community, and that the project will scar the neighborhood with vacant lots if the CTA doesn’t follow through with its promise to help redevelop the empty land.

But now that the flyover is more or less a done deal, neighbors I’ve talked to seem to be taking a cue from the Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer. They’re accepting the fact that they can’t stop the CTA’s plan, but they’re vowing to work for the best possible outcome for the neighborhood by pushing for the gaps to be filled in with quality transit-oriented development and other creative uses of the new open space.

Properties slated for acquisition and/or demolition for the flyover project
Properties slated for acquisition and/or demolition for the flyover projectCredit: Chicago Transit Authority

One of the most prominent voices against the bypass was the Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover. The group’s campaign included an unsuccessful November 2014 ballot referendum that involved the three affected precincts of the 44th Ward, in which 72 percent of the 800-some people who voted did so against the measure.

“The flyover will swing high—60 feet to the top of the train . . . turning a large portion of this thriving restaurant, shopping, business district into a permanent under-el wasteland,” the group’s website states.

But in an interview last week, coalition leader Ellen Hughes said she has dropped her beef against the flyover and is now focusing on making the best of the situation. She’s a grant writer who owns a two-flat on Wilton just north of the Belmont stop. Although her home isn’t slated for demolition, “I thought the flyover was bad for the neighborhood,” she said, “not just for me.”

Hughes says neighbors who heard that the flyover is funded have asked what her next strategy is to fight the overpass. “They were like, ‘Let’s troll this, let’s get them,'” she said. “But it’s done. . . . Had we more time or money or people we might have won, but we didn’t, and I’m not a person to sit around and be angry. I want to do something positive. Let’s make the best we can out of this so the flyover isn’t just a blight.”

First off, Hughes wants to make sure the CTA keeps its promise to help redevelop the vacant land. She argues that renderings released by the agency that depict future housing shoehorned into narrow lots next to the flyover seem unrealistic, and even if the designs were feasible, the matchbox-like floor plans would make for substandard housing. “Don’t just propose housing that might vaguely fit the space that wouldn’t be very nice, so no one would want to live in it,” she said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel toured the Argyle Red Line station with the Federal Transit Administration’s Carolyn Flowers last week, on the day of the grant announcement.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel toured the Argyle Red Line station with the Federal Transit Administration’s Carolyn Flowers last week, on the day of the grant announcement.Credit: Chicago mayor’s office

CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman promised that the redevelopment plan for the empty spaces left by demolition would be “significantly” guided by feedback from the community. The process will be funded by a $1.25 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s new transit-oriented development planning program, and public outreach is slated to begin in the first half of this year.

Meanwhile, the CTA has already purchased five parcels for the flyover through eminent domain. These include 3348 N. Clark (formerly home to Bolat African Cuisine), 3240 and 3252 N. Wilton (an older two-flat and a recently constructed 14-unit condo building), 3401-07 N. Clark (the former home of the Big Cheese poutinerie), and 947-949 W. Newport (a multiunit graystone across the street from the Links Hall arts incubator building). A few residents who recently sold their homes to the transit agency, or are currently in negotiations, declined to comment for this article.

One other neighbor who was willing to talk was Adam Rosa, an urban planner and designer who lives on Seminary, a few houses south of the future flyover site, but isn’t going to lose his home. He’s president of Hawthorne Neighbors, the neighborhood association that includes all of the blocks surrounding the flyover.

Like Hughes, Rosa has been a vocal opponent of the overpass. “My primary concern is the destruction of neighborhood fabric before, during, and after construction,” he said. “The flyover is a heavy-handed, engineering-driven solution that is generally disrespectful of the neighborhood context. It proposes the demolition of historically significant buildings as well as newer investments and leaves behind vacant spaces that have the potential to remain vacant for a decade or more.”

He also objects to the aesthetics of the flyover, which will feature supports made of brutalist-looking poured concrete. “I appreciate the steel structure of the el as it crosses these streets and weaves between buildings,” he said. “It creates a character and elegant industrial form that is unique to Chicago and the neighborhood. Replacing this with heavy concrete will result in something more like a suburban highway on-ramp.”

However, Rosa said his group’s members are optimistic that the planning process can lead to community benefits such as high-quality TODs and unique public spaces. They’d like to see the flyover project tweaked to include include colorful, attractively designed support column and public art, possibly with with amenities like a pedestrian path or a skate park built alongside or below the tracks. Some of the open space could also be used for grassy parks, community gardens, or plazas for farmers’ markets and other events, he said.

These former enemies of the Belmont flyover deserve kudos for gracefully accepting that the initiative is moving forward and resolving to make lemonade out of a project they consider to be a lemon. But it’s going to be vital for the CTA to do its part to bring smart urban planning to the neighborhood and not just pay lip service to the redevelopment efforts.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.