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Kempf Plaza Has All the Right Ingredients for a Great Public Space

Streetsblog will be on vacation on Monday, September 1. Enjoy your Labor Day!

Giddings Plaza is used in all types of weather. This photo was taken in early April. Image: Andrew Seaman, via Flickr.

There are few pedestrian spaces in Chicago that evoke the feeling of an old European city as well as Kempf Plaza (perhaps better known as Giddings Plaza) in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Now that city, advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations, and individuals call for more public plazas throughout the city, it would be instructive to examine the history and design features that make some of the city’s existing public spaces successful. Kempf Plaza is often cited as an example to emulate. The plaza is a result of history and good design, 36 years in the making.

Lincoln Square mural

Murals in the neighborhood depict the life of Old World European towns. Photo: Charles Carper, via Flickr.

The area around the Lincoln Square neighborhood was settled as early as 1836, before Chicago was incorporated. The establishment of a streetcar line along Lincoln Avenue in 1872, and subsequently the parallel Ravenswood elevated line in 1907, spurred more intensive development, especially as immigrants from places like Germany streamed into the North Side. Beginning in 1949, the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce began promoting itself as a commercial district, but it wasn’t until 1978 that a more European flair was sought for the neighborhood, in order to help a cluster of businesses struggling amidst the city’s then-declining economic fortunes. Any visitor today can attest that the area has a distinctly European feeling, including several Bavarian-style facades and painted murals of old European towns.

The Chamber’s 1978 goal to create a more prosperous business district spurred the reconstruction of the Western ‘L’ station, and the rerouting of Lincoln Avenue through the neighborhood. It was also at this time that Giddings Street was made into a cul-de-sac, establishing an open space for the Kempf Plaza. As with most projects involving the removal of free curb parking, there was opposition from the neighbors. Few specific complaints are listed in contemporary media, but I suspect the opponents feared asking drivers to divert to other streets, or removing a dozen or so free parking spaces.

Just closing half a block to residential traffic, and removing a few parking spaces, doesn’t suffice as a recipe for a successful public space. Several other public spaces, including some in Chicago, suffer a lack of vitality and are missing key elements necessary for a successful public place. What makes Kempf Plaza different?

Danish architect Jan Gehl written has several books related to the urban design of outdoor spaces. One of his books, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, is a thorough rundown of what makes a quality public space. Giddings Plaza qualifies as a third place, one that is neither home nor work, and is a space for optional activities, as opposed to necessary activities like errands or commuting. Optional activities, Gehl writes, “take place only when exterior conditions are favorable.” What are some exterior conditions that make this a great place?

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Metra’s Strategic Plan: For Commuters, Or For The Railroad?

Metra Arriving at Barrington

Just missed a Metra train? You may have to wait two hours for the next one. Metra’s strategic plan should focus on its customers, not just its operations. Photo: Andy Tucker

Two years after launching its first-ever strategic planning process with a series of public meetings, Metra is at last finalizing basic goals for the plan. Our preview last month showed that the draft plan focused as much on administrative matters as it did on customers and services. That split focus remains, but board members are now debating whether the plan should shift in one direction or the other.

Metra’s director of strategic capital planning, Lynnette Ciavarella, launched a discussion about the draft plan’s ten goals and objectives at the board’s August meeting. The preliminary goals included “continuing to provide a high quality travel experience,” financial stability, “improving agency-wide efficiency,” integrating with regional transportation networks, and expanding the system “as resources allow.” Ciaverella then asked the board, “What’s missing?”

Some board members contended that the strategic plan doesn’t engage enough with the outside world, while one board member wanted Metra to stick to the basics. John Plante, a recently retired CTA manager who was appointed to Metra’s board last October, spoke up first. Plante wanted Ciaverella to add “innovative financing” – namely, public-private partnerships and land value capture, which could hopefully help fund expanded Metra service.

Don DeGraff, appointed in 2011, said he felt there was little coordination among the different transportation providers and planning agencies. He asked, “how does Metra fit with CTA, Pace, Illinois Department of Transportation, and the [South Shore Line], to make sure there’s an effective regional plan?” He continued, “we need a Daniel Burnham: someone to come up with a plan to allow us to be successful in the northeastern Illinois market.” He called on Metra to take on that coordinating role.

Ciaverella assured the board that the strategic plan was coordinated with the Regional Transportation Authority’s strategic plan and the region’s long-range GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan. Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey told me that “the region as a whole has a challenge connecting land use and transportation,” and that Metra can play a greater role in station-area planning “to ensure better connections to jobs and housing.”

