A Hard Decision: Should the Viagra Triangle Be Pedestrianized?

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Mariano Park in springtime. Photo: Dustin Halleck

The Active Transportation Alliance’s recent call for 20 Chicago streets to be considered for partial or total pedestrianization has definitely got people talking. One idea that already has a bit of traction is pedestrianizing the upscale Gold Coast nightlife area centered around three-sided Mariano Park. This district, bounded by State, Rush, and Bellvue, is nicknamed the Viagra Triangle because it’s a popular place for well-heeled older gents to take their dates, lined with upscale venues like Tavern on Rush and Gibson’s steakhouse.

Active Trans boldly included the nearby Magnificent Mile as a potential candidate for pedestrianization, and the list also included a call for creating car-free space on “segments of Rush Street in the Gold Coast.” The day after 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly told the Sun-Times it would be “irresponsible” to permanently close the Mag Mile to car traffic, he tweeted a request for input on the topic, prompting a response from former Illinois treasurer Alexi Giannoulias:

When I contacted Giannoulis via Twitter for clarification last week, I didn’t get a response, which wasn’t surprising because it was only a few days after he’d gotten married. However, it’s safe to assume he was talking about pedestrianizing the three streets bordering Mariano Park.

The idea makes plenty of sense. Pedestrianizing streets works best in areas that already have thriving retail. That’s certainly the case with the Viagra Triangle, which is lined with at least eight bars and restaurants with outdoor seating. During the summer, the small park is one of the city’s most successful public spaces, with tall trees, a fountain, a gelato stand, and plenty of tables and chairs drawing dozens of people at a time.

Closing one or more of the streets to cars could improve safety in a location where 19 people on foot and seven cyclists were injured by drivers between 2005 and 2012, according to Illinois Department of Transportation data. The pedestrianized streets would make it easier to access the park and provide additional space for people to socialize. Fewer cars in the vicinity would mean a more relaxing environment for customers at the many sidewalk cafes, and perhaps some of the extra room on the street could be used for additional seating, which would mean more revenue for the businesses.


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Senior mayoral advisor David Spielfogel, who told the Sun-Times that totally pedestrianizing major Chicago streets is a non-starter, tweeted his support for Giannoulias’s more modest proposal.

“Frankly, this is exactly the kind of conversation that we hoped would come out of our proposal,” Active Trans director Ron Burke told me. “A weekend closure of the streets around the park could be a good way to test the waters for making a street car-free and could hopefully be expanded from there. There’s potential all over the city to create exciting, liberating car-free spaces that are good for businesses and the community.”

A manager at Carmine’s Clam House, across the street from the park on Rush, who declined to provide his name, told me many customers valet park their cars in front of the restaurant or arrive by taxi, and he was curious how street closures would affect access. It would be fairly simple for drop-offs to be done on the side streets off of the triangle: Maple, Cedar and Bellevue.

When Morton’s steakhouse, just west of the park on Maple, held a block party on Maple to celebrate an anniversary, its valet stand was simply relocated west of the barricades, according to Mario Gonzalez, owner of Blue Agave tequila bar, located downstairs from the steakhouse. He said the street closure benefited his business, since it made room for some 500 revelers, who also spent money at his bar.

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The park viewed from the southwest yesterday afternoon. Photo: John Greenfield

Even if valet and taxi access to the district becomes slightly less convenient, Gonzalez thought pedestrianizing the triangle could potentially work. “These are destination restaurants so people will still go there, even if they have to walk a bit further.”

Passing by the park in chilly weather yesterday, lawyer Morgan Shapiro told me she thought pedestrianizing the triangle could work well during the warmer months, if not the winter. Her colleague Amanda Delaney agreed. “It’s a cool idea because it would give the park a kind of European piazza feel and it would be less isolated, because I think many people are unaware that it’s an option,” she said. “They’re can’t really see that this guy is selling gelato and stuff because of the parked cars. If you pedestrianized it, it might attract more people to the area and be good for business.”

