Wells-Wentworth Project Will Fix Intersection, Spark Riverfront Development

Wentworth Ave. reconstruction through Chinatown and beyond. Rendering: CDOT
CDOT rendering showing the intersection reconfiguration, the new library, and the road extension.

For years, Chinatown has welcomed visitors with a red ceremonial gateway straddling Wentworth Street just south of Cermak Road. Yet for many visitors to Chinatown, accessing the historic Wentworth business strip involves confusedly jaywalking across the six lanes of Cermak, a not-so-welcoming experience.

The Wells-Wentworth Connector project aims to make that tricky intersection safer and less puzzling, while also opening up access to a large expanse of riverfront that’s been fallow for decades despite sitting almost in the Loop’s shadow.

Currently, as you head south on Wentworth, the street jogs west at Cermak. Wentworth will be widened and rerouted, so that the westward shift happens north of the intersection. The street currently terminates at a railroad line around 16th Street, just south of the vacant land and east of Ping Tom Park. The road will be extended further north and one block west, under Roosevelt Road, linking up with Wells Street near River City.

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The current intersection configuration requires pedestrians coming from the Red Line to make two street crossings to access the Wentworth business strip. Image: Google Maps.

The intersection redesign will widen the asphalt expanse at the Chinatown Gateway, and level the three buildings that today house the closed New Three Happiness and Cantonesia restaurants, as well as the International Bank. From there, Wentworth, shown on renderings as being two to four lanes wide with protected bike lanes, will curve back east, slaloming around a new teardrop-shaped library at Archer Avenue. Wentworth will follow its existing route north past the Chinatown Square development and up to 18th Street.

From 18th, what’s now a softball field’s dirt parking lot will be paved and widened, and a new road alignment will be built from Ping Tom’s eastern edge across the railroad tracks and north to Roosevelt, where it will connect with Wells along the west side of the Roosevelt Collection retail and residential development.

This project was contemplated as far back as the 1909 Plan of Chicago. At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Emanuel introduced an ordinance to purchase the three buildings on Cermak and to allocate money from two tax increment financing districts to bankroll the $62 million project. He said the work is slated to begin later this year and continue through 2015.

1928 photo from the Tribune archives showing the intersection to be reconfigured. The building at left, under the flagpole, will be demolished. Photo via Paul Sedra/Flickr.

In a press release [PDF], Emanuel insisted that the plan will “increase the safety for motorists and pedestrians at the busy intersection in the heart of this great neighborhood.” While at first glance, widening Wentworth from two to four lanes doesn’t seem like a pedestrian-friendly move, the reconfiguration should reduce crossing distances for most people on foot. That’s because a new crosswalk at the east leg of the junction will finally allow people to walk directly between the local Red Line stop and the traditional Wentworth business strip, without having to cross two streets.

Similarly, it will be sad to lose the three old buildings at the northwest corner, but adding land to the northeast corner, currently a small parking lot, will encourage redevelopment of the space. Up the street, the new library will include a plaza that will allow a diagonal pedestrian shortcut to Chinatown Square, the newer retail area. Crews will stripe a crosswalk will on Archer to facilitate that shortcut, and build sidewalks along Wentworth from 19th Street up to the new Ping Tom Park field house.

North of Chinatown, the connector will fill a hole in the city’s grid: there are currently no north-south through streets connecting Cermak and Congress Parkway between Wells (200 west) and Canal (600 west), even though the intervening area is filling in with high-density development. The connector will be an at-grade access road through the spotty landscape of high-rises and vacant former rail yards that line most of the river’s east bank in this area, potentially spurring development.

A view south from the Willis Tower clearly shows the open green expanse of the “Riverside District,” and existing Wells Street running between Roosevelt Collection and River City. Photo: Clark Maxwell, via Flickr.

