Hellish Big-Box Proposal Would Nix Traffic Flow Gains From Elston Reroute

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Mid-America’s proposal would cover most of the former Vienna Beef site with parking spaces.

There are many productive ways Chicago could use the hump of centrally located, riverfront land that’s becoming available for redevelopment as part of the reconfiguration of the Fullerton/Damen/Elston intersection. The space, currently occupied by the Vienna Beef factory, could accommodate another light industrial business, pedestrian-friendly retail space for local merchants, an apartment complex, and/or some new parkland. Instead, what’s being proposed is a worst-case scenario of suburban-style development that would cover most of the land with asphalt, and likely cancel out any congestion improvements that would otherwise result from the reroute.

The six-way intersection currently sees about 70,000 motor vehicles per day, and consistently ranks among the city’s top-five intersections for crashes, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is doing the $36.3 million street relocation. Delays to drivers at the junction can be as much as seven minutes, CDOT said. In an effort to unclog the intersection, they’re moving Elston about a block east and bypassing it through the land at the northeast corner of the six-way, which was also formerly occupied by WhirlyBall. Construction is slated to begin next month, with the bulk of the work finished by next spring.

WhirlyBall has already relocated to a nearby, larger space at 1823 West Webster, and Vienna Beef will soon be moving to 1800 West Pershing in Bridgeport. Now, Mid-America Real Estate Group is proposing building 105,000 square feet of retail space, with a whopping 437 parking spaces on the site. Preliminary renderings show a layout in which the vast majority of the site would be occupied by surface parking spots.

Mid-America wants to bring in a national grocery chain that would occupy a roughly 68,000 square feet of retail with 192 parking spots. Other buildings shown on the company’s drawings include 12,000 and 6,000 square-foot retail spaces, a three-story office building with 15,000 square feet of floor space, and a 4,000 square-foot restaurant. A spokesman for 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack told DNAinfo that the eatery would be that noted bastion of support for LGBT rights, Chick-fil-A.

It’s true that the stretch of Elston between Fullerton and Diversey is already lined with pedestrian-hostile, suburban-style retail, and there are also big box stores north and east of the river from the Vienna Beef site. It’s also the case that many Logan Square, Bucktown, and Lincoln Park would welcome a new a place to buy groceries.

CDOT rendering of Elston reroute.

However, there are several reasons why Mid-America’s plan is a terrible use for this land. Providing space for hundreds of vehicles would be a massive traffic generator, which would just pour more cars into the streets that CDOT is trying to decongest. The company also wants the city to install a stoplight in the middle of the new Elston stretch, between the north and south sides of the retail space, which would create an additional holdup for through traffic. Wasn’t the point of the bypass to reduce delays?

The area certainly isn’t a walker’s paradise right now. But adding more big boxes that are difficult to access on foot, along with numerous driveways with high traffic volumes, would further degrade the pedestrian environment. Elston is also an important bike route between the Northwest Side and downtown and, while the bypass will have bike lanes, the many drivers turning across the lanes to entering parking lots will be a hazard for cyclists. Last but not least, it’s a bad idea to create a vast expanse of non-permeable surfaces next to a waterway.

The land is currently zoned C3-3, a commercial, manufacturing, and employment district, so Waguespack would have to approve a zoning change to allow Mid-America to move forward with its plan. The alderman will be hosting a community meeting about the project, including a presentation by the developer, this evening at 6:30 at Vienna Beef, 2501 North Damen. It’s likely that a number of attendees will speak out against the folly of putting yet more car-centric development on this valuable land.

  • Anne A

    I hope that there’s plenty of vocal opposition at tonight’s public meeting.

  • Scott Sanderson

    I agree that this looks like a nightmare, but that area is so hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists, and there is no public transportation except the Damen bus–how many people would go there without a car?

  • Eli N

    I pass through there often on my bike; Damen is the best route from the north-side lakefront neighborhoods (I’m in Edgewater) to Wicker Park, Bucktown, etc.

  • Scott Sanderson

    Perhaps if there were some protected bike facilities, it would be better. But I avoid the area completely. Even in a car, the traffic is usually so backed up that you are going no faster than walking speed.

