Lincoln Square Merchants Who Fear Road Diet Already Benefit From One

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Barba Yianni's sidewalk cafe is a relaxing spot because there is no speeding traffic nearby, thanks to the Lincoln Avenue road diet. Photo by John Greenfield.

Business owners in Lincoln Square are whining that the upcoming Lawrence Avenue streetscape, which involves removing travel lanes, will cause traffic jams and hurt sales. The irony is, they’re currently reaping the benefits of a longstanding road diet on Lincoln Avenue. The new project will transform Lawrence between Clark Street and Western Avenue from it’s current status as a four-lane speedway with narrow sidewalks to a safer, more pleasant, more economically viable corridor.

The streetscape involves a “four-to-three conversion”: through lanes will be eliminated in each direction and replaced with dedicated left-turn lanes and bikes lanes – currently there are only shared-lane markings on this stretch. Sidewalks will be widened from nine feet to twelve feet, and high-visibility crosswalks, pedestrian refuge isalnds, and curb bump-outs will make it easier to cross the street.

Chicago Department of Transportation traffic studies indicate that the changes won’t worsen congestion. Instead, the lane removal will discourage speeding, and the turn bays will keep turning vehicles from blocking through traffic. CDOT is also adding longer green signal times on Lawrence and a left-turn arrow at Damen Avenue to facilitate traffic flow.

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CDOT rendering of the Lawrence Avenue Streetscape.

In addition to creating safer conditions for walking, biking and driving, the road diet will encourage people to spend their money at shops and restaurants along Lawrence. It will make this stretch, currently a bleak, car-dominated roadway, much more appealing to pedestrians and cyclists, and by slowing down motorized traffic it will make it more likely drivers will notice the storefronts. The wider sidewalks will also allow restaurants to have sidewalk cafes, which will increase their capacity and make the strip more lively.

Last month at a meeting between CDOT staff and local merchants to discuss the streetscape, Carol Himmel, co-owner of Himmel’s restaurant, 2251 West Lawrence, said she’s excited about being able to add a café, according to a DNA write-up. This will be a boon for her bottom line because outdoor seating is crucial for attracting customers during Chicago’s rare warm-weather months.

However, the DNA piece quoted twice as many local merchants wringing their hands that the road diet will jam traffic on Lawrence and sap their customer base. “I’m not excited. I think they’re going to have terrible problems with traffic,” said Louise Rohr, who owns of Fine Wine Brokers, 4621 N. Lincoln Ave.

“I’m concerned about Lawrence already as it is,” said Anas Ihmoud, who manages the Greek restaurant Barba Yianni, 4761 N. Lincoln Ave. “People will avoid Lawrence and that will mean less exposure to Lincoln Square. Lincoln Square is becoming a destination. We’ve created such a brand for people to come, but is it accessible?”

Yes, Mr. Inmoud, Lincoln Square is a shopping, dining and nightlife destination, and you know what has been one of the biggest factors in making it one? A road diet.

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Giddings Plaza. Photo by John Greenfield.

The neighborhood’s Lincoln Avenue business strip is one of the most vibrant pedestrian retail districts in town because it has low-speed car traffic, lots of foot traffic and plenty of sidewalk cafes. This is especially true on the semi-pedestrianized block of Lincoln between Lawrence and Leland, bisected by lovely Giddings Plaza, the products of a road diet and a street closure.

In the late 1970’s the city took the bold step of converting this stretch of Lincoln into a one-way street and changing the parallel parking to angled spaces, which narrowed the street and slowed cars. Raised crosswalks at Giddings double as speed bumps, further calming traffic. The adjacent block of Giddings was cul-de-sac-ed to create the plaza, and a beautiful fountain and a raised performance space were later added, creating an urban oasis that is regularly filled with adults relaxing and children playing.

Back when the changes were made, merchants griped about losing two-way traffic, but nowadays they should understand that this forward-thinking street design is a big part of what draws people to Lincoln Square. Barba Yianni has an excellent location on the semi-pedestrianized block. Surely Inmoud’s customers wouldn’t enjoy munching stuffed grape leaves and moussaka in his sidewalk café as much if there was car traffic whizzing right by them.

Lincoln Avenue businesspeople like Rohr and Inmoud should stop kvetching about the Lawrence Avenue road diet hurting commerce in the neighborhood, when their own experience suggests the opposite will be true. And they should be happy their colleagues on Lawrence will soon enjoy the same benefits of mellow traffic and a people-friendly street, since this will make Lincoln Square even more of a destination.

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