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Narrowly Written Ordinance Makes It Difficult to Install Curbside Cafes

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The people spot in front of Osteria Pizza Metro was open to the public, but it was often mistaken for a private sidewalk cafe. Photo: Latent Design

[The Chicago Reader recently 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.]

In the summer of 2014, two so-called people spots opened near the intersection of Diversey and Clark in east Lakeview. They were installed in the parking lanes in front of El Nuevo Mexicano restaurant, at 2914 N. Clark, and Osteria de Pizza Metro, 2863 N. Clark, for a total cost of $35,000, in an effort to revitalize a section of the street that suffered from narrow sidewalks and empty storefronts.

These on-the-street seating areas, also known as “parklets,” consisted of wooden platforms, tables, and chairs, surrounded by colorful enclosures that enlivened the street. But despite the attractiveness of the people spots, local merchants say neither structure attracted much use.

Passersby assumed they were private sidewalk cafes for the two sit-down eateries. But Chicago’s rules governing people spots—established in 2012 to encourage the development of these miniature public spaces—prohibit table service and alcohol consumption, so the seating wasn’t much use for restaurant patrons.

A total of eight parklets have been installed across the city, from Andersonville and Lakeview to Kenwood and Grand Boulevard. Those that feature tables and chairs and have been placed next to coffee shops and take-out joints have been popular with customers. Other people spots that don’t resemble sidewalk cafes, such as “the Wave,” an installation of free-form seating at Addison and Southport, have also inspired plenty of positive loitering.

But since the Lakeview people spots weren’t successful, staffers at the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce came up with a solution: push for new legislation that would allow restaurants like El Nuevo Mexicano and Pizza Metro to serve food and booze in private parklets dubbed “curbside cafes.”

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Former Rapid Transit Owners Opening Cosmic Bikes in Jefferson Park

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The new logo.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the former owners of the influential, recently shuttered Rapid Transit cycle shops are launching a new store called Cosmic Bikes in the Jefferson Park. They plan to open the shop at 4641 North Milwaukee by the end of April.

Back in 1994, when bike commuting was relatively uncommon in Chicago, and the city had few bike lanes or parking racks, married couple Justyna Frank and Chris Stodder had the novel idea of opening a shop that focused on transportation cyclists. From their storefront at 1900 West North in Wicker Park, they sold bicycles that were hard to find at the time, including European-style city bikes, cargo cycles, and folding bikes. 15 years later, they opened a satellite shop at 1344 South Halsted, near the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Rapid Transit shops helped shift Chicago’s utility cycling revolution into high gear. They provided people who were new to bike commuting with the equipment, service, and know-how needed to stay on the road. The stores also functioned as an incubator for other commuter-focused shops opened by ex-employees, such as Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square (where I once worked), Blue City Cycles in Bridgeport, Comrade Cycles in Ukrainian Village, and Green Machine Cycles in Ravenswood, plus the mobile repair business Pedal to the People.

However, last December Frank and Stodder closed both Rapid Transit stores and liquidated their inventory. “It was a viable business back when the economy was stronger,” says Frank. “But due to the rising rents in Wicker Park and the economic downturn, it was no longer viable.”

It may seem surprising that the couple is getting back into the bike business so soon after closing the Rapid Transit shops, but Frank says the move makes sense. “If you’re a dentist and you can’t operate your current practice for whatever reason, you would probably find ways to continue in the field you know and understand,” Frank says. “Chris and I have a quarter-century of experience in the bike industry, but we’re not easily hireable by another company.”

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Why Didn’t More Locals Show Up for the West-Side Bikeway Hearings?

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House painter James Woods rides in the Lake Street protected bike lane in September 2014. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating 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.]

Residents and aldermen in wealthier north- and northwest-side wards have been more vocal about pushing for bike lanes and racks than their South- and West-Side counterparts. That’s one reason why the lion’s share of cycling infrastructure has been concentrated north of Madison.

After Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, that equation changed somewhat. According to the Chicago Department of Transportation, 60 percent of the roughly 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes installed during the mayor’s first term went to south- and west-side neighborhoods, as defined by the city’s official community areas.

Still, when the Divvy system was rolled out in 2013, the bulk of the docking stations went to dense downtown and north-lakefront areas.

In December 2014, a group of African-American bike advocates pushed CDOT to do better, publishing an open letter to the mayor’s office requesting a more equitable distribution of resources.

