Kamin on Placemaking Efforts: The Food Is Terrible, and Such Small Portions!

The Lincoln Hub placemaking project. Photo: John Greenfield

Et tu Blair?

It wasn’t surprising when some disgruntled Lakeview residents launched a petition against the Lincoln Hub placemaking project, which reclaimed asphalt at the Lincoln/Wellington/Southport intersection for pedestrians. After all, one purpose of the street remix was to increase safety by slowing down car traffic, and not all drivers are going to appreciate that. And, sure, the bright green-and-blue polka dots are not everyone’s cup of tea.

But it was distressing to read a recent column by Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin – who’s usually on the right page about urban planning issues – in which he picks apart several aspects of the design and laments that the new layout inconveniences motorists. “The aim of such projects is to ‘calm’ traffic, slowing vehicles and making conditions safer for cyclists and people on foot,” he writes. “It also aims to boost business by creating more inviting outdoor spaces. Yet this mission is far from accomplished.”

Kamin doesn’t have a problem with the colorful spots, and he notes that people on foot like the fact that they’ve been given more space through the use of paint, flexible posts, and planters, which shortens the crossing distance. He also concedes that, by slowing down drivers, the Lincoln Hub has enhanced traffic safety at the intersection, and may be helping turn the location into a place to spend time, rather than just pass through.

The view from St. Alphonsus Church. Photo: John Greenfield

However, Kamin doesn’t like the fact that most of the seating in the new plazas is provided by round concrete stools rather than benches, which he thinks would be more comfortable. He laments the lack of shade at the intersection. And he argues that the on-street seating is located too close to traffic lanes, and there isn’t enough physical protection to make people feel safe using it.

There’s some validity to these criticisms, but it was disappointing to read this passage from a guy who’s supposed to be a well-informed urbanist:

By gobbling up space once occupied by right-hand turn lanes along the curbs [to create pedestrian space], the project forces drivers to make looping turns through the center of the intersection. Frustrated motorists honk their horns, an ironic outcome for a project devoted to “traffic calming.”

Kamin is referring to the elimination of the intersection’s slip lanes, aka channelized right turns, which have been incorporated into the curb extensions. That’s actually one of the best things about the Lincoln Hub. Slip lanes create longer crossing distances and additional conflict points between pedestrians and drivers, and they allow motorists to whip around corners at dangerous speeds.

Because of this, the Chicago Department of Transportation is generally no longer building slip lanes, and most six-way intersections in the city aren’t channelized. Rather than creating an aggravation for drivers, removing the slip lanes simply brought Lincoln/Wellington/Southport up to current standards for pedestrian safety.

This seating plaza was formerly a slip lane. Photo: John Greenfield

I’ve hung out at the Lincoln Hub plenty of times and haven’t noticed an unusual amount of honking, but I have talked to residents who appreciate the change, and I’ve seen plenty of people using the seating areas. “This is a project where we’re bringing more foot traffic and creating a more welcoming place,” said Lee Crandell, director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, which spearheaded the $175,000 project. “We didn’t expect it to be an instant transformation, but we are satisfied with the amount of use the space is getting.”

Although sightline requirements prevent the addition of shade trees or café umbrellas at the intersection, Crandell doesn’t see that as a problem. He notes that it’s good to have a mix of sunny and shaded seating in a business district, and just southeast of the Hub on in front of Heritage Bicycles is a “People Spot” mini-park, which gets shade from nearby trees.

While the on-street seating at the Hub is generally sheltered from traffic by large concrete planters, Crandell agrees with Kamin that additional physical protection would help more people feel comfortable using the plazas. The chamber will be adding additional planters along Lincoln later in the summer, and they’ll look into adding more barriers at the plazas as part of that phase, Crandell said.

He feels Kamin was a bit harsh in his judgment of the Lincoln Hub. “Our goal has always been for this to be a temporary, flexible solution that we can adjust to respond to needs,” he said. In the future, the chamber hopes that the paint and flexible posts can be replaced with permanent infrastructure as part of a large-scale, city-funded streetscaping project.

