THREATENED: From Parkway Boulevard to Interstate Highway; Massive Changes Considered for North Lake Shore Drive

Proposed North Lake Shore Drive Road Configuration, Rendering Credit: North Lake Shore Drive Project

Since first established over 80 years ago as a parkway boulevard along Chicago’s lakefront, planners have struggled to strike a balance between increasing traffic volumes and preserving the character and feel of this legendary, scenic roadway. While Lake Shore Drive has been updated and improved throughout the decades, the City of Chicago has always voiced an interest in remaining sensitive to the character of the historic boulevard parkway along the route.

The current proposal from the Chicago Department of Transportation represents a radical departure from the past and would completely overhaul North Lake Shore Drive from Navy Pier to its northern terminus at Hollywood Avenue. The estimated $2 billion to $3 billion overhaul is being referred to as “Redefine the Drive”. While still in the early planning phases, one primary objective would be to bring North Lake Shore Drive up to current highway grade standards. According to the design team, another stated objective is to increase traffic flow at peak rush hours, between 7:30 and 8:30 am on weekdays. To help pay for the cost, CDOT is considering adding possible “tollway” features to Lake Shore Drive.

Instead of calming traffic and reducing traffic speeds to prevent accidents, the focus is on increasing traffic speeds and increasing traffic volumes. Increasing travel speeds will cause greater risk of serious accidents, require massive investment to rebuild the roadbed to meet highway speed standards, and further exacerbate the real cause of traffic delays; the bottlenecks caused by the traffic signals just past the off-ramps and along the Grant Park section of the Lake Shore Drive.

The proposed work includes the potential to widen Lake Shore Drive from its current four lanes in each direction to five in each direction. For comparison sake, the Eisenhower Expressway is primarily three or four lanes in each direction with the CTA running in the median.

To accommodate this significant widening, other proposed “improvements” include the demolition of all the historic Art Deco bridges to be replaced with new, interstate-grade highway standard bridges and a trenched roadway. Like the Eisenhower Expressway, proposed plans include sinking the Drive below surface grade at each interchange and removing all the elevated bridges that block views towards the lake.

In order to straighten out the Oak Street curve near historic Oak Street Beach and increase traffic speeds, the Oak Street Beach would be “relocated” and sections of the Drive sunken into lengthy subterranean tunnels. New traffic signals at on-ramps and dedicated bus only lanes will also likely be added. An above-grade pedestrian bridge is proposed to span diagonally from Oak and Michigan Avenues for nearly a city block to Oak Street Beach.

Other more radical ideas being considered include relocating the Drive to the west side of the Lincoln Park Lagoon and create a “real Lake Michigan dune landscape, with camping”, reconfiguring the Chicago Avenue interchange to eliminate the traffic signal, and eliminating the Wilson Street interchange to reduce interference with the Lakefront Trail. Other ideas include converting Clarendon Park into a high-density, mixed-use development to help “provide revenue” for the proposed improvements and create a new multi-story parking structure at Montrose Beach to serve new transit riders.

Preservation Chicago is very concerned that the plans for the reconstruction of North Lake Shore Drive appear to be “very heavy-handed” and will adversely and negatively impact the historic winding, tree-lined nature of both the park greenspace and lakefront, extending from Navy Pier to Hollywood Avenue. Lake Shore Drive, which is part of the Chicago Boulevard System, will look and feel less like a parkway boulevard when plans are developed and much more like an interstate highway, as sections of Lake Shore Drive will inevitably be forced to comply with current highway grade standards. If these changes are made, perhaps it will come to be thought of as the Lake Shore Highway or Lake Shore Tollway.

It seems that each time Lake Shore Drive is rethought, it takes on an increasingly Interstate-quality, rather than a park-like boulevard effect. This seems to occur whenever sections of Lake Shore Drive are considered for “improvement”. For example, the area around the old “S Curve” near Navy Pier, where traffic lanes were expanded, portions of the drive now have confusing, dark, visually unpleasant, series of upper and lower ramps. The near Another example is near McCormick Place, where the soaring flyovers ramps and viaduct-like structures have been totally rebuilt, and they look much like the Interstate highway ramps that were implemented in the 1960s, modifying the previous pastoral Lake Shore Drive.

That experience is completely different from the pleasant tree-lined boulevard which one experiences when driving past Grant Park or Lincoln Park and along one of Chicago’s most beautiful boulevards. The “improvements” near Navy Pier in the past have resulted in a highway style tangle that is discouraging to pedestrians, bike riders and even cars, trying to both enter and exit Lake Shore Drive from below.

