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Safe Streets Advocates: 1, NIMBYs: 0. After years of surreal opposition, CDOT finally begins building Dickens Greenway

After [checks watch] 4.5 years of stonewalling by some Lincoln Park residents, yesterday the Chicago Department of Transportation started constructing the bike route.

Young attendees at the Dickens Greenway meeting in August 2019. These kids are now more than four years older. Photo: Rebecca Resman

This article is sponsored by The Bike Lane.

DANG! After [checks notes] 4.5 years of stonewalling by some residents of the tony Lincoln Park neighborhood, yesterday the Chicago Department of Transportation started building the Dickens Avenue Neighborhood Greenway. Block Club Chicago's Jake Wittich first reported this awesome news, although Streetsblog tweeted a few weeks ago that a late summer or early fall start was likely, based on intel from local alderperson Timmy Knudsen's (43rd) office.

Before we take a look back at the truly bizarre backlash that delayed this moment so long, here's a quick update from CDOT on what's what's on deck for the 1.25-mile corridor. "Construction began yesterday on the Dickens Greenway and is expected to last through the fall," spokesperson Erica Schroeder told Streetsblog today. "The project includes a variety of traffic calming elements on Dickens Avenue [2100 N.] between Magnolia Avenue [1230 W.] and Stockton Drive [230 W.] to make the street more comfortable for everyone – whether they are walking, biking, or driving."

The DANG route. Image: CDOT

Schroder said the project currently includes the following. A contraflow ("wrong-way") bicycle lane will make bike eastbound traffic on the one-way westbound segments of Dickens safer and legalize it. Sidewalk extensions and raised crosswalks will shorten crossing distances, calm motorized traffic, and discourage drivers from whipping around corners. And the speed limit will be reduced to 20 mph. The spokesperson said the work is beginning at Dickens' western end, and the street will remain open to all traffic during the project.

Eastbound cycling is already common on Dickens, generally a one-way westbound street. The contraflow bike lane will make it safe and legal. Photo: CDOT

So how did we get here? I'll try to keep this relatively brief, but that's challenging.

When the Dickens Greenway was first announced in March 2019, it seemed like an uncontroversial proposal. Neighborhood Greenways were fairly common on the North Side by then. 

But surprisingly many neighbors argued at the first community meeting that the treatment would make the corridor more dangerous, claiming more people riding bikes on Dickens would endanger pedestrians. They were alarmed at the possibility of more cyclists riding on a multiuse path through Oz Park as part of the route. 

Biking on the path through Oz Park that will be part of the Dickens Greenway. Photo: CDOT

One Not in My Backyard type launched an anonymous Friends of Dickens website against the greenway. They also sent out glossy political-style mailings exhorting residents to stop the project “before it’s too late."

Home page of the (now defunct) Friends of Dickens webpage.

A community meeting on the Dickens Greenway in August 2019 with a strong turnout from greenway supporters, including lots of kids, should have settled the question. After some experimentation with temporarily using Dickens as a traffic calmed Slow Street in summer 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, in June 2021 then-alder Michele Smith announced that she had finally signed off on the Greenway.

The Dickens Slow Street in summer 2020. Photo: John Greenfield

At the time, I wrote the headline: "Victory! After years of NIMBY opposition, the Dickens Greenway is finally approved." Little did I know!

A year went by with no action on the project from CDOT. After working on a tip from a reader, in August 2022 Streetsblog reported on a trove of emails we obtained that were sent to the Chicago Department of Transportation and Ald. Smith from attorney Edward C. Fitzpatrick, who lives near Dickens. They documented his Captain Ahab-like obsession with killing the Greenway.

Edward C. Fitzpatrick

Here's a sample of one of Fitzpatrick's 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.

Then in March of this year the Dickens Greenway emerged as a political issue during a 43rd Ward aldermanic runoff debate between the new incumbent alder Timmy Knudsen (who was appointed by then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot to replace Smith when she stepped down last September) and challenger Brian Comer. While Lincoln Parkers told me Knudsen has privately voiced support for the greenway plan, Comer said that night that if he becomes alder, he would put the brakes on the project. Knudsen said he would follow through with the planned bikeway.

Fortunately, Knudsen won the election. Yesterday he tweeted out the good news that the project was starting. "I am excited to strap on my helmet and host a safety ride with the community down the newly minted greenway later this fall!" he concluded in his thread.

Jim Merrell, advocacy director for the Active Transportation Alliance, which voiced support for the project early on, said the group is excited to see work starting on the Dickens Greenway. "This is especially gratifying given how hard many advocates had to fight for these commonsense safety improvements," he said. "Thank you to everyone who showed up to public meetings, mobilized their neighbors, and made sure our alders and city officials heard that safe streets aren't up for debate. Your advocacy made a difference."

Rebecca Resman with one of her kids several months before the first Dickens Greenway meeting. This child has spend the vast majority of their life waiting for the project to be built.

Rebecca Resman from Chicago Family Biking, another key advocate for the project also celebrated this win. "Although it took so long that some of the kids that advocated for this greenway are now adults, we are happy to see the Dickens Greenway officially break ground," she said. "Safe east-west routes are crucial to ensure people biking can safely access our lakefront, the Lincoln Park Zoo and more. We are encouraged by the community support of this safe streets upgrade and hope to see a more robust greenway network emerge in Chicago."

"We also hope future projects like this don’t encounter the shortsighted NIMBY privilege that was on display throughout the public process of this much needed safety enhancement," Resman concluded. "When people gatekeep communities, we all lose."

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