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Speaking of Design: John Ronan Re-imagines the Red Line

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Curbed dropped in on the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Design on the Edge exhibition last week and were blown away by the vision of homegrown architects in dealing with transportation, commerce, and livability issues at the neighborhood level. Given the constraint of working with a specific El line in a particular neighborhood, architects Patricia Saldana Natke, John Ronan, the late Doug Garofalo with Xavier Vendrell, Darryl Crosby, Jeanne Gang, Ross Wimer, and Sarah Dunn with Martin Felsen rattled off speculative designs that, by-and-large, celebrate the character of each neighborhood and its reliance on effective mass transit. Recreational elements were also abundant, as livability and connectivity were explored as paths to economic growth. Design on the Edge is ongoing at the CAF building, 224 S Michigan Ave. In the spirit of Ideas Week, pay it a visit.
·Official Site: Design on the Edge [CAF]

John Ronan, of John Ronan Architects, spoke with Curbed via email about his concept for Rogers Park and the Loyola Red Line station entitled "SuperElevated". His project calls for the replacement of old El technology with a monorail; rec spaces above and below; electric cars at stations to complete commutes; and features at stations to harness the kinetic energy of travelers. Renderings are pictured above.
Hello John, thanks for speaking with us today. What would you say attracted you to this sort of thematic exhibition, with its neighborhood and transit-oriented premise?

I was asked to participate by Stanley Tigerman and accepted. Later, I was given the Loyola area as my study area.

Your concept for the Red Line, "SuperElevated", takes on the line itself as an aging, decaying presence throughout the North Side. What led you to radically re-conceptualize the CTA in dealing with Rogers Park?

I visited the neighborhood again and saw no great problems there. There was recent capital improvement, new shops, and the housing stock was in find shape, the streets clean, etc. Also, the university seemed to be thriving. What didn’t look so good was the el train structure itself, which is literally falling apart up at Loyola, like many places around town. Concrete was falling off and the concrete structure was being shored up by steel reinforcing and makeshift supports. It struck me that this was an issue that effects all neighborhoods, and perhaps should be the focus of our study. I have a longstanding interest in the el—my thesis at harvard was a market underneath the el tracks, for example.

Is your monorail meant to totally replace the Red Line, north to south? It doesn't seem like it could work any other way...

Yes, it is meant to replace the existing train and track system. In the book, there are diagrams of how this would happen. Because the new train is suspended, not supported from below, the new el structure could be constructed while the existing tracks are still in place, to provide uninterrupted service. Once the new train was in operation, the old tracks and supporting structure would be removed.

How feasible is this? And, to get technical for a moment, how would a monorail's speed and capacity compare with conventional rail?

The idea of the mag lev train was to increase speed and decrease the noise as compared to the current el system in chicago. Mag lev trains are in service in other parts of the world currently. The purpose of the project was to speculate on what a state-of-the-art urban transportation system might look like, not to push mag lev technology, specifically.

Regarding your renderings of ground-level green spaces in the shadow of the el, they're reminiscent of some of the design features of the Lakeview Area Master Plan. Was this something you took note of in developing a design strategy that strings communities together? If not, are there other existing community plans or visions that helped shape your thinking?

I am not aware that a lakeview area master plan existed, and no, we did not look at other master plans. We were trying to imagine what an el stop could look like, and there is currently a dearth of public space, especially in neighborhoods, that the city could address with a new transporation system.

Your upper deck rec trail is really great. Since this parallels many miles of the lakefront trail, it could offer that ever-popular path a little congestion relief in the warm months. And it's more 'of' the neighborhoods. Could you say a few words about the design?

The purpose of the bike path was to create a transportation conduit into, and out of, downtown, to relieve some of the street congestion and safety issues posed by on-street bike routes. It is primarily a transportation route, and it would offer new views of the city from a different perspective. The path would be divided into lanes based on travel speed, to avoid some of the problems of the lakefront path.

The multi-modal aspects of this design extend to the fleet of electric rental cars awaiting commuters in nearby garages. A play on park-and-ride, it would seem, are you attempting to go further here by persuading people not just to keep their cars close to home, but to abandon them?

Yes. By placing these smart car towers at el stops around the city, it would make living in the city without owning a car a more viable option. The electric smart cars are ideal for short trips around town and would reduce energy consumption, emissions and street congestion (due to their small size).

As a speculative project, what comes next for "SuperElevated"?
Show it to the mayor.

John, thanks for sharing. We await your next undertaking.