Diary of a mad man: Lawyer Edward C. Fitzpatrick’s war on the Dickens Greenway
Has any Chicago sustainable transportation project been met with more ridiculous “Not In My Back Yard”-style opposition than the Dickens Avenue Neighborhood Greenway in Lincoln Park?
First announced in early 2019 for the 1.3 mile-long stretch of Dickens (2100 N.) between Clybourn Avenue (1230 W.) and the Lincoln Park green space (300 W.), it seemed like a pretty uncontroversial affair. The Chicago Department of Transportation proposed installing a contraflow (“wrong-way”) bike lane to legalize eastbound cycling on the one-way westbound street, something plenty of people were already doing. The speed limit would be lowered to 20 mph, and curb bump-outs, speed humps, and raised crosswalks would be added to calm traffic and making walking safer and easier. There would be minimal inconvenience for drivers, since the plan didn’t call for traffic diverters, infrastructure that stops motorists from using the corridor as a through route.
Nonetheless, some Lincoln Parkers freaked out. Ironically, they argued the traffic-calming project would make Dickens more dangerous, claiming the additional bike riders would endanger pedestrians. They were particularly concerned about more people cycling on the multiuse path along the south end of Oz Park, which would form part of the greenway route.
Some neighbors even worried out loud that “fixie kids” from less affluent neighborhoods to the west would come pedaling through their toney enclave, particularly if The 606 elevated trail is extended east from Wicker Park-Bucktown to Lincoln Park. Someone launched an anonymous website against the greenway, and sent glossy political-style mailings exhorting residents to stop the project “before it’s too late.”
But at an August 2019 community meeting there was a strong turnout from supporters, including many parents and kids from the group Chicago Family Biking. In summer 2020, after COVID-19 arrived in our city, CDOT piloted a temporary “Slow Street” treatment on Dickens, placing traffic barricades and barrels on the street to calm traffic and facilitate safe walking, jogging, and biking in the street, which proved popular with many residents.
During another community meeting in May 2021 over Zoom, which drew 166 attendees, CDOT staffers noted that about two-thirds of all feedback received on the greenway plan had been positive. Finally, in June 2021 local alderperson Michele Smith (43rd) announced that she was signing off on the project, and bike advocates rejoiced.
So why is it that, more than three years after the Dickens Greenway proposal was announced, and over a year since Smith gave it her blessing, construction still hasn’t started? The 43rd Ward declined to comment on the matter, instead referring Streetsblog to CDOT for an update.
The transportation department gave a non-answer, but indicated in a statement that the project is still happening. “While we can’t confirm a start date at this time, CDOT remains fully supportive of the Dickens Neighborhood Greenway to improve pedestrian safety and provide a low-stress east-west route for people biking in the neighborhood.”
A person close to the project told Streetsblog that one factor in the delay has been this year’s strike by northern Illinois quarry workers, which messed up the schedules of street and sidewalk projects across the city, including other cycling initiatives like upgrades to Milwaukee Avenue bike lanes. The strike ended in late July, which allowed these initiatives to move forward.
However, a tipster told me about another possible reason the Dickens Greenway has taken so long to be approved and constructed. Edward C. Fitzpatrick, an attorney who lives a block from Oz Park (but doesn’t reside on Dickens) has been waging a rather monomaniacal war against the project behind the scenes for many months now.
Streetsblog submitted a Freedom of Information Act to CDOT asking for all of CDOT bike and pedestrian program manager David Smith’s emails containing Fitzpatrick’s name between late July 2021 and late July 2022. The department eventually responded with a whopping 190 pages of documents. In these emails, the attorney accused CDOT of hiding information about the project, claimed a consultant to the department was guilty of being an unregistered paid lobbyist, and detailed his conspiracy theory that transportation officials secretly collaborated with advocates to promote the initiative – including yours truly.
There’s quite a lot to digest, but I’ll try to give you a sense of Fitzpatrick’s mindset with a sampling of his correspondence, sent from his email address at the law firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, where he was recently listed on the website as being “of counsel.” Messages left for Fitzpatrick at the firm were not returned.
On July 19, 2021, Fitzpatrick emailed then-CDOT spokesperson Susan Hofer, cc-ing Ald. Smith; several other city and Chicago Park District staffers; and various Lincoln Park neighbors and community organizations, as he did in much of the following correspondence.
The attorney mentioned that he filed Freedom of Information Act requests with CDOT in May and June of that year. He then submitted a third FOIA request asking for records of all communications of any kind about the Dickens Greenway since 2010 between CDOT staff and Smith, her chief of staff Erik Wallenius, the park district, the Active Transportation Alliance, the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council, CDOT bikeway consultant Brad Huff, Huff’s employer the transportation planning firm T.Y. Lin International, and… me, John Greenfield. It was an extremely broad request.
