Local Leaders Weigh in On 31st Street Beach Transportation Issues

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An aerial view of 31st Street Beach. The park district plans to more than double the size of the an existing parking lot, center. Image: Google Maps

Last month I reported on the Chicago Park District’s plans to expand a parking lot at the southwest corner of 31st and Lake Shore Drive, a short walk from 31st Street Beach and Harbor. The proposal would enlarge the lot, currently 60,000 square feet of asphalt, by 85,000 feet — that’s about 1.5 football fields worth of existing green space that would be replaced by blacktop.

The project would add more than 250 spaces near the beach, which already has over 650 existing garage and surface lot spaces within a five-minute walk. It would cost $1.6 million, paid for harbor bond funding.

I noted that Friends of the Parks has endorsed the project. Executive director Juanita Irizarry told me last month that if the group advocated against more parking at the South Side beach, they would have essentially been “tell[ing] people of color that they can only utilize the beach if they arrive by CTA or bicycle.”

On the other hand the Active Transportation Alliance is against the parking expansion. Executive director Ron Burke argued that transit, walking, and bike access should be improved instead. “Let’s give people MORE open space, play areas, trails and other attractions and LESS pavement for cars,” he said via email.

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The design of the expanded parking lot. Image: Chicago Park District

After my article ran, Delmarie Cobb, a lifelong Bronzeville resident and owner of the Publicity Works PR firm fired off an angry email to 4th ward alderman Sophia King’s office about the parking plan and cc-ed me. “Now, the city wants to take more green space so the harbor users will have more parking options,” she wrote. “There’s plenty of parking at the old Michael Reese parking lots.”

In addition to the 650 aforementioned nearby beach and harbor parking spaces, there are 250 public parking spots at the former hospital site, a ten-minute walk from the beach at 31st and Cottage Grove. The city purchased the property under Mayor Richard M. Daley as part of its failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.

“Until the city decides what to do with that land, it should be used to accommodate beach goers,” Reese wrote. “We’re already paying for that land, so why should we pay an additional $1.6 million for 250 parking spaces?… On Fullerton, the city [built] six additional acres for green space. At 31st St., the city found 85,000 square feet of green space to turn into a parking lot.”

4th Ward staffer Prentice Butler declined to comment on the lot expansion project, except to confirm that Alderman King is in favor of the plan.

31st St Beach Sign
This sign installed by the entrance to the garage last winter indicated that the garage was for boaters only. Photo via Delmarie Cobb.

When I reached Cobb this afternoon, she told me that she has since realized that, while the parking lot expansion will eliminate green space west of the drive, it won’t affect parkland closer to the beach that is used for barbecues, land she says is in short supply. While that’s less objectionable to her, she still finds it problematic that money was found for more asphalt while a community center originally planned as part of the harbor project, completed in 2012, was never funded.

While the park district and the 4th Ward haven’t had much to say about why exactly it’s believed that another 250 spaces are needed, Cobb offered an explanation. She provided a photo taken last winter of a permanent sign installed by the garage entrance claiming that all public parking spots in the 317-space facility was full, and spaces were only available to people with harbor passes. “Obviously the garage wasn’t full in the middle of the winter, but they were treating it like a private garage for boaters,” Cobb said.

Cobb says that when King took office last spring, she asked the park district to remove that sign and put up a new one stating that the garage spaces are available to the general public. Cobb recently went out with an intern and interviewed boaters to learn more about the parking situation. She says the boaters, many of whom live outside of the city, told them the lot expansion is planned because harbor pass holders were sometimes having trouble finding space in the now-public garage.

“The boaters said they don’t feel they should have to schlep all their stuff from the Michael Reese site to the harbor,” Cobb said. “That’s fine for the residents, but not for the boaters.”

“It just goes to show, the city can always find money to do what they want to do, such as projects to entice tourists,” Cobb said. “But they can never find money for the things we need like the community center, things that improve quality of life for neighborhood residents.”

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Ronnie Harris, right, from Go Bronzeville, says the park district should have sought more community input before deciding to expand the lot. Photo: Go Bronzeville

Another such amenity would be bus service along 31st Street to the beach, which could help reduce the demand for parking. Currently the only direct transit service to the beach during the summer is the CTA’s 35th Street bus.

