Lawrence Avenue needs to be slimmed down to improve conditions for local retail and schools, according to a presentation Tuesday morning from the Chicago Department of Transporation (CDOT) and 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar. About thirty business owners and residents attended the presentation, sponsored by The Ravenswood Community Council at the Chase Park auditorium to hear the latest vision for the project.
The streetscape, first announced in 2010, has been on hold along with a host of other construction initiatives across the city while it awaits a general review of the TIF program, according to Ald. Pawar. With this week’s release of the TIF Reform Panel report, Ald. Pawar (and his counterparts in the 40th and 46th Wards, which include small portions of the project’s scope) now has clearer guidelines by which to consider the streetscape: it needs to meet metrics that include creating jobs, growing the tax base and improving schools.
To date, the streetscape has largely been viewed as a way to extend bustling economic activity from Lincoln Square to Lawrence Ave. by making Lawrence more visually appealing and pedestrian-friendly. From Clark Street to the Chicago River, the proposed Lawrence makeover will encompass the usual streetscape suspects such as enhanced lighting, wider sidewalks to make room for cafes and trees (more than 150), pedestrian refuge islands, permeable pavers and planters (intended to absorb rain water), wrought iron benches and a full bike lane. The most controversial element of the plan reduces Lawrence from four lanes to three in a so-called “road diet” between Ashland Ave. and Western, with one lane of traffic moving in either direction and a center lane to accommodate turning vehicles. (CDOT’s complete presentation is attached to the bottom of this article.)
CDOT project director Janet Attarian conceded the reduction in lanes will result in increased motorist delays, adding anywhere from three to nine minutes to travel times between Ashland and Western, with westbound evening commuters experiencing the most pain. To mitigate the impact, intersections at Ashland, Damen and Western will remain four lanes, left turn signals will be added where necessary, and traffic signals will be adjusted and coordinated.
The construction timetable remains vague, dependent on the release of TIF dollars. Attarian estimated two construction seasons for Phase 1 of the streetscape, which includes the road diet and addresses the section of Lawrence from Western to Clark, and a single construction season for Phase 2, which expands the streetscape to the river. “We always keep traffic going and we always keep pedestrian access,” Attarian stressed. Tuesday’s projected cost was $19 million, an increase over last summer’s $12 million estimate.
While a number of attendees expressed enthusiasm for the project, various naysayers also came prepared with a laundry list of complaints: lack of a protected bike line, loss of parking spaces, anticipated traffic backups and the potential for frustrated motorists to use side streets as cut-throughs. Though Attarian and Pawar were sympathetic to these concerns and plan to hold additional meetings to obtain more feedback, Pawar noted that ultimately, “We are going to move forward.”
The new alderman characterized the streetscape’s positives as outweighing any negatives. “Any change always has unintended consequences. Over time we have to get to a point where, as a city, we’re being progressive,” he said. “This is an opportunity to be innovative.”
As the meeting came to a close, Pawar began to outline a broader vision for the streetscape, where the project actually serves to improve the learning environment for local schools. Here, Pawar spoke of the project with urgency, suggesting that there is far more at stake than the occasional traffic jam; to focus on commute times and parking spaces is to take a narrow, short-term view of the streetscape’s potential impact. “What we’re also really talking about is the survival of our city,” he said. Looking around seemingly affluent North Side neighborhoods, residents would scarcely suspect that the city, “is about to fall off a cliff,” with, “multiple pain points,” expected due to revenue shortfalls.
Pawar envisioned the streetscape project as one element of a bigger picture aimed at halting the exodus of residents and their tax dollars from Chicago. ”How do we make sure we keep families in our ward? How do you grow the population?” he asked rhetorically.
According to Pawar, the “drop dead exit point” for families in the 47th Ward is when children reach seventh grade, the point at which CPS’ tiered high school system makes it apparent whether students will be accepted in the selective enrollment lottery. “If we know why people leave, we have to make every public school an option,” Pawar said. “We’re looking to enhance schools while improving Lawrence Avenue.”
To that end, Pawar directly linked the Lawrence Avenue improvements to improving Amundsen High School and Chappell and McPherson Elementaries. According to Pawar, TIF dollars should be used to organize the community around schools. ”That’s what TIF is all about, taking tax dollars and reinvesting in your community,” Pawar said. According to Pawar, beautifying Lawrence Avenue sends a signal to residents that the neighborhood is moving in a positive direction, both in terms of economics and quality of life.
Though it seems a huge leap to tie planters and bike lanes to school performance, the alderman promised to further connect the dots at the 47th Ward education initiative rollout, September 9 at Centro Chicago, 3819 N. Ashland, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.