Crain’s Chicago Business: ELPC’s Learner Says North Lake Shore Drive Design Should Have More Transit, Less Road

Wow! Here’s What North Lake Shore Drive Could Look Like
By Greg Hinz

After a couple of years of quiet work, city and state transportation planners are moving into a more public phase of how to rebuild North Lake Shore Drive, and though some fairly exotic concepts have been eliminated—such as bus tunnels under the lake and a light-rail line in the median strip—what’s left is eye-catching.

You might even say that Daniel Burnham-style big dreaming is back. (Any actual construction is still at least several years away, but there sure is a lot to talk about.)

The centerpiece of an “initial range of alternatives” that will be laid out in a hearing at DePaul University this afternoon are plans to expand and rebuild the Oak Street Beach area into a major new park.

Using lakefill, the beach would be reconfigured and moved hundreds of feet to the northeast. To the west of the beach would be an expansive new park running more than a mile past North Avenue, bisected by the new drive. Two versions of the plan feature a formal pedestrian promenade from the nearby Streeterville neighborhood to the beach, or a combined entrance for those on foot and on bicycles. Under either scenario, the current at-grade Chicago Avenue entrance to the drive would be replaced with an overpass, eliminating a stoplight that slows traffic.

The proposals—developed by the state and city departments of transportation, in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—eliminate as unrealistic the possibility of constructing a light-rail line alongside or in the center of the highway, or building express tunnels and/or causeways under the lakeshore or in Lincoln Park. Also eliminated is doing nothing except for routine maintenance. Officials say that’s inadequate for a roadway that’s now more than 80 years old and suffers on average three car crashes a day.

Remaining on the table are either expanding or shrinking the drive, likely with some lanes set aside for buses or other high-occupancy vehicles.

There’s a lot there, so best to look at the pictures yourself to get an idea. (You can zoom in on some of the larger renderings of the Oak Street Beach proposal here and here.)

If you want to talk to the officials involved and express an opinion, the full concept plan will be reviewed in a meeting at DePaul University’s Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield, from 3 to 7 p.m. this evening. Or comments can be posted here.

Officials hope to settle on a final concept by 2020. Then they can try to figure out how to pay for it. No cost estimates are available at the moment, nor are details on how difficult legally it will be to build landfill into Lake Michigan.

The city also released renderings of other, generally smaller changes to parts of the lakefront, including possible changes around LaSalle Drive, Lake Shore Drive at Fullerton Avenue, the bike path near Belmont Harbor and other areas around the drive. You can see before-and-after renderings of those proposals below.

Update, 2:30 p.m.—Some reaction is coming in to the idea floated by the transit planners, most of it positive.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, said in an email that, aesthetically, “The conceptual plan is beautiful. The proposed open space and new pedestrian and bike paths would be a major enhancement to our lakefront . . . this is an incredibly rare opportunity for any city—to be able to build a massive swath of new parks and beachfront while also improving a long-neglected arterial highway.”

Reilly also praised the plan’s proposal to somewhat straighten out the “Oak Street Curve” that slows traffic and causes some accidents, but underlined the obvious question: How much will it cost, and where will the money come from? “Pardon the pun, but the project budget really is where the rubber meets the road for this proposal.”

Also laudatory is the Metropolitan Planning Council.

“The proposed alternatives for Lake Shore Drive show that the city is thinking big,” Audrey Wennink, the group’s transportation director, said in a statement. “Lake Michigan is our city’s crown jewel, and this project will transform how people relate to the waterfront on the North Side. Therefore, it is critical that the plan chosen prioritize connections between neighborhoods and the lakefront, increase green space and improve transit, biking and walking.”

Somewhat more guarded was Environmental Law & Policy Center chief Howard Learner.

Adding more parkland is a no-brainer for the crowded North Side, he said. But Learner would like to see more transit and less road in the design. “The goal here should be a parkway through the park, not a highway next to the lake.”

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