“The Wave” People Spot at Addison and Southport. Photo: John Greenfield

The ironic thing about Kamin’s criticism of the Lincoln Hub is that he followed it up with a solid piece on the sluggish pace of Chicago’s People Spot program, which also repurposes street space to create seating areas. The critic correctly notes that it’s embarrassing that San Francisco, with less than a third of Chicago’s population, has over 50 of these kind of parklets, while Chicago has only six on the street right now. Two other local mini-parks, previously set up in Andersonville, have not yet been reinstalled this year.

Kamin does a good job of laying out reasons why parklets haven’t really caught on here yet. The Chicago winter requires them to be removed and replaced each year, which is expensive. The hated parking meter contract makes it tricky to swap metered spaces for seating. The city government doesn’t pay for the People Spots, which have cost as much as $75,000, leaving it up to local chambers and merchants to come up with funding. Chicago also provides relatively little technical support compared to San Francisco, which created a 76-page how-to manual.

In his People Spot piece, Kamin writes that he’s “jazzed” about transforming space for cars being into places “where people could sit, eat, check their mobile phones and watch the world go by” and rightly complains that this isn’t happening fast enough in Chicago. If that’s how he really feels, it was wrongheaded of him to slam the Lakeview chamber’s efforts to do just that.

  • Jury still out

    You should review the comments in the change.org petition. Some are annoying, many are very good. Including a large number of bicyclists who don’t like the Hub,

  • JacobEPeters

    I don’t like how narrow the travel lanes get at the hub, similarly to how narrow they get on clark at berteau. However, in both locations my issue is not with the pedestrian refuge spaces that have narrowed crossing distances. It is that the lack of protected cycling infrastructure before and after the improvements, both require me to take the lane in order to avoid being overrun by car traffic while traveling through the lane.

    A redesign which included creating a protected intersection might solve these issues by shortening walking distances while simultaneously separating car & bike movements at an inherently confusing 6 way intersection.

  • tooter turtle

    Without shade, sitting out there would be brutal. No thanks.

  • On a 60 degree day, you might prefer being in the sunshine.

  • BlueFairlane

    If that’s how he really feels, it was wrongheaded of him to slam the Lakeview chamber’s efforts to do just that.

    The column itself is behind a pay wall, and I’m not paying, but if your summary is correct, I wouldn’t describe it as a “slam.” Kamin made valid criticisms of the physical layout of the thing, something you’d expect from an architecture critic. It is possible to agree with the goal of a project while disliking it’s execution. And an unfortunate truth is that even concrete painted over with polka dots is still concrete.

  • Yet Another Reader

    I agree with you, BlueFairlane. Unfortunately, the Streetsblog crew has always had a hard time with the perspective that we can improve bicycle infrastructure by supporting it _and_ thoroughly critiquing it.

    I think Kamin is mostly right, to which I would add that the intersection should have been designed to separate bicycle traffic.

  • Cameron Puetz

    It’s very possible to be for something in general, but unhappy with a specific implementation. Being unwilling to criticize bad designs and poor implementations means that we’ll continue to see bad designs.

  • Vitaliy Vladimirov

    The Andersonville People Spots were killed after vehement business opposition despite overwhelming local support and a study proving their worth, underlining Chicago’s eagerness to undo anything that upsets the status quo of streets exclusively for cars, even in seemingly progressive ‘hoods.

  • tooch

    i live in andersonville and enjoyed the people spots. do you have a link to the study you mentioned above…curious to read it.