The agency is reviving the discontinued 31st Street bus line as a pilot in September, but that route will stop half a mile west of the beach. The six-month pilot will cost only cost $251,000, less than one-sixth as much as the parking lot expansion.

The coalition of South Side community groups that advocated for restoring 31st Street service is currently lobbying the CTA to add beach service on the #31 next year, according to Debbie Liu, community development director for the Chinatown-based nonprofit, the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community. Other groups involved include the Bridgeport Alliance and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.

“We’re sitting down with CTA officials soon to discuss the 35th Street bus pilot — its frequency, hours of operation, and the days of the week it will run,” Liu said. Currently the plan is to only run buses every half hour between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. “However, it sounds like they’re not going to make changes to the schedule or route unless the pilot is successful, and that’s a big if… The CTA wants to see 830 boardings a day, which is going to be challenging.”

Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner told me last month her agency didn’t consider working with the CTA to extend the bus route to the beach as an alternative to laying down more asphalt. She added that it wouldn’t be possible to use the parking lot money to instead fund extending the bus route.

Still, longtime Bronzeville resident Ronnie Harris says he’s disappointed that the park district didn’t seem to consult the community before making the decision to expand the parking lot. Harris runs Go Bronzeville, a volunteer-driven organization that promotes walking, transit, and bike use in the neighborhood as a means to make the community “safer, healthier, and more economically viable,” he says.

“We’re a community partner, so it was somewhat frustrating to first learn about this project from an article,” he said. “Where did this come from, was there a community input process, and where are we with this?”

Maxey-Faulkner did not immediately respond to a request for info I sent this morning on whether there was a community input process for the project, and the current status of the proposal.

Harris said his group has been looking at ways to address transportation inequalities in Bronzeville and improve transit service, pedestrian and bike facilities, and lakefront access. “With all the other infrastructure and service improvements we’re looking at in the area, why this?” he asked. “I’m in the community on the ground, preaching about walking, biking, and transit to the naysayers, and this is where we’re putting our resources: expanding a parking lot.”

Update 8/11/16: Cobb reports that when she visited the beach this morning she saw that a changeable electronic sign is being installed at the entrance to the beach garage.

  • what_eva

    The harbor has 1000 slips. I suspect that on popular summer weekends some boaters are having trouble getting a parking spot. Since the park district makes decent money on slip rental (rates from $3k-$9.5k at 31st for the year), they don’t want to piss off the boaters. Comparison of income and race of average boater to average Bronzeville resident left as an exercise for the reader.

  • planetshwoop

    This kind of pushes my buttons.

    First, parking is included free with your boat rental. Really? So any discussions of increasing the number of boats automatically means more cars on the lake. (http://www.chicagoharbors.info/slip-information/) It also means this is very likely to get built.

    Second, the rental season is only from May 1 to Oct 31. So what happens to the parking lot for boaters in the off season? It’s mostly empty and useless.

    Third, given that the lot is already separated from the marina, what’s the big deal to park your car on the other side of LSD at former Michael Reese?

    Fourth, the city made $14M in revenues from the harbors. THat is, looking at the CPD budget, there was $25M in revenue against $11M in expenses. So the expenses should include the harbor bond expense, and according to the prospectus, the additional revenues are deposited in the general fund. Is the city able to transfer funds from the CPD to the CTA? Maybe not. But the money is absolutely there in the aggregate, and probably at the specific site too given that the slips are quite profitable and approx. 90% filled.

    Last point: I’m pretty sure diversity isn’t a big priority for the boating community. Look at the photos posted on their #LakefrontLifestyle page. http://www.chicagoharbors.info/

  • Pat

    Both planetshwoop and what_eva hit the on the real underlying issue, so I won’t retread it much.

