Lincoln Avenue Goes Car-Free and Comes to Life

Kids dance to the music of "Little Miss Ann" Torrlba at a Sunday Play Spot event.
The 3300 block of North Lincoln Avenue during a Sunday Play Spot event. Photos: John Greenfield

Last week, I wrote about the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce’s Sunday Play Spot program, which is pedestrianizing a block of Lincoln Avenue between School and Roscoe streets every Sunday afternoon this month to make room for car-free recreation. Last Sunday, I stopped to check it out myself and found the event to be just as lively as the the chamber staffers said it was.

The vibe was similar to some of the more successful Open Streets ciclovía events on State Street and Milwaukee Avenue, with active games, crafts, a seating area, an art installation, children riding bikes and scooters, and live performances. However, the fact that all these happenings were packed into a single block made the Play Spot that much more vibrant. To give you a sense of how different Lincoln feels when it’s empty of cars and full of people, we’ve created the above GIF of children dancing to the music of “Little Miss Ann” Torralba.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 6.18.29 PM
The 3300 block of North Lincoln Avenue on a typical day. Image: Google Street View

The success of the Play Spot program suggests that this segment of Lincoln might benefit from some form of partial pedestrianization. Not every retail strip works well as a 24/7 car-free street, but pedestrianizing this block on all summer evenings and/or weekends could be a hit.

There are two more Play Spot events this month. If you’re looking for something fun to do with your kids, be sure to stop by the block between noon and 4 p.m. on one of the next two Sundays. Here’s the schedule of events.

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    Why couldn’t this have been done at a park?

  • For starters, it wouldn’t have had the same benefits for the adjacent businesses. See the chamber’s discussion of this in our previous post about the Play Spot:

    I know that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to buy a dozen doughnuts at Dinkel’s if I hadn’t stopped by this event.

  • BlueFairlane

    You mean to tell me an advertised special event held on a weekend generated more foot traffic than a street on an ordinary day when most people are at work? I’m shocked.

  • Jeff H

    It could have, but with it in the streets you have the added benefit of all the extra foot traffic for local businesses. You’ll also have more people just walking by and stopping to check things out instead of it being sequestered in a park.

  • Obviously, a street full of people also equals more foot traffic than a typical weekend day.

  • BlueFairlane

    You mean a street full of people attending an advertised special event? Obviously.

  • The point is, you might be able to achieve a similar level of vibrancy by pedestrianizing the block on a regular basis on summer evenings and/or weekends. Programmed, advertised activities, such as live performances, would definitely help draw people to the district. As I wrote, it’s not a sure thing, but it might be worth trying out.

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    I guess we should destroy all the parks and just play in the streets like the good ol days.

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    So you think it’s good to benefit private businesses at the expense of the public (blocking off public roads)?

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    If these businesses can’t stand on their own then let them close.

  • Opening the street to pedestrians, providing opportunities for healthy recreation, and increasing tax revenue through sales are to the benefit of the public.

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    Are you really increasing tax revenue overall though? People who are willing to spend money would have probably been willing to spend that money at lots of different places.

    It’s unlikely they are increasing their spending rate. Thus, the economic impact is negligible.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think the thesis that people come to the street because the street is closed is a false one. People come to the street because there’s a street fair. Those kids aren’t going to be giffing there without the band. Try this on a Sunday without the street fair, and it will look just like your Google truck view of Lincoln Avenue on a typical day.

  • You are correct — if a retail strip doesn’t already have a lot of foot traffic, simply making it car-free isn’t necessarily going to help. However, the success of this event suggests that, with sufficient promotion and/or programming, pedestrianizing the block on a regular basis could be a hit.

  • The increased sales tax revenue doesn’t just come from purchases that are made that day. Events like this help raise awareness of businesses on the strip, which could spur future purchases.

    For example, I was unaware of the existence of the Green Lady tavern until I saw it during the Play Spot event. I didn’t drink there that day but, now that I know it’s there, I’d like to drop by for a pint in the future.

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    My point is that the $5 you are spending on a pint isn’t benefitting the economy unless you were planning on never spending that $5.

    It doesn’t matter where you spend your disposable income, the overall economic impact is the same.

    For every business you think is benefitting from this, another one elsewhere is losing. Sales tax figures would not be affected overall.

    Again this amounts to nothing more than taxpayer subsidized advertising for private business.

  • People forget that with good design and enough to do, public spaces (that aren’t parks) can be successful year-round without advertised events. And that streets are not just for the driving or bicycling public. They are for everyone. Sheesh.

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    There are sidewalks for walking.

  • Look at the photo. The sidewalks don’t fit more than 2 adults walking side by side. That is not good design.

  • SlamOrDont

    You just defined “free on street parking”

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    There is no free parking on that stretch of Lincoln.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t buy that. People go to special events because they’re special, but that has a short shelf life. Have too many special events, and it’s more likely to become hum-drum, every day stuff. I think a month of Sundays is about the limit of what you could pull off before you start seeing diminishing returns.

    This reminds me of my home town, which five years ago spent a few hundred million to wreck what they called an underused park next to the Ohio River and replace it with a more modern parkland extravaganza, complete with fancy fountains and a million porch swings and a massive playground full of concrete trees. And it got huge traffic when it first opened, because it was new. The traffic lasted long enough for the city planners to declare it a success, but now the park is as deserted as the old one was.

  • Buff Bagwell IV

    It’s Lincoln Ave, not Michigan Ave.

  • BlueFairlane

    Yeah, all that sounds nice, but it very rarely works out. And the examples I can think of that do are associated with some pre-existing attraction that pulled people to the area anyway.

