News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Lane change: will moving Lake Shore Drive mean a new park, or just new parking?



In an invitation without precedent the city last summer offered the public a chance to design a multimillion-dollar public works project--the relocation of part of Lake Shore Drive. "We wanted to listen to everyone," says Tim Martin, chief highway engineer for the city's Department of Transportation. "This project would have more public input than any other."

A plan has since been approved, and sometime in the fall construction should begin on the $90 million project, which will move the drive's northbound lanes west of Soldier Field. But not everyone is happy.

The city and its consultants call the plan a triumph of conciliation and public participation. "It's a paradigm for the way these projects should be worked out," says Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect hired by the city to help design the plan. "The process worked as it should."

But other participants wonder if the current plan is worth the dollars, time, dust, and traffic congestion it will cause. "When I think of what could be done as opposed to what will be done I'm disappointed," says Walter Reinhaus, a south Loop resident who participated in the workshops. "I understand that people who work for the city can't speak out, but I can. And I believe a great opportunity has been lost."

Reinhaus wanted Soldier Field's southern parking lots removed. The Bears wanted them to remain. Guess whose side the city planners took? "They asked us what we wanted, and we said, "Take those parking lots away,"' says Reinhaus. "So what did they do? They kept them, or most of them anyway. So much for the public's viewpoint."

The 3,000 spaces in the two southern lots have long been a sore point with park users and activists. It's a colossal waste to cover lakefront greenery with concrete so Bears fans can be within a few minutes of Soldier Field, their argument goes. Why not park those fans in Grant Park? For that matter, why worry about the Bears at all? They play only 10 or 11 days a year, incapable as they are of surviving round two of the playoffs. And team owner Mike McCaskey is always threatening to dump the city for whichever suburb's dumb enough to build him a new field. Why not tell McCaskey to go in good health and replace the concrete with softball diamonds, tennis courts, soccer fields, or just grass?

In 1990 the state and city unintentionally stoked such arguments with their McCormick Place expansion plan. To win support for their megabucks project, they promised to move the drive's northbound lanes and create a spectacular park. "Moving the drive was never intended to accommodate any more traffic or make traffic move faster," says Martin. "It's being done primarily to improve usage of the lakefront."

Field Museum officials loved the idea, since the drive would no longer cut the museum off from the Shedd Aquarium or the Adler Planetarium. "They were looking at one large, landscaped lakefront museum campus," says Eleanor Roemer, staff attorney for the Lake Michigan Federation.

Park users also wanted the old northbound lanes converted to park space. "The last thing we wanted was for the city to build new northbound lanes west of Soldier Field and then say, "Oh no, we ran out of money and won't be able to remove the northbound lanes,"' says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks. "Knowing the city, I could see them doing that. Then they'd use those old lanes for more Soldier Field parking."

So activists persuaded the City Council to pass an ordinance "requiring that $16.7 million be used to remove the northbound lanes," says Tranter. "We thought we were covered. And we looked forward to participating in planning the project."

That meant attending last summer's workshops sponsored by the city and led by Halprin. "The primary thrust of these workshops is to collectively explore our vision for Lake Shore Drive and the Burnham Park area as we transition into the 21st century," reads Halprin's workshop textbook. "There are no experts who have "the answer.' As workshops progress more and more energy is released and more and more interaction of creative ideas occurs until eventually some forms of creative consensus emerge."

Soldier Field's southern parking lots were a source of disagreement from the start. "You can't overlook Soldier Field," says Martin. "It's a revenue producer for the Park District, which would like to see it used 30, 40, or 50 times a year. To do that they need close-in parking, because, like it or not, Americans want to park close to where they're going."

The Bears wanted to increase parking spaces, arguing that they already have fewer close parking spaces than any other NFL team. Most park users weren't moved by these pleas. "I'd get rid of them all if I could," says Reinhaus. "It's nothing more than a big, ugly sea of concrete. Bears fans could park in the Grant Park lots and walk or ride a shuttle bus to Soldier Field. The Park District wouldn't lose much revenue, because they own those lots too."

Beyond that was the larger issue of Soldier Field's future. "The Park District keeps talking about all these events, but they never get specific," says Reinhaus. "The Bears say they want to leave. So why are we accommodating them?"

He also points out that the neighborhoods just west of Soldier Field are bustling with new development. "We have Central Station, where the mayor lives, just on the other side of the train tracks from Soldier Field. It's only a matter of time before more development moves into the industrial area to the south. These residents are going to want to have good parks nearby. And let's not forget the existing population that's been given promises of park improvement for the past 20 years. We would all like to be able to walk from our homes to the lake without having to cross a parking lot. Here was a chance to rectify some of the damage from building McCormick Place on the lakefront in the first place."

Halprin tried to accommodate both sides, cautioning participants that "there should not be any net increase or decrease in the number of parking spaces throughout the site."

But Reinhaus and others didn't feel that was enough. "We needed a thorough analysis of parking in that area, particularly when you consider all the projected residential development," says Doug Fraser, a planner for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a not-for-profit think tank. "As that community grows, parking will be a problem, much like it is around Wrigley Field. A thorough study might indicate that it's not in the city's best interest to encourage parking around Soldier Field, and we might be better off getting people used to some sort of shuttle system."

But no study was undertaken. Instead the city and its consultants took the suggestions produced during the workshops, retreated to their drawing boards, and unveiled a plan in October.

"What they came up with was a total betrayal of our involvement," says Tranter. "They wanted to keep 60 percent of the old northbound lanes for additional parking. This not only violated the ordinance which the council had passed, it violated all of that consensus from the workshops."

For several days in November Tranter and other civic leaders negotiated with city officials. In the end the city agreed to drop the plan to convert the old northbound lanes to parking, though it pointed out that the Bears will lose several hundred of the existing parking spaces.

The final plan was approved by the Plan Commission on March 15. "There is an undercurrent of strong satisfaction with this plan," says Halprin. "There are a few people, like Erma, who said, "This isn't 100 percent. This isn't utopia. But of course nothing ever is."'

Tranter says she backs the project, if for no other reason than that she realizes it's the best that activists can hope for. "Moving those northbound lanes is an important step because it removes one more particularly noisy barrier to the lakefront."

Martin says the city bent over backward to meet the needs of park advocates. "We didn't compromise our lakefront--we enhanced it. If we discover that Soldier Field is not being used at a level where filling those parking lots is easy, it's very easy to pull up that concrete."

Reinhaus disagrees. "There's no guarantee that they'll ever have the money to turn that parking lot into a park. I can't see this happening on the north side. Can you imagine the reaction if the Park District wanted to reserve a prime piece of Lincoln Park for a parking lot that's used ten days a year? They say they want to improve the lakefront. But they're going to spend millions of dollars and tie up traffic for two years, and they won't even get the best job done."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.

Add a comment