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CDOT plans overhaul of complex Armitage/CortlandAshland/Elston junction

A cluster of old industrial buildings at the northeast corner of Ashland/Elston, including the Horween Leather Company on the left (built 1886), and a storage building that dates to 1899. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

The Chicago Department of Transportation has taken preliminary steps to reconfigure the intersections of Armitage Avenue, Cortland Street, and Ashland and Elston Avenues, a convoluted confluence of roadways that has long bedeviled people traveling by foot, bike, transit, and motor vehicles.

Technically located in the Logan Square community area, just west of the north branch of the Chicago River, near the future Lincoln Yards megadevelopment, this area is a complicated transportation nexus. Metra's Clybourn station (why is it even called that, when it's half a mile from Clybourn Avenue?), which serves the Union Pacific North and Northwest lines, is a major pedestrian traffic generator. The CTA's Armitage and Ashland buses serve the area. Cortland and Elston are key cycling routes, with the former serving as a gateway to the nearby eastern terminus of the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway. And the Kennedy Expressway passes by this triangular vortex, with access ramps on Armitage just west of Ashland.

The project area. Image: Google Maps
The project area. Image: Google Maps
The project area. Image: Google Maps

Combine all that activity with Elston's skewed geometry and some truly terrible sight lines due to the overhead highway and railroad tracks and their support pillars, and you've got a truly confusing and intimidating intersection. It's similar in those respects to the junction of Logan Boulevard and Western Avenue, located about a mile and a half northwest, which got a road diet with protected bike lanes last summer in the wake of two fatal bike crashes.

Streetsblog Chicago editor-at-large Steven Vance, who also runs the real estate news website Chicago Cityscape, recently noticed that CDOT has requested $7.6 million in Tax Increment Financing money for preliminary planning for the "realignment of substandard Elston-Ashland-Armitage-Cortland, work will include pavement reconstruction, viaduct rehabilitation, traffic signal modernization." It's good to hear the viaducts will get a makeover, since they currently look like something our of a horror movie.

The northwest corner of Cortland/Ashland, downstairs from the Clybourn Metra stop, looking north. Image: Google Maps
The northwest corner of Cortland/Ashland, downstairs from the Clybourn Metra stop, looking north. Image: Google Maps
The northwest corner of Cortland/Ashland, downstairs from the Clybourn Metra stop, looking north. Image: Google Maps

However, an eyebrow-raising aspect of the proposal is the $263.5 million "total project cost" for the plan. "What the heck is CDOT proposing?" Steven wondered.

CDOT spokesperson Mike Claffey told me, "This $7.6M TIF request is to help start Phase 1 design for an intersection reconfiguration project at Elston/Armitage/Ashland that’s intended to improve traffic safety and operations for people walking, bicycling, taking transit, and driving at this complex intersection.  The improvement is also to expected enhance access to the nearby Metra station." He said the the Phase 1 design process is expected to get underway this year, and promised "there will ample opportunities for public input during the process, which could take several years."

A city official said the massive $236 million total project cost figure "is a placeholder value that will be refined as part of the Phase 1 design."

Paul Sajovec, chief of staff for local alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd), shed some more light on the subject. (The office of the other local alderman, Brian Hopkins [2nd], didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.) Sajovec said CDOT contacted the aldermen in early December to request $12.6 million for preliminary engineering from the North Branch North TIF district, part of the financial incentive package for Lincoln Yards that was approved by the City Council in Aprill 2019, although the figure was later lowered to $7.6 million. "They wanted to earmark the funds for future improvements, in part because the TIF is expiring soon," Sajovec said. CDOT's funding proposal needs approval from the city's Finance Committee, and then the full Council.

Sajovec added that there's no set plan in place for a specific preferred option for the Armitage/CortlandAshland/Elston redesign, "but there's a consensus that safety improvements are needed. He said the project will likely be similar to the reconfiguration of the six-way intersection of Fullerton, Damen, and Elston avenues about a mile northwest, also in the 32nd Ward, which was completed in late 2016 at a relatively paltry cost of $22.5 million. That project rerouted Elston so that it bypasses the Fullerton/Damen junction and instead crosses Damen a block east and Fullerton a block north.

Fullerton/Damen/Elston after reconfiguration, including the Elston bypass. Photo: CDOT
Fullerton/Damen/Elston after reconfiguration, including the Elston bypass, looking southeast. Photo: CDOT
Fullerton/Damen/Elston after reconfiguration, including the Elston bypass. Photo: CDOT

The Fullerton/Damen/Elston redesign displaced a couple of local businesses, made room for some chain stores, and made the intersection more car-centric by adding some additional mixed-traffic lanes, although the Elston bypass also included new curb-protected bike lanes. Sajovec said that intersection was previously one of the most crash-prone junctions in the city. While he didn't have recent crash numbers, he said CDOT engineers said their impression is that the overhaul has been "very successful" for improving safety, and he hasn't heard about any serious crashes there since the remix was completed.

Likewise, the upcoming project may include separating where the the various streets converge, Sajovec said. This would probably be done at grade, since the expressway, railroad tracks, and existing buildings would greatly complicate any overpass or underpass solution. "CDOT is evaluating options, with the goal of making the intersection safer, without needless traffic delays," he said. "We want the area to be as safe as possible, with pedestrians and bicyclists at the forefront."

Streetsblog Chicago will continue reporting on the Armitage/CortlandAshland/Elston project to help ensure that it results in a net improvement for sustainable transportation.

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