  • Deni

    Streetsblog seems to have a lot more trolls than it used to. *Sigh* This is quite literally the only site I ever read comments or ever post on because of the generally smart people who read/write here who also care about livable cities. Trolls go away.

  • Did you miss the part where I said “good design” or are you just trying to argue? You can’t just plop down any car-free space and expect it to work. Too many in Chicago were not designed well, but there are a few that work very well due to design and place.

  • Giddings Plaza and Daley Plaza spring to mind. Which others were you thinking of?

  • There are some, probably unnamed, in parts of Lincoln Park/Old Town where the streets are discontinuous. If nothing else they’re nice places to sit and people watch. There’s also one near City Grounds with a fountain which is a nice place to drink a coffee.

    One example of a bad one is between Damen and Lincoln just north of Irving Park. I think it faces a cvs parking lot. I don’t know why it’s there.

  • Jeff H

    Green Lady is highly recommended. It’s got a very chill vibe that a lot of bars in the area are lacking. And an excellent beer selection.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Man do they ever need to repaint the lanes in this town.

  • Kevin M

    That parking may not be free, but it is subsidized with tax dollars (and now with the infamous parking sell-out, non of the revenue goes towards the cost of maintaining Lincoln’s public way).

    The same goes for practically all other automobile infrastructure–just about all of it is subsidized with tax dollars. And you know what? I’m not against this–though I am for parity among transportation mode subsidization. Subsidizing the building blocks of healthy neighborhoods and economies makes a lot of sense.

    Or, we could try private roads again. How well did that work the first time it was tried in this country?

  • jared

    Except on Sunday.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    It used to be a Streets and San storage lot at Belle Plaine and Damen. Former Ald Schulter put a Cul de Sac at Belle Plaine. Its quite a desolate spot at times, though there is a Street Fair once a year, a Starz Event rib fest. Weekly there is a farmers market.

    No seating, and trees stuck into concrete. Maybe a planter or two. Kind of desolate otherwise.

  • Thank you for the history!

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Daily Plaza is open space without a street closing. Giddings a street closure was a short piece between Lincoln and the alley to the east. Closure made it possible to turn Lincoln one way with angled parking. Angled parking allowed for wider sidewalks. Leland was moved and buildings knocked down to connect Lincoln to western. Possibly when Damen, Fullerton and Elston is reconfigued something similar could be done, but that map you published a couple of days ago didn’t show it. Perhaps plans by the city is to sell off any unused property after it is reconfiguered and make some money back for the taxpayers.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I dont think the North Center Chamber does much with it. I don’t even think it has a name. There is a Christmas tree at the holidays.

  • Sure is nice to see Chicago embracing Ciclovia and Open Streets, programs which have been proven to reduce crime and make other cities more livable. Lasting change often starts as incremental change, and the combined impact of such events, held often and regularly, can be very significant.

  • kastigar

    The 2nd picture shows that.

  • rohmen

    I think many on here understand what the studies you are implicitly referring to say–i.e., that festivals and other art events merely shift where money is spent rather than creating huge amounts of new revenue. And I would agree that on a macro scale, $5 spent on Lincoln Ave vs. $5 spent near Division and Damen renders the same overall economic impact when looking at the City’s economy as a whole.

    The problem, though, is on the micro level, the $5 spent on Lincoln Ave during the day the street is shut down can have a much greater positive impact on that business’ bottom line than $5 lost by another business somewhere else in the City.

    This stretch of Lincoln seems to be struggling a bit, and drawing people and dollars to this stretch every Sunday the road is shut down may benefit the business on Lincoln much more than it hurts what ever business the $5 pint otherwise would have been purchased at elsewhere in the City. In other words, it’s too simplistic to just say spending $5 here is the same as spending $5 elsewhere, so no economic benefit is achieved. That proposition is likely true on a macro level, but it is not always true when examined on the micro level.

  • Pat

    You’re so right. Michigan Ave sidewalks are way too narrow!

  • Guest

    So according to your logic, the fact that that stretch of Lincoln has narrow sidewalks and features a relatively constant stream of noisy, smelly cars doesn’t in some small way discourage people from spending time there.

    Your assertion that closing a street has no effect seems patently false. Does a street closure work miracles? No. Would regular, predictable street closures coupled with some programming make me more likely to stop in sometime? Absolutely – and I suspect I’m not the only one.

    Other areas (like Giddings Plaza) have regular programming and I can tell you that people turn out in droves – much more than spend time there on a usual day.

  • FG

    Yeah, this stretch isn’t getting the free Sunday parking repealed.

  • Snowball

    While I love the pedestrian lifestyle, I’m unsure how to measure the value in closing off car traffic on a major street. If some businesses benefit do other businesses suffer? For example, do businesses located on the 3100 block of Lincoln suffer from inconvenience.
    In my opinion, it’s not the “job” of government to sort out the economic winners and losers. Some of the businesses along this stretch of Lincoln do well and others not so much.

  • rohmen

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that it was the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, which is a private non-profit organization composed of businesses throughout Lakeview, that put this together, not the City itself. The City shut down the road at the request of the chamber (and presumably the businesses that make up the chamber by extension), not out of some City initiative like Open Streets.

    Maybe you still view the City shutting down the street by request of the chamber as an improper form of government support, but that point is debatable to say the least, and I for one feel it is an entirely appropriate form of government support when the request comes from area businesses themselves.

  • cjlane

    “I don’t even think it has a name”

    Of course it does. It’s the “North Center Town Square”. There has been some recent blah-blah about making it better. But the only thing that would be sufficient to really work would be to cut the street off completely at Lincoln.


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