The Morgan ‘L’ Station — Development-Oriented Transit

What a booming Chicago neighborhood, an infill CTA station, and a bridge to nowhere have in common

Chicago’s West Loop would seem a logical place for bountiful commercial activity and residential demand. Sandwiched between the United Center and the Loop central business district, it’s home to Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center, the downtown terminals for nine of Metra’s 11 commuter rail lines that combined serve roughly 225,000 passengers daily.

However, for many years it remained relatively stagnant. Aside from Oprah’s Harpo Studios, restaurants in Greektown and a few on Randolph, and event night United Center traffic, the West Loop for many years couldn’t hold a candle to many of Chicago’s livelier communities.

In the early 2000s, the city began to notice the area’s unrealized potential. While ‘L’ stations along Lake Street already existed at Clinton and Ashland, a notable gap between them of about 1.3 miles left a large territory poorly served by the ‘L’. An infill station, thought the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), could unlock this potential. CDOT had previously examined a station at Western Ave, a major thoroughfare even farther to the west, according to Chicago-l.org, but decided to move forward with neighborhood street Morgan.

The choice was justifiable. Morgan’s ridership projections were higher, tax increment financing (TIF) funds were available to build in that location, and the 2006 introduction of the Pink Line meant a Morgan station could benefit from roughly double train frequency. The Pink Line turns south off the Lake Street ‘L’ before it would have reached a potential Western Ave station.

Thus, the Morgan station was completed in May 2012, replacing an original Morgan station on the Lake Street ‘L’ that had closed 64 years prior. Bypassing the larger adjacent thoroughfares in Halsted and Racine for Morgan may have seemed like an odd choice, but it’s actually better spaced between Ashland, six blocks to the west, and Clinton, about 4.5 blocks to the east.

More importantly, and perhaps most visionarily, Morgan station was ideally placed for local development. Randolph St was already a quality ‘restaurant row’ and there was some nearby increasing residential demand when this station opened. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasted that “this will only accelerate that type of growth, both residentially and commercially. And with that, we’ll get greater property taxes, greater economic growth. People will see a revitalization of a neighborhood that’s already on the move without it, this will only accelerate that.”

Six years later, it appears Emanuel’s enthusiasm was understated if anything. The West Loop’s boom rivals not only any other area in Chicago, but those of the nation’s other biggest cities. One seemingly can’t walk a block without running into a new mid-rise development, or look up without feeling surrounded by a squadron of construction cranes.

The sub-neighborhood Fulton Market District, as it’s become colloquially known, is one of the trendiest areas of the city in its own right, leveraging an agricultural past into a chic urban scene. Less than five years ago it was anything but chic, still overrun each morning with refrigerated delivery trucks.

CTA ridership data reflects this area’s boom. Morgan station has seen a consistent increase in ridership since its opening in 2012, even as overall ‘L’ system ridership began to dip slightly in 2015.

Morgan station’s ridership has quickly eclipsed that of neighboring Ashland.

Morgan’s rapidly increasing patronage is even more impressive when you consider that in terms of the greater CTA and RTA networks, it’s on somewhat of an island. Morgan is one of only 13 ‘L’ stations, out of 145, that doesn’t have any connecting CTA buses whatsoever.

Meanwhile, western neighbor Ashland provides direct transfers to the busiest bus route in the city, #9 Ashland, while eastern neighbor Clinton is less than a block from the Ogilvie Transportation Center, home to three major Metra lines.

But for Morgan, the increasing ridership is driven by and large solely through end destinations walkable from the station. That added up to nearly 3,000 riders on an average 2017 weekday, totaling over 908,000 for the year.

Morgan has shown no signs of slowing down. Morgan’s ridership overtook Ashland’s in 2015, and is no longer far behind Clinton’s. Recent arrivals include a massive Google hub and the brand new McDonald’s global headquarters. The Near West Side community area’s population spiked 18.2% between 2000 and 2010 — then another 12.5% just between 2010 and 2015, up to over 61,000.

So we know that the Fulton Market District is a force to be reckoned with in the city’s current and future landscape. And we know the Morgan ‘L’ station has had a lot to do with that.

But all of that comes without mention of one completely unrelated, yet too notable not to mention, design quirk in the $38 million station itself that probably saw the city overpay for its construction by at least 20% — a pedestrian transfer bridge.

The station overall is quite aesthetically appealing, with a very clean and modern design featuring wide concrete platforms and colored translucent roof panels that has become the CTA’s signature over the last decade. Similar builds can be found at Cermak-McCormick Place (opened 2015), Washington-Wabash (2017), and the rebuilds of Fullerton and Belmont (2009) and Wilson (2017).

Morgan, however, has them all beat on view — a fantastic skyline view can be seen from the platforms or the dubious bridge, which is exactly where we’re going here.

Morgan is a simple side-platform station, with street level entrances on the north and south sides of Lake St just east of the intersection with Morgan. The north side entrance is intended for westbound passengers, and south side for Loop-bound passengers, as entering on either side leads you up to that specific platform.

However, there’s also the option of heading up to a third floor, where you can cross over to the opposite side platform on a surprisingly majestic glass box of a pedestrian bridge. It rises well above the station’s main footprint.

Now, with separate entrances for both platforms at street level, who was this bridge intended for?

Passengers transferring between lines? No, because while the Green and Pink do branch off differently on both sides of the Ashland-Morgan-Clinton stretch there, Morgan is the middle station, making it a completely unnecessary transfer point between the other two. Don’t take my word for that — check the official CTA ‘L’ map, which highlights Ashland and Clinton as transfer stations, but not Morgan.

Even CTA’s official map doesn’t denote Morgan as a transfer station.

Was it for wheelchair users or mobility-challenged riders? No, because both entrances have their own elevators to the platforms.

Passengers who accidentally entered on the wrong side of the street? Seems unlikely that that relatively rare occurrence is worth building a multi-million dollar bridge for.

This final theory is the actually the only one that might actually hold weight. While station entrances that only allow travel in one direction are quite common in some cities, such as New York City, Morgan would have made it one of the first, if not the first, such CTA station in which it would be impossible to access the other platform without leaving the paid zone and having to re-enter. The only known exception to that would be King Drive on the Green Line, but that’s because it’s also the CTA’s only “one-way” station in that it only allows inbound boarding.

So perhaps CTA was concerned about breaking its own modern-day precedent for maximum rider convenience, if such a standard exists.

While its actual necessity may be questionable, this ‘sky bridge’ has given us that tremendous view, however. More on that in a second.

Overall, Morgan station is one of the best recent examples of the opportunity an infill station on a historic line can unlock. The West Loop is far better off for it, and the vibrant buzz on the streets and sea of cranes above are a testament to this well-placed public investment.

As for the pedestrian bridge, if it was really only built so the confused irregular rider who entered on the wrong side wouldn’t have to go back down and cross the street, we probably didn’t need that.

But because we have it anyway — take advantage. Morgan’s skyline view may be the ‘L’ system’s best, and it’s seen nowhere better than from that perplexing pedestrian bridge.