Woonerfs Are Great, But Lincoln Park Deserves a Car-Free Kenmore

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Rendering of the proposed Kenmore woonerf by Antunovich Associates.

Why do some people think Edgewater deserves to have a tranquil, car-free block of Kenmore Avenue running through its local college campus but Lincoln Park doesn’t?

Loyola University is moving forward with its plan to build a completely pedestrianized street on the 6300 block of North Kenmore, which is almost totally surrounded by Loyola-owned buildings. The block should be officially designated as car-free in early November, with construction of the plaza beginning soon afterwards and ending in spring or summer of next year. The project, estimated to cost the university $3.5 million in construction costs plus $330,000 for the purchase of the street, will include new green space, planters, trees, seating and a bike path.

When Loyola floated the idea of pedestrianizing the block, there was opposition from some neighbors, who objected to the elimination of 52 free parking spaces. They were also upset about losing an alternative route to busy Sheridan Road, arguing that traffic from Kenmore would be diverted onto Sheridan, other side streets and alleys.

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Rendering of the Loyola pedestrianized street.

But at the thirteenth community meeting held on the proposal, residents in attendance voted 40 to 28 in favor of the closure. They realized that the value of having a new, worry-free space for students and neighbors to relax, away from the sight, sound, smell and danger of automobiles, was worth drivers having to make a few adjustments.

Meanwhile, a very similar scene has been unfolding at DePaul University in Lincoln Park, but it looks like the outcome won’t be as positive. Last year the college, which already pedestrianized the 2300 block of North Seminary several years ago to create a lush quadrangle, proposed closing the 2300 block of North Kenmore, one block east, to create a new campus space dubbed Kenmore Green.

Like the Loyola plan, the idea was to provide a car-free place with attractive landscaping, seating and paths that could be enjoyed by students and neighbors alike, on a block that’s surrounded by university-owned buildings. When I dropped by Kenmore for 15 minutes between classes one afternoon, the street was full of students crossing between classroom buildings, but I saw only a handful of cars on this southbound one-way street.

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Walking between DePaul classrooms on Kenmore. Photo: John Greenfield

In May of 2012, the city temporarily closed the block to cars for a month to test the concept. A traffic study commissioned by the university found that the closure had a relatively minor impact on parking and traffic in the neighborhood. However, as with the Loyola proposal, nearby residents opposed the elimination of parking spaces (47 in this case, fewer than in Edgewater) and were upset about losing car access to Kenmore, which they argued would drive more traffic to nearby Sheffield Avenue and Racine Avenue.

32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, a progressive who has recently been on the wrong side of public space issues ranging from the CTA’s Ashland bus rapid transit plan to swapping parking spaces for parklets and Divvy stations, has called for watering down Loyola’s proposal. Following a visit to the Netherlands, Waguespack proposed creating a woonerf on Kenmore rather than a truly car-free space.

Woonerfs, which translates to “living streets,” are common in the Netherlands and give priority to pedestrians and cyclists streets but allow drivers to pass through at slow speeds. Since the alderman withdrew his support for their original proposal, DePaul is moving forward with the woonerf idea, and a community meeting to discuss the concept will take place on Tuesday, October 8, at 7 p.m. at the student union, 2250 North Sheffield.

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Examples of woonerfs. Photo credit: Depaul University

While implementing a woonerf would be innovative elsewhere in Chicago, here Waguespack is presenting it as a compromise solution, and it really amounts to an unnecessary concession. Sure, a Kenmore woonerf could wind up being an interesting and attractive space, with pedestrians, bikes and cars sharing the same the same grade level, cobblestone or brick paving, and landscaping and seating that forces drivers to take a slalom route, slowing them down. But it wouldn’t provide as much parkland as the original Kenmore Green proposal. It also wouldn’t be nearly as serene a space as one where people don’t have to look at cars, let alone worry about being struck by them, even at slow speeds.

