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Chicago’s Union Station is an imposing legend in the railroad world. For generations, it has been the place where east meets west. It’s the spot where many Midwesterners arrive on their first train ride. And it was featured in North By Northwest, the Alfred Hitchcock film starring Cary Grant.

Chicago's Union Station

But the station, which was last remodeled in 1992, has become crowded and inefficient. The third busiest rail terminal in the United States, it handles more than 300 trains per day and 120,000 passengers. Many proposals have been floated for rethinking Union Station — and now, officials are trying again.

The station is the subject of a new master plan that is scheduled to be presented Thursday night, Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Rob Hilkevitch says local officials want to be sure the station can handle increased traffic that’s expected when Sara Lee moves some of its operations to Chicago’s West Loop, as well as demand from commuters. 

Among the goals, Hilkevitch says, are:

1) Increasing capacity to handle more trains

2) Building a bus terminal so that commuters can transfer more easily to their connections

3) Launching an east-west transit system that would link the terminal with Michigan Avenue, and eventually Navy Pier (the city’s most visited attraction, and home to our partner station WBEZ)

4) Easing congestion with cars and bicycle riders

Cary Grant and crew rehearse in Union Station, via

It isn’t the first time such promises have been made, Hilkevitch says: “Remember architect Helmut Jahn’s proposal for a separate high-speed rail station east of the old post office? Or the original Daniel Burnham proposal for Union Station with an office tower? Union Station has seen more deconstruction, like the demolition of the original concourse building in 1968.”

The public will get a chance to weigh in Thursday, the Tribune reported. CDOT and Amtrak will hold a public meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. CT in the Union Gallery, just off the Great Hall in Union Station. It will be an open-house format with experts and visuals explaining ideas under consideration. A narrated presentation will be made at 4:30 p.m. and again at 6 p.m.

“This is a chance for people to see the thinking that has gone into these issues” and offer feedback, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Tribune.

A final Master Plan report will be issued in early 2012.

Are you a Chicagoan or a visitor who uses Union Station? What would you like to see happen with it?


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Ohio officials scrutinize fracking finding. Ohio officials are closely watching the fallout from an Environmental Protection Agency finding that hydrofracking might have caused groundwater pollution in Wyoming. The finding, announced Thursday, could have significant ramifications in Ohio, where leaders have haggled over how to regulate the burgeoning industry. The industry has contended that fracking is safe, but the EPA detected hydrocarbons likely associated with fracking chemicals in the groundwater of a Wyoming town where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. “All of the rhetoric from the industry has been there’s no way that this can happen,” Trent Doughtery, a lawyer for the Ohio Environmental Council, tells The Columbus Dispatch. “This shows that it has happened, and we need to protect the people in Ohio.”

2. Wisconsin Republicans envision mining boom. Wisconsin Republicans proposed legislation Thursday that would encourage construction of iron ore mines and reduce environmental restrictions. Sponsors of the bill tell the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel its passage could create thousands of jobs. The newspaper reports the bill would scale back water protections and waste rock disposal, as well as mandate that the Department of Natural Resources accelerate its review process. Mining emerged as a significant state issue this year when Gogebic Taconite announced it would construct a new mine that would employ 700 workers. Advocates decried the sweeping rollbacks of environmental protections. The bill will gets its first hearing Wednesday, according to the newspaper, and could be voted upon in January.

3. Sara Lee headquarters back in Chicago. Six years after leaving, Sara Lee is returning part of its corporate headquarters to Chicago. The food and beverage company was headquartered in the city for more than 60 years before a 2005 consolidation brought it to suburban Downers Grove. Next year, the company will split into two publicly traded companies, and one will occupy a building on South Jefferson that will be renovated at a cost of $60 million, according to our partner station WBEZ. A $6.5 million subsidy, a first under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, helped bring the deal to fruition.

theluckychicken via flickr

Illinois has been playing chicken with a few companies that are threatening to take their business elsewhere. Along with our partner station WBEZ, we’ve been covering the drama between the state and entities such as Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). Both are threatening to leave the state over higher taxes, and demanding tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives to stay.

Meanwhile, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn says Ohio is putting hundreds of millions on the table to interest Sears in relocating to the Buckeye state.

