urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Thoughts on trails and thoroughfares

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First off, I’d like to apologize for taking such a long break in between posts – September sort of got away from me, and it became much busier than I had anticipated, but I’ll be back regularly now.

I just wanted to put down some thoughts briefly on two different events that I experienced this weekend, Open Streets on State Street as well as the Bloomingdale Trail design charrette. Open Streets on State Street closed the street to vehicular traffic from Lake to Van Buren for six hours Saturday morning; Grid Chicago’s John Greenfield has an excellent rundown of various ciclovías and Open Street-like events.

The Bloomingdale Trail design charrette, held the same day, provided a forum for architects, planners, volunteers and community members to discuss form and function of the project, which hopes to convert the unused Bloomingdale rail viaduct on the city’s West Side to a trail, somewhat like the High Line. I unfortunately wasn’t able to make most of the design charrette, although there will be a meeting on Tuesday to present the design team recommendations for the trail’s Framework Plan, which I’m planning on attending.

Coincidentally, when I was in New York about a month and a half ago, I happened to visit during the city’s Summer Streets on Park Avenue, which was a similar project (and which I also posted about) as well as walked the entire open length of the High Line.

State at Adams

I did notice that when I emerged out of the subway onto the open street in New York, that there was a high percentage of bicyclists whizzing down the road, whereas my first impression on Open Streets was a sense that it was a larger version of Chicago’s numerous summer street fairs. Summer Streets gave me a sense of a car-free but moving cyclist and pedestrian thoroughfare, while Open Streets had a slower, more meandering atmosphere. I’d guess the difference stems from the various lengths of the street: Summer Streets closes down Park Avenue for over half the length of Manhattan, while Open Streets closes six or so blocks in the Loop. I’d hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with either approach: they’re both ways of re-using street space in ways we don’t normally consider.

It did occur to me, very briefly, whether closing Michigan Ave, which I’d consider the other iconic Chicago boulevard and arguably visually more similar to Park Ave, for this type of event would have created a more stunning visual impact, as it’s a wider street and sees more foot traffic on weekends, especially in the section north of the river. But I think that the impact on both motorists and bus routes — it’s a major thoroughfare for both — would have rendered it a colossally difficult undertaking. (Park Ave doesn’t have a MTA bus line on it; the extremely busy Lexington Ave line is one block to the east, although Park does host the Metro-North viaduct in upper Manhattan.)

Concerns posted for near the eastern end of the trail (between Damen and Ashland)

As for the Bloomingdale Trail charrette, while I didn’t have a chance to go, I did take a look at the map on which users were encouraged to post their concerns, suggestions and other thoughts via post-it notes. I did notice a cluster of security concerns from residents, presumably those of condos that face right up to the river. While I don’t want to diminish their concerns, they do echo of those who are opposed to new light-rail or other transit lines presumably because of the crime that they would bring (I am very sympathetic to the concerns about lights, though — light pollution in places like Chicago is quite severe as is, so I’m hoping that there will be some thought put into the lighting design.)

Presumably, these residents who bought these condos were doing so under the assumption that the unused rail viaduct would stay as is, instead of being converted to an active thoroughfare. It’s sort of a greater philosophical problem beyond just a proposed rail trail — as city dwellers, what type of expectations can we have about our greater surroundings? Nobody wants to buy into a “good neighborhood” only to see it decline, or to be priced out of the area in which they have made an investment or have historic ties. Yet for the city as a whole, these developments are unquestionably positive (new parks, green space, less crumbling infrastructure).

Both Open Streets and the Bloomingdale Trail fundamentally are land-use and balance issues: identifying the best way to maximize the utility of the limited land that we have in our cities, and balancing the necessarily conflicted aims of all city denizens, whether those be downtown drivers, condo owners or park users. They’re not always easy, but I think asking these questions, instead of just leaving things at the status quo, ultimately help to make Chicago (and our other cities), better places to live.

Written by Andrew ACG

October 3, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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