While the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA’s) plans are still not very clear, the rubble heap on the site of the bus turnaround at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Austin Boulevard is certainly not. The construction is part of what sources say is the overdue renovation of an area that had long been afflicted by trash, poor lighting, dead trees and sunken concrete.
“The poles were falling down—actually ripped and falling,” said Malcolm Crawford, the owner of Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center, 5820 W Chicago Ave. Crawford is also the executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA).
The organization has been at the helm of discussions to transform a key stretch of Chicago Avenue — from roughly Austin Boulevard to Massasoit — into what some have called a central ethnic business district in the mold of Chinatown or Little Village.
In February, city officials met with stakeholders from AAABNA at Sankofa for a presentation facilitated by Crawford. Afterward, attendees, who included Department of Planning and Development commissioner Andrew Mooney, were given a tour of proposed development sites along the economic arterial.
Crawford said that the turnaround’s renovation is the result of those discussions and of a series of meetings between local entrepreneurs and city officials, including Mooney and Carol Morey, the CTA’s chief planning officer.
“He really jumped on top of this,” Crawford said of Mooney. “His people are saying, ‘We know it’s election time, but we need to make this happen.’ We’ve had elections before, but nothing happened. It’s impressive that they finally see the value in our infrastructure,” said Crawford, adding that such sustained attention from the city is critical to an area that’s been subject to decades of neglect.
“This whole area, from Austin to Laramie, has two garbage cans,” he said. “Where do you go and not have a garbage can? That’s the kind of stuff we need to start talking about and really asking [elected officials] about.”
While the construction activity has been highly visible, the CTA’s communication of its intentions has not been. For instance, there was no notification posted near the bus shelter on Austin Boulevard, the bench facing Chicago Avenue or anywhere else near the terminal announcing the plans. Moreover, it’s been at least a week since CTA crews descended on the stop, but there have been no customer alerts on the CTA’s website notifying passengers of any impending changes. Officials from CTA and the Department of Planning and Development were not available for comment.
“I don’t even know what they’re doing,” said Andy, (he preferred to go by his first name only), who was waiting at a shelter for the northbound 91 Austin bus.
Last year, the combined number of boardings for both the 66 Chicago and 91 Austin routes that turnaround at that corner averaged more than 27,000 a week. The 66 Chicago route is among the busiest in the city. But for all of its exposure, plans for renovating the turnaround have been light on public dialogue.
There have been very few community meetings to gather public input about the renovations, something Crawford acknowledged. He did note, however, that Morey, the person he said is coordinating the project, had invited public input on the turnaround’s design.
Crawford implied that the CTA’s original plans for the turnaround may have been much less ambitious before the agency broke concrete.
“They said that once they got into the project, it was way more to be done than what they thought,” he said. “[The turnaround] had foundation problems, it was sinking. That’s why they had to dig up everything. [Morey] was asking me what does the community want and how it should look,” Crawford said, adding that his organization has received the greenlight from a range of local entities and stakeholders to represent the Ausin community in dialogues with the city.
It isn’t clear whether or not the bus turnaround project is isolated from AAABNA’s more comprehensive plans for a Chicago Avenue business district. What’s more immediate to riders, though, is that the turnaround’s reconstruction is badly needed. Crawford said, barring a publicly generated alternative, CTA officials conceive a Prairie Style design for the corner, predicated on hardy native plants that require low maintenance — a welcome change for some customers.
“It was tore up right here,” said Richard Naylor, a frequent CTA passenger who happened to be walking by the rubble. “It was raggedy. It was all sunk in and lopsided. They don’t have anything modern here like the rest of the bus stops further down, closer to downtown across Pulaski. You know the little speaking things and the heating systems? They don’t got none of that down here.”
With the turnaround renovation, it seems that positive changes to one of Austin’s main economic thoroughfares are beginning to trickle in. Crawford said that the city also intends to install a Divvy bike sharing station on Chicago Avenue. But the changes, Crawford said, are nonetheless incremental and should be the basis for even more development in Austin.
“We need to know why we don’t have street poles [and] garbage cans,” he said. “The mayor has billions in TIF [tax increment finance] funds and we can’t get a garbage can?”