In the 19th century, the U.S. government got railroads built by awarding the owners wide swathes of land on either side of the tracks. Today, the Chicago Transit Authority is reversing the process.
The agency has undertaken a half-billion-dollar-plus project to increase the length of station platforms along its Ravenswood Brown Line to accommodate longer, six car trains. But instead of a surgically precise approach that respects the surrounding urban fabric, the CTA, as is its nature, is responding with a bludgeon, a massive land grab that is leveling huge tracts of land adjacent to the "El". At the Fullerton station, it's meant the demolition of the historic 1929 Hayes-Healy Center on the Depaul University campus. At Belmont, an entire half block north of the station has been laid waste, and a couple of weeks ago, the CTA's bell tolled for a homely three story building that for decades had served as a surplus store, its stolid brick walls sheltering commuters from icy lake winds even as often frayed displays in station-level windows hawked the store's wares.
The two new stations are being designed by Ross Barney + Jankowski. The original designs offered translucent canopies and glass platform planks to return light to the streetscapes that the heavy "EL" structure has traditionally darkened, however, there have already been cutbacks due to the CTA's inability to manage budgets, which it inevitably deals with by punishing its passengers, first by cavalierly going back on its promise to keep all stations open during rehab, and now at the Fullerton, by cutting back the protective canopy from the length of ten cars, down to four.
A corruption of values has tarred the entire project. The Gothic grandeur of Hayes-Healy is thrown away with scarcely a second thought, while community groups expend massive amounts of energy preserving original station houses which offer up less a rich window on the past than a numbingly barren mediocrity.
We like to flatter ourselves that we're a big, brave city when it comes to creating civic architecture, but the sorry way the Brown Line project has played out says otherwise. Anything as bold as Busby Associates Brentwood Skytrain Station in Vancouver seems completely beyond us.
Back at Belmont, the old surplus store did not go gently. As the long brick wall along the tracks was dismantled, the interior support structure was revealed for the first, last and only time, wood columns and beams almost Miesian in their spareness and simplicity, leaning and bent with age, but bearing up bravely, standing in wait for their final obliteration with a humble eloquence. And along the top floor, a yoke seeping through its newly cracked shell, a wall painted a surprisingly intense, yellow blazed beneath the crisp blue sky of an early spring day, a last defiant mirror of the sun's eternal fire.