One board member, by contrast, wants to throw out half the goals. Director Norman Carlson, appointed just before the CEO scandal came to light, explained that “so often planning doesn’t take into consideration operating perspectives.” Carlson cited his railroad consulting experience at Arthur Andersen to say “an organization can logically take on 3-5 objectives [to] make any measurable progress.” He said that Metra should take on just four goals, but list a fifth goal to be deferred.

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North Branch Trail Extension Inches Forward, Including Edgebrook Sidepath

Example side path on Harms Road in Glenview

The North Branch Trail’s southern extension will have a short side path along Lehigh and Central Avenues, much like this segment of Harms Road in Glenview. Image: Google Street View

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is proceeding with plans to extend its popular North Branch Trail three miles further into the city limits, via a sidepath along Central Avenue. The extension has been planned since 1995, and has been shown as a dotted line on the Chicago bike map for several years. Some neighbors, though, worry about how the sidepath will impact cars traveling on or turning off Central Avenue.

Last week the Forest Preserve hosted a meeting at the Matthew Bieszczat Volunteer Resource Center about the extension, which would start from the trail’s current southern terminus at Devon and Lehigh avenues (one block short of downtown Edgebrook) and end at Gompers Park, near Foster and Kostner avenues, in the Mayfair neighborhood The 18-mile trail carries 250,000 users a year between the city and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, where a northern extension to the Metra UP-North line opens September 13.

Extending the trail into the city won’t be a walk in the park, though. While most of the existing trail runs along the river, the extension must skirt both busy Devon Avenue and the existing Edgebrook Golf Course. To do so, it will run alongside existing roads instead: crossing Devon at Caldwell, then following Central past the three-block Old Edgebrook neighborhood, then crossing Central at a new stoplight placed at an existing intersection that serves the golf course and the Volunteer Resource Center.

Some residents feel that the new traffic signal will “snarl traffic,” DNAInfo reported. This is unlikely, since the new traffic signal would be on-demand, and only change when a motorist exits the parking lot or when a bicyclist or pedestrian pushes a button.

The Chicago and Illinois Departments of Transportation examined several alternatives proposed by neighbors and found them wanting. In particular, re-timing the lights at the complicated intersection of Lehigh, Caldwell, Central, and Devon would cost $1 million, and building a traffic signal at Prescott or Louise would make existing traffic backups even worse.

Old Edgebrook residents also worry about how the Central Avenue sidepath would affect vehicle turns into or out of their neighborhood. Brian Sobolak attended the meeting, and recounted that some residents thought that the sidepath’s crossings of Prescott and Louise would be unsafe, and might block residents driving in and out. Similarly, Nadig Newspapers reported that some residents believe “it would be difficult to see bicyclists” crossing these two streets, the only routes into Old Edgebrook. Yet Central already has a sidewalk at this location, so drivers at these two intersections already must watch for crossing pedestrians.

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Without Planning, Mega Parking Lot Could Replace Megamall

Logan's Crossing rendering (looking west)

A rendering of a new building that could replace the Megamall, a longstanding indoor market that stretches for almost 700′ along Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. Image: Sierra U.S.

Terraco and Sierra U.S., two commercial real estate firms, have started marketing to potential tenants space within a new development at the site of the defunct Megamall, along Milwaukee Avenue northwest of Sacramento Avenue in Logan Square. Marketing documents published by Curbed Chicago show a new building housing 166,390 square feet of retail, including a supermarket and a health club — and a whopping 426 parking spaces, both within the building and in a surface lot behind it.

The plan proposes nearly enough parking to fill an entire city block, but surprisingly, that’s just five percent more than the minimum of 406 spaces that Chicago’s zoning code requiresWhereas most of the retail customers, just as elsewhere in the neighborhood, would likely arrive by foot, transit, or bike, a huge parking garage would only appeal to drivers — and so plentiful parking would probably induce driving to the site. That’s even though the site is ”on a designated primary bicycle spoke route, a block from a major transit hub and a city-owned parking lot lonely for cars,” as local urban planner Lynn Stevens says. Stevens also points to a previous community workshop, where two-thirds of participants didn’t want additional parking in the area.

Stevens urges that local officials should develop a plan that could guide the fast-paced development along Milwaukee Avenue through Logan Square. In the absence of a unifying plan, the decades-old underlying zoning – amended piecemeal by developers and three different aldermen – becomes a de facto plan. Stevens, who writes the Peopling Places blog about Logan Square development, said, “a plan… would establish policy guidance for future growth and implementation of social, economic and physical [design] goals. Absent a plan, all we have is the Zoning Code that guides private physical development, but, as we know, [that] is subject to change at the whim of an alderman.”