On July 30 Hofer wrote a letter to Fitzpatrick stating that she was unable to do a comprehensive search for these documents without the attorney providing the email addresses of the involved city staffers. Instead, she sent him the documents used to create a PowerPoint presentation on the greenway. Hofer noted that Fitzpatrick might have a right to have his FOIA request reviewed by the Illinois Attorney General’s public access counselor, and provided contact info.
Predictably, Fitzpatrick wasn’t happy with that response. On August 3, 2021, he wrote Hofer, again cc-ing a dozen or two other people, arguing that CDOT had failed to adequately respond to his three public records requests, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act. “Based on the lack of responses to my reasonable requests and the DOT’s stonewalling to date, I can only conclude that the department of transportation is hiding something from the voters and taxpayers.”
The attorney also complained that CDOT hadn’t provided evidence that it had given any consideration to the safety of pedestrians in Oz Park. He added that the department hadn’t given him information about bike-pedestrian crashes on other local multiuse paths like the Lakefront Trail and The 606. “What are you hiding?”
Fitzpatrick noted that Brad Huff, the T.Y. Lin consultant to the CDOT bikeway program, was responsible for “coordinat[ing] aldermanic, business, and public outreach,” writing “I find it a bizarre use of taxpayer funds and a clear conflict of interest for the DOT to pay a consultant to lobby aldermen and the taxpayers to support a project which will result in the hiring of the consultant’s private industry employer for a taxpayer-funded contract. Is Huff a registered lobbyist?”
The attorney went on to argue that during the public meetings “the participants in favor of the Dickens Greenway project were clearly well-coordinated and had advance knowledge of the process.” He added that, because CDOT hadn’t provided documents on its communications with bike advocates, he suspected that CDOT staffers and/or Huff “were involved behind the scenes in coordinating the group in favor of the project. Again, what are you hiding?” It’s easy to imagine the attorney wearing a tinfoil hat while typing this.
After receiving Fitzpatrick’s email, Hofer wrote CDOT bike-ped coordinator David Smith and department coordinating engineer Malihe Samadi. “Can one of you explain what he’s griping about?”
“This person is clearly against the project and the staff who prepared the plan and presentation materials,” Samadi replied, suggesting that Hofer run Fitzpatrick’s email by the city’s law department for feedback.
On September 23, 2021, Fitzpatrick submitted a fourth FOIA request for CDOT communications about the Dickens Greenway, this time narrowing the timeframe from January 1, 2018 to the present. He indicated he’d filed a grievance with the attorney general’s office, and public access officer Joshua Jones, cc-ed, had gotten involved.
By October 4, 2021, Fitzpatrick had decided to talk to the manager. He emailed a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot decrying CDOT’s plan to route “a high-speed bicycle path onto the sidewalk going through Oz Park,” which would “result in an inherently dangerous condition and an unreasonable risk of harm to children, pedestrians, users of Oz Park, and Lincoln Park High School students.” The attorney argued that the bikeway would create a liability risk for the city and park district.
“I am not anti-biker as I own at least seven bicycles, and I support bicycle use,” Fitzpatrick insisted. “I am also a parent and grandparent of children who have and/or will continue to use Oz Park, and I am a daily user of the sidewalk.” He conceded that CDOT had identified Dickens as a future “Neighborhood Bike Route” in its Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. But he argued, “the fact that some bureaucrat drew a line through Oz Park in 2012 does not justify CDOT’s 2021 disregard for the safety of children [and] pedestrians.”
In reality CDOT did consider the safety of pedestrians in Oz park. The designs for the greenway’s entrances to the park from the west and east include sharp turns that force bike riders to slow down when riding into the green space.
On October 28, 2021, Fitzpatrick wrote Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General arguing that CDOT bikeway consultant Brad Huff’s work on the greenway project was an example of political corruption. “Neither Mr. Huff nor his employer T.Y. Lin international appear to have registered as lobbyists under the Chicago lobbyist ordinance… and CDOT did not disclose this conflict of interest.”
On December 15, 2021, the attorney emailed park district general superintendent and CEO Rosa Escareño to complain about the Dickens Greenway. A week later park district planner Michael Lange wrote Fitzpatrick to notify him the bikeway is a CDOT project taking place entirely within the public right-of-way, not CPD property, so he should direct his questions to the transportation department.
Fitzpatrick wrote Lange back on January 13, 2022. “What is the legal basis of CDOT’s assertion of its right to seize Park District property?… Giving CDOT the right to dictate the use of Oz Park property is both bad management and sets a precedent for other arbitrary seizures.”
