When the Obama Presidential Center opens in about three years, visitors can get to it by car, Metra, bike or bus, but not by that most iconic form of Chicago transportation — the “L.”
That’s because a Green Line branch that would have led right to the center was torn down in 1997, after some community leaders complained that it was hurting development.
It is one of those Chicago decisions — like the selling of the city’s parking meter franchise — that leaves posterity scratching its head.
“It would have been so great … ” said Arthur Lyons, director of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis, which had done research in support of keeping the branch. “It was always our view that it would have helped development in that corridor.” The controversial razing of a nearly milelong branch of the Green Line along 63rd Street was the most recent of more than half a dozen “L” branch losses since the Chicago Transit Authority’s creation in 1947 out of private transit companies.
The entire Green Line was closed for rehabilitation from 1994 until 1996. When the line reopened, the part east of Cottage Grove remained closed, waiting for repairs. Some South Side community leaders, including the late Bishop Arthur Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God, and the Rev. Leon Finney Jr., chair of the Woodlawn Organization, wanted the structure torn down.
Supporters of demolition argued that it interfered with development by darkening the street beneath and contributing to a perception of crime.
After a hearing and other public comment, city officials told the Federal Transit Administration that most residents favored demolition. Activists who opposed demolition charged that survey numbers were phony and that the community’s wishes were being ignored.
“They misrepresented the data,” Lyons said.
Opponents also charged that the tear-down plan was designed to permit the Apostolic Church’s and Brazier’s continued purchase of city-owned parcels along 63rd. Finney’s nonprofit also had property along 63rd.
“They (Brazier and Finney) wanted to suburbanize Woodlawn — they didn’t want to have typical urban type housing in Woodlawn,” said Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for governmental affairs at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Grimshaw, who was on the CTA board between 2009 and 2015, said the razing of an “L” branch would be more difficult today, since more people are aware of the value of transit-oriented development, which means putting high density retail and residential buildings near transit.