Architect Urges Big-Picture, Design Thinking For North Lake Shore Drive

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Krause suggests dipping Lake Shore Drive below ground at interchanges, with the Inner Drive and a new light rail line staying at street level. Image: John Krause

Local architect John Krause sees the reconstruction of North Lake Shore Drive, one of Chicago’s most scenic locations, as a chance to think big — not just about the road, but also about parks, transit, trails, the shoreline, and the future of the city alongside it. The Illinois Department of Transportation isn’t used to thinking like that, though, and so Krause sees its “Redefine the Drive” project as a process “that looks and feels suboptimal.”

IDOT is currently in the study phase of a decade-long project that will recreate both the boulevard and access to Lincoln Park. It will be years until IDOT has a refined design, so as a first step IDOT must identify what, exactly, they want to do — what they call a Purpose and Needs Statement for the project. Krause is on one of the project task forces, and helped bring to light that IDOT’s original objectives focused on personal vehicle congestion and traffic issues, and was blind to the road’s effects upon parks, the Lakefront Trail, and citywide mobility.

Krause has crafted an alternative vision – one of two, the other by VOA Associates – to redesign the Drive [PDF]. He created it to start a broader conversation about not just how to rebuild a road, but instead to create a legacy project for Chicago that could reimagine both how people move along the lakefront, as well as the lakefront itself.

The way the system is set up, the design team can’t discuss the project with the public, engineering firms are afraid to get involved for fear of being conflicted out of the future project, and the amateur general public is invited to give our unqualified opinions [at public meetings].

“It’s a shame,” he says, “that there isn’t more public engagement of talented designers in this important process.” He adds that a competition, similar to one hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation to solicit designs for Central Loop BRT stations, “might be a way to get Chicago’s professional designers involved.”

IDOT’s study approach started off by lamenting the delays and congestion drivers experienced, Krause says, and so was “propagating a [highway] status quo…that has been discredited for a long time. Great design often emerges through collaboration among people with complementary skills and viewpoints. In this case, maybe civil engineers, transit planners, urbanists, park designers,” and others could work together, rather than letting IDOT’s highway engineers run the show.

A recent example of how IDOT has not looked outside its professional silo occurred at a recent task force meeting. As Krause describes it, “lots of people are pushing for a dedicated transit lane, but no one from the CTA is allowed to offer any guidance or encouragement. To be fair, I know that CTA and CDOT are struggling with IDOT behind closed doors, but whatever is said there has no impact on either the general public or the city’s design professionals.”

Krause says Redefine the Drive needs to redefine the entire lakefront as well. It “needs some real headline attractions… new features that would show up on a tourist brochure of things to do in Chicago.” Or, more importantly, he says, “things that would get the mayor and Friends of the Parks to stand up to IDOT” and get them to do something other than “business as usual” highway-paving.

As an example of what broader thinking could bring to the Redefine the Drive process, Krause has illustrated his own conceptual idea of what the North Lake Shore Drive study area could become. His proposal divides the area, which reaches from Grand Avenue at Navy Pier on the south up to Hollywood Avenue on the north, into four sections.

One principal component of Krause’s scheme is a light rail transit route down the center of the Drive, which would help meet the mobility needs of nearly 70,000 people each weekday. Stops would be spaced every 1/4 to 1/2 mile, including stops at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Edgewater Sports Campus. Throughout his scheme, Krause suggests dipping the Drive below each interchange, removing the elevated bridges that block views towards the lake. The rail line would continue at grade, so that trains will align with bus stops and sidewalks at ground level.

In the southernmost section, alongside Streeterville and the Gold Coast, Krause suggests several ways to breach the barrier that Lake Shore Drive forms as it curves around the area’s residential high-rises. For the Ohio and Oak Street beaches, he imagines “more restaurants and clubs, right on the beach,” as at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro and other famed urban beaches. A shoreline extension would extend the beach north to Division Street.

Today, the northern end of the Magnificent Mile empties out into a high-speed interchange and a small, rarely used park along East Lake Shore Drive. Krause’s design moves the Drive away from the Drake Hotel, opening up more space for a park, plaza, and restaurants.

In the Lincoln Park section, from North Boulevard to Diversey Harbor, Krause moves the Drive to the west side of the lagoon to create a “Conservation Campus” around the Nature Museum and Zoo. Where the Drive is now would return to a “real Lake Michigan dune landscape, with camping.” Krause also adds interchanges at Diversey and Addison, to relieve traffic at Belmont.

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The northern section of John Krause’s proposal for North Lake Shore Drive eliminates the Wilson Avenue interchange and replaces surface parking with a garage at Montrose beach. Image: John Krause

In the Lakeview section, between Belmont Harbor and Montrose Harbor, centers around a new Sheridan Square built atop a sunken Drive. Offshore, Krause proposes a quiet barrier island between Addison Street and Irving Park Road, accessible not by a bridge but only by swimmers and boaters. Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago originally proposed a long series of such barrier islands, but only one (Northerly Island on the near South Side) was ever built. Krause admits that his proposals for park programming are incomplete, and in particular is open to suggestions for new activities at the Waveland golf and tennis complex.

Krause suggests extensive changes in the northernmost section, between Montrose Avenue and Hollywood. There, he would eliminate the interchange at Wilson, which is a major conflict point between exiting drivers and the Lakefront Trail.

In place of Clarendon Park, at Montrose and Marine west of the Drive, Krause proposes a high-density, mixed-use development. Developing that site, he says, ”isn’t to pave over an extra park, but to provide revenue for improving the lakefront parks and transit system.” It would help, he says, with financing his plan’s ambitious proposals to “de-pave a huge amount of roads and parking, to expand and improve the parks” east of the Drive. Clarendon Park isn’t slated for any major improvements soon, but 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman wants to find TIF funds that could “bring it up to code.”

Over near Cricket Hill, Krause proposes a parking structure, both to reduce the footprint of existing parking lots near Montrose beach and to allow commuters from further north to park and ride the light rail rather than continuing all the way downtown.

Even though Krause and VOA have already floated proposals, Krause still feels that a design competition would stir up a broader-based public conversation about what the Drive could be.

Next week, Streetsblog will examine VOA Associates’ proposal for the Near North lakefront, which was sponsored by the Lakefront Improvement Committee, Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, and Friends of the Parks.