Don’t Knock Woodard: Chicago’s Next Great Little Public Space
[This piece also runs in Checkerboard City, John's column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
Surrounded by chainlink fence and blanketed with snow, a new plaza under construction at the northwest corner of Milwaukee/Diversey/Kimball in Avondale, an intersection that appears several times in the movie “Wayne’s World,” currently looks pretty bleak. However, once it opens to the public later this year, the triangular slab of land is likely to become one of Chicago’s most vibrant public spaces.
Formerly a drab concrete traffic island occupied by a couple of trees, a bus shelter and a shabby newsstand, the wedge is being transformed into Woodard Plaza, named after the roadway that previously formed its northern boundary. The Chicago Department of Transportation has closed a short stretch of Woodard to connect the island to the mainland, creating a larger space that will house a small amphitheater, a raised performance space with power outlets, and a plethora of new greenery.
The project is part of CDOT’s Make Way for People initiative, which seeks to enhance the public way by creating more and better places for people to relax, socialize and maybe take in some culture. So far the program has led to six People Spot mini parks being built in parking spaces, and the creation of the Gateway seating area at State and Wacker. There have also been projects to enliven several existing plazas in Woodlawn, Little Village, East Garfield Park and Old Town with public art and music performances. The department currently has a request for proposals out for a partner to activate forty-nine underused plazas across the city with new amenities and programming.
According to CDOT Complete Streets Director Janet Attarian, community members, including arts organizations from the nearby Hairpin Arts Center, and the owners of Crown Liquors, just north of the plaza, recognized the Avondale traffic island as an underused asset. 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón brought the idea of creating the new plaza to CDOT, Attarian says. The roughly $500,000 project is largely being bankrolled through tax-increment-financing dollars.
“I think it’s really exciting that we’re removing asphalt for cars and making a place for people,” she says. “It was really nice that a large group of people got involved with the design process.” The plaza will feature a swirling, oval-shaped seating area with seating walls made of precast concrete. The center of the amphitheater would work well for intimate performances by solo musicians, jugglers and other performers who don’t need a lot of space. Larger and louder acts can use the raised performance area at the north end of the space.