  • Bikegoddess Julie

    My daily and only route option to work is north on Damen all the way to Bryn Mawr. That 6 way section has been a nightmare from day one. I was so happy to hear about the Elston reroute, however, the increase in traffic will greatly and negatively impact any user other than an auto, but I do expect more auto accidents if this plan moves forward.

    I was kind of hoping we would have a riverfront nature trail and low density use to replace Vienna. We’re just trading one nightmare of a dangerous route for another better paved one.

  • ohsweetnothing

    1. While it’s true that Logan Square, Bucktown and Lincoln Park would LIKE another place to buy groceries, these neighborhoods have plenty of existing grocery options. Is this becoming a full-blown trend to get these neighborhoods to swallow awful developments by dangling a fancy supermarket in front of our faces? Come on, we don’t need a Whole Foods and/or Mariano’s that badly guys.

    2. I recall years ago CDOT talking about making Elston even more accommodating to cyclists in an attempt to relieve some of the NW traffic pressure off of Milwaukee Ave. I really hope the City takes this into consideration when looking at how this area should be developed.

  • JacobEPeters

    if there was something other than car oriented uses it might make this stretch less hostile & convince people like Eli & me passing through to stop on our way to pick something up. Too many cars as a justification to settle for strip malls just begets more car dependence.

  • There’s a bus on Fullerton as well.

  • JacobEPeters

    yeah, there is a Costco, 2 Jewel-Oscos, Strack & Van Til, & a new Mariano’s all within 1 mile of this site. Not to mention the Target, Aldi, Fresh Market Place, or the new Fresh Thyme Farmers Market opening within the same distance. Build off the existing building stock south of Fullerton, not expanding the auto dependent districts north of Fullerton.

  • BillD

    C’mon folks. The entire area along Fullerton is almost entirely commercial/industrial from the Kennedy to Clybourn. What else would go well there? Not residential. 2 other points. The DOT recently changed light timing that makes a left from Fullerton to Damen a lot safer. I don’t know the net impact on the intersection. But why couldn’t alternative timings have been tried long ago? And FYI, Chik-fil-A doesn’t discriminate despite what ‘ol Proco “Joe” might have to say. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg-jzlWcc0E.

  • Here’s some info about the history of Chick-fil-A’s efforts to get aldermanic approval to open at that location: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-19/news/ct-met-chick-fil-a-chicago-0919-20120919_1_gay-marriage-moreno-first-proco-joe-moreno

  • neroden

    Awful design. How about putting the entire grocery store, including the truck access, into the “new block” between Elston, Damen, and Fullerton, putting storefronts on Damen, and putting a single consolidated parking lot back by the river.

    This design seems to have fallen victim to the bizarre idea that each store needs its own independent parking lot. A consolidated lot, located behind the stores, could have the same amount of space and be much less hostile.

  • planetshwoop

    I bike up/down Elston a few times a week. I’ve been doing this regularly since 2006. Sure, there are big box stores, but the proliferation has significantly increased the danger to cyclists. The David’s Bridal space has people frequently blocking the bike lane b/c the traffic is backed up all the way to Logan Blvd. Panera has someone illegally parked in the bike lane 50% of the time. Adding the Mid-Town Tennis facility and the new Lincoln dealership is going to make that worse.

    The protected bike lanes south of North Ave make a HUGE difference for cyclist safety — no one feels the need to blaze up through the bike lane during rush hour like the did previously. It’s too bad this can’t be extended into other areas as an offset for more big box developments.

  • Neil Clingerman

    Same here, I also use Elston because its good for getting from getting where I live up that way too.

    I’m very worried that the new configuration will make the area more hostile to bicyclists negating the advantages the protected lanes on Elston give me for going that way. The big boxes will not help either.

  • CL

    It’s probably a Whole Foods. That’s just my guess from the description, and because they are expanding rapidly in the Chicago area. Whole Foods would be very popular in this area despite existing options, but the placement seems bad — I would probably avoid it just because of the traffic situation.

    For example I’m sometimes tempted to stop at the Whole Foods at Cicero and Peterson on my way back from the airport, but I never actually do because of the stress of that intersection (which isn’t even that bad, from a design standpoint — it’s just very busy and awkward to get to WF).

  • This development will most assuredly sail through zoning approval since our ordinance is still written more favorably towards auto-oriented, anti-urban development.