We’ll be talking more about tax breaks, incentives and Midwest competition in the coming days. Inform our coverage: What do you want states to do to bring business and jobs to your state?

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Chicago unveils microlending program. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled a plan Tuesday to create a new organization that helps the city’s small businesses. The Chicago Microlending Institute would train potential lenders on advising and giving loans to people starting small businesses, and would be funded by a $1 million loan pool funded by the city. Our partner station WBEZ says the proposed institute would be run by ACCION Chicago, an area small business lender. Emanuel said small businesses sometimes struggle to get loans from traditional institutions. “That’s the hardest first step,” Emanuel tells WBEZ. “That’s the hardest loan. You don’t have a proven model. You don’t have a proven record.”

2. Auto dealerships undergo facelifts. Three auto dealerships in the Milwaukee area are joining a growing national trend of expanding or renovating their facilities. Jim Tolkan, president of the Automobile Dealers Association of Mega Milwaukee, tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that auto manufacturers are requiring dealerships to remodel in order to meet “a look that is easily recognizable regardless of where you are in the country.” Others are unconvinced that dealers will recoup expensive outlays. “That is the unknown question,” Tolkan tells the newspaper. The National Automobile Dealers Association is expected to issue a report on the subject later this year.

3. Whoops! Indiana finds leftover $320 million. Indiana officials discovered Tuesday the state had $320 million more than anticipated in its main account. Gov. Mitch Daniels said the windfall came as a result of a multi-year programming error that was only recently caught by a stunned employee. Democrats aren’t necessarily buying the explanation after watching Republicans cut public education funding by $300 million at the end of 2009, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This wasn’t just an accounting error,” Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson told the newspaper. “Children got hurt by this, families have suffered.”

Changing Gears recently reported on Empty Places throughout our region — buildings, vacant lots, corporate campuses — and what people were doing to deal with these spaces.

Lee Bey, a blogger at our partner station WBEZ, posed a question about what happens to Chicago Public School buildings when they’re slated to be closed, especially when those buildings are architectural gems. (Bey was featured in my empty places story about a former meatpacking plant on the edge of the old Stockyards.)

Bey is speaking in particular about Walter Dyett High School on W. 51st Street. and Crane Technical Prep High School, at Jackson and Oakley on the city’s near West side, which Bey describes as an “exceptional piece of Greek Revival architecture that’s in fine physical condition.”

But he’s even more effusive about Dyett, designed by Mies van der Rohe protege David Haid. You may know Haid for the auto pavilion he designed that was featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the one where Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari was parked.

Bey’s full post is here.  And for your viewing pleasure, I present you that infamous scene from the movie:


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Kasich downplays Sears hopes. Gov. John Kasich says he “wouldn’t bet on” Ohio’s chances of convincing Sears to relocate its headquarters within its borders, The Plain Dealer reported today. During a visit to the Ford Assembly Plant in Avon Lake, he said Ohio remains in the running, but that it would be hard to pry Sears away from its long-time Chicago-area home. Last week, news outlets reported that Ohio had offered $400 million in tax incentives to bring the company and its 6,100 employees to Columbus. Illinois lawkmakers had rejected a proposal to give Sears $100 million in incentives.

2. Delays ahead on Detroit-Chicago rail line. Faster service is coming along a 135-mile stretch of train tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo . It’s just going to take a while. Construction will begin on a series of improvements in May or June, officials said yesterday, but the project will not be completed until 2015 or 2016. In the meantime, passengers can expect more delays. The Detroit Free Press reports today the project to fix tracks, cross ties, grades and crossings will cause further disruption. In four years, Amtrak expects new locomotives, new cars, smoother tracks and better signaling along the route. The improvements were funded as part of $403.2 million Michigan received from the federal government.

3. Indy community protests gas station development. The difference between refurbishing a dilapidated building and continuing a community eyesore? It’s largely in the eye of the beholder in one Indianapolis neighborhood, where residents of Northside are fighting the rebuilding of a gas station on the corner of 16th Street and Central Ave. In a lawsuit filed last week, opponents say the gas station no longer fits the area, and that they want something more friendly for pedestrians, such as shops or outdoor cafes, according to the Indianapolis Star. The newspaper reports the suit underscores the area’s progression from a “fixer-upper to up-and-coming.”

