A Blank Slate: Wells St. Extension Can Embody CDOT’s New Values

Aerial rendering showing the Wells-Wentworth Connector plan’s three phases. Image: CDOT

The Chicago Department of Transportation has a rare clean-slate opportunity to design a Street of Dreams — a street that incorporates many leading-edge safety features. That opportunity is phase three of their Wells-Wentworth Connector between Chinatown and the South Loop, a future southward extension of Wells Street that longtime South Loop resident Dennis McClendon calls “Riverside Boulevard.”

There, CDOT will build a new street from the ground up, plus “people places” infrastructure that will enhance the long-term future development potential of the South Loop’s long-vacant Riverside District tract. CDOT has an opportunity to create a safe street and great place even before the first resident moves in, provided that it embraces recent innovations in street design and a comprehensive and open planning and design process.

The Wells-Wentworth Connector’s first two phases will add more space for pedestrians and bicyclists along the northern end of Chinatown’s main street, and straighten out the confusing intersection where Cermak, Wentworth, and the Dan Ryan off-ramps meet. Its third and final phase consists of a new road traversing north-south through the former railyard that Tony Rezko once owned, a 62-acre site bounded by Roosevelt, 16th, Clark, and the South Branch. The road is intended to jump-start the city’s redevelopment plan for that property (which, even though it’s less than one mile from the Loop, has been vacant ever since it was reclaimed from the river in 1930), and to improve street safety in Chinatown.

This new main street for the Riverside District can embody the new philosophies CDOT has embraced under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. The street can be designed from the start as a complete street that gives vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists generous room and comfortable spaces. It can embrace Vision Zero and include redundant features that minimize speeds and eliminate conflicts. It should be an integral element of placemaking along the riverfront, bringing people to new spaces where people can linger, relax, and shop — which will increase the land’s value, both to developers and to the city.

Since there are no existing constraints on the street right of way, and a potentially generous budget from local TIFs, CDOT has a chance to prototype many safety ideas that have been suggested before, but discarded for various reasons. For example, there aren’t yet neighbors, or a parking meter operator, who can object to removing on-street parking or loading spaces. Prototyping new designs here can prove that they work safely, and make it possible to replicate them elsewhere later.

Imagine, for example, a Dutch-style roundabout – with cycle tracks around the outside edge, instead of bike lanes within it – to welcome traffic into the development. A roundabout can handle just as much as bike and vehicle traffic as a signalized intersection, but without requiring everyone to come to a stop.

Roundabout in mixed use neighborhood in Rotterdam
Roundabouts are safer than four-way intersections. They can manage pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers, all at safe speeds and without stops. A mixed-use neighborhood in Rotterdam, via Google Maps.

Inside the development, streets could have cycle tracks separated from and above the parked cars, between the road and sidewalk. At interior intersections, the cycle track would shift a bit further away from the road, providing room for a driver to wait to turn right. City planners could dedicate space for Divvy docks in advance of development.

When walking across alleys, driveways, and even smaller streets, the sidewalk could stay at the curb-height level – a design CDOT has started implementing when rebuilding sidewalks. In fact, people could walk at sidewalk level across raised intersections (also known as “speed tables”), which slow down drivers. If the drivers go sufficiently slowly, those intersections wouldn’t even need stop signs. A new riverside esplanade could feature a food truck dock, with a water view, seating, and electric hook ups so that trucks won’t need noisy generators.

Riverside Boulevard is a rare opportunity within the mostly built-out central city to shape public space in great detail, and to shape the daily lives of thousands. The people who will live and work in, or near, the new development will use the new route to traverse the Near South Side, whether to get to the Mercantile Exchange at its north end or to Ping Tom Park at its south end. In addition, the new street should be an inviting route for South Siders who feel unsafe along the alternative routes — the Clark and State Street speedways just a few blocks east.

The public planning process that led to the Bloomingdale Trail design is a model to emulate here. Transforming the former railroad into a linear park will benefit tens of thousands of people in neighborhoods along the line — but even more so if those residents have a say. CDOT hired a great collection of design and planning firms, who worked closely and transparently with both future users and adjacent property owners.