That correspondence was forwarded to the transportation department, and CDOT public way unit manager Bill Higgins drafted an explanation for Lange to pass on to Fitzpatrick as to why CDOT does, in fact, have the right to use the Oz Park multiuse path for the greenway route. Higgins noted that many Chicago parks once had public way streets and alleys platted through them. In some cases the city of Chicago has vacated these public ways, but that was not the case with Dickens Avenue through Oz Park.
After Oz Park was planned in 1964, Higgins wrote, “The 66′ wide public way of Dickens remained open for several more years before being formerly closed to traffic in 1974. However, it was not vacated to the park. The connection was made to link the park and school, maintained by the park district, [but] its underlying property rights remained with CDOT.”
In other words, Fitzpatrick’s claim that CDOT is “seizing” land from the park district land for the greenway was invalid.
On February 9, 2022, the attorney wrote the Chicago inspector general’s office again, asserting that Brad Huff “is an unregistered lobbyist for the [CDOT] bicycle program… Not only did Mr. Huff lobby Alderman Smith to support the [greenway], he doubtlessly was a part of the organized packing of the public meetings about this project with bicycle path proponents.”
That’s interesting logic from Fitzpatrick: If lots of people at a public meeting voice support for a project, that proves that the hearing was “packed” with supporters.
In a private email to coworkers, CDOT spokesperson Susan Hofer seemed to roll her eyes at Fitzpatrick’s statement to the IG. “I’m not sure how Brad is lobbying by coordinating meetings with the alderman’s office.”
In a February 16, 2022 email to CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi, Bill Higgins confirmed that the park district was on the same page with the department about the Dickens Greenway. “It’s a CDOT project on CDOT jurisdiction, pretty much as simple as that.”
“Great, thank you,” Biagi replied. “There have been a lot of emails on this one!”
On February 28, 2022, Fitzpatrick wrote to Ald. Smith, cc-ing dozens of city and park district staffers and neighborhood residents, asking the alder to open an investigation of the Dickens Greenway and put the project on hold until the inquiry was completed. He listed four reasons why the probe was needed, in all caps.
- CDOT AND ITS BICYCLE PATH CONTRACTOR USED AN UNREGISTERED LOBBYIST TO LOBBY YOU AND YOUR STAFF AND PACK YOUR PUBLIC MEETINGS IN VIOLATION OF THE LOBBYIST REGISTRATION ORDINANCE.
- CDOT MISLED YOU AND THE PUBLIC AS TO THE SAFETY OF ROUTING A BIKE PATH ONTO THE HEAVILY USED OZ PARK SIDEWALK.
- CDOT MISLED YOU AND THE PUBLIC REGARDING ITS EXPERIENCE WITH SHARED PATHS.
- CDOT HAS NO LEGAL RIGHT TO SEIZE CONTROL OF A SIDEWALK OWNED BY THE PARK DISTRICT AND CPS.
While all of these arguments are laughable, as discussed above, #4 is clearly factually untrue.
“If the above sounds like I am frustrated, it’s because I am,” Fitzpatrick fumed at the end of his email. “You have ignored the concerns of neighborhood organizations… while naively accepting the irrelevant arguments made by a paid unregistered lobbyist and bureaucrats from CDOT who are paid to add bike lanes.”
Despite Fitzpatrick’s very tactful wording of the email to Ald. Smith, for some strange reason he didn’t get a prompt reply.
On March 22, 2022, the attorney wrote the alder again to complain that over three weeks had gone by without a response, adding that he never received replies to his “many” emails to her about the Dickens Greenway in the past year. “Since you are not running for [reelection], you apparently do not care enough about these issues to even give me the courtesy of acknowledging that you received my emails.”
This very long email basically just rehashed Fitzpatrick’s previously stated conspiracy theories about the sinister plot by city officials and bike advocates to endanger children, bolstered by a few more pieces of “evidence” recently acquired from yet another CDOT FOIA request. But this tidbit caught my eye.
“[Then-CDOT spokesperson Michael Claffey and bike-ped coordinator David Smith] clearly worked very closely with John Greenfield from Streetsblog Chicago to produce favorable media reports about the project… and negative stories about opponents of the project.” As proof, he cites emails from Claffey and Smith, which weren’t included in CDOT’s response to my own FOIA.
I don’t recall CDOT staffers ever actively encouraging me to provide good press for the Dickens plan, which I would have done anyway, since Streetsblog Chicago is a sustainable transportation news and advocacy website. But when it comes to writing articles pointing out why NIMBY opponents of bikeway projects are foolish – especially super-obsessed ones like Edward C. Fitzpatrick – I’m guilty as charged.