  • Dan

    1. The plan as proposed will certainly reduce congestion despite the addition of another big box store. It removes the 3 way intersection. The new parking is a drop in the bucket compared to what already exists in the surrounding area. Shopping times are typically off peak, and this section snarls up worst during rush hour.

    2. If you’re focused on adding a walkable or residential area, concentrate your efforts on a Finkl steel Gutman Tannery redevelopment plan. That area is 0.8 miles closer to downtown and realistically walkable, only 0.3 miles to either the CTA Armitage stop or the Metra Clyborn stop. It also potentially ties into the Bloomingdale Trail. AND it would be better suited to any future Ashland BRT. Any and all commercial or PMD development proposed for that area should come here instead.

    3. Or if that’s not enough, consider a relocation proposal: move the Costco and or Menards from North of the River to this location and allow walkable residential development on the North side of the water. Coordinate with another FIX for the adjacent Lathrop Homes redevelopment plan.
    4. Recall that in January 2014, Alderman Waguespack sent a letter to the CHA’s new CEO, Michael Merchant, urging the authority to abandon the ill conceived plan to revive public housing high rise towers on the Lathrop Homes site. This entire area is too far from public transit to add density (~1 mile from trains) without adding car commuters.
    5. Yes I would love to see a teardown of the entire area that turns it into relatively low density (townhomes & 4 story flats/duplexes) residential with a riverfront park, but the city is not stepping up to buy this area as park land even if they do re-zone it, and that would require buying out other big box stores and tearing them down. I doubt a plan like this would be economic to a developer, and would still have car-centric commuters even if it was walkable locally.
    6. I support PBLs being extended North on Elston even though I am not a biker. We need well reasoned plans to share roads that protect bikers and drivers alike. It sounds like there is a lot of North/South biking going on also, and we should identify which corridor makes sense (has the width) to make that as safe as possible (Ashland/Damen/Western).

  • JacobEPeters

    The fact that this plan only duplicates existing offerings in the surrounding tracts of strip malls is the offensive aspect. There still is some intact fine grained urban fabric south of Fullerton which we can build off to stem the tide of strip malls. Use this site as a buttress containing the sprawl to the stretch of Elston between Damen & Logan, otherwise the same justification used for turning this into sprawl (“The new parking is a drop in the bucket compared to what already exists in the surrounding area”) will be used to turn sites south of Fullerton into strip malls. Stop the madness. Stop justifying bad plans by using previous bad plans.

  • JacobEPeters

    You can build commercial/industrial without paving over every square inch of land & turning your back to our waterway. Residential along the river would actually be a wonderful location with retail facing Elston/Damen/Fullerton. I view this as similar to the plot of land bound by Western, Diversey, & the river to the north. Strip mall loading docks shouldn’t line our river, and using proximate examples of this idiocy does not justify it. It only proves we shouldn’t repeat the same mistakes.

  • R.A. Stewart

    All too true. As soon as I saw “Hellish Big-Box Proposal” in the headline I knew it’s pretty much a done deal.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t know where this fine-grained residential is you’re talking about south of Fullerton. Most everything between Damen and the Kennedy on one side, and the river on the other moving south all the way to Milwaukee is a crumbling commercial warehouse, a car lot, or a strip mall.

  • Why do we have to pretend that everything west of the Kennedy is on Mars and has (deserves?) no connection to the riverfront?

  • Dan

    The author titled this article “Proposal would nix traffic flow gains from reroute” and also wrote: “what’s being proposed would … likely cancel out any congestion improvements that would otherwise result from the reroute”. I am calling BS on those claims.

    I do not like the plan as currently designed any better than you do and I hope there are improvements, but I am skeptical that a “walkable” commerical corridor is realistic. I do not believe the area South of Fullerton between the highway/traintracks and the river is a sufficiently vibrant residential block to anchor any development on this land. It’s not even the river, it’s all the way to Clyborn, naturally stopped by the other Metra tracks. Any residential South of Fullerton in that strip likely pre-dates the construction of the Kennedy in the late 50s and has not seen significant reinvestment since.

    This is not tearing down “urban fabric” to replace it with “suburban big box” development. This is not “madness”. This is “relocating a sausage factory to provide a much needed traffic solution, and oh by the way as an after thought, what should we do with this land that nobody wants?”

