Can Chicago’s public transit system be leveraged to draw development to underinvested neighborhoods?
That’s the belief of a collaborative known as Elevated Chicago, which includes 17 nonprofit, governmental and business organizations promoting equitable neighborhood development.
“Transit hubs are multipliers of investment,” said Roberto Requejo, program director of Elevated Chicago. which is pushing for community-driven development around CTA train stations in West and South Side neighborhoods of color. “Our goal is to concentrate on the built environment within a half mile around those stations.”
Elevated Chicago is focusing on seven CTA train stations. They are located along the south and west branches of the Green Line, the west and northwest branches of the Blue Line, and the Pink Line.
Construction occurring within a half mile of a CTA station may benefit from the city’s Transit Oriented Development policy or TOD, which reduces expensive, on-site parking requirements for developers. In some neighborhoods, residents say TOD projects have contributed to gentrification, while in others the policy has attracted little to no investment. In both cases, Requejo says Latino and African-American residents are deprived of the opportunity to live in vibrant, sustainable and walkable neighborhoods.
“The main racial inequity that we are trying to address is the displacement of people of color across the city, caused by disinvestment, and caused by gentrification,” said Requejo.
Elevated Chicago is roughly halfway into a three-year grant that brought the group together to focus on equitable transit-oriented development, or what is known as eTOD. So far, the group has awarded $1.4 million in grants to community partners in the neighborhoods where the targeted CTA stations are located. Requejo said the money has helped the partners to improve areas around the transit stations with artwork and safety initiatives, support housing projects in Logan Square and Woodlawn, and design a new community center in Little Village.
But at a symposium for roughly 200 community partners and allies on Thursday, Requejo said the work has not always been easy. In some cases, he said neighborhood stakeholders had a lot of work to do to build trust between themselves before effectively working together. In others, Elevated Chicago learned that neighborhood organizations needed financial products, such as loans and grants, that were more flexible than what investors, philanthropies and banks traditionally offer.
The biggest surprise so far, Requejo said, has been the realization that the city’s development decisions largely ignore the input of neighborhood stakeholders.
“I was hoping that Chicago would have a more robust community engagement process for development, because we have such a strong tradition of planning,” he said. “From building a small community center in a corner to the mega-development that is being approved today in Lincoln Yards, our community engagement processes have a lot to improve.”
Still, Requejo is optimistic that Elevated Chicago’s work with city departments, such as the Department of Public Health and the Department of Planning and Development, is starting to shift thinking about the city’s future to incorporate a racial equity lens. He says the group’s work has also attracted the interest of a number of funders, and so will likely continue even after Elevated Chicago’s seed grant expires later this year.