Currently, the Department of Planning and Development is working to acquire the Riverside District property, and will use Tax Increment Financing funds (available since the South Loop has developed faster than expected) to plan new development on the site. The entire property is in the 25th Ward, and we’ve heard that Alderman Danny Solis is interested in running the planning process himself. Let him know that the public must be involved throughout the process, and that the inclusive attitude of the team behind the Bloomingdale Trail can inspire planning for the Riverside District.

  • Scott Sanderson

    This is really exciting. I can see this area from my office building in the Loop, and I always thought it had a lot of potential. Hopefully CDOT will try out bold new ideas in accordance with its vision zero and mode share hierarchy.

  • JacobEPeters

    well said, a possibility for truly new urbanism, since it has the opportunity to be sustainable, urban, and completely infill.

    On another note, I still have a dream that a certain soccer team will one day play at the northeast corner of that site, 4 blocks from the Roosevelt Orange, Green and Red Line station, I’m sick of traveling out to Bridgeview.

  • cjlane

    “which, even though it’s less than one mile from the Loop, has been vacant ever since it was reclaimed from the river in 1930”

    Think it is more accurate to say “mostly vacant” as it had several railroad-related uses over that period, at least until the demolition of the Grand Central station at Harrison. Maps from the 50s and 60s show some structures (certainly RR-related) on the land, too.

  • Kevin M

    Develop, develop, develop….what’s so undeveloped about it now? What, is it too primitive for a “World-Class City”? Fix what buildings and parks you already have, Chicago, and stop cashing in every last fabric of natural land in your pantry.

  • If you’d ever walked it you’d know it’s not ‘fabric of natural land’ — it’s a jumble of concrete and silt with some old railroad tracks in it, and a bunch of secessional plants that have colonized it and get periodically mowed.

  • The TIF money that will be used to acquire the property is already dedicated to that district.

  • BlueFairlane

    You are right, in that there is no such thing as “natural land” at any point along the Chicago River, nor has there been for at least a century.

    I do like the idea of “secessional plants”, though. I enjoy imagining a botanical uprising in which all the dandelions don gray uniforms and fight to build their own confederation. :-)

  • trufe

    the sox actually almost moved to that location twice.

    one plan proposed by Arhur Allyn in the 60s involved a huge multistadium development that would have moved all of the bears (and a possible soccer team), sox, cubs, hawks and bulls to this site (also stretching north of roosevelt)

    http://www.southsidesox.com/2012/11/9/3619970/south-loop-sox

  • It’s a term of art in ecological circles. :-> It means plants that really, really like coming in and sprouting on disturbed earth. Terraformers, of a sort, if you read science fiction — when there’s a disturbance (landslide/forest fire/human intervention), they’re the first bold pioneers, and several of their planty generations later there’s more soil and a more habitable situation for other things that are less tolerant of really crappy living conditions.

    Dandelions are a great example, as are plantains (the flat ring of leaves with an asparagussy thing sticking up out of the middle) and shepherd’s purse; the sorts of things you see growing out of cracks in concrete, or as the only green in a swathe of white gravel.

    I don’t want to imply that there is no HABITAT currently there, because there sure is; lots of critters colonize marginal habitats, especially relatively-human-free pockets in the middles of cities. But I think post-development it can be a greater wildlife asset than it currently is, if they’re careful how they handle it.

  • BlueFairlane

    Do you mean “successional”?

    The issue with anything along the Chicago River is that every inch of the thing has been altered and re-altered and altered again, so that it’s little more than a bathtub sitting in a ditch. I do appreciate having some bits of open space here and there where hints of the semi-natural world are left to progress as it will–I don’t think everything should be either a building or a park–but this is nothing resembling nature.

  • Argh. Yes. Thank you. Spelling is not my friend in the middle of the night, methinks. :->

  • BlueFairlane

    Usually I won’t point out that sort of thing, but it was essential to the joke this time. :-)

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