Vasquez hopes to revitalize careworn stretch of Lincoln by making it people-friendly

Plan to improve Lincoln Avenue from Western to Catalpa creates more space for people.

The partially completed Ainslie Art Mall. Photo: John Greenfield
The partially completed Ainslie Art Mall. Photo: John Greenfield

40th Ward aldermen Andre Vasquez is betting that people-focused improvements to the Lincoln Avenue commercial corridor between Western and Catalpa avenues in the Lincoln Square community will spur economic activity. While Lincoln east of Western, especially the semi-pedestrianized area between Lawrence and Leland avenues, is a vibrant shopping district, the stretch of Lincoln to the west has more vacant storefronts, as well as a strip of motels that have been blamed for enabling drug dealing and prostitution.

At a recent 40th Ward town hall meeting, Vasquez discussed plans to rebrand that segment of Lincoln in his ward as Lincoln Avenue North, according to a Block Club Chicago report by Alex V. Hernandez. He added that the city is investing $30 million in his ward in the form of public way improvements.

$15 million of that money, sourced from tax-increment financing district funds, will be spent on wider sidewalks, improved crosswalks, new green space, and the partly-completed Ainslie Arts Plaza, created by artist Andrea Jablonski and located in what was essentially a parking lot at 4844 N. Lincoln Ave. There will be further upgrades to the plaza in order to make it a community anchor, according to Vasquez. The alderman said yesterday on Twitter that it hasn’t been determined yet whether the project will include bikeways.

Vasquez said the issue of neighborhood improvements accelerating gentrification and housing displacement is on his radar. He reached out to building owners in the area to discuss the possibility of creating affordable live-and-work housing options for artists, Block Club reported. The alderman said he himself was displaced from Wicker Park when the area started to gentrify.

An aerial look at how the Ainslie Arts Plaza can serve as an anchor along with an overview of anticipated Lincoln Avenue North and Lincoln Avenue North Arts District.
An aerial rendering of the Ainslie Arts Plaza, intended as an anchor of the revitalized Lincoln Avenue North district.

Vasquez said he also plans to work with the local motel owners and managers to address related crime issues and the fact that some residents consider these longtime establishments to be eyesores. (Personally, I think some of the motels have attractive mid-century modern elements. – Ed.)

Sign for the Lincoln Motel on Lincoln Avenue. Photo: Andrew Huff, Gaper's Block
Sign for the Lincoln Motel on Lincoln Avenue. Photo: Andrew Huff, Gaper’s Block

Lincoln Avenue used to be a main thoroughfare between Chicago and Wisconsin before the expressways were built. As a result motels popped up to serve families. Once the expressways were built, the clientele changed.

Vasquez said he hopes the motels will give themselves a facelift in conjunction with the streetscape improvements. “I told them if you add some fresh paint and change the way you present your business, you can have a different level of clientele,” he told Block Club. These efforts could be supported with Small Business Improvement Funds.

Other upcoming projects to create people-friendlier streets in the area include the Lawrence Streetscape project from Western to the Chicago River,  and the Western Avenue Corridor project, between Addison and Howard streets. The $10 million Lawrence project, bankrolled with TIF money, has a goal of creating “safe walkability” including pedestrian islands, “bike lane integration,” more public gathering space. The city is currently collecting input for the Western Avenue Corridor project.

I’m really excited for these upcoming improvements to the 40th ward. I usually start or end my biking journeys along Lincoln at Sunnyside Avenue because I prefer to use less-trafficked residential streets when possible. I used to work in the Ravenswood area in the 47th ward and would sometimes walk to Lincoln Avenue, but no further north than the semi-pedestrianized zone, which includes Kempf (Giddings) Plaza, one of the city’s most popular public spaces.

It would be great if Lincoln was pedestrianized on the entire stretch between Montrose and Foster avenues. Yes, drivers like using it as a diagonal route, but there would be many advantages that would outweigh the minor inconvenience of motorists having to choose another route. The new pedestrianized stretch would serve Welles Park, Sulzer Library, and countless restaurants and shops. While Lincoln Avenue in the 47th Ward already sees plenty of foot traffic, people would be more inclined to linger in the area if there was ample seating, tables and chairs, interactive art, and other appealing elements on a corridor that is currently largely dedicated to moving car traffic. The success of Lawrence-to-Leland stretch, where drivers are basically treated as guests instead of the most important mode, at least compared to typical Chicago streets, shows that people-friendly places lead to an increase in retail sales.

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On the other hand, concerns about displacement are valid. Zoning changes to allow for more density, and requiring new developments to have a significant number of affordable units, especially near the Western Brown Line station, would help mitigate rising housing costs.

Hopefully the future success of North Lincoln Avenue will be encourage the creation of more people places and “sticky streets” in Chicago.

You can watch the town hall on Youtube. If you live or work in the 40th ward and want to be involved in efforts to shape this project, you can sign up for Lincoln Avenue North-related emails. If you can’t wait to add your input, the 40th ward office is accepting feedback at info at 40thward[dot]org.

Read the Block Club article here.

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