Monday, July 09, 2018

Six Bad Arguments for the Exploding Costs of CTA Stations

CTA Damen Green Line Station, Perkins and Will
The blowback – largely on Twitter – to my post about the $60 million cost of the new Damen and Lake station on the CTA green line is a dispiriting demonstration on how politicians play us like a violin.  The discussion revolves around a few basic arguments:

"Even if the stations could be built more economically, it doesn’t matter because infrastructure is expensive." Tell that to those on the short end of the giant TIF con, in which phony-baloney TIF's carved out of affluent areas generate – and retain - billions of dollars to make them even denser concentrations of wealth, while TIF’s in capital-starved neighborhood generate crumbs far insufficient to their needs. Well-managed cities have capital plans. Irredeemably corrupt ones have TIF's.

“Added cost = good design”  Really? Reasonable (and often unreasonable) constraints are the mother’s milk of creative architecture.

"It’s still cheaper than New York City’s new subway stations. Yes, but then so is just about everything short of the Burj Kalifa.

“We deserve it.” A perfect expression of the kind of civic balkanization the TIF system encourages.

"Other things - Jane Byrne interchange, O'Hare expansion, etc. - cost so much more!" So if we can't come to our senses, let's repeat the mistake as often as possible at slightly smaller scale.

"We need this - the CTA tends to be so shabby." Shabby indeed, but . . .

a. A station on a tighter budget does NOT have to be shabby.  That's the talent good architects bring to the equation.
State and Lake, Loop L

b. If we overspent less on the pork barrel stations, we’d have more for basic maintenance. While Red Line-Wilson got over $200 million, the Sheridan station – which boards slightly more passengers – has been allowed to be a decrepit mess for decades, just as for decades State and Lake has been a civic disgrace of peeling paint, creaking floorboards, curated pigeon droppings and general slummery even as $75,000,000 was found to build a new Washington and Wabash station to support about the same number of boardings.  The fact that rehabs for those stations only now have been announced doesn't make up for decades of willful neglect.

We think of ourselves as rational, progressive people, but at heart, we’re kittens distracted by a piece of string, the latest pretty bauble that bewitches and clouds our intellects. It's big! It's shiny! It’s expensive! Ergo, it must be good; it must be swallowed without a second thought.  Except, there is no good architecture without fitness to purpose.  
Cermak, Green Line

The new Cermak Green Line station is visually spectacular, and the poster child for construction overkill. Costing $50,000,000, it was to be the new gateway to McCormick Place and an emerging Motor Row, but so far it remains lightly used, generating less than a half million boardings a year. Multiply that by 50, for a projected 50 years until the next necessary major rehab, and it still comes out to $2.10 – more than the CTA’s basic fare – each time a passenger enters.
Original Fullerton Red/Brown Line station
I never thought I’d write anything nice about Charles Yerkes and the other traction crooks, but they understood budgets. The stations they built were cheap and aggressively efficient, but often not only simply but graciously designed.  They were not mini-Grand Centrals, but they had newsstands, a washroom – often even shops. And in most cases, they supported equal or even larger passenger loads than the CTA handles today. Many of these original stations have been preserved as important pieces of architecture, standing in constrained, silent contempt of the bloated counterparts that took their place.

To be sure, those original stations had drawbacks - not the least of which access for the physically challenged - that newer stations - all newer stations - must and should address.  Elevators, wide platforms, longer platforms to accommodate longer trains, are among functional improvements that are a welcome addition to all new and rehab construction.  Unwarranted, relentless monumentality, perhaps not.

We need a forensic breakdown on the costs of these mega-stations.  How much for the basics - structural support, platforms, stairways and elevators - and how much for all the bling?

If we're going to spend money on gateways, structures that define and help develop their communities, why would we be putting the big bucks into those that people spend only seconds rushing in and out of, and most of their time on the platform immersed in their smartphones waiting for the train to arrive?  Wouldn't it be better to spend more of that money on signature public spaces where people are actually encouraged to linger, enjoy and interact with the neighborhood around them?
Morgan Street, Green Line

As a lover of architecture, I delight in the design of Morgan, Cermak and Washington (Wilson, not so much). They're among the few bright spots in a city where the mediocrity of more and more new construction threatens to make a cruel joke of our reputation as a city where architecture matters. As a citizen of Chicago, however, I can’t walk by without smelling the reek of pork - fat contracts for the connected, even as greater needs are left to starve.
We've gone from $38,000,000 for Morgan Street, to $50,000,000 for Cermak to $60,000,000 for Damen, a 58% inflation in just 8 years.
Wilson Station, Red Line

We’re in thrall to a binary system. Dazzling displays of spending to give the beaming politicians ribbons to cut, or chronic neglect of facilities used by millions more but lacking in press opportunities. Shabby and/or derelict, or blingful and extravagant.  There has to be a middle way.

Less is more. Ever hear of it?