All across the Midwest, cities and suburbs are tackling the problem of Empty Places. Throughout November, Changing Gears took a look at some of the challenges and solutions involved in transforming property from the past.

In Flint, Mich., Kate Davidson found there may be no better example of how the industrial Midwest is changing than the site of the old Fisher Body Plant No. 1.  It’s one of the factories that was occupied by sit-down strikers in the 1930s.  The plant made tanks during World War II.  It was later closed, gutted and reborn as a GM design center.  But GM abandoned the site after bankruptcy and the new occupants don’t make cars.  They sell very expensive prescription drugs.

In suburban Chicago, Tony Arnold reported that  as companies adjust to economic conditions, many in the region have been re-evaluating the basics – including where they’re located. Cities and states bend over backwards to create jobs, and they’re left with some big challenges when a company decides it no longer wants its headquarters there.

For many people, the most threatening emptiness isn’t a shuttered factory.  It’s the abandoned property next door.  But in Detroit, some residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods.  They’re annexing vacant lots around them, buying them when they can or just putting up a fence. They’re not squatters, says Davidson, they’re blotters.

Baby tilapia growing in the basement of The Plant, an urban farm inside a former meatpacking plant on Chicago's South Side. (Niala Boodhoo)

There are vacant factories all over the Midwest. But where some people see blight, others see opportunity. One example: a former Chicago meatpacking plant has been transformed into a vertical farm, as Niala Boodhoo discovered.

Barry Van Dyke and his two siblings told us their story of turning Jack’s Liquor Store in Grand Rapids, Mich., into a brewery. As he said to Sarah Alvarez, “Over the last three or four years there has been a huge boom of people re-occupying buildings and putting work into them. It’s great to be a part of that in Grand Rapids. I think the general public sees that, and they are just bending over backwards to be supportive.”

But there’s plenty more work to  be done across the Midwest. In fact, there are 3,000 empty buildings alone in Northwest Indiana. Take a look at the work that’s going on there.

Any thoughts on our Empty Places series? Let us know if you’re working to transform an abandoned place in our region.




Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Midwest Economy Gains Ground. The Midwest Economy Index showed improvement in the regional economy in October for the first time in six months, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The monthly index, a combination of 134 state and regional indicators, ticked upward from -0.37 to -0.33. Manufacturing was the only sector measured to make a positive contribution to the index at +0.20, although it had ebbed from +0.23 in September. The pace of manufacturing activity decreased in Iowa and Wisconsin, but increased in Illinois and Michigan. Indiana held steady. The service sector and consumer spending showed improvements overall, while construction and mining activity fell.

2. Emergency Manager Takes Over Flint. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency financial manager for the city of Flint on Tuesday. On Thursday, Flint’s former mayor, Michael Brown, will begin serving in the position. Under the state’s revamped emergency manager law, Brown will have authority to control the city’s operations and finances, including the power to terminate employee contracts, merge departments and reduce pay. It’s the second time an emergency manager has been appointed in Flint, which had a $15 million deficit in the 2010 fiscal year. Emergency managers are already in place in Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse and Detroit Public Schools.

3. Illinois Lawmakers Reject Incentives Bill. Two of Chicago’s most visible companies, CME Group and Sears Holdings Corp., have threated to move elsewhere if they weren’t given tax incentives to stay. Illinois lawmakers are calling their bluffs. The Illinois House of Representatives rejected a bill, 99-8, that would have provided $200 million in incentives Tuesday, the final day of the legislature’s fall session. House Republicans wanted the bill to focus solely on tax breaks for businesses they hoped would lead to job growth, while Democrats wanted tax relief for workers and low-income families included, according to the Chicago Tribune. Gov. Pat Quinn said “ample” time remained to reach a deal, but in a written statement, a Sears spokesperson said, “Our timeline for making a decision about our future by the end of the year has not changed.”

Midwest fliers have plenty of experience with airline bankruptcies — think United, Northwest and Delta. Now comes another one with a direct impact on Chicago.

American Airlines, which has one of its two biggest hubs at O’Hare International Airport, said today it’s seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It is the second largest airline bankruptcy case, behind United.