    We should focus on Finkl steel because that is a realistic location for new greenfield WALKABLE residential because it is 0.3 miles from TWO train options and it is not cutoff off from blending in with the neighborhood to the East by train tracks, water or Ashland Ave.

    I find this development FAR LESS offensive than the entire North and Clybourn retail corridor that was built as a “driving destination” right on top of a Red Line station ~15 min from the loop.

  • JacobEPeters

    There is new construction on the south side of Fullerton west of Damen, there are storefronts on Damen & the soon to be “old” Elston section s of Fullerton, that with some infill rather than tear downs would create a walkable central node. There is multifamily & single family housing on Lister all the way down to Webster where the new Whirly Ball and some existing buildings show how commercial/industrial can have a pedestrian oriented character.

  • JacobEPeters

    I agree that Finkl is the more important place to make sure isn’t strip malls, but we need to have a consistent message for the entire north river corridor, so that we do not repeat the mistakes of nearby developments from years past. And make sure that this bad development isn’t used to justify a similar development on the former Finkl site. Just because something is far less offensive doesn’t mean we should let it turn its back on the river & add another traffic light back into an area that was specifically designed to distance traffic signals from each other.

  • Dan

    I would be in favor of a development similar to Western/Diversey& the river, though this site still feels significantly more cut off and about 1/2 the size of that plot once the new Elston is put in.
    If you’re serious about things like this you should find out who the developer is on that land and contact them to see what they think (if its realistic to repeat here, if they’d get involved, what the barriers are, if they think the value of that development would trump whats currently proposed). Then send that info to Waguespack.
    Developers aren’t idealists, Mid-America probably got this land from Vienna on the cheap as they were already moving out. They just want a payback, and preferably as quickly as possible with as little thought as possible. They’re not going to do all the work to get this fixed for us. We have to do it ourselves and then bring it to the alderman and find developers willing to go for it.

  • John

    The ratio of asphalt to (human-) occupiable space here is truly astounding. I can’t possibly understand the need for that much parking for that few meager buildings. Unbelievable.

  • BlueFairlane

    Why do we have to pretend we can make the entire city a homogenous mass of happy houses along tree-lined walkways? Why do we have to ignore the reality of a place because we really, really want it to be something other than it is?

  • BlueFairlane

    I’m not sure I would describe a single street (Lister) as an intact example of fine-grained urban fabric.

    I wonder what kind of rents owners pull in on Lister?

  • I don’t think anyone is suggesting single-family homes here.

    I also don’t think it’s out of line to treat the riverfront as different than a random landlocked parcel in a dilapidated area, especially one that is so central to so many well-off areas (within a mile radius).

  • BlueFairlane

    I think people tend to overestimate the value of the Chicago River in bolstering residential desirability, as in many ways, it is an ugly, smelly, highly abused waterway lined with signs warning that it’s too contaminated to touch. I think you’re asking a lot of a private developer to be the first to carve a pretty little residential park out of that, and you’re taking a big leap if you expect anybody would want to live there.

  • JacobEPeters

    it’s something to build off, rather than something to continue to isolate with seas of parking

  • JacobEPeters

    They are highly desirable in North Center, Ravenswood Manor & Bridgeport every time one comes on the market. There is very little supply of housing directly along the river, but a lot of demand for people who like the idea of living close to water.

  • People kayak and canoe that stretch of river all the time. It’s clean enough to swim in, now, and the Park District is making sure that all its parcels that back onto it have somewhat-natural landscaping at the river edge (sedges and water plants instead of concrete dropoffs) to encourage wildlife habitat.

  • Much higher if this development becomes somewhere their tenants want to walk to and hang out.

  • OK, so you don’t think pedestrian-oriented development would work here. You haven’t explained why you don’t believe that the addition of 437 parking spaces plus an extra traffic light would nullify the potential gains for traffic flow.

    But don’t get me wrong: I’m all for “new Greenfield walkable residential.”

  • Yeah, it’s pretty amazing that 80 parking spaces are needed to accommodate a junk food purveyor whose owner has been an outspoken financier of an anti-marriage equality organization.

  • tooter turtle

    Yes, I usually bypass the WF on Cicero for the same reason. After I get home and ditch the car, I can easily bike to several WF locations without too much stress.

