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Lincoln Square Business’ Growth Strains Parking Options

By Paul Wilson | Monday, December 26, 2011

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 2007 a master plan was designed and supported by then-Ald. Eugene Schulter that would significantly increase the amount of available parking in Lincoln Square. (click to enlarge)

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.”

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  • Anonymous

    Have any of these people ever heard of something called public transit?

    Get. out. of. your. cars.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_USNW6LGA6VHGJATS6PE7FYSMYE Sweet Old Bob

       Or start riding your bicycle.

  • Anonymous

    I worked on parking issues for the community as president of the LSCC back in 1986-88. We scouted for spots and talked about building a garage and adding valet service for the restaurants there at that time. The more things change the more they remain the same. Hey, it has always been a popular neighborhood even before the OTS moved in… if you want to live in an area with easier access to plentiful parking spots well there are plenty of good parking spaces down in Englewood.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with our Mayor.  This is a god problem.  Also, our hood takes pride in how walk-able it is plus we have the brown line.  What we need to invest in is getting the upcoming Western Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) right.

    Also, we can do more for parking and the plans posted above from 2007 would have been amazing for the area.  It is to bad some tried to “Save” our area from a proper development plan.  Instead now we have all those crappy business, many vacant on Western and Lawrence….  I hope this plan comes back and with it the parking…. similar plans benefited Evanston, an area with many similarities to LS.  I think Western Avenue is the key to taking LS to the next level.  Perhaps large buildings with parking and retail on first floors with rental units and condos above. 

    • Paul Wilson

      Superant, thanks for the comment. But FYI — the Mayor didn’t comment about how this is a good problem to have. Melissa Flynn from the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce said that. Flynn and the Mayor both described the OTSFM as an anchor for the neighborhood (though at different times).

      – Paul

  • Anonymous

    I think the valet service is an awful idea.  I live above a business on the 4700 block of Lincoln Ave. the small one-way street by the fountain) and all the, now 2 year old, valet service does is add to the chaos.  There isn’t an hour that goes by where I don’t have cars honking their horns because a car is waiting for a parking spot or blocking the side of the street.  The valet service makes this worse because they park cars along the side of the road at busy times…further blocking the street and creating more frustrated drivers/parkers.  

    Before his final term was over, I sent a note to Ald. Schulter asking him to help revoke the license for the valet service AND to implement a “No Honking Zone” for this strip of Lincoln Ave., that includes a fine.  This has worked wonders in NYC.  It’s my belief that the impatient people causing the most noise are taxis and non-residents.  It’d be a great revenue driver for the neighborhood and give some peace and quiet to those that choose to live here.  Ald. Schulter sent me a note saying it was a great idea that he’d explore, but alas his term ended with no resolution.  

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