“In the past, the city’s philosophy has been that the communities that already bike the most deserve the most resources,” Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed (now a Streetsblog board member) told me at the time. “That just perpetuates a vicious cycle where cycling grows fast in some neighborhood and not others.” He argued Chicago’s African-American and Latino communities are the ones that most urgently need the health and economic benefits of biking.

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CDOT Plans a (Conservative) Safety Overhaul of Belmont, Ashland and Lincoln

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The vast, crooked intersection is dangerous for all road users. Image: Google Street View

The six-way intersection of Belmont, Ashland, and Lincoln in Lakeview is one of the most confusing and scariest intersections on the North Side, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The north and south legs of Lincoln don’t line up properly. The six-way junction is a massive expanse of asphalt, roughly 150 feet across at its widest point, creating a long exposure time for cyclists on the diagonal street, a recommended bike route. Pedestrians are forced to make as many as three street crossings to get where they need to go, using long, skewed crosswalks.

Not surprisingly, the intersection has a high crash rate. According to Steven Vance’s Chicago Crash Browser, based on state collision statistics, from 2009 to 2013 there were 185 total crashes at the intersection, including 12 in which bicyclists were injured, and five in which pedestrians were injured. The junction is sure to become even more chaotic in early 2017 when a new Whole Foods opens at the northeast corner with a whopping 300-plus car parking spaces.

In an effort to increase safety for all road users, enhance walkability and reduce the “barrier effect” of the intersection, The Chicago Department of Transportation will be making some safety improvements. It’s part of a larger streetscape project that also includes making the Lincoln Hub placemaking pilot, located two blocks southeast at Wellington/Southport/Lincoln, a permanent – though scaled-back – feature of Lakeview.

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The northern seating plaza of the Lincoln Hub. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT will be holding a public hearing to discuss their plan next Tuesday, March 29, from 6-7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Church, 1500 West Belmont. Last Tuesday the department held a private meeting to outline the project with local aldermen Scott Waguespack, Tom Tunney, and Ameya Pawar, plus the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and other neighborhood organizations.

Waguespack’s chief of Staff Paul Sajovec filled me in what was discussed at the recent meeting. CDOT considered making some fairly bold changes to Belmont/Ashland/Lincoln, including closing off Lincoln Avenue entirely in one direction or the other, Sajovec said. However, they ultimately decided to go with options that involve the least amount of changes to motor vehicle throughput, according to Sajovec.

It’s tempting to fault CDOT for prioritizing traffic flow over improvements that would maximize safety and walkability here. However, the changes to the intersection will require approval from the more conservative Illinois Department of Transportation. In addition, all three streets are bus routes (or will be, once the CTA’s #11 Lincoln route re-launches this year), so unless the redesign includes dedicated bus lanes, reducing throughput would slow down transit trips.

Moreover, from what Sajovec told me, some positive changes are planned. Curb extensions will be added to some of the six corners, shortening crossing distances for pedestrians. In addition, these will help reduce the kink in Lincoln.

Left turns from that diagonal street will be banned in both directions. That will allow bike lanes to be striped on Lincoln through the intersection, which will make pedaling across the vast expanse a little less nerve-wracking.

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Once Again, the South Chicago Velodrome Is in Danger of Closing

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Photo: South Chicago Velodrome Association

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For the second time, we’re in danger of losing the South Chicago Velodrome, the city’s only bike racing track, which also hosts youth education programs. Bike mechanic Marcus Moore, who spearheaded the campaign to save the track last year after its original owner gave up on running it, says he’s now getting burned out himself after spending countless unpaid hours on the revival effort.

“I spent more time there last year than I was hoping and it really took over my life,” say Moore, an ex-messenger who owns the store Yojimbo’s Garage, located in the former Cabrini Green area. “It’s hurt my financial position – I had to turn away a lot of repair work and the opportunity cost was big.”

Moore says he’s planning on reducing his involvement with the project to a few hours a week. Meanwhile the monthly insurance bill for the velodrome is overdue, as are payments to the company that manufactured the portable wooden facility. If others don’t step forward to help out, the insurance policy will be canceled, and the track, located at 8615 South Burley on U.S. Steel’s former South Works plant site, will be repossessed.

