Parks Group Endorses Plan to Replace Two Acres of Green Space With Asphalt

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An aerial view of 31st Street Beach. Friends of the Parks has endorsed the park district’s plan to more than double the size of the west lot, center. Image: Google Maps

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

It’s another case of parks versus parking lots.

The Chicago Park District plans to put more than 250 new parking spots near the recently revamped 31st Street Beach and Harbor, in addition to the more than 650 existing garage and surface lot spaces already available within a roughly five-minute walk of the beach. That would make for a whopping grand total of more than 900 stalls at the lakeside facility.

On top of that, to make room for the additional parking, the project would involve the elimination of 85,000 square feet of existing green space south of a current car park.

The Park District says the additional parking is meant to accommodate future demand for access to the 900-slip harbor—although a spokesperson admits the department hasn’t conducted a parking demand study.

But here’s what really gets me: the parking lot expansion has been endorsed by none other than Friends of the Parks, the same group that helped tank George Lucas’s proposal to replace Soldier Field’s 1,500-space south lot with his Museum of Narrative Arts.

“Friends of the Parks has been hearing from stakeholders as well as the Chicago Park District about the great demand for parking for both beachgoers and boaters at the 31st Street Beach,” executive director Juaniza Irizarry said via e-mail this week.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Friends of the Parks’ previous advocacy work. I respect the group’s role as a guardian of our city’s recreational spaces—working, for example, to stop private music festivals from destroying public parks. It’s also taken progressive stances on parking at other parks. Still, I saw its stance in rejecting the Lucas Museum as a case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Car ownership
In most of the predominantly African-American Census tracts with in a couple of miles of the beach (center-right), over a third of households. Tracts where more than 30% of households are car-less are shown in medium green, blue, and purple on this map from Shaun Jacobsen’s site Transitized. See bottom half of map key for details.

In the case of 31st Street Beach, I think the group’s support for the parking expansion is misplaced. The number of planned car spaces seems excessive, and too much parking is always a bad thing. Not only would the elimination of one-and-a-half football fields’ worth of green space be unfortunate, but adding all that tarmac would contribute to the city’s storm-water runoff and heat-island woes.

The city should accommodate people who may truly need to drive to the beach, such as those with mobility challenges, families with small children, and boaters and barbecuers transporting bulky gear. But overbuilding parking creates “induced demand”—if residents believe it’s easy to drive to the beach, they’re more likely to do so rather than use other, more sustainable forms of transportation. The result is more congestion and pollution.

That’s one reason the Active Transportation Alliance opposes the 31st Street Beach lot expansion. “Car parking and streets are a poor use of the city’s very limited park space. Let’s give people MORE open space, play areas, trails and other attractions and LESS pavement for cars,” executive director Ron Burke says via e-mail. “Focus on better access via biking, walking and public transit and remote parking with free weekend shuttle service. Apply market rate parking to help pay for these improvements — the park district undercharges for much of its parking.”

But Irizarry argues that adding parking at the 31st Street is an equity issue. The harbor, completed in 2012, includes a large garage topped by an inviting, nautical-themed playground.

“Unfortunately, Chicago’s south side beaches and parks were disinvested for many decades, and historic discrimination against minority communities in Chicago is a well-known theme,” Irizarry says. “Despite our own historic concerns about losing green space in favor of parking and other development, now that the south side has a lovely lakefront amenity that is finally being highly utilized, Friends of the Parks is not going to tell people of color that they can only utilize the beach if they arrive by CTA or bicycle.”

There are a couple of problems with that logic.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.

  • Pat

    They haven’t even done a parking study yet?! That right there is an issue.

    Are they building because in response to complaints about scarcity year-round or are they building to accommodate peak demand such as holidays and special events, similar to the “Black Friday requirement” at many shopping centers? The fact that they don’t even know is troubling.

  • BlueFairlane

    Friends of the Parking Lots strikes again!

  • rohmen

    If the 31st Street Harbor functions like Monroe, and I assume it does, that means each of the 900 slip renters receive a parking pass. I’m sure the City likely has gotten push back from many of the slip renters that parking can be tough at times. That said, this project is largely to benefit a select few people who pay large amounts of money to the City to store a boat at 31st. Moreover, for the spots that slip renters don’t grab, the rates are going to likely be high enough to curtail parking by the people living in neighborhoods FOTP cites as lacking resources.

    FOTP’s efforts have often left a bad taste in my mouth, and pulling the whole “it’s for the underserved card,” after calling Lucas and Co. out for pulling the same maneuver, is pretty telling. Fair or not, I’m often left with the feeling that FOTP’s advocacy efforts are geared more towards keeping the lakefront in a form that appeases the Chicago Yacht Club crowd rather than pushing for a lakefront that actually benefits all involved.