On the other hand, many drivers would probably opt against taking a slow, winding drive down Kenmore, so some cars would still be diverted onto nearby streets. The 47 parking spots would still be removed, which means some neighbors are still likely to oppose the woonerf, although DePaul has offered to make up for the loss by granting community members 24-hour access to campus lots and garages.

Evan Jenkins, who writes the South Side urban planning blog Let the Midway Bloom, disagrees with my opinion that altering the Kenmore plan to allow cars represents a loss. In a post titled “The Golden Compromise” he writes:

The woonerf, unlike the original pedestrianization plan, is going to have a huge impact for drivers and non-drivers alike. What drivers lose in speed, they will make up for in humanity. They will be put face-to-face with a living city, rather than stuck in a dead expanse of asphalt and bumpers. Pedestrians will learn that they deserve, and can achieve, freedom of movement without fear of being murdered by indifferent machines. A pedestrian-only block is nice, but it will be ignored by drivers and reproduced only in niche areas of the city. A woonerf can change the way we perceive our urban landscape.

Like I said, a woonerf would be a good thing in another location. The city is already planning to build a “shared street” with wider sidewalks, no curbs, narrower car lanes, and a 15 mph speed limit on Argyle between Broadway and Sheridan Road, and I look forward to seeing that come to fruition. But Kenmore in Lincoln Park is a case where there is no compelling reason to allow any car access at all, and doing so will detract from the otherwise-peaceful pedestrian experience. Instead of watering down their plan, I wish DePaul had been able to follow Loyola’s lead and go for the gusto, creating a car-free and carefree public space.

  • Anonymous

    Evan Jenkins is right. We should be interacting with each other, and with cars going at a pedestrian speed Kenmore may become an example how that could work.
    What you propose is another parklike area that likely would be nice, but does little to integrate all road users.

  • Anonymous

    A really dumb thing happened within the last month at the Loyola section. It was reopened to traffic and parking. Instead of just leaving it closed (it had been closed for over a year for construction), now the residents will feel the loss of parking and get mad all over again.

  • Jakub Muszynski

    as a student at DePaul, I sure can see that the closing of Seminary really added to the value of the neighborhood, as well as, to the school. The Quad area does look magnificent with the openness the green space provides. Kenmore is a little different with how closely the buildings are to each other, woonerfs are at the very least a good start. The architectural rendering of Kenmore looks great, I hope a lot of good comes from the removal of parking and the slowing of car traffic.

  • A pedestrian-only block would have been nice, but if there’s too much community resistance, a well-designed woonerf can be charming and human-oriented as well. The presence of motor vehicles doesn’t always sound a death knell to a public space, as long as they’re not allowed to dominate it.

  • Mcass777

    I lived a block north of Fullerton on Seminary when the street was converted to the quad in 1989. There were no homes on the street and no parking was allowed on either side of seminary before the street was converted. There was a student union on thes west side of the street and the library on the east. It already felt like a campus street. I think Kenmore has some residences and is a lot different then the Seminary set up. Still would be nice to see.

  • Timothy Brian Padden

    I am disappointed that DePaul didn’t go for the Kenmore Green, especially when CDOT approved it. The Kenmore Woonerf will be okay, but not as nice as it will allow cars. DePaul really wimped out by not building Kenmore Green.

  • It’s tough to move forward with a project like this without the alderman’s support, so I don’t think DePaul is to blame.

  • Chris McCahill

    Pedestrian plazas can be great, but (compromise aside) I don’t get John’s beef with woonerfs or calm neighborhood streets. They’re safe (because speeds are low) and on-street parking is a good thing. I haven’t seen the DePaul section, but it looks like it’s functioning like a woonerf already. Closing local streets forces more cars on to wider, faster arteries, which are the city’s real problem. Side note: I suspect Kenmore @ Loyola will be a creepy, dead space after dark. duppie nailed it.

  • Katja

    “Woonerf” makes me think of someone getting really excited about a new nerf product.

