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.

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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.

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