The portable, outdoor track, built in 2011, was supposed to be the first step in a grand plan for the South Chicago Velo Campus, brainstormed by luxury pet accessory mogul Emanuele Bianchi. This $45 million campus would have included a larger indoor velodrome and other sports facilities, serving as the centerpiece of the planned Lakeside development on the former South Works site.

After hosting races for adults, plus education programs for youth from the surrounding low-to-middle-income communities for a few years, Emanuele and his partners gave up on the project in September 2014, citing a lack of support from the Chicago bike community. It looked like the manufacturer, Detroit-area-based V-Worldwide would dismantle the track and take it away.

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Residents Want to Ensure the Paseo Trail Won’t Be a Route to Gentrification

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The Burlington Northern Santa Fe right-of-way near 30th and Kedzie. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating 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.]

Last Wednesday, as I Divvied southwest along a disused Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor in Little Village, I caught the delicious aroma of fresh corn tortillas from the nearby El Milagro plant. I rolled past the razor wire-topped walls of the Cook County jail, then stopped to check out La Villita Park, a green space on a former brownfield site. The corridor continued southwest past the Semillas de Justicia (“Seeds of Justice”) Community Garden, various industrial businesses, and a few colorful murals, ending near the Paul Simon Job Corps Center.

This street-level right-of-way, a mix of asphalt, rutted gravel roads and weed-strewn lots, winds from 26th and Rockwell to 32nd and Central Park. Since early 2015, the city has been doing community outreach for its plan to turn the stretch of land into a paved 1.3-mile multi-use trail called the Little Village Paseo (“Promenade”), with attractive landscaping, gathering places, and public art.

On Sunday, Mayor Emanuel upped the ante with a surprise announcement that the plan has been expanded to include another 2.7 miles of largely abandoned BNSF right-of-way. The resulting four-mile trail, now simply called the Paseo, will go all the way northeast to 16th and Sangamon in Pilsen, and feature artwork that celebrates Latino culture.

The first trail section, along Sangamon between 21st and 16th, will start out as a simple paved path that will be built this summer [as part of a BNSF and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead abatement project]. There’s no timeframe or cost estimate yet for the rest of the trail.

While the 606—the 2.7-mile, $95 million trail that debuted on the northwest side last June—is an elevated, car-free greenway, the south-side facility will be a cheaper, simpler, at-grade trail with street crossings. But renderings suggest its aesthetics and amenities will be several notches above a garden-variety bike path.

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West Side Residents Tell CDOT Where New Bikeways Should Be Built

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Consultants and a couple of locals discuss bike routes on the West Side.

Last night the Chicago Department of Transportation held a meeting at the Austin neighborhood library to get feedback from residents on which routes should be prioritized as the city builds out the planned bike network on the West Side.

second West Side public input meeting takes place tomorrow night from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. at the Legler Library, 115 S. Pulaski Road in East Garfield Park. There will be a presentation at 6:00 p.m.

At the Austin meeting Mike Amsden, assistant director of transportation planning at CDOT, spoke about the planning process that led to the publication of the city’s Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan in fall 2012. He said this year the department wants to construct some of the yet-unbuilt bike routes from the plan – some as lanes, perhaps others as traffic-calmed “neighborhood greenways” on side streets.

For the purposes of this year’s bikeway planning process, the West Side is defined as the area bounded by the city limits, Roosevelt Road, California Avenue, and North Avenue.

The CDOT staffers and consultant went over the unbuilt local bike routes from Streets for Cycling Plan map that they’ve judged to be the most feasible and beneficial locations. They factored in health outcomes, like the prevalence of childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease among residents along the corridors, which could potentially be improved by providing safer streets for biking. They also met with “community influencers” suggested by the local six alders in November to vet the routes and took their advice into account.

CDOT developed a scoring system based on this info and created maps where the potential bike routes are color-coded according to their respective scores. At last night’s meeting, residents voted on which of the high- and medium-priority routes they want to see built.

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An Intelligent Plan for Redeveloping the Intelligentsia Building

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The Intelligentsia building at 3115 North Broadway will have its top two floors of parking converted to apartments. Image: Google Street View

Broadway in East Lakeview is one of the city’s most vibrant pedestrian-oriented retail districts. But lately it’s been depressing to watch the construction of a massive, suburban-style development just north of Wellington, which will house a Mariano’s supermarket and an XSport Fitness, plus a whopping 280 car parking spaces.