  • Dan

    I’ll preface with an acknowledgement that I’m not a traffic engineer and I don’t have the IDOT data, so my opinion is not evidence based, it’s intuitive. So we’re both in the same boat on that.

    That said, based on my experience as a part time driving part time bus & train CTA commuter I would say that 6 way intersections are the bane of efficient traffic flow. It’s the same general reason that they took the cars out of Times Square in NYC, it was mucking up traffic all the way south to lower Manhattan:

    …but that’s getting off topic. In this case, it’s all about PEAK traffic times: rush hour.

    Creating some space here should definitely help offset that.

    The impact of the additional traffic light will depend on what development is there, could be zero could be a problem.

    I don’t think a grocery or retail development would have much impact as those typically drive traffic on weekends (off peak). I am somewhat concerned about Chick-Fil-A, as many drivers will swing through for dinner. The best example I can cite here is Portillos & the Rock & Roll McDonalds in River North. Portillos does not have sufficent space to have its waiting vehicles off street and it blows up southbound traffic on Clark every rush hour. The McDonalds has plenty of space and never really impacts traffic flow.

  • Logan Square Dad

    DOH! This uninspired, short-sighted, suburban style uber-sprawl is small-picture thinking and the EXACT OPPOSITE of what we (City of Chicago, Citizens, CDOT & Everyone) need to do. Two of the biggest opportunities that will be lost if this monolith is built are:
    1) River Front Park Land – Including good, real, access for cyclists to to ride downtown along the river and green space for people to enjoy the surprising natural beauty of Chicago’s “other” waterfront.
    2) Ferry Terminal – The Chicago River provides a direct, scenic route to downtown and is accessible by major Metra, El & CTA transportation. A ferry running from here with a terminal and efficient vehicle parking can serve the near North Side and connect a number of transit starved neighborhoods with each other and downtown.

    The city really needs big plans here. We need to imagine this neighborhood as it might look in 20 years. Not how it looks now. And in 20 years, there will be a lot more people in this hood.

  • Jim

    Why is there no bus service on Clybourn and Elston? That’s just crazy. It would be the best way to reduce congestion in the area.

  • Mcass777

    What does parking have to do with speaking for or against an issue? Are you saying and LGBT restaurant should have access to more land for parking?

  • Nope, just saying this Chick-fil-A represents a perfect storm of backward thinking: ridiculously car-centric urban planning, unhealthy food, and homophobia.

    On the other hand, if you’ve got a hankering for a chicken sandwich, you could always go to Leghorn, a couple miles southwest at 959 North Western. They have zero off-street parking, they serve Amish chicken, and they donate a percentage of profits to marriage equality advocacy.

  • Mcass777

    I understand what you mean but the emotional thinking detracts from the bigger issue that a company can put in a large amount of parking spots. Who cares if it is Chick fil-A. There are plenty of issue oriented objections to many businesses. Some one may picket leghorn because they hire illegals, serve drinks, use hormone infused chickens.. what ever. I think when you couple multiple issues together, you begin to tick away what YOU really want. Is the problem parking or corporate ideology or something else? What happens when management does a 180 on LGBT? Look out for companies that make peace on one issue to get what THEY really want, like a store with a nice parking lot. I know this is not the case here, but multiple issue protests bog down in hearings and with protesters. The companies use these issues as a cover. Then make deals with the multiple parties. The collective mass of having a big tent sucks when the chunks of the collective party get side deals made. This is a classic tactic. Focus on what YOU want ’cause the partner next to you might have interests that curtail your interests.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Actually parking is about corporate ideology. Zoning that requires off street parking turns fast food — which is a labor intensive business in most of the world — into a capital intensive industry. So parking lots squeeze out local entrepreneurs, and export profits from the city and reward companies with no stake in the community, LGBT or not.

  • Mcass777

    This area would really be well served with a boat ramp/landing. Getting a commuter boat running to downtown would help develop this location. This might bring in more boutique restaurants and stores to the unique hub.

  • Tom Foyer

    What a great article. I went shopping over there and have cycled in that area for 15 years. It is a little dangerous even in protected lanes and more shopping over there would almost drive me to take Ashland to completely avoid the Fullerton/Damen/Elston Clusterfunk. I have always wondered why there was no bus on Elston. It seems like it would make sense considering you can basically buy everything you will ever need on one street…Elston Ave.

  • JOHN



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