The Problem With Wolf Point and Its 1,285 Parking Spaces

Apparel Mart loading zone
A riverwalk could be built at Kinzie Street and the Chicago River to provide a second pedestrian connection to the Wolf Point site so that Orleans Street (a few blocks southeast) isn't the only access point. While the Wolf Point developers will be paying to add traffic signals to nearby streets, they won't be helping to make this improvement to the pedestrian environment.

The Wolf Point site, just south of the Apparel Mart and Chicago Sun-Times building at the confluence of the Chicago River’s three branches, has been begging for more productive uses for decades. Momentum has been building since developers associated with the Kennedy family proposed a plan for three towers at Wolf Point in 2007, and the proposal picked up speed in 2012 as it began accumulating the various permissions needed to move forward. Last Thursday, all 21 members of the Chicago Plan Commission signed off on the project, at a hearing that revealed one of the key flaws in the way Chicago manages growth and development.

The Wolf Point development, with its 1,285 parking spaces, is expected to generate so many vehicle trips that the Chicago Department of Transportation will adjust nearby traffic signals to give more time to car traffic and less to pedestrians. Rather than guide this project in a way that makes the city more walkable and transit-accessible, the city is letting new development degrade the pedestrian environment.

The developers of the $1 billion Wolf Point project propose to build it in three phases. The first, which was approved by the CPC at the meeting, is a 510-unit apartment building with 200 parking spaces (see site plan). The second and third phases include two office towers with an additional 1085 parking spaces (485 of these are considered replacements of existing parking spaces; the zoning code requires zero new spaces and no replacements). As part of this first phase, the developers will pay for a wish list of transportation-related changes requested by CDOT, but the changes to local streets are intended mainly to accommodate a projected increase in car traffic, not make walking, biking, or transit a more attractive option for getting to Wolf Point.

View Wolf Point transportation impacts in a larger map

Among CDOT’s requests are several new traffic signals, which will be paid for by the developer, including five turn arrows that will make walking less convenient. At the intersection of Kinzie and Kingsbury, for instance, a new traffic light will replace a three-way stop, meaning pedestrians have to wait longer to cross the street.

Busy intersection
CDOT and Wolf Point developers plan to reduce the quality of the pedestrian experience at Kinzie and Kingsbury with the addition of a traffic signal.

Traffic engineer Luay Aboona of project consultant KLOA told the CPC that the Kinzie/Kinsgbury signal would improve pedestrian safety, yet Illinois Department of Transportation crash data shows only two pedestrian injuries at this location from 2005 to 2011; the point of the signal is only to reduce delays for motorists. It may not seem like a big change, but this is the type of incremental degradation that Jane Jacobs referred to when she wrote that “the erosion of cities by automobiles… proceeds as a kind of nibbling.”

Dark underpasses discourage walking
No improvements are proposed at Kinzie and Lower Orleans, even as traffic will increase. The intersection is dark and lacks a crosswalk on two of three legs.

Meanwhile, opportunities to improve the pedestrian realm are not getting attention. The Kinzie/Lower Orleans intersection is the entrance to an underground service drive for the towers and is particularly uncomfortable for pedestrians: It’s dark, provides a sidewalk on the north side only, and lacks a crosswalk for pedestrians on the south side to cross to the north side. This intersection is not slated to receive any changes as part of the project.

The changes on CDOT’s wish list for Wolf Point mainly reinforce driving as the easy choice for getting to and through downtown. Where are the changes to make it easier to walk and bike through here?

The developer’s payment to the city will speed a few improvements that are already in the works, including the city’s in-progress program to upgrade traffic signals to include countdown timers for pedestrians, and the conversion of crosswalks to the international style, with “ladder” stripes instead of just two parallel lines.

A more substantial change is the addition of a bike lane to Grand Avenue prior to construction. But this too was already planned, as part of the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. In fact, the Grand Avenue lane will initially serve not as an addition to the bike network but as a substitute for the Kinzie lane, which will be partially out of commission during Wolf Point construction. It’s not clear whether the Kinzie bike lane will be restored after construction wraps up. “However, it’s too early to definitively say what the post-construction configuration of Kinzie will be several years from now, based on the level of usage and success of the new Grand Avenue facility,” CDOT spokesperson Pete Scales told Streetsblog last month.

How much parking is too much?

One reason that CDOT feels compelled to add new turn signals is that the development contains hundreds of parking spots. Still, some planning commissioners thought more parking should be built. After the developers’ presentation, Commissioner Doris Holleb expressed her feeling that, given the low amount of east-west transit at the site, which she said was typical of downtown, “I propose that you not reduce the number of required parking spaces but [that] they conform to the pattern that has been established in downtown.”

While Holleb’s assertion of transit access at Wolf Point is not off base, her remark about maintaining the status quo is. Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein, also a member of CPC, responded by noting that CDOT asked for the lower quantity of parking. “We support the parking threshold where it is,” he said. “We’d prefer not to induce demand for parking particularly in a new development where we’d like to encourage people to move there and not utilize single occupancy vehicles but to utilize the public transportation system.”

The developers deserve some praise for building less parking than required for a residential building, and at a lower rate than current apartment buildings under construction, according to their own review. From an urban design perspective, another plus is that they are building a parking garage you can’t see, and there will be some commercial activity on the ground floor, including a restaurant facing the riverwalk.

In the end, though, the concessions from the developer either maintain the status quo or make surrounding streets a little more car-centric, failing to advance Mayor Emanuel’s goal of making Chicago a city where more people walk, bike, and ride transit instead of driving cars.

  • Anonymous

    Where will cars enter and exit the new development? On Upper Orleans street? Or on Kinzie? If on Kinzie, would that be west of the Merchandise mart or at lower Orleans street?

