Lincoln Square arguably has weathered the national recession better than most city neighborhoods and one of the area’s anchors is set to open an $18 million expansion in early 2012.
But those bits of good news come with a downside: Increased competition for parking.
Over the next couple weeks, workers will put the finishing touches on the Old Town School of Folk Music’s new building, a 27,120-square-foot addition at 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. that is set to have its grand opening January 9. It joins recent additions such as the Lincoln Square Athletic Club and Gene’s Sausage Shop and Delicatessen, among others, and area residents and businesses are bracing for parking to become harder to come by.
“There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t have the parking conversation multiple times,” said Bau Graves, the school’s executive director. “We don’t have any place that we could put more parking. It’s just not within our capabilities.”
The unique nature of the Old Town School expansion, part school, part administration building, part concert hall, means it does not fit into a category with standard parking requirements, said Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the city Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning. In spring 2010, the City Council followed the recommendation of zoning officials and said the project could go forward without adding parking.
The determination, Strazzabosco said, was based on such things as available nearby parking, the fact that the new building’s performance space will have fewer than 150 seats and that much of the traffic in the building will come by way of students coming to classes after normal business hours.
Also, the area around Lincoln and Wilson is designated by the city as a pedestrian district, a way to encourage “walkability and discourage car-oriented uses, which included parking lots and curb cuts,” Strazzabosco said. As a result, the first 10,000 square feet of a new facility like the Old Town School’s expansion is not counted when assessing required parking, he said.
Several months after City Council approved zoning’s recommendations, ground was broken at the site, across from the Old Town School’s current building. In recent months, with the facility close to opening, some neighborhood residents have voiced concerns to the office of 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar.
“There’s a lot of talk about the new section of the Old Town School,” said Bill Higgins, program analyst and coordinator for Pawar. “We know there’s going to be a problem. It’s the extent of the problem that’s yet to be seen. Because we don’t have a read on that, it’s hard to make changes.
Adding permit areas or increasing restrictions to existing permit areas is a solution that might help residents but it’s not something businesses usually support, Higgins said. Other than making the neighborhood more bike-friendly and looking for areas where diagonal parking might help, there aren’t a lot of options for now, he said.
“I would love to say we’re encouraging parking garages, but there’s not a lot of space for them and not a lot of investment, because they’re not that lucrative,” he said.
Some Lincoln Avenue restaurants have teamed up to work on solutions. Franco Gianni at Tank Sushi, 4514 N. Lincoln, sent a letter to fellow business owners this fall to gauge interest in a valet service. Tank and LM Restaurant, 4539 N. Lincoln Ave., have taken lead on the project, Gianni said.
Gianni declined to discuss details of the valet plan, deferring to LM officials who couldn’t be reached for comment. But when Tank opened eight years ago, Gianni said he could have never imagined the need for valet parking, he said.
“It was just myself and Bistro Campagne,” Gianni said. “Now, our street doesn’t have just two restaurants.”
Gianni said that the Old Town School’s expansion figured into his interest for a valet service, but such a service is something he and other neighborhood business owners have talked about for years. It would be most helpful in the winter, Gianni said, when it’s not unusual for reservations to be canceled with 5 minutes notice because patrons can’t park their cars.
Graves noted that several spaces in the lot on the east side of Lincoln, which have housed construction materials and other items related to the expansion, will be available after the facility opens. But other than that, and encouraging employees and school-goers to bike to the facilities, there’s not a lot Old Town School officials can do, he said.
“We don’t think this is a problem that doesn’t exist already,” he said. “This is an issue that affects the entire neighborhood. The only solution is one that the entire neighborhood is involved with. It’s not anything that any single organization can address. We fully anticipate that we’ll be part of any solution that evolves.”
In the past few years, plans to add large parking structures to the neighborhood have fallen through, including a 2007 proposal that was hotly contested by some business owners because it involved use of eminent domain to secure property around Lawrence Avenue. There also was talk of replacing the surface lot in the 4500 block of Lincoln Avenue with a garage, said Karl Riehn of Riehn Insurance, which has been in the neighborhood since the 1950s.
“I’ve always been in favor of having parking – and I think that (adding it) is something the city should have pursued,” Riehn said. “It certainly would help the merchants now.”
Talk of new parking garages north on Lincoln was “in the air” in 2007 when the Old Town School decided to go forward with the expansion, but Graves said it didn’t “really factor into our decision making.”
The Old Town School has been described as an anchor for Lincoln Square by, among others, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Melissa Flynn, executive director of the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce, also used the term, and said the fact that Lincoln Square is dealing with too many business patrons and their cars is “a good problem to have.”
Flynn said her office has heard very few complaints about a lack of parking, but she realizes that growth in the neighborhood might bring in more vehicles – and the need to do more to address parking concerns.
“We really have at an opportunity to think about what our options are,” she said. “How can we continue to encourage people to use the transit we have, how can we enhance the parking that we have? We’re trying to make sure whatever we do isn’t a short-term fix.”