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Former Milwaukee mayor and CNU chief John Norquist on why Chicago should demolish the Ohio Feeder

"If it's such a good idea to have a freeway ramp coming into River North from the west, why isn't there one coming from every direction?" Norquist asked.

Looking southwest towards the massive, pedestrian-hostile intersection of Ontario (630 N.) and Orleans (330 W.) streets, where westbound drivers turn southwest to enter the Ohio Feeder ramp and head towards the Kennedy Expressway. Photo: Alex McKeag

The post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.

John Norquist previously served as the mayor of Milwaukee and president of Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit that promotes ideas for making cities more people-friendly. A longtime advocate of freeway removal, yesterday, he took a stroll in Chicago's downtown River North neighborhood and West Town community to assess the notorious Ohio Street (600 N.) feeder ramp.

Arial view of Chicago's Ohio Feeder, which connects the Kennedy Expressway with Orleans Street in River North. Click here for a larger version. Image: Google Maps

The freeway extension runs between north-south Orleans Street (330 W.) in River North and a West Town interchange with the Kennedy Expressway, which runs between the West Loop and O'Hare Airport. Joining him were a couple of former colleagues, CNU board member Gary Scott and urban designer Alex McKeag.

The street network in the area, with the River North neighborhood to the upper-right. Click here for a larger version. Image: Google Maps

"Instead of looking at the map, we looked in person, and saw that the freeway ramp has suppressed development opportunities on the northwest side of downtown," said Norquist. He currently lives in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood on the Far North Side.

Access ramps to the eastbound Ohio Feeder (left) and from the westbound feeder to the Kennedy (right) at the highway interchange in West Town. Viewed from Milwaukee Avenue between Erie and Ohio streets (about 900 W. here), looking southwest. Photo: Alex McKeag

Norquistargued that swapping the expressway extension for a surface-level boulevard would be an obvious choice to make this part of town safer, more efficient, more environmentally friendly, more vibrant – and more profitable. "Instead of making it harder to get to River North from the Kennedy, it would expand River North closer to the Kennedy."

The Ohio Feeder viewed from Halsted Street (800 W.) in West Town yesterday, looking west (left) and east (right). Click here for a larger view. Photo: Alex McKeag

Norquist led the City of Milwaukee between May 1988 and January 2004, when he left the position to work at CNU. He said that prior to becoming the mayor of Cream City, he was part of that city's 1970s "anti-freeway resistance movement" that helped put the brakes on several destructive highway proposals. "We elected anti-freeway legislators, and by 1979 there was no one left in Milwaukee's delegation in the Wisconsin state legislature who supported highway expansion."

John Norquist

As mayor, one of his most famous accomplishments was demolishing and repurposing the Park East Freeway, which ran a little under one mile, just north of downtown Milwaukee, in 2003. Recently he's spoken out against Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers' plan to add lanes to three miles of I-94 west of downtown Cream City. He's also currently helping out with efforts to eliminate Buffalo's lightly used Kensington Expressway as an alternative to capping it, which would cost roughly a billion dollars.

As for the idea of tearing down the Ohio Feeder, a popular way for folks from the Chicago suburbs to access River North restaurants and nightlife, "Suburbanites will hate it," Norquist acknowledged. "But if you don't propose it, it's never going to happen."

Milwaukee's former Park East Freeway, looking east. The corridor currently has a surface-level road with additional development. Photo: City of Milwaukee

He noted that when the removal of the Park East Freeway was pitched, "People originally said, 'You're mad. You're crazy. How are we going to get downtown?' But nowadays no one is complaining about it having been removed."

But wouldn't River North merchants be outraged by a proposal to eliminate the an expressway extension that leads to their businesses? Norquist noted that freeway removals have proven successful in cities ranging from Seoul to Paris to San Francisco. "Freeways don't work in cities."

Cheonggyecheon, a stream and public space in downtown Seoul, South Korea that was formerly the route for a major elevated highway completed in 1976 and torn down in 2005. Image: Wikipedia

SF actually saw travel times shorten when the Embarcadero Freeway was removed after being damaged by an earthquake, Norquist noted. "At rush hour, a boulevard carries more traffic because drivers move at the optimal speed. More and more research is piling up about the harmful aspects of urban freeways, including sprawl, pollution, congestion, and increased travel times. And you can't build a coffee shop on a freeway."

San Francisco’s Embarcadero was formerly occupied by a double-decker highway, but converted to a boulevard after the highway was damaged by an earthquake. Photo: Wikipedia

As for how Kennedy Expressway travelers would be able to get to River North without the Ohio Feeder, Norquist said, "Look at the access ramps for the Kennedy in the West Loop, like Jackson Boulevard [300 S.], Adams Street [200 S.], and Monroe Street [100 S.] The ramps run right alongside the expressway, and they immediately connect you with an urban street. People are able to get from the Dan Ryan to the Sears Tower without using a freeway."

Arial view of the Kennedy in the West Loop, with the Sears Tower at the lower right. Click here for a larger version. Image: Google Maps.

Meanwhile, River North and West Town have far less development than they otherwise would because so much land is wasted by the Ohio Feeder and its Kennedy interchange, Norquist argued.

The Ohio Feeder viewed from Ohio and Union Avenue (700 W.) yesterday, looking northeast. Photo: Alex McKeag

"It would take persistence like the Park East Freeway, where eventually the property owners saw the benefits," he said. "If you took down the Ohio Feeder, the first option would be to rebuild the pre-1960s urban grid. It would be a chance to help solve Chicago's housing crisis."

The Ohio Feeder viewed from Desplaines Street (600 W.) yesterday, looking northeast. Photo: Alex McKeag

But wouldn't the owners of River North establishments like Harry Caray's restaurant at Dearborn (30 W.) and Kinzie (400 N.) streets throw a fit? They've recently been trying to stop the car-free dining district on Clark Street (100 W.) from returning this year, arguing that it makes it hard for drivers to access their businesses.

The Ohio Feeder's bridge over the Chicago River (about 500 W.) yesterday, viewed from the Grand Avenue bridge, looking north. Photo: Alex McKeag

"Not every last person will be converted," Norquist conceded. "They have a right to be against it. But times change, and having a freeway running to your restaurant isn't necessarily going to appeal to the younger generation that drives less."

The Ohio Feeder viewed from Kingsbury Street (430 W.) yesterday, looking north. Photo: Alex McKeag

Transforming the Ohio Feeder into surface road, similar to what was done with Milwaukee's Park East Freeway "really won't require a change on every part of it," Norquist he said. "The bridge over the Chicago River was built in 1962 and fixed up in 1992. It's going be due for a rehab soon anyway. And it's not like you have to teat the whole freeway down. Much of it is practically at-grade, so you could turn it into a boulevard pretty easily."

Back at Orleans (330 W.), looking east on Ohio. Photo: Alex McKeag

"We really enjoyed yesterday's walk," Norquist concluded. "It was a chance to look at everything with fresh eyes, so I'd suggest other people give it a try."

A map of the route discussed above. Click here for an interactive version. Image: John Greenfield via Google Maps

Streetsblog Chicago put together the above map of Norquist, Scott, and McKeag's roughly one-mile route for walking or biking. (Please note that not all the streets are bike-friendly, so this route is best for so-called "Enthused and Confident" riders.) Click here for an interactive version.

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