The most conspicuously underutilized land in this part of town is the 62-acre rectangle between Roosevelt, Clark, 16th, and the river, dubbed the “Riverside District” by its former owner, disgraced businessman Tony Rezko. Formerly a CSX rail yard and, before that, a bottleneck-creating bend in the river, the site may soon be purchased by the city to expedite its redevelopment. Until now, efforts to develop the land have been fruitless, largely because the land sits within a bowl between elevated Roosevelt Road on its north, railroads and the river. At-grade access will make the land much more attractive to developers.

Indeed, because of the “renewed interest in this [development] project now… we are moving forward with the [road] plan,” CDOT spokesman Pete Scales told the Tribune. The city plans to complete the first two phases of the project, covering the area between Cermak and Ping Tom, by 2016. Construction of the new road north of the park will be “coordinated in conjunction with a future mixed use redevelopment agreement,” Scales said.

  • Fred

    “The road will be widened and extended further north to connect to the Roosevelt Road, and eventually Wells Street, a block west”

    I don’ think the second half of this sentence is correct. Based on an aerial map and the rendering above, I think the connector won’t connect to Roosevelt, but to Wells, which will pass underneath Roosevelt. It looks like the new Wentworth will end approximately where it does now, then jog west and connect to a new length of Wells, which will connect to it’s current dead end at/under Roosevelt.

  • Do we know if it’s going to go under Roosevelt or allow exits (Clark-street style, I guess)?

  • WellsDweller

    I, too, am hoping that the new connection passes UNDER Roosevelt, bypassing the road entirely. The whole elevated Roosevelt thing was a horrible decision, no need to continue making people at street-grade pay for it with huge ramps overhead.

    And I am also hoping that they do not try and cram some 4-lane road through the existing neighborhood, particularly because parts of Wells (between 9th Street and Harrison) are not wide enough to accommodate 4 lanes. They connect to the existing Wells Street is the final phase, but the part I am most interested in hearing about. Any ideas what the plans are for this stretch? I really hope the city doesn’t plan on duplicating its mistakes at Wells (& Franklin)/Harrison, where they made the streets more about cars and much less friendly for pedestrians. Until I see some concrete plans, I’m going to assume the worst, as the speed at which the city is pushing this project (and supposedly forcing the sale of the lot just south of Roosevelt through which this new road will exist), has me wondering what is really up.

  • Fred

    The northern most part of this project (phase 3) won’t be completed until that entire vacant area is developed, which is likely many years away. It would be nice if a temporary multi-use trail were stripped across it in the meantime to provide a completely road separated section of path between the Sloop and Chinatown.

  • Any development on the Riverside District site will ultimately include a riverwalk, per the city’s riverfront development standards. A temporary trail might be useful in the meantime, particularly if the site takes a while to develop. (Of course, developers are optimists, and won’t admit that it will take a while.)

  • Kevin M

    Re: “The whole elevated Roosevelt thing was a horrible decision”

    Roosevelt has, for a very long time, had the challenge of crossing two rail yards and a river. The eastbank rail yard is now gone, but there remains an active triple-track Metra line serving LaSalle St. Station.

    What alternative Roosevelt would you prefer to see?

  • Um, it’s already 4 lanes there, just two of them are parking.

  • Plus with it up in the air like that it doesn’t have to open to let boats through, which is nice (preserving the river’s navigability).

  • Having played around with Google imagery and squinted at the rendering they’ve released, it loooooks like they’re maybe going to use the existing underpass space under the east-west rail line right at the top of Ping Tom Park (where, from the desire paths, clearly a lot of walkers cut through to go play in the empty land already). This would mean cutting diagonally across a bit of the existing park area (and figuring a crossing method for the diagonal rail line there that bisects the park), but would probably be a massive savings over engineering some other crossing-method to deal with the rail lines. This would be amazing, since then both halves of the park would be easily accessible at-grade right off new-Wells. It would also line up with the bits of probably-once-going-to-be-Wells that still show as kinda-paved (or, at least, not grassy) on Google imagery.