  • Pat

    Well put.

    The train tracks, I-55 junction, LSD’s ROW being very broad (complete with expressway-like on-ramps!), and the lack of access points are probably the biggest hindrance to the local residents enjoying the parkland. Not the lack of parking. And while I doubt anyone was really hanging out in this field between LSD and the tracks, doubling down on parking rather than increasing accessibility is the wrong way to go.

    I mean just look at the picture, look how much of that space is paved or buffer land between roads.

  • Sterling Archer

    So it really is “Friends of the Parking Lots”. They try to deny it, but…

  • johnaustingreenfield

    One thing I didn’t mention in the article is that, in add to the 666 (spooky!) existing spaces within about a five-minute walk from the beach, there’s another 250-space lot at the northwest corner of 31st and Cottage Grove (left side of aerial photo) that’s available for free to beach users. That’s a ten-minute walk away, which, as I said, is too long for many beachgoers to consider, so I’m guessing that lot gets relatively little use. But it would be a good candidate for a remote parking shuttle, as Ron Burke suggested.

  • JKM13

    Also, as someone who has had to drive to 31st more than I’d like (thanks CTA!), the parking issue could be solved if the city just allowed street parking on all of the streets west of LSD. There are all these bizarre no parking restrictions (Lake Park ave, Cottage Grove, etc) on streets that had already been destroyed by the horrible urban renewal land use policies in the area.

    Allow street parking, reinstate the street grid when the Michael Reese site is developed (and allow it to be developed lot by lot, rather than some awful mega development).

    That will create far more parking (and available demand for logical 31st bus route) than this parking lot expansion, and give a rider base for a 31st street bus that would rightly go all the way to the lakefront.

    Fittingly, FOTP do not propose any of this. They’re cool with paving over parkland for parking lots.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Their rich donors need access to their yachts. I like how they tried to make it about economic inequality, though.

  • what_eva

    There is a big difference in law between land held in public trust by the Park District (short version: reclaimed land that was formerly lake bottom) like the Lucas Museum site and land that is merely owned by the Park District. This lot is pretty tight to the IC tracks, so I suspect it’s not on public trust land. It’s also a lot owned by the Park District, not land effectively sold to a private party, which was the basis of their lawsuit.

    There’s a good interview on DNA with Irizzary states that FotP had a committment from the city in *1990* to get rid of the lot on the Lucas site and replace it with open park land. (https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160705/downtown/with-lucas-museum-gone-whats-next-for-friends-of-parks-qa), so they weren’t fighting to preserve a parking lot, they’re fighting for the city to turn it into park land as was promised years ago.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    If the result is the same, intentions don’t matter.

  • david vartanoff

    Seriously dumb idea! If CTA and Metra would wake up they could restore the 31st stop of MED. And BTW that section of the Drive is made land; the IC used to be right by the shore before the Drive was built.

  • Friends of the Park and Streetsblog should be allies. My guess is that the current folks running FotP are not sophisticated about the issues and the point of view we discuss here.

    But in any case it behooves us to stick with constructive criticism rather than invective when we speculate about their approaches and motives.

  • what_eva

    You’re looking at the short term result. If the city does eventually remove that parking lot and put in park land instead of a giant museum, that’s the desired result. As they’ve rightly pointed out, a parking lot can be converted to open land rather quickly if the money is found. Once a museum is there, open land won’t happen.

  • It’s the Park (your car) District!

  • jackbwheeler

    FOTP is a backwards organization that lacks strategy to promoting parks. Effectively – they want people to go to parks. They don’t care how people get to parks. But they do care if parks – or parking lots that cover potential parkland – inhibit a driver’s ability to park for a park.

  • neroden

    Looks to me like Metra Electric needs some infill stations. And lower fares.

    Restore the 31th St station. Build a 35th St. station.

  • neroden

    LSD wrecks the park. It should really be removed entirely.

  • Bruce

    The lot in question is on the west side of LSD and not on any park land.

  • Bruce

    Not a bad idea. However, massive improvements in alternative transportation are needed.

  • Susan Lofthouse

    This is all too familiar. I am a Londoner, and liver near one of the most beautiful parks in London. The Council dug up great swathes of it to allow a temporary motor racing track. Now that the racing company wants to fulfil the planning conditions and reinstall the greenery, hedges, lawns and so on, the Council is backing off, describing all the extra tarmac, the removal of landscaping, the widening of the Victorian carriageways, and the chicanes as “improvements”. This is so it can gain extra income from turning over a large area of the park to trailers and heavy lorries.Our local Friends are not as strong in opposition as they might be.

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