No Longer Marooned: U. of C. Unifies Campus With New Pedestrian Spaces

14666182529_3dba61d431_o
The new pedestrian street on 58th, across from Robie House. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings]

I’ve long thought that the gray, Gothic confines of the University of Chicago were designed as a fortress against the outside world. However, in recent years, the school has made an effort to physically open up its grounds to the rest of the Hyde Park community, as well as to connect various parts of the campus that had previously seemed remote, by creating better spaces for pedestrians.

Several construction projects have improved connectivity and made it safer and more pleasant to walk across the 211-acre campus. Meanwhile, sections of roadway have been converted into attractive walkways and plazas, which encourage spontaneous interactions between students, employees and neighborhood folks.

Last year, changes included a new pedestrian space on the west side of campus, by the University of Chicago Hospitals, a new passageway through the administration building, and the completion of the Midway Crossings, bridge-like structures uniting the north and south sides of campus. In June of this year, the university finished converting a block of 58th Street, between University and Woodlawn avenues, into a lively promenade.

“The outdoor spaces on campus can be as important as the indoor spaces,” said university architect Steve Wiesenthal in a statement in spring 2013, before most of the construction started. “These projects will connect parts of campus that have felt distant from each other because of features of our buildings and landscape. They will contribute to our sense of community and the integrated nature of the University.”

IMG_1833
One of the Midway Crossings on Ellis Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

A few years ago, the university began building the Midway Crossings, a roughly $8 million streetscaping project, designed to provide better connections between the main campus and buildings south of the Midway Plaisance. Although the Midway, located between 59th and 60th streets, is only one block wide, psychologically the distance felt much longer, especially during the winter, and many people felt unsafe crossing the parkland at night.

To make the trek across the Midway feel shorter and safer, the school created the new walkways along Ellis, Woodlawn and Dorchester avenues. The design was inspired by the green space’s architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who originally conceived the Midway as a water route between Jackson and Washington parks, traversed by bridges. Workers completed the construction of the crossings in spring 2013.

The Midway Crossings treatments include wider sidewalks, which make it easier for people to travel in groups. Illuminated railings, retaining walls, and lighting masts, dozens of feet tall and affectionately known as the “light sabers” by the students, further increase the sense of security by increasing visibility in general and making it easier to see the faces of other pedestrians.

Ellis Street in Hyde Park, before and after
58th Street, west of Ellis, before and after the street was reconfigured. Images: Google Street View, John Greenfield

In the spring of last year, the university announced the three projects to provide an east-west connection across campus. That summer, crews built a new landscaped pathway and public space on 58th west of Ellis, replacing a cul-de-sac. As part of the project, the university demolished Ingleside Hall, which formerly housed the campus post office.

Some Hyde Parkers protested the destruction of the 1896 Georgian building, designed by famed architect Charles Atwood. However, the demolition of the historic building opened up access to the south side of the Crerar science library’s quadrangle, and made space for an extension of the quad, landscaped with small hills. The project also included a new seating area.

It seems like the sacrifice of the historic building may have been worth it. When I visited last week at lunchtime, the area had tons of foot traffic. Dozens of people occupied the lawn, benches, tables and chairs, relaxing, chatting and enjoying lunches from the numerous food trucks parked on Ellis.

Also in summer of 2013, workers created an open-air portal through the university’s imposing administration building, which formerly discouraged entry to the main quad from the west. The new, glass-lined tunnel through the old, gray building looks a little odd, but as you walk east through the gateway, you get a surprising view of the quad’s colorful flowers and other lush plantings. The vista made me feel like Alice, peering through a door into the Queen of Hearts’ garden.

IMG_1883
The new portal in the university’s administration building. Photo: John Greenfield

The final link in the east-west connection is the recently completed promenade at the east end of campus, in front of the Oriental Institute museum, and across the street from Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Robie House. Although a traffic study predicted that banning cars from the low-traffic block would have little impact on the street grid, the  project involved the elimination of twenty-nine on-street car parking spaces. Predictably, some neighbors groused.

The university was able to placate the residents by offsetting the parking loss with new public parking spaces elsewhere around campus. A plethora of new bicycle racks were added to the block to encourage bike commuting, and the project also included new trees, pedestrian-scale lighting and benches.

Alicia Murasaki, assistant vice president for campus design and sustainability, said that opening up the street to people on foot was an immediate hit. “I remember the day the construction fences came down,” she recalled. “Immediately, there were bicycles parked on the racks and people sitting on the benches facing south, enjoying the early summer sun.”

Oriental Institute employee Kiersten Neumann, relaxing on a bench during her lunch break, told me the promenade is an excellent addition to the neighborhood. “Driving around campus already seems so restricted that having more walkways makes sense,” she said, adding that the number of museum visitors has increased since the car-free space opened. “Best of all, the space looks absolutely gorgeous.”

  • Alex_H

    I was there a couple months ago and was not prepared for how dramatic those changes along 58th Street would be. Transformative. A great move by the university.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Fantastic. The central campus always felt very walkable, but I’d like to go back now and see how it feels outside Old Gargoyleville.

    “Although the Midway, located between 59th and 60th streets, is only one block wide, psychologically the distance felt much longer, especially during the winter, and many people felt unsafe crossing the parkland at night.”

    I never felt unsafe crossing the Midway (but then I’m a guy), but Lord did that feel like a long walk, especially during the epic winters of the mid- to late 70s.

  • I’ve never understood why the Midway is perceived as such a barrier, but then I came to the University after working at institutions with dramatically larger campuses. For that matter, I’ve also never really understood the utility of the campus shuttle.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I wonder if it’s partly sociological. I don’t know what departments are in that part of the campus now, but when I was in grad school there, I never had occasion to cross the Midway until I got a student job in the law school library.

    Now in practical terms, one factor in the winter was you had this long, wide east-west open stretch–nothing to stop the wind, in other words–brrr. And a *lot* of snow would pile up in there, as I remember. Of course, I may have that mixed up with childhood memories of walking 10 miles uphill to school and 10 miles uphill back, through 12-foot snowdrifts and being chased by cave bears.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Eyes on the Street: Loyola University’s New Kenmore Avenue Path

|
Loyola University Chicago recently expanded its Lake Shore campus south into the neighborhood, and took a different approach to connect the new buildings to its main campus across busy Sheridan Road. The university closed to car travel the entire 6300 block of North Kenmore Avenue, between Rosemont Avenue and Sheridan Road, and replaced the avenue […]

IDOT Still Has Time to Make Peoria Street Great

|
As part of the Circle Interchange project, the Illinois Department of Transportation will rebuild many of the bridges around the confluence of three highways. One of them is the Peoria Street bridge, a vital connection that links two college buildings and West Loop residences north of the Eisenhower Expressway to the University of Illinois at Chicago […]

Bike2Campus Points to Broader Possibilities for Campuses to Embrace Cycling

|
This week, the inaugural Bike2Campus Week seeks to spur students’ budding interest in bicycling to reach Chicago’s many university and college campuses. A partnership between the Chicago Network of Sustainability in Higher Education, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and Divvy seeks to entice students with prizes, like a four-year Divvy membership for the top pedaler, and with friendly competition […]

More Bike Parking Drama at the University of Chicago

|
Last year, Streetsblog reader Elizabeth Edwards alerted us that just about every sign pole, light post, fence and handrail by University of Chicago Medical Center sported stickers reading “Not a Bike Rack.” This passive-aggressive campaign to keep cycles out of the way of pedestrians was also illegal, since some of these poles were on the public […]