Metro Stories Blog

A tale of two Union Stations

This week, plans were announced to make what the Chicago Tribune called “enhancements” to Chicago’s Union Station.

Rethinking Union Station is a good thing (for reasons I’ll unpack in a minute), but it’s also made me think about another Union Station.

Denver just reopened its Union Station after a substantial renovation. The site, which has been an Amtrak station for years, was redesigned to be several things in addition to an Amtrak station. It’s now a larger hub for many of Denver’s transit lines, both rail and bus.

It’s also been designed to be a meeting place for people. When my partner and I visited Denver a few weeks ago, we stayed at that hotel (The Crawford).

Denver's Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

Denver’s Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

The new Union Station featured a wide array of restaurants, cafes and stores. A few coffeehouses, a bookstore and a great breakfast spot were among the choices. It was great to have those choices at a hotel (versus the usual drab hotel fare), but it’s all adds to the larger idea that this is a gathering spot – a public space that’s filled with activity.

The furniture in the station lobby reflected that – some tables and chairs, some sofas, a few benches, even a shuffleboard. And still plenty of room for the official Amtrak waiting area at one end of the station.

And the fountain on the outside of the station, where so many people were eating al fresco, also underscored that element.

Adjacent to the station itself was access to several transit lines and hundreds of buses, all through a weather-protected transit station. The rail lines sit above ground while buses arrive and depart through a long series of gates below ground. Despite the underground factor, the station was filled with light, clean, and well-organized (no clusters of traffic).

My partner and I took a bus from that spot to return to the airport. It was easy and convenient — and a third of the price of the cab we took from the airport to the hotel. And even that will be made simpler in a year or so, when a new transit line from the station to the airport opens.

Of course, Denver is building its light rail capacities and starting from square one in some of these areas, so it’s much easier to plan (and plan well) from the start. Chicago’s Union Station has been a victim of the years, of different plans and different ideas that don’t play well together.

Both the Amtrak and Metra areas are in long corridors that can become human sardine cans if trains are late or cancelled. There’s no flow to either area — Amtrak’s main gate area, waiting rooms and ticket area is, in particular, an odd series of segmented boxes with no rhyme or reason).

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a huge great room of wasted space. It’s ostensibly a waiting room, but it seems to be wasted. (It’s also often rented for entertainment and events – a lovely idea, but something that shouldn’t be a main driving force of a space like the station.)

And that’s just in the station itself. One of the biggest headaches about Chicago’s Union Station is how to get there, and how people flow around the building above ground.

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The entrances may be familiar for people who take the Metra every day, but there is no real “front door” of the station.

Car traffic clutters the streets around the station, often blocking intersections, and the Megabus stop a block away has added to that confusion.

While two transit lines (the CTA Blue and Green Clinton stops) are not far away, there’s no clear sign, markings or pathway on how to connect between the station and the CTA stops.

So what can Chicago do? It may not be able to start from scratch and really rethink the entire station (or can it?) but a few ideas might help:

(1) Outside, plans should designate a few streets around the station to be buses and cabs only. (One is now, but it’s poorly enforced.) Nabbing a space to create a car passenger drop off area – complete with actual space to pull off of the street – would be ideal. This space could be combined with the curb where Megabus stops, so that traffic flows more sensibly. Mark all of those things very clearly, so drivers understand where to go.

(2) Develop a more clear marking system at entrances for what sits where, and what can be accessed from that entrance. As it stands now, it appears that Amtrak and Metra have put up signs of their own in haphazard places. A general Union Station signage plan should mark entrances, the services inside, and other things (like ATMs, ticketing services, and so on).

(3) Think of a better use for the great room area. How can this be used to alleviate crowding? Are the retail outlets currently in Union Station a good mix, or can they be updated?

The Tribune article talks about some aspects of these ideas, mainly about CTA buses around the station. That’s a great start, but Megabus is a part of the everyday experience at the station, and ignoring the cut-rate bus company won’t help with crowding.

The same article suggests no change to the great room, which I think is unfortunate. Perhaps they should fly to Denver and see that Union Station’s great room – a room full of people talking, laughing, eating, a room full of life. Chicago’s great room may have historical value, but it only vaguely flickers with the kind of life that a public space like this should host on a daily basis.

Even Amtrak's own media person calls the station "warren of obscure passageways with no natural light." (Internet photo)

Even Amtrak’s own media person calls the station “warren of obscure passageways with no natural light.” (Internet photo)

Creative class, revisted

(Internet photo)

(Internet photo)

Richard Florida came to speak at my college (Elmhurst College) a few weeks ago. Here’s my write-up on the lecture for our student newspaper, The Leader.


He’s been called a rockstar and an urban savior — as well as a charlatan and an elitist. One thing is clear — urban theorist Richard Florida elicits strong reactions to his ideas.

He shared some of those theories, and his ideas about what he called “the biggest economic shift in modern human history” at a Sept.19 lecture in Hammerschmidt Chapel.

Professor Florida is best known for his book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” A revised version of the book, originally released in 2002, has just been published.

