Wilson CTA station: Model of our energy future

By m., September 10, 2012

The design and reconstruction of the Wilson CTA station offers a unique opportunity to combine renewable energy with historic site renovation to create a “green and golden” transportation model that would not only be an enduring asset to the Uptown community but could also set a high standard for future public infrastructure investment in Chicago.

The station entrance in the Gerber building retains much of its original trim and decorative columns. (Photo by Patrick Barry)

Easy to overlook given its dilapidated condition is the fact that the station has already achieved two significant environmental victories. First, it serves 5,600 incoming passengers each weekday and weekend ridership is growing as ever more people choose public transit, bikes, walking, taxis and carsharing over private car use. Second, having weathered many storms, the 90-year-old Gerber building with its grand lobby and terra-cotta façade still exists! The National Trust for Historic Preservation 2011 study The Greenest Building found that “when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.”

Energy optimization including renewables would not only add to the intrinsic value of the legacy station, anchoring street-level architecture along the historic Broadway commercial corridor, but it would also inspire and inform future renovations and developments in the area. These efforts would be in line with the Retrofit Chicago program that prioritizes energy efficiency as a means of strengthening the city and could dovetail effectively with the SmartGrid rollout announced in January 2012, perhaps bringing new-economy job training and skills to the community as well as better acquainting green partners from other parts of the city with Uptown’s potential.

What might the model Wilson station involve?

  • Solar power: The station area has many unobstructed daylight hours, so an extensive solar canopy could supply energy to power lighting, elevators, and I-GO electric rental cars parked under the tracks. Surplus energy could be fed into the grid to meet demand during peak hours, partly offsetting the cost of grid-dependent electricity use at the station in the evening and at night.
  • Environmental design: Optimal alignment for solar gain/shading, ventilation, and daylighting—which all figured in Frank Lloyd Wright's original Stohr Arcade design at the site in 1909—as well as solar thermal and/or radiant warmth from sources like server rooms could play a role in heating, cooling, and lighting the spaces and in providing hot water. LED lighting would minimize electricity use at night and be friendlier to birds that are increasingly heading for the lakefront bird sanctuaries east of Uptown.
  • Green roofs & stormwater management: The two platform canopies, nearly 400 feet long and 20 feet wide, offer a total of 16,000 square feet of green roof space to reduce stormwater runoff and the urban heat island effect. Uptown already has green roofs on the Target, Aldi, and the CTA electrical substation south of the station. Land under the tracks and on adjacent parcels could be permeable and/or landscaped as rain gardens so that rainwater trickles into the ground instead of flooding the sewer system.
  • Public uses: The station area is large enough to include an outreach site for campaigns of benefit to both commuters and local residents, such as voter registration and mobile ward office hours. Protected bicycle racks would encourage station use at all times of day while providing an additional element of round-the-clock safety.
  • Reduced costs: Renewables and high efficiency would lower the costs of running the station and help sustain the proposed French Market, soundstage, and adjacent retail stores. Strategies used at the station might prove useful in helping big energy users like the Riviera and Aragon as well as the empty Uptown Theatre, now owned by Jam Productions, to require less energy for heating, cooling, and lighting, which would make the proposed Uptown entertainment district more sustainable and more affordable.

Through thoughtful design, the Wilson station can also become a nexus for community engagement. Diverse resources and individuals, both local and connected via transit from the station, can be brought together through a focus on green ideas and infrastructure. The area is already home to several strong environmental actors. Weiss Hospital, for example, received a Governor’s Home Town Award in 2011 for its Uptown Farmers Market and Urban Rooftop Farm. Chicago Housing Authority’s senior facility The Kenmore was awarded LEED Platinum certification, a rare achievement that utilized a building like many found in Uptown. The Institute of Cultural Affairs and Truman College are holding the Accelerate 77 Share Fair on Saturday, September 15, 2012, as part of an extensive effort “to create a framework of communication and collaboration between environmental and sustainable development efforts in each of Chicago’s 77 community areas.”

Loyola University, just one stop away once express platforms are built at Loyola, already runs a biodiesel lab and is building a greenhouse to grow food for its cafeterias. The Chicago Center for Green Technology, now part of the Chicago Department of Transportation, could be a valuable resource on solar technologies, geothermals, materials, natural drainage, plantings, and green roofs. Northwestern University is a natural connection, since its transportation center is already consulting on CTA service and the Purple Express will transfer at Wilson.

The station is in design now and will begin construction in 2013. The public investment of roughly $200 million will make an abiding difference for Uptown and offers CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation a significant opportunity to create a model for civic projects that drive environmental change.

This story was adapted and expanded from a comment by m. on a previous story.

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