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Downtown Median Becomes Chicago’s First People Plaza

1:10 PM CDT on June 25, 2013

The Gateway people plaza on State Street

The Gateway, Chicago's first "People Plaza" seating area, recently opened at what Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein described as an "under-acknowledged public space" in the median of State Street between Wacker Drive and Lake Street. The installation is funded by the Chicago Loop Alliance, one of the downtown chambers of commerce, via a Special Service Area, and it was implemented as part of the Chicago Department of Transportation's Make Way for People public space initiative. Red and blue metal tables and chairs, several of them shaded by umbrellas, as well as several new flower boxes, dot the former concrete no-man's land. A couple weeks ago, at around 2 p.m., a handful of people were enjoying the space, including a group of women engrossed in conversation despite the traffic on either side of them.

The Gateway people plaza on State Street

The Gateway is a big improvement over the old, bare bones State Street median, which was previously more popular with skateboarders and BMX riders doing stunts than anyone else. "I think all underutilized urban space should be creatively capitalized on," said architect Brent Norsman, a commissioner for the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area. "Who would have thought that a pocket of land surrounded by traffic would be at all tolerable? This shows that the people are ready for it."

The median was originally designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill during the State Street reconstruction in 1996, and unfortunately they didn't make it ADA accessible. There are no curb cuts, and steps separate the different levels of the plaza (State runs downhill from Wacker at this location). "If it's a regular fixture, then definitely [curb cuts will be added]," Klein said via email.

Accessing the plaza is not particularly easy for able-bodied folks either. The only legal pedestrian access points are the crosswalks at Wacker and Lake. SOM also designed steps flanking the median that lead up to the seating, but it's awkward to use them from within the plaza, and without a mid-block crosswalk it would be dangerous to walk straight to the steps from the other side of the street.

Mariano Park (plaza) on Rush and State Streets

Mariano Park, a plaza at State, Rush, and Bellvue streets, nicknamed the Viagra Triangle due to its popularity with mature gentlemen and their younger dates, has a similar location encircled by traffic. However, it's currently a more vibrant public space than The Gateway, with a fountain and a cafe offering drinks and gelato. It's also helped by the surrounding restaurants with outdoor seating, and it's a bit more comfortable to access on foot due to slower car speeds.

While The Gateway doesn't have much adjacent retail, there are a few fast-food restaurants nearby, and DNAInfo reported that State & Lake, a tavern inside the adjacent Wit hotel, has started selling boxed lunches in response to the opening of the new seating area.

Plazas are more people-friendly when they are easily accessible from the sidewalk, and some of the future plaza projects will achieve this by pedestrianizing a street on one side of a traffic island to attach it to the "mainland." That's the plan for SherMon Plaza, slated for the Sheridan/Montrose/Broadway intersection in Uptown. And CDOT is working on a similar, smaller-scale plan for Woodard Plaza, located at Diversey and Kimball avenues in Logan Square, closing a very short street to create a continuous grade between the sidewalk and a traffic triangle. That plaza will also feature native plantings that will absorb and filter storm water, helping to alleviate Chicago's persistent stormwater management problems caused in part by the dearth of permeable surfaces in the city.

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