His appearance was part theatrical performance and part classroom lecture, with a twist of urban evangelism.

Florida, clad in a sleek suit and black glasses, talked about the experiences that shaped his theories about the creative class, and his time as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s.

He said that Pittsburgh, the former “Steel City,” was an example of a place that had nearly collapsed after de-industrialization. “Pittsburgh was almost as desolate as Detroit,” he explained.

But while that city built a whole new industry in high tech fields, the people and companies that sprouted there would move to other places.

Florida cited this as an inspiration for the idea that a job or career isn’t enough to keep a person or a company in a particular place. He cited the three T’s — “technology, talent and tolerance.”

One of Florida’s assertions is that people want to live in diverse, vibrant cities with arts and culture. He courted controversy by ranking cities on a “gay index,” to illustrate the point that cities welcoming of LGBT people often had stronger economies and more innovation.

Florida joked that he was criticized for pushing his “gay agenda” but said diversity was a key factor in his findings.

“To be creative, you must be enmeshed in a creative community.”

And according to Florida’s theory, being creative, and being part of the “creative class,” is a key to success. That class includes any “knowledge work” and captures a wide range of industries, from the STEM sciences to arts and culture.

Florida said while unemployment during the most recent recession hit double digits in many job sectors, the “creative class” held up well.

“Unemployment didn’t even hit 5 percent,” he said.

Florida told the audience that he believes the places we decide to live in are as important, if not more important, that the choices we make for our careers and for our life partners.

He wrote about this idea in his book, “Who’s Your City?”

“It’s not just quality of life,” Florida said. “It’s quality of place that was enabling people to thrive.”

Florida is considered a key figure in the New Urbanist movement, which highlights the benefits of living in cities and advocates for walkable, dense living areas.

But he’s not without his critics.

Joel Kotkin, a geography professor and author, has criticized Florida’s ideas, and believes that Florida’s suggestions for Rust Belt cities are superficial ideas; he called Florida’s creative class theory “pernicious.”

In 2012, writer Frank Bures penned “The Fall of the Creative Class,” an article for Minneapolis-based Thirty Two Magazine.

In the article, Bures explored the story of several people (including himself) who moved to a city (Madison, Wisc.) based on its ranking on Florida’s Creative Class index — and had less-than-stellar experiences.

Florida recognized his critics during the lecture, but had a surprising response.

“I love my critics,” he said. “I learn from my critics.”

An earlier post on Richard Florida’s work can be found here.

Theory: The Creative Class controversy

Professor Richard Florida's book.

Professor Richard Florida’s book.

In the last few months, Professor Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory, which has been widely discussed  in urban planning and economics in the last decade, has taken some punches.

The Creative Class theory, in a nutshell, suggested that when a city or neighborhood had a highly creative and diverse population – artists and members of the LGBT community, for example – that those residents were a ‘canary in the coal mine’ and an indicator of economic renewal and revitalization.

Joel Kotkin, in an essay for The Daily Beast in March, tore into many of the assumptions of Florida’s initial theory, as well as the way it’s been implemented in various cities across the country.

Last year, in another blog, I discussed my own experience in one of the Creative Class cities (Madison, Wisconsin) and an article by writer Frank Bures that appeared in Twin Cities magazine Thirty Two, which also debated many of the Creative Class talking points.

It’s clear that the economic benefits are not as robustly realized as Florida had theorized. I agree that there are several key parts of his theory that have splintered under intense inspection. (Florida’s response to the Kotkin essay can be found here.)

But I’m not sure I’m completely ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

The main thing that always rang true for me in Florida’s theory is the idea of flexibility.

I’ve written a great deal about Pittsburgh in this blog, and I have a great love for the city. But at different times when I’ve lived there, I felt that it was very inflexible. It was a town that didn’t embrace diversity, or differences. It didn’t understand different approaches, or different ideas.

If we fast forward to 2013, Pittsburgh is a different place.

I don’t know that all artists, or LGBT people, are magic indicators. But it’s been primarily those residents who have made astonishing changes in Lawrenceville.

Of course, what few theories really delve into is the fact that in so many Rust Belt cities – and even here in Chicago – there are deeply ingrained institutionalized class and race barriers that bar many of our citizens from participating in that economic process.

To truly be diverse – and flexible – we need planning and programs that are truly flexible and inclusive. And while planning theory is helpful in that regard, reform and government involvement is what’s really needed to make that a reality.


Chicago: Front page news (and burying the lede)

tribuneOn Wednesday, several media outlets reported that the Tribune Company – a media conglomerate that owns a number of TV and radio stations, and newspapers across the country – is having investment bankers assist them in evaluating potential offers to buy the newspapers.

What was buried well in the discussions and the articles was one key bit: Wrapports LLC is interested in potentially purchasing the Chicago Tribune.

Why care?


Pittsburgh: As The Yinzer Turns

Did Pittsburgh become Chicago while I was sleeping?

Luke Ravenstahl

Luke Ravenstahl

If you’ve watched what’s transpired in Pittsburgh over the last few weeks, it certainly seems so.

