According to local aldermen and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), the 49-year-old viaduct that soars over Belmont and Clybourn avenues has outstayed its welcome. They say that while it’s still considered safe, the overpass is visibly deteriorating and in many ways structurally deficient. The viaduct has also been shown to create traffic issues, and if you drive on Western, you know some motorists speed over it as if training for the Grand Prix.
At a 2009 public informational meeting hosted by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th), and then 1st Ward Ald. Manuel Flores, CDOT introduced two approaches to address structural problems: build a new overpass or tear it down.
According to Ald. Waguespack, neither of these approaches provided a great long-term solution. “We had been informed that the [overpass] was past its useful life, but when CDOT did the initial meeting, they didn’t really present a comprehensive plan,” he said. “Instead of just coming in and saying ‘We want to knock down a bridge,’ we said we wanted to see a plan that addressed the other issues in that area.”
A second public meeting was held last month at WGN (2501 W. Bradley Place), and this time CDOT advocated razing the viaduct (since, according to CDOT spokesperson Brian Steele, “rebuilding [it] would be significantly more expensive and would not provide the same level of traffic benefits to the corridor”), as well as embarking on a more extensive improvement project along Western from Waveland Avenue to Schubert.
The Western Avenue Improvement Project would include: demolishing the viaduct and constructing a pentagon-shape at-grade intersection at Belmont/Western/Clybourn; rehabilitating the Chicago River Bridge; providing wider sidewalks with trees; adding a third traffic lane to be used during rush hour, and installing landscaped median islands to improve pedestrian safety and limit access into neighborhoods. In addition, a slightly wider lane would allow for roughly 110 new parking spaces along Western, which according to Waguespack, would benefit businesses and give students from Lane Tech a place to park during the day, thus drawing them out of Roscoe Village.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we take care of traffic flow first and traffic safety and pedestrian safety. Right now, you look at Roscoe and that’s one of the worst places for pedestrian traffic, as well as under the viaduct,” he said.
A key feature of the new plan is that no homes or active businesses are displaced.
“We’re excited about it,” said Whitney Blakemore, co-owner of the Viaduct Theater (3111 N. Western Ave.). “The viaduct coming down will be better for patrons. It’ll help make the intersection more pleasing and be less perilous for bikers and pedestrians.”
She joked that the theater may have to change its name to the “Viaduct-less Theater.” (We also wonder whether Underbar (3243 N. Western Ave.) will need a name change—though “Street Level Bar” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)
“My one concern is that the front of our building won’t be accessible for some time during construction,” said Blakemore, wondering if this could take a toll of business.
While the reaction from neighbors has generally been positive, a few other issues were raised at last month’s meeting. “The main concern we’ve heard is from area residents who fear an increase in cut-through traffic on surrounding residential streets,” Steele said. But he doesn’t think that this will be the case: “We have emphasized that making these corridor improvements would significantly improve traffic flow and eliminate the diversion of motorists seeking alternate routes.”
Residents who attended the July 7 meeting were encouraged to submit comments and opinions to CDOT by August 1, 2010, but Waguespack said that they will continue to consider neighborhood feedback and incorporate it into the overall plan for the Western Ave. Improvement Project.
“If there’s something that’s specific to traffic in an alley or taking a left-hand turn or a right-hand turn into one of the streets, that’s stuff that we can look at and work into the project. We don’t just cut off all forms of communication once [the City] gets the project up and running,” he said.
As far as costs, the alderman said that estimates will come in once the project plans have been solidified. Steele said that over the next few months CDOT engineers will review public feedback and hone engineering and design details. Another informational meeting will likely take place once they arrive at a final design.
Images and project objectives are available here. Stay tuned to Roscoe View Journal for updates.