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43rd Ward hopeful Brian Comer concern trolls Dickens Greenway during debate

Brian Comer

Thanks to transportation advocate Michelle Stenzel for documenting and flagging this topic for us.

As far as I know, there has never been such ridiculous Not In My Backyard opposition to a proposed Chicago bikeway as we've seen against the Dickens Avenue Neighborhood Greenway plan in Lincoln Park. It's our city's answer answer to New York City's Prospect Park West protected bike lane fiasco.

Granted, the Dickens NIMBYs don't include such prominent players as former NYC transportation chief Iris Weinshall and her husband U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. But someone launched an anonymous Friends of Dickens website against the greenway, and sent out glossy political-style mailings exhorting residents of the affluent Dickens corridor to stop the project “before it’s too late." Perhaps not totally coincidentally, that was also the slogan used by white Chicago mayoral candidate Bernard Epton when he ran against Harold Washington in 1983.

The FriendsofDickens.com website.
The FriendsofDickens.com website.
The FriendsofDickens.com website.

And last August Streetsblog reported on a trove of emails we obtained that were sent to the Chicago Department of Transportation and then-Lincoln Park alderperson Michele Smith (43rd) from attorney Edward C. Fitzpatrick, who lives near Dickens. They documented his Captain Ahab-like obsession with killing the Greenway. Here's a sample of one of his missives to the alder: "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." Read more about that whole bizarre saga here.

It's kind of baffling why this relatively simple proposal has attracted so much hate. It involves a contraflow bike lane, to allow "wrong-way" cycling on the one-way eastbound street, which lots of people are already doing, a very common bikeway treatment in Chicago. The speed limit would be lowered from 30 mph to 20, and sidewalk bump-outs, speed humps, and raised crosswalks would be installed, including near schools, improving safety for all road users. An existing multi-use path through Oz Park, which already gets plenty of bike traffic, would be designated as part of the route.

The Dickens Greenway route.
The Dickens Avenue Neighborhood Greenway route.
The Dickens Greenway route.

It's been almost four years since the first community meeting for the project in May 2019. There was strong support from residents – including lots of kids – at a larger hearing that August. Other than last year's northern Illinois quarry strike, there's no reason this thing hasn't been built yet, except for privileged people like Fitzpatrick engaging in totally bonkers NIMBY-ism.

But wait, there's more! The Dickens Greenway emerged as a political issue during tonight's 43rd Ward aldermanic runoff debate between incumbent alder Timmy Knudsen (who was appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to replace Smith when she stepped down last September) and challenger Brian Comer. While Lincoln Parkers tell me Knudsen has privately voiced support for the greenway plan, Comer said tonight that if he becomes alder, he will put the brakes on the project.

Brian Comer says he’ll stop the #DickensGreenway from being built. He claims he’s in favor of all of it except that it goes near the hill in Oz Park where kids go sledding and that makes it too dangerous for everyone? What?!? #bikeCHI vote for Timmy Knudsen pic.twitter.com/vekJeRNLxp

— Michelle Stenzel (@MichelleStenzel) March 21, 2023

Here's a transcript of the discussion of the greenway, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Moderator: [Asks Knudsen where he stands on the Dickens Greenway.]

Timmy Knudsen: There's a lot of concern around the Dickens Greenway. It's a conversation that has been hotly debated since, I think, 2011 under the Emanuel administration and was approved two years ago after a lot of community involvement. I really hear concerns, so we've been trying to look at our ward infrastructure budget... I'm told that this would have been built a year ago if it wasn't for the cement strikes. And we need to be watching this like a hawk to make sure it is done safely, and we're investing in the right ways to make it safe going forward. So we're going to be watching that and talking to the community about it.

Brian Comer: When the former alderwoman presented the greenway plan, I said there are certain aspects of this plan that everybody can get behind. You want to raise the intersection at Dickens and Fremont so that the St. James [Lutheran School] kids can be more visible? Perfect, everyone's happy about that. You want to lower the speed limit? Perfect. You want to put in [contraflow bike lanes]? Perfect. However, having that greenway 100 yards from [the Lincoln Park High] auditorium, pass by the base of a hill that kids sled on, that I sledded on forty years ago, and thousands of [Lincoln Park High] kids walk across, is not safe for the bikers and not safe for the pedestrians.

It's already common for people to bike on the multi-use path past the sledding hill in Oz Park. Photo: John Greenfield
It's already common for people to bike on the multi-use path past the sledding hill in Oz Park. Photo: John Greenfield
It's already common for people to bike on the multi-use path past the sledding hill in Oz Park. Photo: John Greenfield

We need to actually look at that plan to make sure it's safe for everyone, including the bikers. Now when we talk about infrastructure as a whole, we really need to be thoughtful. This is going to take a citywide effort. Because Armitage [a block south of Dickens] is crowded. Fullerton [three blocks north] – you really need something almost like a "green wave" [stoplights synchronized so that people biking or driving a certain speed get uninterrupted green lights – a Lincoln Park resident said they believe Cromer was talking about a green wave for drivers], which we've been discussing with some traffic study companies.

TK: [Asks to respond.]

BC: [Knudsen said the greenway] is a done deal, so there's nothing to talk about. And I've heard from many people, all across the ward, that that's the case. And it's not the case. In fact, through [Freedom of Information Act] requests, we've learned that the state of Illinois has told the Chicago Department of Transportation that they have to respond to requests from private citizens that they have refused to respond to over years. [This is likely a reference to the multiple FOIA requests Edward C. Fitzpatrick submitted to CDOT, and his subsequent complaints about CDOT to the Illinois Attorney General's office, which Streetsblog obtained via our own FOIA request.] So one of the first things we're going to do when I'm in office is we're going to get down to the bottom of this, because I haven't seen one shovel going down into the ground. So it's not done until it's done.

TK: When [the greenway] was approved [by Smith] two years ago, that starts the process of federal funding. That brings things out of the ward, aldermanic influence. So CDOT's discussions with IDOT are not at all with us. CDOT told us [the greenway construction] would have happened a year ago if it wasn't for the cement shortages.

Advocate Michelle Stenzel noted on Twitter, "Comer allegedly endorsed the Chicago Bike Grid Now! plan to optimize 10 percent of streets to be safe for biking/walking. [Knudsen did as well.] BUT he’ll try to stop a mile-long greenway project after YEARS of community input, due to concerns about a short segment that could be addressed if needed?!" She also pointed out the obvious fact that on days when there's enough snow for sledding, relatively few people will be riding bikes on the greenway.

Ald. Smith's former chief of staff Erik Wallenius scoffed at Comer's current opposition to the greenway, suggesting it's motivated by politics rather than safety concerns.

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