  • Andrew H

    I live just a few blocks away and think totally car free would have been better, but this Woonerf will still be a good alternative and make the neighborhood better. It definitely will be more present going for a walk on the street after the redesign. Since there are only Depaul buildings on both sides, and the 15 MPH future limit, it’s kind of a waste that they don’t just do completely car free– who would bother driving down it anyway unless really necessary?

  • BlueFairlane

    Without even considering the merits, I will say I could never take any piece of infrastructure seriously if its name sounds like it should be a Muppet character.

  • I personally don’t see many drivers, especially Chicago drivers (not all of you!), taking this pedestrians-first street idea very seriously. You’ve got to remember, cars are still the largest private vehicles that will be there, and drivers will act like it.

    I do hope I’m wrong, though, and I think that by having it on a residential street the effect won’t be as bad as if it were on a commercial street. In any scenario this is a nice idea. Look forward to see how it works in action.

  • I don’t have a problem with woonerfs or calm neighborhood streets, on blocks where some car access is needed. But this project represents a missed opportunity to create a tranquil, completely car-free space on a street where auto access is unnecessary. Kenmore @ Loyola will have plenty of foot traffic at night because it is adjacent to dorms, including a new environmentally focused one where students sign an agreement not to bring a car to campus. Why would it be any creepier than any other residential street at night? I believe Kenmore @ Depaul also has some student housing.

  • Right. If you really need to drive south in the area and don’t want to take Sheffield or Racine, Clifton is another southbound side street just east of Racine.

  • One thing that informs my thinking on this project is the Albany Home Zone on the 2400 block of North Albany in Logan Square. The original idea was to slow down speeding cars on a diagonal block that’s a popular shortcut. The street was narrowed by implementing diagonal parking, and bumpouts were installed to force drivers to slalom a bit. But after CDOT got its hands on the proposal (granted, in the pre-Gabe Klein era), the plan got watered down.

    The resulting bumpouts definitely encourage drivers to slow down (and add beautiful green space to the block), but they’re not enough of an obstacle to actually force drivers to slow down (unlike speedbumps), so speeding is still a problem.

    Drivers can’t speed on a block if they can’t drive on it.

  • “Side note: I suspect Kenmore @ Loyola will be a creepy, dead space after dark.”

    In which proposal, with or without cars?

  • Julie

    Thank you for the article and for submitting your comments. We do hope that all perspectives will be represented at the meeting tonight and encourage you all to attend.

  • Chris McCahill

    You’d have to be pretty anti-car to say this isn’t a win: http://goo.gl/e3Rqa8 (Winthrop St in Cambridge, MA). duppie’s right… let’s figure out how to interact better.
    As for Loyola, it just comes down to poor urban design and the complexities of creating great spaces (per Jane Jacobs). Otherwise, we’re on the same page.

  • Chris McCahill

    In the rendering above (and others). Jane Jacobs called parks and open spaces volatile places: either beloved or “empty vacuums between buildings.” Maybe other people are seeing something more beloved about this plan than I am.

  • Right. Well, a block away from me there is the Sunnyside mall which is car-free for a few blocks. It’s alright, and the space is nice, but it’s usually empty and I wouldn’t go at many times mainly out of safety concerns in the neighborhood. But I think a car-free street would work much better on a college campus (and there’s a few reasons Sunnyside doesn’t “work” that well). I sure wish we had car-free streets when I was at school; at UWM they hired police to control the crosswalks across the street.

  • A car-free Kenmore @ Loyola is almost certainly happening.

  • What’s your criticism of the Loyola design? It’s going to be full of students hanging out.

  • I’ve been meaning to write about the Sunnyside mall. It’s a semi-successful ped plaza. I recently had a very enjoyable lunch there (recommended: Pecking Order chicken shack, around the corner on Clark). I hear there have been some issues with negative loitering there, as well as some organized “positive loitering” events.

  • Sure thing Julie. Readers, Julie is with DePaul.

  • Next time, try Tik Tok falafel, pretty new place, and good falafel burgers :) I think in the summer the mall is more used during the day, but in the winter it can be dead. The loitering is an issue (but it is a pedestrian mall so the point is to loiter, right?), but if more people used it legitimately it would probably be more successful.

