Above the Law | Essay | Chicago Reader

Above the Law 

Why is the Armitage el stop exempt from historic preservation?

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The massive Brown Line reconstruction is only a few months old, but already the city has made two mistakes that allowed the CTA to break local landmark laws. In December the CTA demolished the Gothic Hayes-Healy Athletic Building next to the Fullerton el stop after landmarks division officials mistakenly approved a demolition permit for the protected structure. And now the CTA has permission to violate landmark regulations in its reconstruction of the historic-district el stop at Armitage.

After residents and preservationists protested when the CTA unveiled its original design for the stop back in 2001, it took almost two years of meetings to work out a compromise that would rebuild the stop while preserving the distinctive look and style of its platform and station house. "In 2003 the CTA did the right thing--they worked with us on a design," says Judy Timmerberg, a Lincoln Park resident and member of a local group called Citizens to Preserve the Armitage Brown Line.

Then last year the CTA redrafted the plan without telling residents or preservationists. "We found out about the changes at a meeting last May that was really about something else," Timmerberg says.

The changes centered on the platform. The CTA had decided to replace gooseneck light poles with girderlike metal poles resembling "the lights you see in a football stadium," says Timmerberg. The revised plan would also replace the original mesh-style railings with a thick galvanized-steel guardrail that will run the length of the platform, looking, as one preservationist puts it, "like something you'd stick on a tank in Iraq."

The CTA says such modifications aren't that big a deal. But the el stop falls within the Armitage-Halsted Historic District, which was created precisely to preserve the integrity of architecturally important details like lights and railings. In the face of residents' protests the transit authority is now insisting that it has no alternative but to stick with the revised plan: the original project bids came in too high, and it needs to cut expenses. When residents offered to raise money to help cover construction costs, the CTA said it wasn't allowed to receive money from outside sources on these projects.

In exasperation residents complained to 43rd Ward alderman Vi Daley, who asked CTA officials to meet with the community. Weeks passed and the residents heard nothing, so they turned to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the mayorally appointed body that oversees preservation law and that had created the historic district to begin with. At a meeting in December landmarks commission members instructed CTA officials to work with residents on a compromise platform design.

In early February CTA officials showed residents a new plan that in the eyes of many only made things worse. Instead of restoring the gooseneck poles or the old railings, the design kept the heavy metal guardrail and stuck a couple of old-timey lamps on top of the stadium-style light poles.

"You have to see this to believe it," says Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago. "They stuck this fake Victorian acorn light to a modern pole. It's so hokey, so incompetent--you could go to Menards and buy a more decent looking light."

After seeing the revised design the residents turned again to the landmarks commission, and that's when they learned it was too late: the commission had already approved the CTA's new proposal for the platform. (Landmarks spokeswoman Connie Buscemi did not return my calls.)

According to Alderman Daley the permit was approved because of a miscommunication between the CTA, the landmarks commission, and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which also had to approve the station reconstruction. "The CTA told the commission that the state had signed off on the project," Daley says. "But the state hadn't signed off on the whole project--they had just signed off on the designs for the station [house]. The state hadn't signed off on the platform. But the city thought the state had signed off on the platform as well as the station house."

So the CTA misled the city?

"It was a miscommunication," says Daley. "The CTA thought the state had signed off on the whole project. I guess they didn't realize that the state had only signed off on the station house. And the city figured, well, if it's good enough for the state, it's good enough for them. So they gave the CTA its permit."

Residents and preservationists think the episode offers more proof of the city's reluctance to enforce its own landmark protection laws when it means going up against a powerful developer or institution. The landmarks commission's tougher on ordinary citizens. Over the last few months the commission has been polite but unyielding with regard to seven windows newly installed in 1154 Lill Studio, Jennifer Velarde's leather goods store at 904 W. Armitage, just down the street from the el station. While rehabbing her building, Velarde mistakenly installed full-pane windows instead of historically accurate double-hung ones. When she pointed out to city officials that it will cost her at least $7,000 to replace the windows, she was told sorry, but the law's the law.

"I don't blast the landmarks commission--it's not their fault that I put in the wrong windows," Velarde says. "My issue is, why do I have to adhere to standards that don't apply to the CTA?"

Preservationists say they're going to appeal to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency to put the kibosh on the Armitage restoration unless the CTA restores the gooseneck lamps and railings. If the state wimps out on protecting its laws, Fine says, Preservation Chicago may sue.

In the meantime Velarde has more practical concerns. "I don't know what I'll do with the full-plate windows," she says. "Do you need a glass tabletop? Maybe I should donate them to the CTA."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.

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