American said it planned to keep its operations at O’Hare, and has no immediate plans to change its schedule.

American, based in Dallas, is the last of the big “legacy carriers” to reorganize, in part because its chief executive, Gerard Arpey, resisted the step. Rather than lead American through a court case, Mr. Arpey retired, and was replaced today by Thomas Horton. The airline said it hoped to emerge from court protection by mid-2013.

American and United have always fought tooth and nail for business at O’Hare, where United holds a 27 percent share of passenger traffic, and American has 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

But United in recent years has gained financial and size advantages over its rival. United sought bankruptcy protection in 2002, after it failed to get federal loan guarantees, and merged with Continental last year. The combined United and Continental are based in Chicago.

Unlike United’s bankruptcy case, which was heard in Chicago, American’s parent, AMR, filed for bankruptcy protection in New York City. The airline is represented by Weil, Gotshal, the law firm that represented General Motors in its bankruptcy case. Significantly, American is not seeking debtor-in-possession financing; it entered bankruptcy with $4.1 billion in cash, enough to keep its operations running.

In announcing the bankruptcy filing, American said passengers would not notice any immediate change in service, and would continue to collect frequent flier miles. (Answers to frequently asked questions can be found here.)

American’s employees, however, are likely to see some major changes, if the bankruptcies at the other major airlines are any guide.

Under bankruptcy protection, companies can seek to void labor contracts, although judges generally require negotiations on any proposed cuts before they take place. They also can ask that pensions be modified or terminated.

American has a complicated relationship with its pilots, who are represented by the Allied Pilots Association (not the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at many major airlines). Pilots and the airlines have battled for years over work rules governing pilots at the main airline and its American Eagle subsidiary, which American has tried to sell.

In a hotline message, APA president Dave Bates said it was a “somber day” for the airline.

“While today’s news was not entirely unexpected, it is nevertheless disappointing that we find ourselves working for an airline that has lost its way,” said Bates, whose union granted concessions in 2003 so the airline could avoid a bankruptcy filing then.

It’s also likely that the cities served by American will see changes in schedules down the road. While American isn’t expected to give ground at O’Hare, it’s common for airlines to eliminate routes, flights and get rid of expensive aircraft while they are under bankruptcy protection.

Fliers in Cincinnati and St. Louis already know first hand what happens when airlines get in trouble. Cincinnati was a hub for Delta before it merged with Northwest in 2008, and has seen flights drop sharply during the past decade. Likewise, St. Louis was a main base of operations for TWA before American bought it in 2001. It has also seen its service dwindle as American cut flights formerly operated by TWA.

(Note: my father worked for the finance staff of American Airlines for 25 years. Read about my life as an airline child in this story for The New York Times.)

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Detroit’s fiscal crisis looms. The amount of time Detroit has to address the city’s looming financial crisis is “relatively short,” Gov. Rick Snyder tells the Detroit Free Press, before he must decide whether to commence a financial review of the city under the state’s controversial emergency manager law. The city could be insolvent as soon as April, according to reports. In response, the city council issued a proposal that was more far-reaching than Mayor Dave Bing’s earlier this week, proposing a 20-percent income tax increase and 2,300 layoffs, among other items. “We are running out of time,” councilman Andre Spivey tells the newspaper.

2. Groupon stock sharply declines. Shares of Chicago-based Groupon are “getting pummeled” for the third consecutive day, reports the Chicago Tribune this afternoon. They are now trading 15 percent below the initial public offering price of $20 on Nov. 4, and down 35 percent since Friday’s closing price of $26.19. Groupon had cautioned investors that trading could be volatile because it offered only a 5.5 percent stake in its IPO.

3. Shale boom could miss Ohio. Shale gas may not create the economic prosperity across Ohio that Gov. John Kasich has touted as a jobs creator, warns a new report. The problem? The gas industry has been too successful. There’s so much natural gas supply across the U.S. that prices are falling. And no one is quite sure how much actually lies beneath the Buckeye State, reports The Plain Dealer. The jobs gain, once predicted to number as many as 200,000, “will happen on some scale,” Andrew Weissman, executive director of Energy Business Watch, tells the newspaper. “But the question is whether it moves quickly or whether it moves slowly so that it only has a modest impact on Ohio’s economy.”