That project has already been degrading the pedestrian environment, since the sidewalk next to the work site has been closed for months, leading people to walk in the street. Although would have been plenty of room to create a walkway in the parking lane by using Jersey barriers, most of the parking spots were retained instead.

And once the development opens, the excessive number of garage spaces will encourage hundreds of new car trips a day. Not only will that make walking and biking on Broadway less safe and pleasant, it will worsen congestion in the neighborhood and increase pollution.

Fortunately, there was some good news yesterday about development on the strip. Kitty-corner from the new Mariano’s, the building that houses Intelligentsia Coffee and four other business, 3115 North Broadway, has been sold for $5.7 million, and the new owner plans to transform two floors of that building’s parking garage into apartments, DNAinfo reported.

Imagine that: A developer decided that housing for human beings would be a more productive and profitable use of prime real estate than warehousing automobiles.

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Eyes on the Street: Concrete Pad for Bus Riders Installed in East Garfield

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It doesn’t look like much, but this new concrete parkway pad at the northeast corner of Fulton and Sacramento  (looking east) turned a muddy bus stop area into a proper place to wait. Photo: Steven Vance

People catching the Chicago Transit Authority’s 94-South California bus in East Garfield Park no longer have to wait for their ride in the dirt.

While most CTA bus stops at least offer customers concrete to stand on, if not a bench or a shelter, not every rider has an appropriately designed waiting area. Until recently, three #94 bus stops on the 2900 block of West Fulton had substandard stops.

While the #94 line generally runs north-south, it runs east-west on Fulton between California and Sacramento. At the bus stop near the southeast corner of Fulton/Sacramento, there used to be no concrete, except for a “courtesy walk” running perpendicular from the sidewalk. I noticed that a local man who uses a wheelchair had to wait for southbound bus on this narrow strip of pavement.

This CTA customer formerly had to wait for the southbound #94 bus in the narrow “courtesy walk” at the southeast corner of Fulton and Sacramento. The walk has been replaced with a wider concrete area.

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The man formerly had to alight the northbound bus in this muddy parkway at the northeast corner. Thanks to CDOT, there’s now a concrete pad here as well — see the top photo.

Worse, there was no concrete at all at the bus stop at the northeast corner, only an ugly, broken advertising bench. That meant the man had to roll his wheelchair off the bus into the sometimes-muddy parkway when returning home on the northbound bus.

This week, the Chicago Department of Transportation installed concrete “parkway pads” at both of these stops, plus a third southbound bus stop at the southwest corner of Fulton and Francisco. This provides a much better boarding and alighting situation for the man, and all other people who use these stops.

There don’t seem to be a lot of people using these bus stops, so it might not have been cost effective to install these pads from the standpoint of spending money in a manner that serves the most riders. However, all CTA customers should at least be provided with a dignified place to wait for the bus.

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Groups Push for Turning Parking Under the Wilson Tracks to Public Space

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Will the space under the ‘L’ tracks be parking or a park? Image: The Wilson Underline

New York’s Chelsea neighborhood has the High Line pedestrian path, and Chicago’s Northwest Side has the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway. Now groups in Chicago’s Uptown community are pushing to create the next great linear park by a rail line, a project they’ve dubbed the Wilson Underline.

The CTA’s $203 million Wilson station overhaul includes ambition plans to transform the station into a Red/Purple transfer, make the stop wheelchair accessible, restore the historic clock tower, and install public art by renowned sculptor Cecil Balmond. But right now, the transit agency’s plan for the space underneath the ‘L’ tracks between Wilson and Montrose simply restores the conditions that existed before the rehab began. Once again, the space would be a dark, dismal place used for parking, surrounded by fences.

Thankfully, the Wilson Public Space Committee, Graceland Wilson Neighbors Association and Uptown United have put forward a forward-thinking alternative to using this valuable land in the heart of the neighborhood to warehouse cars once again. Instead, they want to transform the space into a promenade with green space, seating, event space, bicycle and food truck parking, artwork, and dynamic lighting under the tracks that would make the area less gloomy and more lively. They argue that these improvements would make the area under the tracks safer and more welcoming, and create a valuable new amenity for the neighborhood.

Over the past year, the groups have been working with the Metropolitan Planning Council and The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Transit Oriented Development studio course teams (commissioned by the CTA) to come up with their proposal. Over the last year, the groups have worked with nearby residents, property owners, and other stakeholders to come up with idea for the space.

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