In a scandalous example of environmental injustice, in 1993 the Chicago Transit Authority dealt a death blow to depopulated, majority-minority, west and south side communities by announcing plans to tear down the Lake Street El, today’s CTA Green Line. Citing a lack of funds to repair the neglected elevated train the CTA asserted there was no choice but for the El Line to come down. 

A coalition of more than thirty community groups called the Lake Street El Coalition, organized in response to the threat of closure, asked Farr Associates and the Center for Neighborhood Technology to prepare a revitalization plan for the Lake Street corridor. The corridor plan pioneered TOD planning in the Chicago region was equal parts a physical plan and an economic development plan, reflecting the community desire for the transit line to lead to reinvestment, jobs, and restored neighborhood amenities. The plan won the day when the CTA reversed course and found $300,000,000 of funding  to fix the line. The plan won the Community Appreciation Award from the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.

Following guidance from Mary Nelson, President of Bethel New Life, the plan called for a mixed-use transit center at Lake and Pulaski. This became the basis for the Bethel Commercial Center. The building program was hatched in the basement of Bethel Church. Residents described amenities that were in the neighborhood in their youth: a bank, a family restaurant, a coffee shop, and access to jobs. Younger adults noted a need for both child and adult daycare. Might it be possible for people to go directly from the El platform into the building as was done at the Mart and at Fields? a The transit center design contains retail space, employment offices, and a daycare center, and allows neighborhood residents to drop off and pick up children from daycare and get to and from work, all without the use of a car. 

Designed in the style called environmental expressionism, the building expresses its sustainable strategies and techniques. The thick walls made of Solarcrete—an R-35 wall sandwich made up of sprayed-concrete on both sides of seven inches of rigid insulation—are used to create deeply set window recesses. The façade is dominated by a bracketed photovoltaic cornice that generates electricity, keeps pedestrians dry, and provides shade, living up to the sustainable design mantra that every design element should provide multiple benefits. Skylights add natural light to the deepest part of the retail spaces and light shelves allow natural light to penetrate deeply from the facade. Downspouts express the path that water follows from the roof to the ground while the roof is an elegant composition of solar panels and vegetated roof. 

The Chicago codes posed barriers to both the PV cornice and the Solarcrete wall assembly, penalizing sensible innovations by adding time and cost for approvals. Despite creating a redevelopment anchor that delivered exactly what neighbors sought, reducing auto-dependence, and using 50% less energy than conventional construction the building only earned a LEED Gold Certification. This relatively low certification reflected the building-centric, location-agnostic, values of the LEED system, prior to the place-based reforms triggered by LEED-ND.


Client: Bethel New Life

Location: Chicago, IL

Year: 2004

Certification: LEED Gold Certification

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