She added that development policy for the area is done in “isolation” at many different agencies. In the absence of any plan, each “property owner envisions development to maximize profit under the existing zoning — or the zoning he thinks he can get out of the alderman.” And since existing zoning specifies conventional retail for the Megamall site, the result is the conventional Terraco/Sierra proposal.

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PBLs Off the Table in Jeff Park, But Milwaukee Still Needs a Road Diet

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CDOT rendering of Milwaukee with a road diet and protected bike lanes.

The Chicago Department of Transportation has proposed three possible street reconfigurations for Milwaukee from Lawrence to Elston. Unfortunately, the one that CDOT originally said would have had the greatest safety benefit for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers is now off the table.

The scenario where the current five-lane speedway would have been converted to two travel lanes and a turn lane, plus protected bike lanes, is no longer under consideration, according to 45th Ward chief of staff Owen Brugh. He said that Alderman John Arena and CDOT jointly concluded that PBLs weren’t a practical solution for this stretch, due to the high number of driveways.

Since protected lanes would have involved moving the parking lanes to the left side of the bike lanes, parking spaces would have had to be eliminated at each intersection and curb cut to ensure that cyclists and motorists could see each other. This would have required the removal of 20 percent of the parking spots on Milwaukee. However, parking counts show that, in general, spaces on this section of Milwaukee are currently used as little as 50 percent of the time, and not more than 90 percent of the time, so there would be a relatively minor impact on the availability of parking.

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Rendering of a road diet with wide buffered lanes.

The two other alternatives are still under consideration. One would involve a road diet with wide buffered lanes, which CDOT says would still have a significant safety benefit for all road users. The other would maintain all five lanes but add narrow buffered lanes, which would provide a minor safety benefit for cyclists and pedestrians, but have practically no effect on car speeds.

It’s a shame that protected lanes are no longer being considered, since this stretch of Milwaukee would greatly benefit from a major reboot. This section consistently averages well under 20,000 vehicles, making it the least busy stretch of Milwaukee in the city. But while Milwaukee south of the Kennedy Expressway is generally a two-lane street, north of the Kennedy it has two travel lanes in each direction, plus turn lanes, and the excess capacity encourages speeding. Recent CDOT traffic studies found that 75 percent of motorists broke the 30 mph speed limit, and 14 percent exceeded 40 mph, a speed at which studies show pedestrian crashes are almost always fatal.

Since speeding is the norm here, it’s not surprising that there’s a high crash rate. The project area saw 910 crashes between 2008 and 2012, causing at least 17 serious injuries and three deaths, according to CDOT. In January of this year, two men were killed in a rollover crash on the 6000 block of the street, just south of Elston.

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City Colleges Students Have New, Faster Transportation Option

CCC shuttle south route

The City Colleges of Chicago south route will be several minutes faster than taking CTA.

On Monday, the City Colleges of Chicago will launch four hourly shuttle bus routes to connect its many campuses to one another and to transit facilities. Students can sign up to ride the buses for free, and free onboard wifi will allow students to finish those last-minute homework assignments.

The inter-campus shuttles, according to a board of trustees ordinance [PDF], will “remove a barrier to cross-registration” and “potentially reduce the use of personal vehicles.” SCR Medical Transportation, which also operates paratransit vehicles for Pace, will run the shuttles through mid-2016 for up to $3 million. Students must sign up ahead of time to use the shuttle, and then can use their contactless ID cards to board the bus.

Four routes will offer full service on weekdays and limited service on Saturdays. They will run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, with breaks between 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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Community Meeting Scheduled About Jeff Park P-Street Proposal

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The proposed Jeff Park P-Streets. Image: Google Maps

Interestingly, some of the city’s outlying wards are leading the way when it comes to creating pedestrian-friendly business districts. Last week, I reported how 33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell has proposed an ordinance that would designate three Albany Park retail strips as Pedestrian Streets. Earlier this week, 45th Ward Alderman John Arena sent a letter to constituents announcing that he has filed an ordinance to do the same thing on two streets in Jefferson Park.

The P-Street designation is intended to preserve the existing walkability of business districts and foster future ped-friendly development. It blocks the creation of big box stores, gas station, drive-throughs and other businesses that cater to motorists by forbidding the creation of new driveways.