  • Cars can only enter from Upper Orleans Street. They will be able to enter from the north and the south as the two-way part of Orleans Street will be extended a block south to Wolf Point Plaza Drive.

    Delivery and utility vehicle access will be 100% via Kinzie (contrary to what the consulting traffic engineer said) and Lower Orleans Street.

    I have a feeling, though, that FedEx and UPS drivers won’t play by that rule.

    I’ve updated the map to reflect my answers to your question.

  • Jason Marshall

    I wonder if anyone has considered the feasibility of shifting the cycle track to lower Carrol. There are a few loading dock challenges (321 Clark for example) but if the abandoned rail tunnel were incorporated this could be a below grade run from the river on the west to Lower Michigan Ave. Extra bonus points if the abandoned RR bridge were used on the West.

  • Anonymous

    So why do they need the extra traffic measures on Kinzie? Are they expecting that much more traffic? When there is a trade show in the Merchandise mart, Lower Orleans is already overflowing with staged trucks and there are no traffic lights there now.

    Sounds to me that CDOT/CPC/the city is extracting token improvements from the developer. The city is hoping that these token improvements might silence the critics. It is kind of like the Alderman placing a stop sign at the end of your street. To him it is a low cost, but it makes him look like someone who listens to his constituents and resolves their needs.

  • C L

    “given the low amount of east-west transit at the site, which she said was typical of downtown” — does she mean that it’s hard to take public transit east and west from that location? I’m confused because it seems like it should be pretty easy to travel west (and back) from downtown because you have the L in addition to the bus lines. The site is right by the blue and green lines.

  • Adam Herstein

    Agreed. The site is just outside the Loop, and from there you can get pretty much anywhere in the city easily.

  • Adam Herstein

    Are we ever going to have a new residential development that provides ZERO parking spaces for cars? There is no reason that someone living in the most transit-accessible area of the city needs a car.

  • John

    The site plan looks pretty good.

  • C L

    Yes — if it were any other neighborhood she might have a point, but downtown is the one place where you can get to almost any neighborhood quickly. I would *love* to live within walking distance of L train lines going west, northwest, and southwest.

  • Retrofitting Carroll Avenue for any use will take a lot of construction activity.

    I would discourage people from suggesting it as a bike route because it is not within view of any destination, it is secluded, and dark. It would be as if the Lakefront Trail was in tunnels. I think people would prefer to bike in the open.

    The City of Chicago has been looking at this way for transit use, calling it the Carroll Avenue Transitway. The corridor would be for unimpeded transit use, which could be buses or trains, from the west side of the Chicago River to the Trump Tower, where it connects to Kinzie Street. This is the extent of Carroll Avenue, but the Transitway would extend east and west.

    You can find more information about the CAT at these sources:
    One, two, slide 25 of document three.

  • The buildings are extremely unimaginative, copies of other designs by the same firm.

  • Alzo

    You are assuming that people who live in the city only go about the city. This is tunnel vision. If not for the freedom of automobiles, there might be no escape from our beloved concrete jungle.

  • Adam Herstein

    Fine by me. I make an effort to visit the suburbs as infrequently as possible, and when I do, I take Metra.

  • Adam Herstein

    IMO, glass and steel is ugly. Give me an Art Deco or
    Beaux-Arts building any day.

  • According to some developers, the market can support residential-oriented parking garages. A development doesn’t have to come with its own parking garage – it could be outsourced (see John’s article about Rogers Park).

    I give the developers some credit for implementing a below-average parking-to-unit ratio of 0.4. This is below the average of apartment buildings under construction currently, according to their review.

  • BlueFairlane

    There’s an entire planet beyond the suburbs.

  • It’s easy to escape the concrete jungle without owning your own car, especially in Chicago where commuter rail and car-sharing options are plentiful. Heck, you can ride a South Shore Line train from Millennium Park right to an Indiana Dunes campground. For more ideas for accessing nature without polluting the environment, check out the archive of car-free road trips on our old site Grid Chicago: http://gridchicago.com/category/car-free-road-trips/

  • Jason Marshall

    Thanks Steven.

    I cannot seem to open the documents that you linked to but I have an anecdotal awareness of the transit plan you refer to.

    I find it interesting that you would “discourage people from suggesting” well, – anything.

    Secluded – that is a relative term. It has the potential to be secluded from traffic crossings which is ideal for a bike route and why it is being considered for the transit project you allude to.

    Dark – I think we could address this challenge with the installation of lights.

    Lakefront trail in tunnels – That would be a blessing in bad weather. “I think people would prefer to bike in the open” This might be true in Chicago – 8 months of the year. The lake front trail is a recreational facility that serves as a transportation route for many of us. Carrol Street’s primary purpose would be transportation. We could install the requisite items of whimsy to take the edge off this foreboding route :)

    Don’t take me wrong – just riffing on possibilities – keep up the good work!

  • It’s true that subterranean Lower Wacker and Michigan (if you can handle the speeding traffic) makes a nice weather-protected bike route from the Sear Tower to Streeterville.

  • Brandon

    That’s fine. Just as long as I don’t have to stop in the suburbs to get there.

  • John

    Can’t see the building design on an aerial view.

  • There are plenty of train stations and bus routes that are 3-6 blocks away, but nothing right outside the door. To reach the nearest green or blue line stop, you have to cross at least one bridge. The brown/purple line stop at the Merchandise Mart is the closest train.

    Ogilvie Station (Metra) is relatively but also requires at least one bridge crossing. Crossing the Kinzie bridge to NB Canal St. would probably be the easiest route.

  • Anonymous

    Is there any way to protest this development? Or is it already inevitable now that it’s been approved by the CPC?

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