    I wonder if they’d want to plat in another north/south street between new-Wells and the rail lines, or if it would just have a series of eastward spokes extending from it? (Please, please, no Massive Malls, sigh).

  • Clark Wellington

    Better solution would be to elevate the railway, as it is to the south and north of that intersection. Then Roosevelt could remain at grade and be a MUCH better pedestrian experience.

  • I’ve gotten a little obsessed, so here’s a diagram to help figure out what we might be looking at — I squinted hard at the proposed rendering above and tried to draw in what they propose, straight and even, on Google’s satellite imagery. The green is my best attempt at what they show.

    The orange oval shows the most problematic part of the route: a new crossing is needed over or under that railroad line. The purple bits are me speculating about future street layouts.


  • alexfrancisburchard

    I’ve never felt like I had a bad pedestrian experience walking down roosevelt. It’s actually one of the nicest roads in the city to walk on, no curb cuts for like a mile on the south sidewalk, beautiful views, It’s wonderful really.

  • MLKendricks

    If its built with bike lanes (and it better be) it will provide the best path from the loop to Chinatown. Canal is not a fun ride and Clark is even worse. The Cermak & Wentworth alignment by itself is worth it. The intersection is in Phase 2 so I’d like to think it has a good shot of being built. Phase 3 seems dicey, especially considering the railroad bridges needed.

  • Nathanael

    That diagonal rail line which bisects the park is in use by Amtrak. Could be quite tricky to work out how to cross it.

  • Fred

    The Roosevelt bridge does open… It will be open approximately 24 hours from right now.

  • FWIW, some earlier proposed layouts for that site are posted here: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?p=15205736

  • Fred

    In my experience, riverwalks are excellent for walking, but unusable for biking. Hopefully there will at least be bike lanes on the future roadway.

  • Yes, but it’s tall enough that most ordinary traffic can go under without lifting.

  • Yup. Probably building a flyover for the street, bridging the rail line before landing to turn right under the OTHER rail bridge, would be the least complex solution …

  • It will also mean being able to access that part of River North from Cermak, instead of having to thread your way in through downtown somehow.

  • Interesting. It’s been a while, I wonder if IKEA would be interested again? That could be a serious magnet … now if only there were any whisper of a chance of TRANSIT access anywhere in this whole bottlenecked area. :-/ Bikes are nice, but walkability east or busses would help too.

  • david vartanoff

    Maybe I am missing something but, IIRC some of this former RR ROW is an ideal route for a serious HSR project (current trackage to/from Union Station is congested at best. Are we foreclosing future options?

  • Yuck.

    I hate walking on Roosevelt, especially in this area (and particularly on the viaduct between State and Canal). Sure there the view of the city is nice and there are no curb cuts, but it is basically a de facto highway (with resulting high speeds) and not a Complete Street designed for ALL users. I live just north of here and avoid walking or biking (or even driving) on Roosevelt if at all possible. It is never a pleasant experience, and the viaduct makes hauling home good from any of those big box stores on the other side more difficult than it could be.

  • Kevin M

    You suggest elevating the entire Metra/Amtrak railyard just to the west of the river–which Roosevelt currently flies over? That’s never going to happen.

  • neroden

    FWIW that rail crossing marked in orange is very very lightly used. Nearly all the freight has been rerouted off it. It’s an alternative passenger route for six trains a day which usually go over the bridge. Planes have been, for a long time, to reroute *all* of them onto a more direct route to Union Station, but nobody can agree on a route.

  • The Union Station tracks are on the west side of the river; this is on the east.

  • Having walked through it now, my socks are blown off at the quality of natural area it is currently being maintained to be. The species mix is not what I’d expect to see if it was just being mowed and left alone; someone is seeding it and otherwise intervening to keep invasives and trash species out.

    It’s an amazing experience, better than North Park Village Nature Center or any other natural area I’m aware of north of 22nd in the entire city.

    If the economics of development can’t be worked out, maybe they could put in a maintained trail loop and an interpretive center and run it as a nature center for a decade while the market settles out?


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