Tied to the Tracks | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Tied to the Tracks

Businesses along the Brown Line brace for a CTA land grab.

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In the last few years Darren Brown has dodged and darted around lots of obstacles that might have destroyed the little coffee shop he runs under the Ravenswood el stop at Montrose. But even the new Starbucks down the street wasn't as big a threat as the CTA. More precisely, the CTA's proposal to expand the waiting platforms at stops all along the Brown Line, an ambitious plan that will clear about 80 pieces of property from Kimball to Chicago Avenue--including Brown's coffee shop, Beans & Bagels.

"It's hard enough to run a small business without the CTA trying to take your property," says Brown, who gets up every morning at five to pick up bagels from the New York Bagel & Bialy outlet in Skokie. "I'm getting a hard lesson in the way eminent domain works."

Ironically, Brown's little shop is the sort of success story CTA officials cite when they brag about how small businesses can flourish in the shadow of the el. He opened it there in December 1994, in part because the location guaranteed a steady stream of commuters dashing to make the train. "I opened it with William, my older brother," says Brown, who came to Chicago from Detroit in the early 90s. "He wanted to open a coffee shop, and I wanted to open a bagel shop. So we came up with the concept of Beans & Bagels."

They thought the storefront at 1812 W. Montrose, just east of the el-stop entrance, was ideal. It had big windows on the Montrose side and a grill in the back. The rent was reasonable, the landlord was gracious, and the area was booming. "We got here just after it started doing better," says Brown. "We heard stories about gangbangers and stuff, but we never saw that. It's been a great neighborhood for us."

The wave of gentrification has continued, as more young professionals move north and west from Lakeview and Lincoln Park and the old industrial buildings along Ravenswood fill with new high-tech operations. The coffee shop is a magnet for many of these people, drawing commuters, entrepreneurs, housewives, and teens heading home from school. To accommodate them, Brown, who bought out his brother and started running the place on his own a few years back, expanded his menu to include soups and grilled sandwiches and blended fruit drinks.

Brown's a meat-and-potatoes sort of guy, a die-hard sports fan who roots for Detroit teams and participates in fantasy football leagues. His employees are an eclectic bunch of college students who tend toward tattoos, piercings, and buzz cuts and have other pursuits--Steve Albertson is a documentary filmmaker, Meghan Galbraith, the manager, plays guitar in a rock band. Brown can't afford to pay them much in wages or benefits, but they say he makes up for it by giving them free food and letting them wash their clothes in the washing machine in the basement.

The employees have helped draw in and keep customers from the neighborhood. "Most of us live in apartments right around here," says Lucia Rios, who works the counter and is writing a book. "It's like a small town--it's a real community. Wherever we go it seems like we see people that we know."

The employees were worried when the Starbucks opened about a year ago, but it hasn't hurt business much, in part because their customers are so loyal and in part because Brown's not afraid to play the guilt card.

"I can't tell you how much I love that place--I'm there almost every day," says Susan Feurzeig, who teaches English at DePaul University. "They're always doing things for the community. Steve shows movies there--good classics too. They give out coffee to firefighters when they're battling fires. One time Darren even followed me out of the store because he thought there was a suspicious-looking character who was going to take the change he had just given me."

But having said all that, Feurzeig confesses that one day not so long ago she stopped in at a Starbucks. "I wanted to sit for a while to grade some papers," she says. "Listen, it wasn't even the one on Montrose--it was the one at Wilson and Lincoln. Well, guess what? Darren later told me, 'I saw you.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'I saw you in that Starbucks.' I said, 'But I was grading papers.' He said, 'You can grade papers here.'"

Feurzeig says she thought Beans & Bagels would become one of those community institutions that are around for decades. But last month Brown got word that its time might be limited. "I'd been hearing different things from different people," he says. "You know, rumors about the CTA expanding the platform. I called my landlord, and he told me that it was true." According to Brown, CTA officials had told his landlord that they planned to demolish the building where Beans & Bagels--as well as a Chinese restaurant and a currency exchange--is located.

In early December, Brown was invited to meet with CTA officials at 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter's office. He says the officials were trying to be conciliatory. "They explained that they were going to tear down the current station and build a new one across the street." And he says they offered to build him a new shop under the tracks on the north side of Montrose, where the station now is.

CTA officials say they have no choice but to extend the platforms on the Brown Line, because ridership is increasing--up about 8 percent since 1997. "The wait is long, particularly during the morning commute," says Maria Toscano, a CTA spokeswoman. "We need to extend the platforms to accommodate eight-car trains and alleviate some of the overcrowding. We're very happy and excited about our increase in ridership. It's a good trend, and we want to see it continue." Toscano says the CTA can't just add more trains on the line: "We're already running trains every four minutes during the morning-hour rush. It wouldn't be practical to run any more."

Brown was outraged by the plan. "I thought, 'How can they simply destroy a business I've worked so hard to build?'" And he's skeptical of the CTA's promises to relocate him. "I have to see the details," he says. "They're talking about putting me right next door to where I am now. In other words, I would be across the street from the entrance [to the el], not next to it."

He points out that the law is murky when it comes to the rights of renters in eminent domain cases. Property owners have to be compensated for any loss of property, so the CTA will have to pay his landlord fair market value for his property. It's not clear what a business owner who rents that property is entitled to, if anything. "It's something I'm talking about with my lawyer," says Brown.

The construction plan quickly became a big topic of conversation in the coffee shop. "I still don't understand why they can't just run more trains," says Feurzeig. "It won't even do much to alleviate the overcrowding now because the CTA says they won't even start the project for another two or three years."

Feurzeig and other customers have sent letters to the CTA, pleading with officials to save the coffee shop. "A petition was circulated signed by 500 customers," says Brown. "That really moved me to know that they cared so much."

In response, CTA officials say that they've held several meetings on the construction plan and that there's no reason to panic. No plans have been finalized. The federal government hasn't even approved funding. "Nothing is written in stone on this," says Toscano.

Still, CTA officials have made it clear that eminent domain gives them the right to invoke a greater good--namely, meeting the needs of morning commuters--in such cases. And there will be a lot of such cases. Officials estimate they'll have to deal with 80 pieces of property if they expand all the platforms from Chicago Avenue to Kimball.

The Fullerton stop might provoke a nasty battle with DePaul University, which owns the adjoining property. Other property owners say they may fight the expansion in court. "I run a business that can't easily be moved, no matter what they say," says one tavern owner. "How can they guarantee that they can get me another liquor license in this area? Liquor licenses are not easy to obtain."

However things shake out, many business owners say they're now operating under a cloud. "We can't really sell our businesses if we want to," says Brown. "Who would buy a business that the CTA says it's going to destroy? We can't really get a loan to fix it up or expand or whatever. What bank would approve it under these circumstances? I've got loans to repay. I've got employees who depend on me. I love this place. There's got to be a better way to do this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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