  • Does the Sunnyside mall have any residential doorways opening on to it?

  • What is a legitimate use of the pedestrian mall?

  • I suppose “dealing drugs” would be illegitimate. Gang activity, etc… same stuff happening on some other Uptown streets.

    And yes there are residential openings onto the mall.

  • Yes, it’s surrounded by residential buildings.

  • Anonymous

    Woonerf is indeed a pretty bad term. But what would be a good term? Complete Street? Home Zone? Pedestrianized Street?
    I have not heard one yet that conveys it’s purpose in one simple word. Like Greenway seems to be have become the word of choice for Bikeboulevards.

  • Allan

    There was parking on Seminary before it was closed by granting DePaul an easement

  • Chris McCahill

    “Shared space” is the most common English adaptation. Not charming, but it captures the idea well.

  • Chris McCahill

    Time will tell. I guess we can agree it’ll be somewhere between “empty vacuum” and “full of students hanging out.”

  • Nah, I’m pretty confident it will be full of students hanging out. It won’t be exactly the same as, but pretty similar to, the highly successful quadrangle that was created by shutting down Seminary at DePaul.

    Do you have any particular criticisms of the Loyola design, other than the fact that there won’t be car access? Lack of people shouldn’t be a problem. Are there any amenities you think are missing?

  • Andrew H

    I was at the presentation last night and here are my rough thoughts:

    There were two people that spoke in favor of it, everyone else against. Pretty large crowd turned out. Both alderman Smith & Waguespack moderated the discussion along with the architect.

    The largest by FAR complaint that almost every single person had was the removal of the 47 parking spaces on the street. Some people just didn’t want changes, doubted the safety issues, or were concerned that larger amounts of traffic would be diverted on to streets next door (e.g. Clifton, Seminary, etc. Lets not forget Kenmore dead ends at Fullerton so that one baffles me…) Some folks were scared and complained that Depaul was “taking over the neighborhood)”. Many people asked the alderman to look into extending the residential zone permit parking times around Depaul. Another complaint that was repeated was that it would only benefit Depaul students.

    On both sides of Kenmore btwn Fullerton & Belden are Depaul buildings. Tons of students cross that street during the day so safety is an issue as they dart between parked cars. Depaul is giving free spots to community members in their garages, I don’t recall the exact number, but it was less then 47 and more then 15 or 20. Depaul is also paying for this, not CDOT, and they didn’t really stress that enough last night.

    I spoke up at the meeting how this is a big benefit for the local area (I live only a few blocks away), and would definitely go and sit outside, go for walks, etc on the new street. People complained last night about how they closed Seminary, and I responded to the crowd saying how much my wife and I love it now being so lovely for pedestrians. Green space actually increases property values in the area even if people don’t think so.

    What it comes down to is basically this– most of the local residents there assume that parking on the city street is their given right, and taking it away is not acceptable. Also that the streets there belong to cars as priority #1, pedestrians (or bicycles) are not entitled to the same space. One guy even read a wikipedia article that stated Woonerfs give legal right to pedestrians and bikes, and the crowd groaned at that possibility. Education on CDOTs clear priorities of placing pedestrians and cyclists above cars is absolutely needed based on last night. It’s amazing that there is a Fullerton CTA station as well as numerous bus routes right there, and all anyone complained about was parking. No one seemed to realize that the elimination of parking would force more visitors, locals, and Depaul students to take transit.

    If anyone else was there feel free to add whatever I missed, thank you.

  • Chris McCahill

    Not my area of specialty, so this is more a side note that got out of hand. Maybe the reason for our different views is that I see both examples more as pedestrian malls rather than quads. In that case, well-designed Woonerfs are just as good, maybe better. They’re passageways, not parks. I’ll point again to this – http://goo.gl/e3Rqa8

    There are only conceptual plans for Loyola, so it’s hard to tell, but doesn’t seem like it A) has interesting building fronts, B) has things to do, or C) connects destinations. Thus, dead space at night. I lived up there for a while and saw very little reason to walk through campus. I doubt students alone can fully activate that space. But I’m perfectly willing to admit I could be wrong.