The designation requires that the whole building façade be adjacent to the sidewalk. The main entrance must be located on the P-Street, and at least 60 percent of the façade between four and ten feet above the sidewalk must be windows. Any off-street parking must be located behind the building and accessed from the alley.

Arena wants to create P-Streets on Milwaukee from Giddings to Higgins, and on Lawrence from Laramie to Long. Located just south of the Jefferson Park Transit Center, this X-shaped district is the heart of the local retail area.

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The Pros and Cons of Divvy’s New Expansion Map

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The new Divvy expansion map with new coverage areas in pink. View a larger version.

In mid-July, Alta Bicycle Share’s Mia Birk told Marketplace that, due to pipeline issues, new bikes for the systems Alta runs probably wouldn’t arrive until 2015. At the time, I predicted that the Chicago Department of Transportation would soon announce that it wouldn’t be able to expand the Divvy system from 3,000 to 4,750 cycles this year, as previously planned.

More than a month later, CDOT finally announced yesterday that Chicago won’t be getting new stations until early next spring, but they cleverly softened the blow by releasing the locations for the 175 docking stations that will be added to the existing 300. Roughly 3,100 additional docks will be added, according to Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger.

In the news release, CDOT also boasted that, with 475 stations spread over 87 square miles and 31 wards, Divvy will have the largest number of stations and the widest coverage area of any North American city. However, New York’s Citi Bike system will still have far more bikes, with 6,000.

The delay in getting new bikes for Alta-run systems was caused by the bankruptcy of Montreal-based supplier Public Bike System Co., also known as Bixi. CDOT spokesman Pete Scales told the Chicago Tribune that the department is confident that the expansion won’t be further postponed. “Alta is in the final stages of vetting multiple supplier options, all of whom have committed to spring delivery time frames.”

Chicago’s new map of planned stations was influenced by hundreds of suggestions residents made via a station request website. The new coverage area will stretch almost to 79th Street on the South Side, as far as Touhy Avenue on the North Side, and a bit west of Pulaski Road. Infill stations will also be added downtown, and on the Near South Side, the North North Side, and in Hyde Park.

In order to ensure the system would be financially viable, CDOT officials said the first round of 300 stations was concentrated in areas with a high density of transit stops, retail, employment nodes, and other destinations. Although low-income communities like Little Village, Pilsen, Bronzeville, and Oakland did get stations, some commenters and residents argued that the system was overly focused on affluent parts of town, and that too many poor neighborhoods were overlooked.

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The River of Traffic On Ridge/Hollywood Hurts Edgewater’s Livability

Ridge Avenue speed and traffic study

Walking across Ridge at Wayne can be dicey.

The Edgewater neighborhood along the north lakefront should be a pleasant place to walk. It’s the second-densest community area in the city, with 56,521 residents in an area just 1.5 miles across, and boasts lively commercial areas like Andersonville. Yet local residents say that their neighborhood is effectively cleaved into two by a roiling river of car traffic. The north end of Lake Shore Drive pumps tens of thousands of cars through the neighborhood, first onto Hollywood and then to Broadway or Ridge and onto Clark and Peterson.

To welcome this invading army of cars, over a dozen houses were leveled in the mid-1950s (animation below) to transform these local streets into four-lane traffic sewers — roads meant to move many cars, quickly. This turned Hollywood and Ridge into impassable barriers, according to local residents like Claire Micklin. She says it’s practically impossible to use marked crosswalks, because drivers simply refuse to stop. Even when traffic backups make it possible to get halfway across, fast-moving traffic thunders past in the other direction. Micklin says she dreads trying to cross, or even to walking alongside the streets — since parking is banned, the never-ending traffic runs right next to the sidewalk:

Drivers drive as if they are on an extension of Lake Shore Drive, grinding to a halt at the lights that break up the thoroughfare. The cars just keep on coming, and even two of the four lanes are clear, there are usually cars speeding by on the other two lanes. I have seen people push baby carriages into the crosswalk, hoping that the other two lanes of traffic will stop. Even with a baby carriage in the middle of the road, people do not stop, and the person usually has to do a quick reverse back to where they started to cross.

Micklin lives just north of the tangled intersection where Hollywood, Ridge, Broadway, and Bryn Mawr all meet within one block of one another. The most convenient retail to her is clustered around the Bryn Mawr “L” stop, just south of Hollywood, or in Andersonville, a few blocks southwest, and none of the nearest crosswalks to her have traffic signals. Even where there are signals, as at Ridge and Hollywood, the streets are obviously engineered for cars: The signal timing favors the Ridge-Hollywood through traffic, and requires pedestrians to press a “beg button” that’s inaccessible to children or people in wheelchairs. The intersection even features a highway-style, concrete Jersey barrier to keep skidding drivers from rolling right into someone’s home.

