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Local Leaders Weigh in On 31st Street Beach Transportation Issues

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 4.42.07 AM
An aerial view of 31st Street Beach. The park district plans to more than double the size of the an existing parking lot, center. Image: Google Maps

Last month I reported on the Chicago Park District’s plans to expand a parking lot at the southwest corner of 31st and Lake Shore Drive, a short walk from 31st Street Beach and Harbor. The proposal would enlarge the lot, currently 60,000 square feet of asphalt, by 85,000 feet -- that’s about 1.5 football fields worth of existing green space that would be replaced by blacktop.

The project would add more than 250 spaces near the beach, which already has over 650 existing garage and surface lot spaces within a five-minute walk. It would cost $1.6 million, paid for harbor bond funding.

I noted that Friends of the Parks has endorsed the project. Executive director Juanita Irizarry told me last month that if the group advocated against more parking at the South Side beach, they would have essentially been “tell[ing] people of color that they can only utilize the beach if they arrive by CTA or bicycle."

On the other hand the Active Transportation Alliance is against the parking expansion. Executive director Ron Burke argued that transit, walking, and bike access should be improved instead. “Let's give people MORE open space, play areas, trails and other attractions and LESS pavement for cars," he said via email.

The design of the expanded parking lot. Image: Chicago Park District

After my article ran, Delmarie Cobb, a lifelong Bronzeville resident and owner of the Publicity Works PR firm fired off an angry email to 4th ward alderman Sophia King’s office about the parking plan and cc-ed me. “Now, the city wants to take more green space so the harbor users will have more parking options,” she wrote. “There's plenty of parking at the old Michael Reese parking lots.”

In addition to the 650 aforementioned nearby beach and harbor parking spaces, there are 250 public parking spots at the former hospital site, a ten-minute walk from the beach at 31st and Cottage Grove. The city purchased the property under Mayor Richard M. Daley as part of its failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.

“Until the city decides what to do with that land, it should be used to accommodate beach goers,” Reese wrote. "We're already paying for that land, so why should we pay an additional $1.6 million for 250 parking spaces?... On Fullerton, the city [built] six additional acres for green space. At 31st St., the city found 85,000 square feet of green space to turn into a parking lot.”

4th Ward staffer Prentice Butler declined to comment on the lot expansion project, except to confirm that Alderman King is in favor of the plan.

31st St Beach Sign
This sign installed by the entrance to the garage last winter indicated that the garage was for boaters only. Photo via Delmarie Cobb.

When I reached Cobb this afternoon, she told me that she has since realized that, while the parking lot expansion will eliminate green space west of the drive, it won’t affect parkland closer to the beach that is used for barbecues, land she says is in short supply. While that’s less objectionable to her, she still finds it problematic that money was found for more asphalt while a community center originally planned as part of the harbor project, completed in 2012, was never funded.

While the park district and the 4th Ward haven't had much to say about why exactly it's believed that another 250 spaces are needed, Cobb offered an explanation. She provided a photo taken last winter of a permanent sign installed by the garage entrance claiming that all public parking spots in the 317-space facility was full, and spaces were only available to people with harbor passes. "Obviously the garage wasn't full in the middle of the winter, but they were treating it like a private garage for boaters," Cobb said.

Cobb says that when King took office last spring, she asked the park district to remove that sign and put up a new one stating that the garage spaces are available to the general public. Cobb recently went out with an intern and interviewed boaters to learn more about the parking situation. She says the boaters, many of whom live outside of the city, told them the lot expansion is planned because harbor pass holders were sometimes having trouble finding space in the now-public garage.

"The boaters said they don't feel they should have to schlep all their stuff from the Michael Reese site to the harbor," Cobb said. "That's fine for the residents, but not for the boaters."

“It just goes to show, the city can always find money to do what they want to do, such as projects to entice tourists,” Cobb said. “But they can never find money for the things we need like the community center, things that improve quality of life for neighborhood residents.”

Ronnie Harris, right, from Go Bronzeville, says the park district should have sought more community input before deciding to expand the lot. Photo: Go Bronzeville

Another such amenity would be bus service along 31st Street to the beach, which could help reduce the demand for parking. Currently the only direct transit service to the beach during the summer is the CTA's 35th Street bus.

The agency is reviving the discontinued 31st Street bus line as a pilot in September, but that route will stop half a mile west of the beach. The six-month pilot will cost only cost $251,000, less than one-sixth as much as the parking lot expansion.

The coalition of South Side community groups that advocated for restoring 31st Street service is currently lobbying the CTA to add beach service on the #31 next year, according to Debbie Liu, community development director for the Chinatown-based nonprofit, the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community. Other groups involved include the Bridgeport Alliance and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation.

“We’re sitting down with CTA officials soon to discuss the 35th Street bus pilot -- its frequency, hours of operation, and the days of the week it will run,” Liu said. Currently the plan is to only run buses every half hour between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. “However, it sounds like they’re not going to make changes to the schedule or route unless the pilot is successful, and that’s a big if… The CTA wants to see 830 boardings a day, which is going to be challenging.”

Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner told me last month her agency didn’t consider working with the CTA to extend the bus route to the beach as an alternative to laying down more asphalt. She added that it wouldn't be possible to use the parking lot money to instead fund extending the bus route.

Still, longtime Bronzeville resident Ronnie Harris says he’s disappointed that the park district didn’t seem to consult the community before making the decision to expand the parking lot. Harris runs Go Bronzeville, a volunteer-driven organization that promotes walking, transit, and bike use in the neighborhood as a means to make the community “safer, healthier, and more economically viable,” he says.

“We’re a community partner, so it was somewhat frustrating to first learn about this project from an article,” he said. “Where did this come from, was there a community input process, and where are we with this?”

Maxey-Faulkner did not immediately respond to a request for info I sent this morning on whether there was a community input process for the project, and the current status of the proposal.

Harris said his group has been looking at ways to address transportation inequalities in Bronzeville and improve transit service, pedestrian and bike facilities, and lakefront access. “With all the other infrastructure and service improvements we’re looking at in the area, why this?” he asked. “I’m in the community on the ground, preaching about walking, biking, and transit to the naysayers, and this is where we’re putting our resources: expanding a parking lot.”

Update 8/11/16: Cobb reports that when she visited the beach this morning she saw that a changeable electronic sign is being installed at the entrance to the beach garage.

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