  • Alex_H

    ::slow clap:: (re: headline)

  • Got any suggestions for a PG-13 alternative title?

  • Kevin M

    No, John, don’t change it–I think it’s great!

  • Dave

    I wish people could stop using the word “mall” to describe every street closure/pedestrianization idea. The word “mall” sounds tacky and gimmicky, and it belies the true intention of the vehicle ban. I think calling it a pedestrian plaza, or city square, or something along those lines sounds much, much better. I’m thinking of places like Marienplatz in Munich when I envision these street closures, not the Mall of America.

  • JacobEPeters

    given the similarity to the woodward project I think there are many more non PG alternate headlines (puns always intended)

  • Alex_H

    When the moment strikes, I’ll respond.

  • MarytM

    This really gives drivers the shaft.

  • jeff wegerson

    Are you happy with that or does that bother you? Drivers tend to want to have it all. They have it all in the suburbs so why not in the densest parts of the city, they demand?

    No, sorry, but they need to stick to the suburbs if they cannot handle living (and driving) in the city. Or would you suggest removal of sidewalks for more driving (and parking) space. Which reminds me, it’s not just drivers that are having to change their ways (getting “the shaft”) but parkers as well.

  • Deni

    I’d close the entire length of Rush St to motorized vehicles. I live right by the triangle and have been dreaming of it being pedestrianized for a long time.

  • jeff wegerson

    This one is so going to happen is some form or other. What a perfect place to start. Actually the hardest thing will be deliveries to the businesses. Maybe there could be some painted areas on the plaza that are reserved for deliveries during the morning hours weekdays or something. That and the very least neck down the entire stretch of State to exactly one lane in each direction while taking all of Rush and Bellvue.

  • Katja

    Don’t they have alleyways in which deliveries occur?

  • Kevin M

    Jeff, I believe MarytM was just making a pun on the subject (“Viagra Triangle”). See John’s blog post title for another pun example.

  • MarytM

    No need for your head to swell with blood on the subject.

  • what_eva

    That was my thought as well, leave State open but narrow the traffic lanes and close Rush/Bellevue.

  • Deni

    Some, but I don’t think all the businesses right there have alley access. But I don’t see the need for delivery spots right on Rush, you’re talking about an added half- or quarter-block to wheel deliveries on a hand truck, that’s not going to kill delivery drivers.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Ever since I moved to Streeterville I’ve wondered why they haven’t closed either rush or st claire to cars.

  • MarytM

    Seriously though, how will all of the 55 year-old personal injury lawyers show off their $125,000 Mercedes convertibles to tanned-in-winter Hinsdale cougars with large divorce settlements? By removing valet-parked luxury automobiles from this area, we are playing god by trying to disrupt as-nature-intended mating rituals. It’s like trying to change the migration of monarch butterflies or the mating patterns of humpback whales. Just leave them be in their natural habitat.

  • OP

    Its nice to see Giannoulias rise to the occasion with this seminal idea.

  • cjlane

    Yes, but the trucks still need to be parked somewhere, and with reduced roadway area, there would be more trucks in the (otherwise fine) alternate routes–so there needs to be some recognition that this is an issue. A truck ‘bay’ or two, in the area of the closed street, with movable bollards to keep them from being used at nondelivery times.

  • rohmen

    European pedestrian zones have dealt with this by having the plaza/streets closed to all motorized traffic during most of the day/early night, with delivery trucks allowed to access the street to reach businesses in the area during late night/early morning.

    This type of design would seem to be a good fit for the Rush Street and Clark Street proposals, except for the areas of those streets where several large 5 a.m. clubs exist.

  • jeff wegerson

    I guess I was just getting all wet at the thought of the drivers getting the shaft but not me.

  • jeff wegerson

    I’m older so that I’m slower getting up on the humor is understandable I guess.

  • His proposal really ought to be studied by a blue diamond, I mean blue ribbon, panel.

  • BlueFairlane

    It’s been six days, and I just got this.

    I’m suffering a hardening of the wrong arteries, it seems.

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