  • Vitaliy Vladimirov
  • Mike Wiesenhahn

    I work at this intersection and was extremely excited about the project. I, like the author, was annoyed and maybe defensive of any criticisms it received once completed. Now that I’ve had time to look at it objectively, I agree that while it’s good to have, I can’t help but think it was a botched opportunity. Whether or not you agree with the design you can’t argue that something like this could motivate people to demand more things like this, and from that perspective this might end up being a missed golden opportunity. I hope the city does more things like this, and uses what they’ve learned from this project to come up with designs people fall head over heels over rather that the cool acceptance this has received.

  • Anne A

    This reminds me of the discussion about experimental installation of bollards to simulate curb bumpouts in Andersonville about 12 years ago. The initial installation, if it had been concrete, would have created a real problem for bike traffic, most of which flowed between the bollards instead of staying in the lane with cars. In response to comments, the hard installation did not push out quite as far into the traffic lane and was much better for cyclists.

    Perhaps a bit of fine tuning might be warranted at Lincoln/Wellington/Southport.

  • To read the article, just Google the title: “North Side test of tactical urbanism fails to connect all the dots.”

  • Living

    Yet despite the unmitigated “success” of the Lincoln Hub – 516 Lakeview neighbors are upset enough to sign a petition with hundreds of comments. That is called FEEDBACK.

  • Emily

    1. The polka dots look like a kids playground design. If that was the idea, odd but fine, but otherwise, I should hope that people would have better taste. It sends a strange message given the stated purpose.

    2. Maybe people would be more inclined to wander around that Lincoln Ave corridor if there were more stores geared toward that type of behavior. A Scientology center? Multiple carpet and rug stores? A career training center? I think the offerings have improved somewhat over the past year or so (you never know when you need something at Wrightwood Furniture or the Brown Elephant), but its still pretty rough. Bottom line, I don’t think it is the speed or volume of traffic on Lincoln that is preventing the area from being “a place to spend time, rather than just pass through.”

  • Planning Engineer

    There are two problems with the design.

    First, it is technically flawed. I agree removing the 3 slip right turns is a GREAT idea. That said the removal needed to be done while preserving a turn radius a car and a truck can negotiate. So this flaw at the three turns needs to be changed right away. An easy fix. The lack of good basic engineering is causing unneeded delay as cars have to make multiple moves to get around the corner.

    Second, the dots themselves are what we in the design business call the “Superman Approach”. Meaning only someone flying over in a cape gets what the intent of the dots were. They COMPLETELY lack a context a walking, biking or driving person can appreciate. A simple TASTEFUL solid color would have been less costly, more tasteful, and easier to maintain. I guess the beauty here is the bad paint choice can be removed or painted over.

    Before you all jump on me…..I LOVE Lakeview and Lincoln Avenue. I am a resident, pedestrian and a bike rider…..I just want to see this flawed design revised to better accomplish the intent.

  • Cameron Puetz

    In response to your second point, there’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. No one hangs out there because there are no shops to visit and there are no shops to visit because no one is hanging out there.

  • Residents have signed petitions and called their alderpersons to have the red light and speed cameras removed because they’re tired of being fined for breaking the law.

    That’s called feedback too, but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid or should be acted upon.

  • Living

    Interesting. Being that you are a writer for StreetsBlogChicago, you seem impartial. It is so telling that the minute there is public pushback, instead of addressing the problems and trying to fix them, the parties involved recruit fluff pieces from biking lobbyists. A bit transparent don’t you think? Is the “Lakeview Chamber of Commerce” going to change its name to the “Lakeview Biking against Chicago Motorists Association”?

  • You’re putting the cart before the horse here. The moment I read Kamin’s misguided line about slip lanes, I dropped what I was doing to start working on a response.

    The chamber and CDOT already have been addressing issues that have arisen — they already adjusted some of the bollards to facilitate turns by drivers.

  • I’m as impartial as a person can be, simply responding to your comment though. Judge that as you may, it’s still a valid rebuttal for a “they complained, therefore the city should at” type statement.

    If they called it a “pilot” project would you react the same way? I haven’t read it referred to as that, but that is essentially what it is.

  • Through the dots?

