The Chicago Transit Authority’s finances aren’t in much better shape than those of our beloved and hated MTA. The Windy City’s own transit system doesn’t have a fully funded capital plan, and the agency recently had to go hat in hand to Springfield for permission to issue bonds that will help balance the budget in the short term. Yet, it recently enjoyed a first of sorts. For a cost of $0 to the CTA, the North/Clybourn station in the city’s Near North Side area received a full overhaul. A private partner picked up the $4 million tab.
That private partner, you see, had an economic interest in sprucing up the neighborhood. To much fanfare, Apple recently opened a new store in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and hammered out a deal last year with the CTA that mirrored a sponsorship agreement. In exchange for the advertising space inside the station, a right of first refusal should the CTA sell the naming rights and use of a nearby bus depot, Apple paid for the station renovation.
Mary Schmich, news columnist for the Chicago Tribune, went underground on the day of the opening last week and explores what $4 million buys these days. She writes:
Outside, the station has clean new brick, big new windows and a sleek new look, partly 1940s and entirely 2010. The inside isn’t stylish, but it’s improved. Someone has scrubbed the red concrete floors, brushed red paint on the old railings, tried to wipe the grime from the escalator stairs. And the Apple name is everywhere, except out front.
From the moment you push through the turnstile, Apple ads beam at you, as bright as searchlights. Down in the tunnel, all the other ads are gone. Apple expressed interest in calling it the Apple Red Line stop. The CTA, which is exploring the possibility of selling naming rights to its stations, said Apple would get the right of first refusal for this one.
Even if you like Apple products, Apple’s master-of-the-universe attitude can be annoying. And the branding of everything can feel like mind control. But Apple has created a unique space in Chicago: handsome, communal, connected to the city, a space that makes public transportation attractive. The CTA may as well profit from the inevitable. Sell Apple the naming rights, for a big chunk of change. People are going to call it the Apple stop anyway.
As is obvious from the two photos atop this post, the station both needed and benefited from this rehab project. The outside — seen at the bottom of this IFOAppleStore.com post — appeared dilapidated with peeling paint and boarded-up windows. It now has a fresh interior, and the exterior has been completely overhauled. This is a subway station that screams for attention.
Now, not everyone is as in love with the station as Schmich is. Kevin O’Neill, a writer with Chicago Now’s CTA Tattler site, bemoans the bright lights that emanate from Apple’s advertising. But by and large, reviews have been favorable, and Chicago-based transit riders are urging the CTA to explore more public-private station-based partnerships.
All of this leads me to the same question I had when the project was first announced almost a year ago: When will the MTA hop on board with these types of partnerships? It’s true that the authority will append the Barclays Center name to the Atlantic/Pacific subway stop when the Nets’ new arena opens, and it’s true that Forest City Ratner is funding some transportation upgrades to that busy Brooklyn hub. But Ratner purchased the Vanderbilt Yards air rights well under market value. The least he could do is fund some transit upgrades.
For New York, a partnership of this magnitude would make sense along Manhattan’s Far West Side. As the 7 line extension inches forward — and crawls past 41st St. and 10th Ave. without a stop — real estate developers are going to benefit. Walking around the area reveals numerous new developments waiting for tenants, and easy transit access will only increase the value of these apartments. If the MTA can work out a deal with developers who stand to benefit from increased transit accessibility, our city’s cash-strapped authority could supply that better service.
As the authority struggles to stay afloat and struggles to realize new revenue streams, these partnerships may just be an integral part of transit development over the next few decades.