Lincoln Square Merchants Who Fear Road Diet Already Benefit From One

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Barba Yianni's sidewalk cafe is a relaxing spot because there is no speeding traffic nearby, thanks to the Lincoln Avenue road diet. Photo by John Greenfield.

Business owners in Lincoln Square are whining that the upcoming Lawrence Avenue streetscape, which involves removing travel lanes, will cause traffic jams and hurt sales. The irony is, they’re currently reaping the benefits of a longstanding road diet on Lincoln Avenue. The new project will transform Lawrence between Clark Street and Western Avenue from it’s current status as a four-lane speedway with narrow sidewalks to a safer, more pleasant, more economically viable corridor.

The streetscape involves a “four-to-three conversion”: through lanes will be eliminated in each direction and replaced with dedicated left-turn lanes and bikes lanes – currently there are only shared-lane markings on this stretch. Sidewalks will be widened from nine feet to twelve feet, and high-visibility crosswalks, pedestrian refuge isalnds, and curb bump-outs will make it easier to cross the street.

Chicago Department of Transportation traffic studies indicate that the changes won’t worsen congestion. Instead, the lane removal will discourage speeding, and the turn bays will keep turning vehicles from blocking through traffic. CDOT is also adding longer green signal times on Lawrence and a left-turn arrow at Damen Avenue to facilitate traffic flow.

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CDOT rendering of the Lawrence Avenue Streetscape.

In addition to creating safer conditions for walking, biking and driving, the road diet will encourage people to spend their money at shops and restaurants along Lawrence. It will make this stretch, currently a bleak, car-dominated roadway, much more appealing to pedestrians and cyclists, and by slowing down motorized traffic it will make it more likely drivers will notice the storefronts. The wider sidewalks will also allow restaurants to have sidewalk cafes, which will increase their capacity and make the strip more lively.

Last month at a meeting between CDOT staff and local merchants to discuss the streetscape, Carol Himmel, co-owner of Himmel’s restaurant, 2251 West Lawrence, said she’s excited about being able to add a café, according to a DNA write-up. This will be a boon for her bottom line because outdoor seating is crucial for attracting customers during Chicago’s rare warm-weather months.

However, the DNA piece quoted twice as many local merchants wringing their hands that the road diet will jam traffic on Lawrence and sap their customer base. “I’m not excited. I think they’re going to have terrible problems with traffic,” said Louise Rohr, who owns of Fine Wine Brokers, 4621 N. Lincoln Ave.

“I’m concerned about Lawrence already as it is,” said Anas Ihmoud, who manages the Greek restaurant Barba Yianni, 4761 N. Lincoln Ave. “People will avoid Lawrence and that will mean less exposure to Lincoln Square. Lincoln Square is becoming a destination. We’ve created such a brand for people to come, but is it accessible?”

Yes, Mr. Inmoud, Lincoln Square is a shopping, dining and nightlife destination, and you know what has been one of the biggest factors in making it one? A road diet.

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Giddings Plaza. Photo by John Greenfield.

The neighborhood’s Lincoln Avenue business strip is one of the most vibrant pedestrian retail districts in town because it has low-speed car traffic, lots of foot traffic and plenty of sidewalk cafes. This is especially true on the semi-pedestrianized block of Lincoln between Lawrence and Leland, bisected by lovely Giddings Plaza, the products of a road diet and a street closure.

In the late 1970’s the city took the bold step of converting this stretch of Lincoln into a one-way street and changing the parallel parking to angled spaces, which narrowed the street and slowed cars. Raised crosswalks at Giddings double as speed bumps, further calming traffic. The adjacent block of Giddings was cul-de-sac-ed to create the plaza, and a beautiful fountain and a raised performance space were later added, creating an urban oasis that is regularly filled with adults relaxing and children playing.

Back when the changes were made, merchants griped about losing two-way traffic, but nowadays they should understand that this forward-thinking street design is a big part of what draws people to Lincoln Square. Barba Yianni has an excellent location on the semi-pedestrianized block. Surely Inmoud’s customers wouldn’t enjoy munching stuffed grape leaves and moussaka in his sidewalk café as much if there was car traffic whizzing right by them.

Lincoln Avenue businesspeople like Rohr and Inmoud should stop kvetching about the Lawrence Avenue road diet hurting commerce in the neighborhood, when their own experience suggests the opposite will be true. And they should be happy their colleagues on Lawrence will soon enjoy the same benefits of mellow traffic and a people-friendly street, since this will make Lincoln Square even more of a destination.

  • Anonymous

    [read “My competitors on Lawrence will now gain the same advantages accruing to my business on Lincoln.”]

