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Lake Shore Drive plans aim for big-picture, not patchwork approach

A motorcycle passes through North Avenue Bridge underpass Lake Shore Drive where concrete fell off bridge onroad. Sun Times library

A motorcycle passes through the North Avenue Bridge underpass at Lake Shore Drive where concrete fell off the bridge and onto the road. Sun Times library

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Updated: July 2, 2014 6:03AM



Daniel Burnham envisioned a “quiet” Lake Shore Drive.

But the 15-mile plus stretch of road, bike and pedestrian paths is far from hushed some 100 years later.

North Lake Shore Drive carries as many as 970 CTA buses with 69,000 passengers a day, in addition to the 160,000 cars that pass through daily. And the Lakefront Trail, an often dangerous place during rush hour and weekends, is used by as many as 31,000 people daily on peak summer days.

Many of Lake Shore Drive’s pedestrian tunnels and bridges, used to get walkers and cyclists to the lakefront path, were built in 1930 and meant to last just 30 years. Nine of them, including the Oak Street and North Avenue overpasses, are considered “functionally obsolete.” The crumbling infrastructure is 54 years past its expiration date.

But a study by the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Park District, to be completed in 2018, has started to address an overhaul of the seven-mile stretch of North Lake Shore Drive. Part of the “Redefine the Drive” study was released in March and seeks to focus on a long-term plan to revitalize many of the dilapidated and unsafe areas of the drive. And now is the time for the public — those who walk, run, bike or drive Lake Shore Drive and its paths — to make their voices heard.

Through a mapping application on northlakeshoredrive.org, users can pinpoint problem areas and write comments. Project leaders will comb through those suggestions to come up with a final plan. There is no deadline listed for comments, and there will be a public meeting at some point this year, according to the website.

Nothing is set in stone. The study is just the start of proposed plans that depend on federal money and other funding.

Chrissy Mancini Nichols, director of the Metropolitan Planning Council, and her group comprise a coalition of 15 organizations, including the state and city transportation departments, which created the vision for the study. The 22-page study focuses on dangerous areas of the drive, including ramps and stretches that have the most crashes, as well as the roadway’s worst bottlenecks.

But Nichols says some issues need a bit more attention, like creating safer rides for bicyclists and pedestrians, and creating more green space. She also recommends looking into a bus-only lane.

“Certainly the ‘S’ curve [at Oak Street], the road has reached the end of its useful life. There are a lot of safety issues. I think IDOT may look at extending the seawall out 100 feet. But if they can extend it 300 feet, they could have more parkland and still have enough land for the drive,” Nichols said.

Nichols said she and her organization are concerned the plan may place too much emphasis on the road instead of the trail and green park area.

“We actually have concern because it was very focused on automobiles and only had a couple of transit and park and trail user information. So we asked them if they could look at things like measuring the increase in transit ridership and using that as a measurement to build whatever they can,” Nichols said. “We’re supposed to double transit ridership by 2040, so any project should be aimed at doing that.”

Metropolitan Planning Council projections show a 20 percent increase in transit ridership and a 19 percent bump in trail users, but just a 4 percent increase in vehicle traffic.

“Daniel Burnham said it should be a boulevard within a park. We have gotten way away from that. Right now it’s like a highway.”

‘He envisioned something much quieter’

Transportation groups and planners cite the famed architect and planner often in plans. But what would Burnham think of today’s Lake Shore Drive?

Burnham didn’t have a lakefront drive in the plan when he created Lake Shore Drive, according to Chicago History Museum archivist Peter Alter. Between 1900 and 1905 it was a just a carriage-way at the lake’s edge. Chicagoans took leisure walks or rode in carriages along the shore.

“He did not have in mind a bustling thoroughfare the way it is today. That’s not in keeping with his 1909 plan,” Alter said. “That’s not to say he wanted Chicago to be a quiet place. That’s not the case. He thought of Congress [Parkway] being a main thoroughfare, a traffic highway that eventually became the Eisenhower Expressway. But he didn’t have the same vision for what we call Lake Shore Drive.”

Burnham envisioned a quiet stretch of road to enjoy the water, the beaches and nature, Alter said, “not a way to get from 79th Street to Howard.”

‘Lake Shore Island’

Not all Chicagoans are awaiting a grand plan to get the wheels rolling on a revitalized Lake Shore Drive.

Mike Toolis, CEO of architectural design firm VOA Associates Inc., along with Streeterville community members have created their own design to correct the Oak Street ‘S’ Curve and its surrounding areas.

Toolis and the group, the Prepared for Lakeshore Improvement Committee, created a plan about seven years ago, and it’s gaining some steam now, he said.

The most dramatic part of the plan includes “relaxing” the ‘S’ curve by submerging Lake Shore Drive and extending green space to Lake Michigan. It would also create a breakwater island across from Oak Street Beach to tide the waves. This would in turn create more of a beach at Oak Street Beach. In total, it would add 1.2 miles of additional shoreline and 60 acres of parkland.

Toolis, too, cites Burnham’s plan as inspiration.

“If you look at one of the first drawings of Lake Shore Drive, you can see all of these little islands that he was proposing. It also had a lot of green space along the water’s edge. It was really that piece that we were trying to pick up — just the island and more green space,” Toolis said.

Toolis said he was asked last week by IDOT to submit the plan formally for consideration.

“It’s too early to worry about the money. This has to go through a long process, but if we can get parts of this plan going, we’ll be very happy. And I think people will stretch to try and make this happen.”

Email: tsfondeles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @TinaSfon



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