Increasing political conflict in city offices, and the firing of the police chief, led to a surprise announcement this morning from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl that he would not seek reelection.

That announcement may not sound significant on its own.

But it’s a culmination of months of unanswered questions swirling around city offices, and around the mayor himself. And even before this latest scandal, Ravenstahl’s actions – and inactions – fed accusations and rumors about his professional and personal life.

Pittsburgh’s made some huge strides forward into the 21st century.

Will the next Mayor help nudge that progress along – or will they embrace the traditionalism that Pittsburgh is known for?


Chicago: That Neighborhood Feel

Let’s call this post “a tale of two neighborhoods.”

One is Andersonville. It’s a north side neighborhood. Its borders run roughly from Broadway on the east to Ashland on the west, and from Foster to Peterson/Ridge at its north end.

In terms of geography, it’s an unremarkable neighborhood – no close CTA stop or Metra stop, no rivers or remarkable parks, and one main bus (the perpetually crowded and slow 22 Clark) running down Clark Street, its main thoroughfare.

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

Photo credit: Patrick Erwin

The second is my current hood: the West Loop. Or as I like to call it, WeLo.

(It sounds clever, right? Also, I’m a lazy typist and that’s way fewer letters.)

WeLo has a close proximity to the Loop. It’s got one main bus route (the perpetually crowded and slow 20 Madison), and a new, shiny Morgan Green Line stop. (Two more stops, both Blue Line, sit at the extreme southern ends of the neighborhood.)

The Bartelme Park at Monroe and Peoria is an entire city block of amazingness. And WeLo is also known for “Restaurant Row” on its northern end.

But for all the amazing things happening in WeLo, it still hasn’t reached that point of coalescence as a neighborhood. Andersonville, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of a neighborhood, and all the pluses of one: tight community ties and people filling its shops, stores and restaurants.

Why isn’t WeLo every bit as cozy and inviting as Andersonville? I’ve wondered why for a while – and figured I’d try to use some urban planning ideas and metrics to compare and contrast these two areas.


Hello City

Because I’m a pop culture kid at heart, I was captivated by the Atlantic Cities post on the “Hello” commercials for local news stations.

The Cliff Notes version: Local news stations share concepts, from theme music to commercial/promotional ideas, and this one spread like wildfire in the 80s. (From what I can tell, it was primarily for ABC affiliates.)

It was created by Frank Gari, who also wrote many of the theme music packages news stations have used over the years. For those of us of a certain age, it evokes a whole lot of nostalgia.

The Atlantic Cities post shares a few, including Milwaukee, the first in the series.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few other towns – Rust Belt towns, of course. (more…)

Postscript: Uptown Theater

Last week, I shared a post about the long-dormant Uptown Theater, and what its long-planned renaissance would mean to that neighborhood.

Some photos from a recent Chicago magazine feature by photographer Eric Holubow show the current state of the Uptown. You can see those photos here (the first 7 or so) along with other abandoned movie houses in the area.

These theaters constitute several thousand square feet of valuable resources that are already standing. It seems like a no-brainer to use that space – and not tear these gems down to build a McPlaza.


Chicago: Reimagining what remains (part two)

In yesterday’s post I talked about the Uptown Theater project in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and how that stood as a symbol of the neighborhood’s illustrious past and current challenges (as well as future potential).

It’s amazing to me that such a grand building would sit empty – or that it was ever a candidate for demolition.

I feel the same about a building I’ve just discovered in the last few months. I’m finishing my coursework at my new college in the western suburbs, and I take the Metra West Line train every day to get to campus.

And as I’d come back into the city, I was mesmerized by a building I’d see from the train. It was clearly a building no longer in use, covered in graffiti and with most of its windows gone. But the shell of the building looked magnificent.

I was convinced it had been an old high school, until one day I saw the lettering near the top of the building: Brach’s. The building was, until a decade or so ago, the North American factory for Brach’s candy. (more…)

Chicago: Reimagining what remains (part one)

Chicago’s Loop, and Lake Shore Drive, have an array of dazzling architecture, and as Chicago residents we can take a great deal of pride in those accomplishments.

From the urban dweller’s view, there’s a lot to like about Chicago: consistent (if imperfect) mass transit, walkability , and an ever growing network of safe space for bicyclists.

It’s a testament to having planning in place, and diligently following those plans.

Daniel Burnham’s plans for Chicago have now been in the rearview mirror for more than a hundred years, but those plans have served the city magnificently. Our miles of open lakefront space – part of the plan – is, in my eyes, the jewel of the city.

But Chicago is not just the Loop, and some of the challenges that face Chicago are as wide and as deep as any facing Detroit, Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities.

The issues of segregation, racial and ethnic divides and centuries of political corruption in Chicago run deep.

For me, there are two buildings I’ve learned about that tell the story of their Chicago neighborhoods. They are symbols of the challenges those neighborhoods face now.

One is the Uptown Theater in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, and the other is the building that housed the now-defunct Brach Candy factory on Chicago’s West Side.

I’ve learned about both of these buildings because my personal story intersected with the story of these neighborhoods.