  • Right. I think the manager of Barba Yianni may be worried about the owner of Himmel’s, just around the corner, getting her own sidewalk cafe and taking some of his business!

  • Endless Mike

    Ridiculous opinions. I’m sure Clark St and Wicker Park with their slow car traffic are terrible places to own a business. There’s plenty of places in the city with empty streets and fast free-flowing traffic. What they are missing are businesses and often a lot a residents. Cities need to look at how “congestion” needs to be addresses, because a lot of neighborhoods with loads of street parking and no congestion aren’t extremely viable places to start a business

  • Anonymous

    These small business people should be more concerned about Rahm’s deal to bring back free Sunday parking. Several years ago, I dated a guy who lived about Selmarie. He’d park his car on Lincoln on Saturday evening, not moving it until Monday morning.

    My problem is that the road diet will push even more drivers onto the side streets. Especially during commute hours, they’re nuts. Cars just roll through stop signs, rarely yielding to pedestrians. Ainslie, from Western to Damen, is particularly bad, especially at Leavitt. My elderly mother and a small child were nearly hit at Leavitt and Giddings when a driver, speeding down Giddings to avoid Lawrence, failed to even slow, let alone stop, for the stop sign. With all the one-way streets, drivers rarely bother to look for pedestrians, even in the crosswalk. While in the middle of the crosswalk, I’ve had cars weave around me rather than yield.

  • Brian

    Slower travel speeds will lead to more road rage. Drivers aggravated and slowing them down even more isn’t going to make them happy. I would expect road rage incidents to skyrocket in Chicago if Gabes plan gains too much traction. Lets hope he’s outta here soon.

  • CL

    No — I’m all about driving, but road diets are awesome. Road rage is much worse when there are more lanes, because aggressive drivers swerve around trying to get ahead of everyone. And you have cyclists taking the lane because individual lanes are too narrow for both a car and a bike. After the road diet, aggressive drivers are stuck behind you whether they like it or not, and cyclists are safely out of the way in their own lane. It’s great.

  • Hart Noecker

    Hopefully they’ll get so angry that they’ll realize what a ridiculous thing driving a car around a city is and give up this polluting past time altogether.

  • exactly!

  • This is one of my favorite places to be in the city. Getting an ice cream and sitting in the plaza is a great part of summer in this area. I can’t imagine it’d be the same if the street were a two-way thoroughfare. I don’t even feel this far from cars when I’m sitting in Lincoln Park.
    I walk to Lincoln Square at least once a day with my dog and, without hard evidence, it looks like most of the people around are coming from houses in the neighborhood and aren’t concerned with parking. I wish we had more places like this in Chicago.

  • Anonymous

    I live two blocks away from the Square, and this is a terrible comparison. First, the narrowed part of Lincoln Ave. is easily compensated by a four-lane arterial road, Western Ave. Second, Lincoln Ave. is not an arterial road, as Lawrence Ave. is. Third, Lawrence is not only an arterial road, the next E-W arterial road that provides traffic from LSD to the expressway north of Lawrence is Peterson, a mile north. Montrose does as well, but it is not a four-lane arterial road at any point.

    Finally, the 4700 block of Lincoln Ave. was once a heavy commercial strip that had only fallen into decline with the neighborhood. The traffic calming coincided with rapid gentrification that I’d argue had more to do with Brown Line access than traffic calming, which is probably more the cause of the strips’s improvement. The Lawrence Ave. strip has no such commercial history, nor is there any evidence that the residential density would support increased commercial activity – note the difficulty businesses between 4600 and 5000 N. Damen have with growth.

    In five years we’ll have a slower, less convenient Lawrence Ave., and lots of empty shops in fancy five-story buildings. First level of empty commercial, four stories above of pricy condos.

  • Anonymous

    Foster is the next E-W arterial north, a lot closer than Peterson.

    I have no idea what you’re talking about with the Brown Line since the Western stop has been there since 1907, nothing changed there to cause gentrification.

  • Yes, Lawrence will be slower, in a good way. CDOT’s traffic studies show that the ADT on the street is low enough that they can remove lanes without significantly worsening congestion during peak hours, partly because there will no longer be an issue of left-turning cars blocking through traffic.

    Currently there is too much capacity on Lawrence on this stretch, which encourages people to speed during non-peak hours, and the four lanes of car traffic means there are narrow sidewalks, long pedestrian crossing distances, and no bike lanes. After we create a street that people will actually want to walk, bike and hang out on, and make room for sidewalk cafes, there’s no reason the prosperity on Lincoln shouldn’t spill over to Lawrence.