  • Chris McCahill

    For clarification, I’m not blindly pro-Woonerf. Seems like a good solution for that DePaul section. Loyola: keep it a local street. In far fewer cases, pedestrian malls work. Parks and quads are something different.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the recap.
    Did you speak up?

  • Thanks for the report.

  • Andrew H

    Yes I did (edited post to include that). It was difficult sitting there listening to countless people complain. The alderman’s job must be tough sometimes.

  • Allan Mellis

    DePaul Proposed Kenmore Woonerf Meeting
    Notes

    These are my notes from the DePaul Proposed Woonerf Meeting October 8, 2013

    October 8, 2013

    Parking

    1.
    The loss of 47
    parking spaces was a significant concern of many neighbors.

    2.
    The location of
    the 47 spaces that DePaul has offered (18 in Sanctuary Garage, 14 in the Belden
    & Seminary lot, 5 in the Montana Sheffield lot) were not an adequate
    substitute nor convenient especially for families with small children, seniors,
    daytime visitors, service people, and neighbors running errands during the day.

    3.
    Since DePaul has
    indicated that the Belden & Seminary lot was for future expansion, the
    question was raised how long would it be available for alternate parking.

    4.
    Suggestions were
    made to extend permit parking hours to 11 A.M. in the morning or to have 24/5
    or 24/7 permit parking in the adjacent streets to discourage student and
    commuter parking.

    5.
    A suggestion was
    made to better utilize the Clifton garage, which is usually half empty by
    charging either a lower yearly rate or making it free for students.

    Traffic

    1.
    Concerns were
    expressed about additional traffic on Clifton that is already closed 4 hours a
    day for Oscar Mayer student pick-up and drop-off.

    2.
    Concerns were
    expressed about making both the Fullerton/ Sheffield intersection and Sheffield
    congestion even worse than it is now.

    3.
    A number of
    neighbors indicated the significant increase in time it took to travel down
    Sheffield from years ago.

    4.
    It was suggested
    that a traffic signal be installed at Sheffield and Belden. While CDOT
    responded that it could make the intersection less safe because of cars speeding
    before the light changes, CDOT said they could revisit the issue.

    5.
    Concern was
    expressed that this is just the first step and that DePaul would find a way to
    close Kenmore in the future. It was suggested that a City Council resolution
    that defined the operational responsibilities between DePaul and the City of
    Chicago include a clause that Kenmore would have to be open to traffic
    permanently.

    Safety

    1.
    Cars would speed
    down the Woonerf.

    2.
    The mixing of
    students, bicycles and cars on the same roadway could be less safe than the
    current Kenmore, which is currently a very safe street based on DePaul’s
    previous Kenmore traffic study.

    3.
    It was pointed
    out that the sidewalk maybe too narrow for groups of students to walk on. A
    possible solution would be to reduce the amount of new greening.

    Appearance

    1.
    Many speakers
    complimented DePaul’s architect on the appearance of the proposed Woonerf even those
    expressing concerns about its negative impact on the community.

    2.
    There was a
    question about if any trees would need to be removed and the answer was no.

    Process

    1.
    It was suggested
    that DePaul and its architect take the input they received, modify both their
    Woonerf plans and mitigation strategies and present the revisions at a future
    meeting.

    2.
    The Aldermen
    indicated that there needs to be a review of the permit parking hours in the
    surrounding community to determine what works best and that is consistent.

    3.
    The Aldermen
    indicated that this is not a done deal and that it would take time for future
    discussion and more community input.

  • Timothy Brian Padden

    The east side of the aforementioned block of Kenmore Ave. has an academic building and student town homes (which are planned to eventually be torn down for a student dormitory), the west side has 2 academic buildings, a receiving dock, and a university library, all DePaul owned. Also, Loyola and DePaul are in very different areas so comparisons don’t really work.

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