Kevin Zolkiewicz lives a block south of the speedway. Like Micklin, he has to cross Hollywood or Ridge to get to services like the restaurants or the library on Broadway. He calls the walk “miserable… [I] have to go out of my way to cross at a light,” Zolkiewicz said, adding that Ridge “acts as a barrier between Andersonville and the rest of Edgewater.”

The never-ending stream of cars at Ridge and Hollywood. 

Streetsblog contributor Justin Haugens and I observed traffic at two problematic intersections that Micklin identified — Ridge/Wayne just west of the Ridge-Hollywood intersection, and Hollywood/Magnolia just to the east. These intersections are between traffic signals, so motorists are used to speeding up rather than stopping at these locations.

The two intersections both feature all four marked crosswalks, but the legs across the wider streets have faded nearly to black, neither have pedestrian refuge medians, and neither has a “stop for pedestrians” sign. (CDOT says that they will not install these on four-lane roads, due to the low probability that drivers in all four lanes will actually obey the sign.)

Micklin said that, due to the angled junction in between these two intersections, “there’s no visibility to see oncoming cars, and [thus] know that you can cross safely. I’ve been stuck in the middle of the road before, and people still don’t stop.” We noticed half a dozen people during our study doing just that: Wiggling between stopped cars headed in one direction, then waiting in the middle of the road before running across the other lanes.

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“Walk To Transit” Targets 20 CTA Stations For Quick Safety Fixes

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Passengers arriving at the Clinton Station often can’t find the Greyhound, Union, or Divvy stations.

A new “Walk To Transit” initiative by the Chicago Department of Transportation will target 20 CTA stations for a slew of simple pedestrian infrastructure upgrades. People walking to several Blue Line stations on the west side and along Milwaukee Avenue, along with stations on the south and north sides, will see safety and usability improvements like re-striped zebra crosswalks, curb extensions, repaired or widened sidewalks, and new signage.

Suzanne Carlson, pedestrian program coordinator at the Chicago Department of Transportation, said at the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting to weeks ago (theme: connectivity) that construction on a first phase of ten stations should begin in the spring of 2015. CDOT has grant funding for another ten stations, yet to be identified. She said that the designs [PDF] were published in March “at 30 percent,” but only one minor design element has changed since then. 

Some stations will get new and improved wayfinding signage. New signs outside the Blue Line’s Clinton station, hidden underneath a Eisenhower Expressway overpass, will direct CTA riders to Metra, Amtrak, and Greyhound, and vice versa. Even among the majority of American adults who carry smartphones, figuring out where to go from the Clinton station can be a puzzle: The other stations aren’t immediately visible from any of the station’s four dark exits. Adding “breadcrumb” sign posts along the way would help. CTA and CDOT managing deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel have had conversations about adding Divvy wayfinding signs within stops like Clinton, where Divvy is similarly hiding around the corner from the station entrance, “but we haven’t reached a definitive agreement at this point.”

This is where Divvy signage should be displayed

Signs within the Clinton Blue Line station point CTA riders to Greyhound and Metra, but not Divvy — and once above ground, no further clues are available.

Above the Blue Line station at Grand-Milwaukee-Halsted, CDOT proposes reprogramming the signal with “leading pedestrian intervals,” which will give people walking across the street a green light before drivers can make a turn. New curb extensions (bulb-outs) at Ohio Street, between the station and Milwaukee’s bridge over the Ohio Street Connector, will slow down drivers and prevent them from driving down Milwaukee’s faded bike lane.

Around the Pulaski Blue Line station in West Garfield Park, which is within the median of the Eisenhower Expressway, recommended improvements include curb extensions to slow turning drivers at all corners of Harrison and Pulaski, a pedestrian refuge island within Pulaski at Van Buren, and signs that will direct bicyclists to and from the station from Keeler Avenue — a nearby “neighborhood route” under the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan.

Outside the 63rd Street Red Line station in Englewood, new trees will enliven a dull corner at Princeton Avenue — and also replace a dangerous gas station driveway, which eliminates the conflict between cars turning across the sidewalk into the gas station, right by a bus stop. Such dangerous curb cuts are not forever, since they have to be renewed annually.
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