    You seem to be contradicting yourself here. First you’re saying Lawrence doesn’t have the residential density to support more retail, but then you say there will soon be lots of five-story condo buildings there, living above vacant storefronts. Why wouldn’t all those hypothetical condo dwellers want to shop and dine downstairs on a pleasant, walkable Lawrence Avenue? Livable streets, dense housing and thriving retail go hand-in-hand.

  • Please see my comment above on why slowing down (but not jamming) traffic on Lawrence is a good thing. If you want to live in a congestion-free city, I hear Detroit is a driver’s paradise.

  • I agree with you completely CL! Except the “I’m all about driving” part.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right. I forgot about Foster. But on the Brown Line: Take look at ridership rates over the years. In the 70’s and 80’s ridership dipped in a big way, esp on the Brown Line. Then, in the late 90’s it started back up as whites were attracted back to the city. Neighborhoods with the most growth were along the Brown and Blue Lines with older housing stock. Lakeview, Northcenter, Lincoln Square, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square. El ridership is still not where it was in the 1940’s, but it is continuing to climb, especially on the Brown Line.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not contradicting myself. It’s a matter of degrees. Take a look at the census numbers: Since the 1950’s, Lincoln Square is less dense by tens of thousands of people. Even 60 years ago, when there were many more consumers per square mile, Lawrence was not a commercial destination. Adding a couple hundred people to Lawrence will not change that fact. And if it does change, it will gravitate to existing struggling commercial areas with higher foot traffic, like Damen between Lawrence and the L stop.

    There simply is not enough demand for more commercial and nobody has shown empirically otherwise.

  • Logan Square Driver

    You hit the nail on the head, Brian! “Road Rage” is really a misnomer. It should be called “Lack-Of-Road Rage” because it is caused by not having enough road space! The only cure for road rage is more roads! Let’s get to work building more roads, not taking it away. Just thinking about having to drive less than 40mph down Lawrence is enraging me RIGHT NOW! Excuse my while I go look at some asphalt to calm myself down.

  • Anonymous

    Apparently Mariano’s did not get your message about Lawrence and the surrounding neighborhood lacking the density required for commercial development.They are building an upscale supermarket near a brand new Ravenswood station, which over time has become the busiest stop on the UP-N.

  • Adam Herstein

    The only thing worse than a NIMBY is an ironic NIMBY.

  • Adam Herstein

    Hey, you know what’s better than increased traffic flow? Increased safety for all.

  • Adam Herstein

    Will the train station have direct access to the grocery store? Because that would be awesome.

  • Adam Herstein

    I hear this argument all the time. If you can’t handle driving a bit slower without getting into a fit of rage, then perhaps you should seek psychiatric help. In reality, this does not happen. Drivers will find other streets to drive down or take other modes of transportation. Or perhaps, Lawrence will just be at capacity instead of far under. As John stated, Lawrence is already too wide for the amount of traffic it has.

  • Adam Herstein

    No room for protected bike lanes?

  • Sorry, LSD. I know that road diets are very upsetting for you.

  • CL

    i think a lot of drivers do get quite mad about being forced to drive slower than they want to (I sense this when they tailgate aggressively and then pull up beside me at the intersection so that they can hit the gas and pass me when the light changes) — but the vast majority will not cross the line to an actual road rage incident, such as intentionally hitting someone or pulling out a weapon. So road diets force those people to behave, more or less.

  • Anonymous

    No. the train station will be south of Lawrence. The store is on the north side.

    The original plan called for the station to be north of Lawrence, in which case there would have been a direct access to the Grocery store.That got nixed due to concerns from residents on Ravenswood about locomotive noise.

  • Guest

    Well, I live 3 blocks away from the square and don’t agree with your assessment.

    To begin with, there are still a decent number of retail establishments along Lawrence so to claim it has never been a commercial area doesn’t ring true. They may not be upscale, and there are vacancies, but as you point out, traffic calming assisted Lincoln Ave in its rebound after having “fallen into decline with the neighborhood”, why is it a stretch to imagine the same can happen with Lawrence?

    More to the article’s point, the business along that stretch of Lincoln stand to gain just as much from the overhaul as businesses on Lawrence. We cross Lawrence every time we go the square and it is a noisy, loud, unpleasant, unsafe-feeling place to be – a true barrier that discourages residents north of Lawrence from patronizing businesses south of it. Making Lawrence more pleasant to walk along (and cross!) will also boost commercial traffic for the very businesses (Barba Yianni) who oppose the change.

  • Scotto

    This whole Logan Square Driver identity is ironic/sarcastic right? With the blog and everything? Or is there someone actually this out of touch with the times.

