THREATENED: Parkway or Highway? What will the future be for N. Lake Shore Drive

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“North Lake Shore Drive is getting rebuilt; make that redefined. As part of the yearslong Redefine the Drive project, the Illinois and Chicago departments of transportation have been gathering feedback and coming up with potential ways to overhaul the Drive from Grand to Hollywood. They’ve narrowed it down to a few options.

“Lake Shore Drive is iconic. But with icon status comes aging infrastructure. ‘Some up to 80 years old and in need of full replacement,’ said Nate Roseberry, assistant chief highway engineer with the Chicago Department of Transportation. ‘This is the chance for us to … look at some opportunities to really reenvision the area and solve some problems while we rebuild the road.’

“Problems not just like crumbling infrastructure, but also safety, and mobility for all kinds of users. ‘One of the things we heard, definitely, was improve access to not only North Lake Shore Drive itself, but really to the park, which is an iconic park,’ said Steve Schilke, project and environmental studies section chief with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

“Based on roadway needs and public input, planners came up with what they’re calling the Essential: lakefront access every quarter mile, grade separation for the lakefront trail where it crosses east-west streets, getting rid of the pesky signal at Chicago Avenue, and reinforcing the shoreline, which has taken a beating of late. ‘All the things that we see as critical to install regardless of what alternative we select,’ Roseberry said.

“The alternatives look at improving travel for buses. The Addition would add a fifth lane in the center, just for transit. The Exchange would convert an existing lane for transit, leaving three for general purpose. Planners are also considering the Flex and Double Flex options: creating one or two lanes usable by buses, and by drivers willing to pay a toll.

“‘How do we improve and how do we further manage the traffic? How do we further improve the reliability of that transit?’ Schilke said. But, as always, a major project like this one has raised concerns about changing the character of the lakefront.

“‘Lake Shore Drive needs its improvements, but we don’t want to see Lake Shore Drive reconfigured to a point where it becomes an interstate highway,’ said Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago. He thinks past renovations, such as near McCormick Place, created a wide, interstate feel. He’s also hesitant about a trenched roadway, like what’s on the table at Chicago Avenue.’ We want to keep that boulevard character to the drive,’ Miller said.

“Friends of the Parks’ Juanita Irizarry agrees. She’s concerned expanding the Drive could put parks at risk.’ Our preference is that improvements be made to make traffic flow better to improve transit access but not to create more lanes for cars,’ Irizarry said. And while she appreciates the project’s eye toward shoreline stability, “we think this project really should be set within a much larger, more comprehensive conversation about our lakefront erosion problem.'” (WTTW, 10/22/20)

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 N. Lake Shore Drive from it original parkway intent.

To impose interstate highway standards on Lake Shore Drive would fundamentally change the character of this important and historic parkway. Destroying the slower speed, meandering pleasure drive qualities of N. Lake Shore Drive 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 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.

Additional reading

North Lake Shore Drive’s in Line for an Overhaul, and Planners Want Your Input, WTTW Chicago, Nick Blumberg, 10/22/20

Plans for a massive overhaul of Lake Shore Drive are moving forward. Here’s how to give your input., Katie Surma, Chicago Tribune, 9/25/20 

Big, green rebuild of North Lake Shore Drive moving forward; the $3 billion project includes beach space and an eye-catching new park, but it still needs funding and is years away from completion., Greg Hinz, Crains Chicago Business, 9/24/20

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