On a variety of metrics, most of these “heavy-handed solutions” have proved unsuccessful and many “great improvements” have resulted in expensive ongoing maintenance. Now we are forced to spend millions of dollars to correct the bike paths that were ignored during the reconfiguration 25 years ago. That plan “pitted” cars, pedestrians and bike riders in the same path for decades. And even this project is only partially complete and is stalled at this time. This project was so poorly designed that the iconic Lake Shore Drive Art-Moderne Bridge towers are now being considered for demolition to allow the bike path to continue southward across the Chicago River.

If the currently proposed North Lake Shore Drive “improvement” studies are accepted, it will likely result in the loss of acres of parkland in Lincoln Park, the cutting of hundreds of trees, including many bordering the Drive with a mature tree canopy to make space for extra lane expansions and straightening. Additional landfill parkland is proposed to compensate for the loss, but there is a real concern that this wildly costly new parkland will never be built.

The North Lake Shore Drive “Improvement” proposals will also require the destruction of the thirty years ago tree-lined and flower-planted median which have now matured nicely, and are a source of pride for many Chicagoans. These mature trees and planting will all be cut down completely and destroyed.

The North Lake Shore Drive “improvement” proposal calls for all of the historic Art Deco bridges and spans at North Avenue, Fullerton, Belmont, Montrose and continuing up Lake Shore Drive to be completely destroyed. We agree that due to profound neglect and consistent failure to provide routine maintenance, many of these historic bridges are suffering from decades of deferred maintained. However, these bridges and their unique historic design features can and should be repaired and restored with appropriate ornament, rails and light standards, much like the repairs to the historic bridge at 47th and South Lake Shore Drive. The cost for maintenance is a fraction of the cost for new construction.

Many of the plans to date include removing these bridges and sinking Lake Shore Drive into a deep trench or tunnel, significantly below lake levels at various locations between Navy Pier and Foster. To avoid flooding, these new sub-surface roadways will be controlled by pumps, which will remove the water following both rainstorms and flooding. However, we all know that systems break down and these recessed roadways will also be susceptible to flooding over time. After all, it’s usually flooding at the Oak Street and Michigan Avenue tunnel to the Outer Drive that hampers traffic and shuts down after heavy rains and high waves from Lake Michigan. In a time of rising sea and lake levels, sinking an essential arterial roadway into a trench below the adjacent lake level is highly risky. The current occasional heavy storms that cause flooding on Lake Shore Drive are inconvenient and scary, but if the roadway were to be sunken into a trench below grade, flash floods caused by these storms could prove catastrophic.

These proposed plans would add more pavement, more lanes for cars, more traffic, and remove many of the wonderful sight-lines, vistas, lookouts, hills, bridges, special features, some old growth trees and the enjoyment, one currently experiences on North Lake Shore Drive. It will turn this very special street and boulevard into another version of the Eisenhower Expressway and take away many of the beautiful aspects of experiencing the park and Lakefront shoreline in a vehicle, which is important to both residents and visitors alike.

Why must we rethink a pastoral Lakefront boulevard which is currently an amazing place to enjoy and experience? Let’s reconstruct what we have as required, repair the historic bridges, and encourage a calming of traffic, rather than add dedicated bus lanes, extra on-off-lanes and introduce highway standards to Lake Shore Drive. To add more capacity has often shown to further add additional cars and traffic, often leading to more delays, and greater bottlenecks at just past the off-ramps. Let’s instead try to rebuild the features which are in need of repair and protect one of Chicago’s most picturesque boulevards.

Prioritizing , or even considering the winding roadways, hills, and historic landscapes and features that make Lake Shore Drive one of the Nation’s most beautiful roadways would benefit the planning. Lake Shore Drive is worth preserving. Please let our elected officials and the associated agencies know that we must preserve the boulevard-like features of North Lake Shore Drive, as it really does appear to be in great danger.

Interesting, the same design teams that are threatening to expand South Lake Shore Drive south of 57th Street to accommodate the closing of Cornell Drive in historic Olmsted-designed park space for the proposed Obama Presidential Center. Many of these ideas are encouraged to meet standards for possible state and federal highway funding, instead of focusing in how to best protect and restore this amazing lakefront drive.

Additional Reading
Lake Shore Drive facelift could add dedicated bus lanes, widen the road, Michael McDevitt, Chicago Sun-Times, 7/18/18

Wow! Here’s what North Lake Shore Drive could look like, Greg Hinz, Crain’s Chicago Business, 7/12/17

Architect Urges Big-Picture, Design Thinking For North Lake Shore Drive, Steven Vance, Streetsblog Chicago,7/7/14

A future Lake Shore Drive could be wider, and have bus lanes, Mary Wisniewski, Chicago Tribune, 7/18/18

Lake Shore Drive proposals would shift beaches, straighten Oak Street curve, Tony Briscoe, Chicago Tribune, July 12, 2017

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