    – The fact that the was outreach with community it is supposed to serve is glaring, which goes right back to the real issue at hand: boaters. I realize that they bring in lots of revenue, but parking for what are essentially seasonal commuters eats up valuable park land at the expense of the locals.
    – In a previous post, John mentioned that no parking study was done. Is this still the case?
    – While reading about the 35th St pedestrian bridge, I read that the 31st Street bridge is due for an overhaul by 2018. Seems like any upgrades for access would and should happen then.

    Finally, I would like to hear what else, if anything the FoTP commented, other than that on very Mellody Hobson-esque quote. Its been pretty apparent John is still smarting about the Lucas museum and likes to take his shots at the FoTP when he can.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Both planetshwoop and what_eva’s final points are what make my blood boil at FotP’s “diversity” response.

  • Jeremy

    It is important to remember that Sophia King was not elected. She was appointed by Rahm Emanuel to fill the remainder of William Burns term. The pandering to boaters at the expense of green space and ignoring the interests of neighborhood residents is likely an order coming from Rahm.

  • planetshwoop

    It’s a little different, I think. Boating generates a lot of revenue. A few years back, a consultant recommended increasing the # of boat slips to increase revenue. (The same thing is happening on the river, but without parking and in a more environmentally friendly manner with kayaks instead of motorboats.) So it’s more likely the strategic plan of the park district for the lakefront.

  • What a sad part of town and what a sad set of parkland there on the the lake.

    I get that there is a lot of potential parking space to the west. But the park district doesn’t own it and doesn’t control it. The hoops that would need to be jumped through to get at it are not worth it when they can spend a piddling 1.6 million to pave a useless bit of their own space.

    The real issue for me is the lack of transit access. You can’t get to the lake by bus from the Museum campus on the north to Hyde Park on the south. The equivalent north lakefront has a lot of bus access. Not enough but lots and lots compared to none on the south.

    The Park District used to have its own police force for the parks. In the 60’s or 70’s they gave the job up to the Chicago police. Today one could almost argue that they need their own bus system. Clearly a bus that stopped at every interchange from Bryn Mawr to 71st streets from spring to fall would do wonders.

    And lets not even get started on the sorry excuse of Metra Electric.

    And then there is the sorry state of the urban environment west of the tracks in that stretch. It is not dense enough to support ridership transit. That’s the basic issue with the 31st Street bus and even the 35th street bus. All that grass and asphalt lying that close to the lake! Shame.

    So yeah, a 31st street bus will just have to duke it out with the CTA for coverage route dollars against the likes of the coverage route Lincoln bus. Coverage routes don’t need to justify their existence via boarding passenger numbers. At least now your cell phone can let you know when to gather up your beach umbrella in order to catch the next or even last hourly bus home.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I think I took it pretty easy on FOTP in this post.

  • Combin8tion

    I agree you took it easy on FOTP who, based on the quoted comment, appear to be engaged in some form of racial politics to justify parking when it suits them.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Except that the #11 Lincoln was not a “coverage” route, it had tremendous ridership. Which was actually held against it by the CTA planners, who wanted those riders to jump to the Brown Line so everyone would forget how astronomically over budget that project went.

  • Jeremy

    My point was: contacting the alderman to put a stop to this is likely a waste of time.

  • How many slips were rented this year?

  • what_eva

    Good question. Anecdotally I’ve been told that there are waiting lists for the north side harbors, not sure if that’s true at 31st.

  • All I know is what I read via Streetsblog. If you are right then 31st has a shot since #11 Lincoln should not be competing against it. But then the competition is now between #11 and the Brown line. Which can move the most passengers with the best return on the dollar. Or maybe it becomes a keep both.

  • planetshwoop

    Hard to say. I searched the open data portal and came up empty. But from Google Maps overview it looks like about half? Don’t know how reliable that is due to the season though it seems like it’s summer.

    However, Westrec publishes their waiting list and 31st St. has names in it. So I’m guessing certain types of slips are backlogged. (http://www.chicagoharbors.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Waiting-List-20160601.pdf)

    Also note the existing parking lot. There are 2 cars in it.

    31st St. is much bigger than most of the others and has crazy amenities–free cable and wifi, community house, etc.