  • Scott Sanderson

    I completely agree. I used to be 100% bike and transit, but when my daughter was born I had to start driving sometimes. I much prefer calm streets where cyclists have their own place and I don’t have to worry about aggressive drivers.

    I cannot relate to road rage at all. Why do some people get so angry fighting over what usually amount to one or two car lengths of space? Is like, dude, take a deep breath and turn on NPR, you’re going to get where you are going.

  • One thing I forgot to mention is that Lawrence west of the river, just a few blocks from the road diet site, has dense, incredibly diverse, pedestrian-oriented retail. If you haven’t checked out this strip in Albany Park, it’s an awesome melting pot of Latin American, Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, etc., etc., shops, restaurants, bakeries and cafes – highly recommended for a stroll: http://votewithyourfeetchicago.blogspot.com/2010/12/walking-lawrence-avenue.html

    What’s one reason this strip is bustling while Lawrence from Western to Clark is relatively dead? There are only two lanes of traffic here, traffic speeds are slow, and there are bike lanes, making a better environment for walking, biking and browsing by car.

  • Here’s my take on Logan Square Driver: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/05/07/meet-logan-square-driver-the-steven-colbert-of-the-safe-streets-movement/

    Either that, or LSD is someone who has been traumatized by a bad LSD trip, on drugs and/or Lake Shore Drive.

  • Per Bill Higgins, assistant to 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar:
    “Unfortunately not – regular bike lanes. Not enough width to both widen
    sidewalks and have protected or buffered lanes. We had CDOT double check, but pedestrian safety and the ability to add trees (as well as width for sidewalk cafes) required wider sidewalks. The marked bike lanes will be consistent with the rest of Lawrence.”

    Makes sense to me, and still a massive improvement over the staus quo: sharrows on a four-lane dragstrip.

  • Adam Herstein

    Agreed. Just curious why PBLs weren’t in the plan.

  • Anonymous

    We don’t have enough four-lane arterials in the city.

  • The only thing worse than an ironic NIMBY (see above) is a sarcastic sustainable transportation advocate. Just kidding, I completely endorse your sarcasm.

  • walkathon

    The probability that drivers will take streets like Ainsle, Sunnyside, and others rather than a slower Lawrence is what concerns me as well. I’d rather aggressive drivers who expect to move fast stay on Lawrence than create an incentive to try alternate routes through the area. The idea that drivers shouldn’t be recklessly aggressive just isn’t reality. They ARE aggressive, so I think they should be segregated as much as possible, for reforming them is only going to happen according to a SLOW change in social mores, if it happens at all.

    Another thing that, as someone who lives two blocks from Lawrence and Leavitt, I think needs to be emphasized is that this stretch of Lawrence will not be a friendly place to walk for the foreseeable future even with the new infrastructure. Almost every business or institution on this stretch, including the new Mariano’s and LA Fitness, will cater to customers who drive. As a result, their buildings are almost all fronted by parking, which means cars intersect with sidewalks on almost every block. Even if a business I really want to patronize happens to be on Lawrence, I’m going to take side streets as far as I can, only turning onto Lawrence at the end of the trip. I really can’t imagine most families would prefer walking along Lawrence, dodging cars every block, to get to their favorite sidewalk cafe, when they can walk the same distance to Lincoln, Damen or another more human scale street.

  • Anonymous

    and I’ll re-post my comment here:

    Reminds me of Streetfilms’ Veronica Moss: http://www.streetfilms.org/meet-veronica-moss-auto-lobbyist/

  • anditron

    Slight correction to your comment… If you can’t handle driving the speed limit without getting into a fit of rage… :)

  • anditron

    more bikes! After all, it’s proven that the more bike friendly an area is, the more foot traffic they’re apt to get. :)

  • Cristian

    im Sorry but lawrence and kedzie area is horrible with illegal shops and dirty restaurants and a strip of road that is always backed up and congested, Naybe you need to get out to Albany park more often

  • Cristian

    Amen Vouchey and greenfeld need to go back to the burbs with their alderman where they belong. Marianos isn’t moving to Lincoln square because they feel like their isn’t enough people or business in the area and this project to so call beautify Lawrence is only to help out Mariano look like a more upscale store.

  • Have you actually been there? I go down to what my friend calls “Schwarma Row” all the time, and that doesn’t sound familiar to me in the least.

  • I-te

    Last friday it took forever to head west from Damen Ave. Both Wilson and Lawrence backed up all the way to Damen and traffic moving slower than walking speed. CDOT has created a traffic nightmare in Lincoln Square. I will stay away from Lincoln Square during rush hour from now on.

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