  • JasonMath

    Personally, I feel this intersection (along with other six-corner intersections on Lincoln between Clark & Ashland/Belmont) could benefit from a modern roundabout. The approach streets are no more than one lane in each direction, and there is plenty of pavement to work with. Place a nice grassy area in the middle of the roundabout, and you have a less dangerous intersection that is tasteful as well. In addition to grass, the central island could be used for public art, picnic tables, weekly concerts, and other outdoor activities.

    Cyclists could be treated vehicles (by using green sharrows) or as pedestrians (by using the sidewalk) Either way, signage could be installed to alert motorists to where the cyclists are riding. As a bonus, if there is no approaching traffic, cyclists and other vehicles would not have to come to a complete stop – they would only need to yield to traffic already in the circle.

  • Jeff H

    Some of the dots were removed after the bollard adjustment.

  • Jeff H

    The 2 census tracts (627/628) in that area have a combined population of 6230 (2010 census). There are still a lot of neighbors who have not weighed in, who may feel differently than the 500+ that have signed the petition. It is feedback, much of it has been good and constructive, but we shouldn’t automatically make changes because of a the vocal minority.

  • Living

    Very good point on the census. Remind me again what percentage of the population voted to make these crazy changes vs. how many are voicing opposition now that it is done? I agree with you that a vocal minority (the bike activists who railroaded this through CDOT) should not have been given the power to do so.

  • Of course, we don’t know how many of the signers actually live in the area and how many simply read about the petition in the news and signed on because they dislike traffic calming projects, etc.

  • Living

    Really? Now you are going to claim fraud on a PETITION? Please close the door on the way out with your credibility.

  • Jeff H

    Right, and these changes certainly may affect others outside of those census tracts as well. My point in using those census tracts is to illustrate that even if you take that small area in the neighborhood and assume that the 500 people that signed live there, it is still a small portion of the total population. These types of petitions can provide good feedback, but should not be considered the majority or primary impetus for change.

  • Not at all. Unless the petition states otherwise, people who live outside the area have every right to sign the petition since, as Jeff pointed out, the project affects all Chicagoans who use these streets. I’m just saying, we have no idea what percentage of neighborhood residents are represented by the survey.

  • duppie

    Is that why? I wondered about why I didn’t see them reinstalled this spring. I did like the one in front of the Coffee Studio with it reclaimed wood appeal. The one in front of Akira, not so much.

    You don’t think it has to do with Brian Bonnano leaving as the eco-Andersonville director? I found Brian to be a very inspiring individual.

  • Vitaliy Vladimirov

    Brian’s work was changing Aville, which upset its long-entrenched interests. But most likely, all the drama around the people spots was why he left.

  • akay1

    The people I know who actually bike through here aren’t pleased with it either. Adding pedestrian space at the corner squeezes the buffer zone for bikers as well as cars.

  • akay1

    I’m fine with red light cameras but have seen problems caused by the speed cameras that don’t involve my own need for speed. People who aren’t expecting them slam on the brakes even if they were going slowly to begin with out of surprise and fear of a ticket. I’ve seen a few near fender benders as a result. This was more frequent before they added the painted warnings on the road, so I think those are doing a better job of informing unfamiliar drivers than the signage alone did, but I’m not entirely sold.

    I see safety issues with this effort as well.

  • akay1

    I keep saying this and keep getting brushed off. This is Chicago, not SoCal; things need to be designed for extreme weather conditions.

  • BlueFairlane

    Any rear-end collision, even one involving somebody slamming their brakes at random, only happens because one vehicle is following another too closely. Drivers need to leave enough space between them and the car in front of them to allow for sudden stops.

  • akay1

    I don’t think that’s an absolute. You could be checking your blind spot prepping to change lanes and not react quickly enough, for example.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    Good criticism, as opposed to “I hate it”.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    I like it, so do my kids. No one’s come to us with a petition for or against.


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