  • rohmen

    It’s hard to see how the 31st street marina is designed from the pic above, but you could provide a loading zone for boat owners (maybe it’s already there), and then locate the actual parking somewhere outside the park, and remove the legitimate gripe boat owners have with regards to needing to load and unload items.

    That’s essentially how Monroe works, with the actual parking located in the Millennium Park ramps. Boat owners do have a legit need at times to be able to unload a car near their slip (I crewed a sail boat, and we’d unload 100lbs worth of sails some days), but the actual parking lot doesn’t need to be right next to the marina.

  • what_eva

    I would imagine lot use varies a lot based on day and time. eg, 2pm on a Saturday would be much more use than 7am on a Tuesday.

  • what_eva

    The reality is that in a case like this, there is little they could do other than lobby. It’s not like the museum where you had public trust land effectively being given to a private entity. This is the park district doing something on their own land. They have no legal basis to challenge it, so all they could possibly do is complain about it.

    I suspect they’re on a lot of people at the city’s naughty list after the museum, so they’re trying to lay low a bit.

  • what_eva

    The lot being expanded isn’t adjacent, it’s across LSD from the marina. There is a lot adjacent and some loading area too (and a boat ramp).

  • rohmen

    I’d agree it’s not right next to the marina, but the planned expansion is still in the park and closer than it needs to be. It’s west of the LFP, but east of LSD. No one would be complaining if it was across LSD.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Even so, a less profane version of one my favorite contemporary sayings applies: shutting up is always an option.

    Insinuating that not expanding the parking lot is somehow a disservice to black and brown people specifically is incredibly insulting. I’m literally having trouble finding the words to describe how upset comment that makes me.

  • rohmen

    Nevermind. You’re right. It’s actually west of LSD.

  • urbancitygirl

    Who are you to declare something “sad”? The truth is, people of color like it there, but it’s not about us, it’s about gentrification and any neighborhood that doesn’t look like yours is “sad”.

    All I can hope is that soon we will elect officials that think quality of life is more than a new glass building full of big box franchises built by cronies where “mainstream” America can fuel their depression with overconsumption, debt and then an Ambien to sleep through the night.

    But I guess now you’ll build more parking lots so you can park your boats and take over that neighborhood too. We’re leaving in droves. We don’t want to live near you either.

  • All of us have the power to describe the world as we see and feel it.

    There are neighborhoods that look like mine that I would describe as sad as well. Though likely for different reasons.

    My own neighborhood is going through gentrification. My children complain that they can’t afford to live where I do. (As I say, sad.)

    My hopes align with yours pretty completely.

    Now as to your last guess, well not sure what assumptions you are using to get me so wrong. I don’t own a boat but I’m glad that there are people who do who are willing to create a profit center for the park district that contributes to me paying a tiny bit less to support the parks. Eventually some gentrifier will likely create an app for me to rent a boat cheaply so they don’t sit there most of the summer unused. Well maybe someone else will “share” the boat rather than me.

    Sorry to hear you are leaving in droves. You are probably leaving with my daughters. It’s people like you that make the city a good place to live. Honestly if you got to know me I think you might like living near me.

  • Carter O’Brien

    IMO, committing to public transportation is mandatory, and supersedes the short term and incomplete analysis the CTA is subjected to regarding being “budget neutral.”

    If we forced highways to be measured by these metrics every last one of them would have to be closed, as would most of our public infrastructure. Government is not a private corporation, and will never be a good fit for quarterly reports to its “shareholders,” as the ROI for public transportation, schools, a clean environment, etc. is literally the survival of our civilization.

    A real ROI for public transportation needs to include so many externality variables it makes my head spin. Wasted productivity due to time lost stuck in traffic, air quality/costs born in our health care system, Department of Defense costs to secure friendly regimes in oil producing regions are just a few that come to mind.

    But in the long term, when we’re talking specifically about Chicago and its economic well being, you can’t expect to attract and keep businesses when said businesses can’t count on the transportation infrastructure that brings them customers. Those businesses pay a lot more taxes than shuttered commercial properties (many of which are actually drains on society as they get used for depreciation tax write offs).

