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School and Henderson streets in Lakeview will become Slow Streets on Monday

The 1700 block of West Henderson Street with its unusual planted median, called Gross Park. Image: Google Maps

Update Friday 9/25/20, 11:30 PM: The 47th Ward confirmed that the School/Henderson Slow Street has been approved and CDOT will install the barricades and traffic barrels on Monday. The article has been edited accordingly.

Recently it appeared that Chicago's experiment with Slow Streets (the city calls them "Shared Streets") -- residential roadways where through traffic is banned to enable safe, socially-distanced walking and biking in street -- was winding down.

Lincoln Park's wildly popular Dickens Avenue Slow Street, which attracted 636 bicyclists and 913 pedestrians in a single day and had a perfect safety record, was dismantled by August 21 because some residents objected to the aesthetics and having to modify their driving habits. A couple of days later, the western third of the Cortland/Wabansia Slow Street on the border in Logan Square was removed, partly due to issues with people driving dangerously and knocking down or moving the traffic barrels.

But now there's some good news on the Slow Streets front. Josh Mark, director of development and infrastructure for forward-thinking 47th Ward alderman Matt Martin, says that the alderman has decided to launch a new Slow Street route on a few blocks School Street in Lakeview and short stretches of other nearby roadways. The treatment will be rolled out this coming Monday.

Letter from a local second-grader calling for a Shared Street on School Street.
Letter from a local second-grader calling for a Shared Street on School Street.

The School Street proposal is nothing new. The road is already a traffic-calmed Neighborhood Greenway route in Lakeview. And back in May two eight-year-olds who live on School wrote to the alderman requesting a Slow Street treatment. Here's one of the letters.

Dear Mr. Martin,

Hi! I'm in 2nd grande at Hamilton Elementary and I'm 8 years old. I think my street, School Street, should be made into a Slow Street. A Slow Street is a street with only walkers and bikers. Some Slow Streets let people who live on the block park, but they have to drive really slowly.

It's really hard for kids right now because of COVID-19. Exercise is important for kids to stay healthy, but it's hard for kids to play outside while giving people space because there are narrow sidewalks, and some people don't have backyards.

Here are some of the benefits of Slow Streets. First, it's a lot easier to give personal space. Also, there are less cars right now and they don't need all the streets. Finally, they are safer for bikers because there are no cars. This is especially important for little bikers like my little brothers.

I surveyed my uncle who lives in San Francisco and he said, "I like Slow Streets because it makes social distancing easier." Lots of other cities are doing Slow Streets and Chicago is left behind. That's why I want a Slow Street on School Street. Mr. Martin, thank you so much for reading my letter about why I want a Slow Street on School Street.

P.S.: School Street has lots of kids like me who would use a Slow Street.

Mark said Martin has decided to make School a Slow Street between Damen Avenue and Paulina Street. Since the westernmost block is in the 32nd Ward, local alderman Scott Waguespack has also signed off on the project.

The plan also includes the 1700 block of West Henderson Street, half a block north of School. Henderson has an unusual layout with an attractive wide median with trees, paths, and plantings dubbed Gross Park (not to be confused with Theodore Gross Park in Lincoln Square.) The short stretches of Paulina and Ravenswood connecting School and Henderson ill also be part of the route, creating a small loop.

The proposed Slow Street route. Image: Google Maps
The proposed Slow Street route. Image: Google Maps
The proposed Slow Street route. Image: Google Maps

Mark says the impetus for the project came from families in the area, adding that representatives of the Gross Park neighborhood association specifically requested a Slow Street treatment. Residents got a taste of what pedestrian-priority streets might be like this summer when the block of Paulina south of its intersection with Roscoe and Lincoln avenues was turned into a pedestrianized Cafe Street for socially-distanced outdoor dining.

The Paulina Cafe Street. Photo: John Greenfield
The Paulina Cafe Street. Photo: John Greenfield

The 47th Ward's existing Slow Street on Leland Avenue, the first one in the city, has been a huge success, with 90 percent of respondents to a recent city survey stating that they approve of the treatment. Everyone from parents pushing strollers, to joggers, to kids riding bikes seems to enjoy the tranquil corridor.

But Mark said the motivation for the School Street route is a little different. "We're no longer talking about summer. Kids are doing remote learning and there's no recess. Gross Park has become a destination [for physical activity for children], so we're hoping that increasing the amount of public space will decrease congestion."

The ward got positive feedback about the idea, and Martin's staffers left info fliers on local homes, asking for feedback by Thursday, September 24, at the latest. On Friday morning, Mark confirmed that the project is moving forward.

The Leland Slow Street. Photo: John Greenfield
The Leland Slow Street. Photo: John Greenfield
The Leland Slow Street. Photo: John Greenfield

After the School Slow Street becomes a thing, how long will it stay open? "CDOT is hoping to wrap up the Slow Street pilots before snow plowing becomes an issue, but we want kids to enjoy the street while they can," Mark explained.

And even though there are no plans yet to make any Slow Streets permanent, similar to what has already being done on a wide-scale basic in Seattle, Mark says we can look forward to construction of the Leland Neighborhood Greenway, including a contraflow bike lane and traffic calming, next year.

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