The CTA's Block 37 blues

Ben Meyerson

January 19, 2010 @ 1:00 AM


Many of the Block 37 shops are already open, and others are coming soon.  Credit: Geoff Dougherty

For 20 years, Block 37 was an infamous sinkhole in the middle of the Loop. Flanked by Daley Plaza and Marshall Field’s, one of the most prestigious pieces of real estate in Chicago sat barren, swallowing up idea after idea.

Though a pair of glass and steel buildings finally opened on the spot in 2009, Block 37’s demons persist — they’ve merely been pushed underground, where the Chicago Transit Authority has built the shell of a train station without any tracks.

The dream was to build a luxury “super station” that would offer express service to the airports in time for the 2016 Olympics. Officials hoped a private company would run the rail lines. But a suitor never appeared.

Today, the city and the CTA say there are no plans to finish the $259 million cavern in the near future.

It’s a saga that has left experts baffled and suspicious.

Joseph DiJohn, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center, questions whether the project was ever viable to begin with.

“I think the station was primarily built to support Block 37, as opposed to really taking a serious look at airport transportation,” DiJohn says. “Why build a station if you don’t know that you’re going to have the service?”

Block 37’s rotating cast of developers received $42.4 million in tax increment financing from the city, and the CTA provided $176 million in capital improvement funds to build out the structure’s basement.

“There isn’t federal funding for the airport express service, and without the airport express service, the station would become moot,” DiJohn says. “So they built the station first.”

The CTA’s management of the project doesn’t impress Laurence Msall, president of Chicago-based oversight group The Civic Federation.

“The fact that the Chicago Transit Authority still has to pay ... for a station that is basically not operating in its intended purpose underscores the failure of the CTA to have a detailed and prioritized capital plan,” Msall says. “There should have been controls in place by the CTA to pull the plug.”

Instead, that was left to Mayor Daley in the summer of 2008, when he told the CTA to put the brakes on the over-budget, partnerless station.

While Daley said at the time that the express service would definitely be finished by 2016 for the Olympics, the city’s loss to Rio de Janeiro has knocked plans for the station into a nebulous ether.

“There’s no timetable now,” says Molly Sullivan, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Community Development.

In an e-mailed statement, the CTA says that the city will take the lead in seeking private partners to help run the service “when the economy improves.”

If it ever does get built, the service would emulate express lines to European airports, where train service in some cities can account for more than 40 percent of airport transportation. But in this country, far fewer passengers arrive at the airport by train.

The proposed service from Block 37 — which could save up to 20 minutes of travel time from the Loop to Midway or O’Hare — wouldn’t do much for Chicago’s ridership numbers, DiJohn says.

“It simply doesn’t attract the market share it does in Europe.”

But Matt Pierce, spokesman for the Skyway Concession Co., which runs the Chicago Skyway, says airport express service does have a shot at gaining a private partner eventually.

“In the city of Chicago, we have some of the busiest airports in the world, so obviously the need exists,” Pierce says. “Business travelers are always looking for speed, convenience, dependability — like trains.”

But for the service to even get off the ground, Chicago’s Sullivan says federal investment is a necessity.

“There’s no municipality in the world that would be able to support a project of this magnitude,” Sullivan says.

Christina Mulka, spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, says he hasn’t received any requests for federal funding for the project.

State Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Wilmette), chair of the Mass Transit Committee, says no one’s sure if the station will come up before the legislature in the near future.

As for the building’s tenants, the lack of airport service has left employees of Block 37’s largest tenant, investment research firm Morningstar, disappointed.

“The CTA station was certainly an attraction for us when we were looking for space for our new headquarters,” says David Williams, managing director of design at Morningstar. “We’re not giving up hope.”

This article appeared in the January 2010 edition of the Chicago Current. For home delivery, subscribe now

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