c.1890 to c.1950, Nelson, Simonds, Burnham, Atwood, Bennett & Others,
from Grand to Hollywood Avenues
For the first decades of its existence, North DuSable Lake Shore Drive was a slow-paced, boulevard parkway that allowed Chicagoans to enjoy the ride along the Chicago lakefront by horses or bikes and later by automobiles. The original design was strongly influenced by the City Beautiful movement. In fact, the original builders of the Drive were the Lincoln Park Commissioners who sought a pleasure drive to help people access and enjoy the expanded and improved Lincoln Park and lakeshore. Graceful, curving, tree-lined boulevards along with the expanded parklands soon attracted new beautiful homes and buildings.
This pastoral, naturalistic quality saw major changes over time and was also impacted in the post-war era after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. In the midst of the Cold War, many highways were created or in some cases existing streets improved to create a high-speed, high-capacity Interstate Highway System to allow the rapid evacuation of cites and deployment of troops in the event of nuclear war. The highway engineers had very different priorities than the parks commissioners which is reflected in post-war changes to DuSable Lake Shore Drive. The roadbed was widened, traffic speeds were increased, traffic lights and grade-crossings were removed, and highway-style on and off ramps were added. During the 1950s, highway engineers planned to formally convert the southern portion of the Drive into Interstate 494, but the project was never moved past the design stage. Traffic engineers were forced to make incremental changes over the decades due to funding challenges, but their clear goal was to bring the Drive up to interstate highway standards.
Today, North DuSable Lake Shore Drive’s character is a unique blend of parkway and highway, pleasure drive and interstate. However, this character will change after the proposed multi-billion-dollar construction project called “Redefine the Drive” is completed. Many years in the making, it is an incredibly complex plan with a wide variety of objectives. However, the core goals have been determined by the highway engineers who seek to increase traffic speeds, increase capacity, and increase safety. Interstate highway standards offer a clear path for how to achieve these goals.
Preservation Chicago strongly supports investment in infrastructure, increased green space, bike lanes, and transit. Enlarged and improved lakefront parks are the headlines, however this plan is, at its core, a highway project. There is concern that these more popular elements are being used to “greenwash” a roads project that is largely an effort to bring it up to interstate highway standards and dramatically change the character of North DuSable Lake Shore Drive from its original parkway intent.
To impose interstate highway standards on North DuSable Lake Shore Drive would fundamentally change the character of this important and historic parkway. Destroying the slower speed and meandering pleasure drive qualities of the roadway in order to increase the average traffic speed is futile as the string of traffic lights at Grant Park will remain unchanged.
Preservation Chicago would like to see no widening to the existing roadway. We would like to see the existing historic Art Deco bridges restored. We would very much like to see the existing green medians and mature trees protected and maintained. This plan is highly complex and robust public participation is essential for a good outcome.
In recent years, various City of Chicago agencies put together a project called “Redefine the Drive: North DuSable Lake Shore Drive,” with studies and proposals conducted by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), which have been tasked with a rethinking of historic Lake Shore Drive. Examining various traffic studies, including Rush Hour congestion, in both the morning and evening hours, the team has worked to consider options toward the resolution of a host of issues.
The result has been a series of ideas which threaten the overall character of Lake Shore Drive, turning a boulevard drive into a superhighway, which will need to meet modern highway standards with such an update. The plans call for extensive landfill into Lake Michigan, tunneling large portions of Lake Shore Drive while also creating incursions into Lincoln Park. Also, many of the distinctive features–including historic bridges, vistas, underpasses and trees–will be removed for this massive project. A general straightening of the gentle curves, the rolling inclines and perspectives are all to be reconfigured and changed.
Preservation Chicago is of the opinion that many of these changes and modifications will dramatically impact and adversely affect the character of this world-renowned drive, making it resemble the Dan Ryan/Kennedy or Eisenhower Interstate highways. While this may not seem imaginable, just look no farther than to the past reconstructions of Lake Shore Drive, near McCormick Place and near the I-55 exchange, or another example at the former “S-Curve” extending from Randolph Street to Grand Avenue. These areas have been part of past revisioning projects and employ highway standards in their reconstruction which is very unfortunate for a Lakefront boulevard.
Preservation Chicago realizes the need for efficient transportation across our city. We also realize the need for repairs to many of our roadways and North DuSable Lake Shore Drive is no exception.
We therefore encourage all of the municipal agencies involved and their consultants to work together to preserve and repair the many special features of North DuSable Lake Shore Drive. This would include restoration and repair, in lieu of demolition of many of the bridges and underpasses. This was accomplished in a thoughtful way on South DuSable Lake Shore Drive at the Art Deco 47th Street Bridge and underpass, more than a decade ago. We encourage the City to maintain the many unique features, vistas, gentle curves and character of North DuSable Lake Shore Drive, keeping it more like a boulevard than a superhighway.
We also need to avoid the tunneling of DuSable Lake Shore Drive, as noted between Grand Avenue/Navy Pier and Walton Street, and also north of Belmont Avenue, which would create essentially a dry-river bed prone to flooding and other hazards. We are of the opinion that some of these proposed tunneling concepts and plans may lead to life-safety issues in the future.
In the past, the current Oak Street access to the express lanes of Lake Shore Drive have often become flooded, and we feel that a series of long and deeply-trenched tunnels anywhere near Lake Michigan is not a safe plan. Pedestrian access does not necessarily need to occur at grade level, but a series of fine-quality bridges and safe and clean underpasses can be designed to alleviate such problems. We have seen snowstorms and floods impacting the Chicago lakefront and DuSable Lake Shore Drive over time, which have resulted in dangerous and hazardous conditions for motorists and pedestrians alike, along with closures. In some cases, these lakefront conditions and high winds, along with extreme precipitation, have placed individuals in perilous situations with some being in harm’s way for more than hours on end.
We are also noting extensive incursions into the beautiful parklands and greenspaces of Lincoln Park, as well as the removal of the planted medians separating north and southbound traffic. Proposed plans to date would require the removal of thousands of trees along these medians and in Lincoln Park. We are also concerned about plans for buses to be stacked for long hours at locations like Belmont and Sheridan along North DuSable Lake Shore Drive and the impact on quality of life issues for nearby residents. This could substantially increase noise and carbon dioxide levels in certain areas where buses may idle for hours at a time.
The issues along North DuSable Lake Shore Drive are many. However, let’s take a more sensitive and holistic approach to preserving and – where required or needed – rebuilding bridges and underpasses. Let us continue to maintain and honor those remarkable features that make traveling on North DuSable Lake Shore Drive, or adjacent to it, pleasurable experiences. After all, this is a very special boulevard drive and we should not squander its beauty and natural qualities nor its historic resources.
Preservation Chicago is committed to strengthening the vibrancy of Chicago’s economy and quality of life by championing our historic built environment. Preservation Chicago protects and revitalizes Chicago’s irreplaceable architecture, neighborhoods and urban green spaces. We influence stakeholders toward creative reuse and preservation through advocacy, outreach, education, and partnership.
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