Forgetting the railroad tracks in downtown Chicago when they are covered up by developments

As Chicago grew at a rapid pace in the nineteenth century, the railroad lines that helped make the city largely converged in one place: the south bank of the Chicago River alongside Lake Michigan where goods could be loaded and unloaded for the city or for ships. A 1948 image on the Maggie Daley Park website gives some indication of the scene:

Later development of land, such as Millennium Park, helped eliminate and then cover up more of the tracks. And a new proposed development south of Grant Park may cover up more:

Even as city officials weigh other proposed megadevelopment deals in and near downtown, a Wisconsin developer who played a key role in building Ford Field in Detroit and rebuilding Lambeau Field in Green Bay is pitching another: a multibillion-dollar plan to deck over Metra Electric rail tracks west of Soldier Field to build a mix of residential, office and retail space.

Several sources close to the matter say a partnership headed by Wisconsin executive Bob Dunn has briefed City Hall and other officials on plans, set to be officially unveiled next month, to build over 34 acres of Metra Electric tracks and storage facilities just west of South Lake Shore Drive, from McFetridge Drive south to roughly 20th Street.

Air rights to build over the tracks were acquired more than 20 years ago by developer Gerald Fogelson, who built the huge Central Station residential complex just to the north, south and east of Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue. Fogelson had hoped to develop the adjacent air-rights property himself as a sort of a Central Station 2.0, and as late as 2015 he was looking for a partner, describing then a $3 billion long-term plan with 3,000 apartments and 500 hotel rooms.

But Fogelson’s plans never jelled, and a new group named Landmark Development has emerged, with Fogelson still involved but Dunn, who is president of Milwaukee-based Hammes, now serving as lead developer.

Few would argue that the railroad tracks downtown and along the lakefront contributed to a beautiful aesthetic. Between the noise and the sights, most residents and leaders would prefer to see buildings, parks, and water than tracks. But, I wonder if the continued covering of tracks and building on the air rights might help lead Chicagoans to forget both the historical and current importance of the railroads to Chicago.

As Chicago grew, the railroads helped Chicago become the center of the Midwest as commodities came in from north, west, and south and were turned around for the Chicago market or markets out East. (See Nature’s Metropolis for all the details.) Today, Chicago is still a railroad center with numerous important railroad lines and a lot of freight traffic. The move in recent years to relieve accidents, ensure on-time trains, and traffic congestion is to move more and more of the railroad traffic to the outskirts of the region.

It might be easy today in a world of smartphones to forget the basic railroad infrastructure that helps undergird Chicago and the country. Chicago itself has shifted away from a commodity based economy and joined the ranks of finance and corporate capitals (and done so successfully). Yet, the railroad will continue to be important for Chicago even if it is no longer visible in some of the city’s most iconic locations.

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