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Article updated: 7/8/2013 10:51 AM

Union Station makeover ideas could win you $5,000

By Marni Pyke

Only tourists stroll through Union Station, their necks craned to gaze at the 110-foot-tall ceiling or art deco staircase made famous by "The Untouchables."

The rest of us power-walk past the food vendors and up to the street in the morning -- and dash down to our express trains in the afternoon.

Who could imagine Union Station as a fun place to spend some time? You, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council. The MPC is holding a contest for the two best ideas to breathe new life into the old station.

The winners will each get $5,000 to implement their concepts into reality for 10 days this summer. So if you know how to transform Union Station into an exciting public space with yoga, a petting zoo, concerts, a book fair, mini-golf, a hanging garden, dance contest or whatever ... get cracking. The Activate Union Station contest ends at 5 p.m. July 24.

"We want a short-term vision of how the space can be used in a vibrant way," council Planning Director Marisa Novara said. "We wanted to start with something low-cost and short-term and see what works."

Here are some details: The contest is all about "placemaking," which translated from planner-speak means "a people-centered approach to planning, designing, and managing vibrant public spaces. It provides activists, designers, and community organizations an opportunity to showcase their talents and passions."

Three spaces are in play: the Great Hall, the east-facing arcade on Canal Street and the Fifth Third Plaza along the west side of the Chicago River between Adams and Jackson streets.

Who can enter? Anyone: students, neighborhood groups, architects, planners, chambers of commerce, musical groups, mime associations, etc. You need a vision of what Union Station can be plus the ability to design and implement your idea over 10 days this summer. To find out more about the contest, which Fifth Third Bank is underwriting, go to metroplanning.org/news-events/blog-post/6716.

"We welcome anybody," Novara said, but noted "it is a commitment and not for everyone."

Union Station is somewhat behind the curve when it comes to makeovers. Washington D.C.'s and Philadelphia's Union Stations have both transformed from dumpy ugly ducklings to trendy swans in recent years with destination restaurants, shops and events.

"The Great Hall is an amazing place, but there's probably general agreement it's underused. There's no reason why all this great space couldn't be used and the outdoor space better activated," Novara said.

The contest is part of a larger plan undertaken by the city of Chicago and Amtrak to revitalize and renovate Union Station. The Metropolitan Planning Council also is participating.

Got a good notion to improve Union Station but lack the manpower to implement it? The MPC still cares. Send a note to metroplanning.org/news-events/blog-post/6722.

And, of course, I care. Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com. Or join me and other In Transit readers to toss around Union Station ideas between noon and 1 p.m. Monday on Facebook -- www.facebook.com/pykeintransit. Plus, watch for transportation tips on my Facebook page around noon every Wednesday.


I am selling tickets for two upcoming events in which Metra leaders will attempt to explain the golden parachute offered to former CEO Alex Clifford. OK, I can't sell tickets because both are free. But it could be entertaining to see reactions to the costs of Clifford's $442,000 severance package that includes salary, severance, raises, benefits and moving expenses. Plus Clifford could earn up to $307,000 more if he can't find a job in a specified time. The Regional Transportation Agency is first up to grill Metra Board Chairman Brad O'Halloran at 9 a.m. Wednesday, 16th Floor, 175 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago. Then, state lawmakers pile on at 11 a.m. Thursday, 6th Floor, 160 N. LaSalle Ave., Chicago.

One more thing

I still miss University of Illinois at Chicago transportation expert Joe DiJohn. His institutional memory and keen observations were matched only by his kindness and sense of humor. A former RTA official and Pace's first executive director, Joe later ran UIC's Urban Transportation Center. Although he died in spring 2011, his memory is being honored through a UIC scholarship fund. Donations are greatly appreciated and can be sent to the Joseph DiJohn Memorial Foundation, University of Illinois Foundation, P.O. Box 3429, Champaign, IL 61826-3429. Checks should be made out to the foundation with the DiJohn memorial fund in the memo line.

Gridlock alert

Stay strong Elgin. Expect lane closures on eastbound Route 20 when IDOT begins bridge repairs over Raymond Street. Anyone traveling between Routes 31 and 25 can expect to feel the pain through July 24, when work wraps up.

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