  • I make the distinction between coverage transit routes and ridership routes. I support the recommendation by some that transit agencies divide their budgets between the two using some form of public input to set the percentages. After that ridership routes are judged by the ridership they attract or indirectly support against the other ridership routes.

    Coverage routes on the other hand are judged on non-ridership criteria, often political, against other coverage routes.

    To use your highway example we do not build super highways to every farm driveway. Instead we give them a gravel road until traffic warrants a better surface. That is a coverage surface until they warrant a ridership surface.

    In general I agree with all your statements about how our governments should prioritize infrastructure.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I definitely understand where you/that metric is coming from, the problem in implementing that approach is that it doesn’t take into account the irrational behavior that comes when those budgets are shrinking. It also doesn’t account for the political realities you allude to, which are extremely vast and range from economic/environmental injustice to jobs/economic impact.

    So while your highway explanation is logical in theory, there has been ample evidence that in Illinois what drives highway growth is also 1) the existing workforce, a good amount of which is patronage related, already on the public dole that needs constant work in other to justify its existence and 2) takes that leap/makes a commitment to drive that ridership in order to include the impact in other, related planning exercises such as railroad right of ways, agricultural vs residential vs. employment hub/corporate campus developments, etc.

    Let’s face it, the incredible amount of time, effort and expense that went into just pushing the Hillside Strangler a bit further away from Chicago defies all logic.

  • What I like about the approach is that first you force the politicians to come up with the percent number for the two categories, coverage and ridership. That is a perfect political job. They can use whatever combination of rational and irrational factors they want to determine the number.

    Once done you have divided the budget into two parts, rational and irrational. You then apply logic and rational approaches to figuring out where to spend the ridership part of the budget. Either the numbers are there or they aren’t.

    Then you turn the coverage part of the decisions back over to the politicians again. Again their job is always manage the irrational. And I mean that in a good way. The squeaky wheel can get the grease or some palms can get the grease. They do their job and the transit agency does its job. When people complain to the transit agency the agency lays out the numbers if it is a ridership complaint or sends them to the politicians if it is a coverage complaint.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Except that the numbers are never going to be there when public transit is by definition subsidized.

    I can’t speak to public transit outside of Chicago, but the fact that we took over what were originally private ventures (rife with fraud and political corruption by Yerkes, I might add) as they failed as businesses tells me this is not the right approach in any way, shape or form.

    IMO we need transportation decisions to be joined at the hip with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, as then you bring in resiliency planning for the entire region.

  • urbancitygirl

    You sound nice. My peers have chosen to live their lives not as victims of stereotypes created to devalue our communities for cronies to develop for gentrification. I, too, will live my life in a predominately Black neighborhood, where 5 black teenagers walking down the street look like the promise of tomorrow with RHYTHM and style and not threats by intruders who call the police to come kill them. I won’t stay in this now gentrifying place.

    Until the city is led by people who TRULY value diversity and not some homogeneous nothingness disguised as neighborhoods, it will all be (in your word) sad. I’m pretty sure that’s what the vision is now. Maybe they’re “making Chicago great again.”

  • And congestion charging and road tolling. At least as long as we organize our lives around capitalist style economics rather than StarTrek economics.

  • MG

    The garage is used to store boats at the end of the season, so it will never be open to the public in off season. This particular harbor has a hard time filling its slips despite the great amenities and newness of the harbor. If parking in the garage continues to be an issue, I can only imagine it will be that much harder to attract boaters to the harbor. Boaters don’t just show up and leave. For many, these are their summer homes, so expecting a boater to park a few blocks from their boat will guarantee that this harbor will fail. It only happens at Monroe because there are no live aboards there and they pay a FRACTION of the cost compared to 31st.
    It is important that the new parking lot be built for the beach goers and harbor guests. Hopefully parking in the garage will go back to boaters only or I predict this harbor will never fulfill its capacity and continue to be a drain on the entire harbor system. Unfortunately for the harbor, if they ever actually fill up to even 75% capacity, not even the new remote parking lot will be enough and the public will be angry when those become boater only as well. The boaters will probably win out.

  • Bob Meyer

    31st street is a mess.Was there 2 years.Had to get out lots of thugs walking around.

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