JPW addresses the CDOT road proposals

To the Editor:

Jackson Park Watch along with many others welcomes the Obama Presidential Center to the South Side and looks forward to the exciting civic engagement, community involvement, and educational programming that it promises to bring.   Along with many others, though, JPW did not know until May that massive – and massively expensive – road closures, widenings, and relocations were to be part of the package when the City moved to give a 21-acre site in Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation.  Jackson Park Watch (along, again, with many others) spent much time at the CDOT open-house meetings on August 23 and 24 at the South Shore Cultural Center. Here is our take after inspecting the drawings of road closures, widenings, and realignments that CDOT is proposing for Jackson Park.

DOES CLOSING CORNELL ACTUALLY ADD PARKLAND?
One reason given for closing Cornell Drive between 60th and 63rd Streets, as President Obama desires, was to add parkland, and that it does.  But at the same time, much parkland would be lost to widening both Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue and making the other changes needed to accommodate the Cornell closure, and CDOT is working to demonstrate there will be no net parkland loss in Jackson Park. The Obama Foundation’s new assertion of control over 3-4 acres at the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance for the construction of a parking garage makes that task harder.  Further, there has been no progress on fulfilling the commitment to find 21 acres of suitable, local land to replace the Jackson Park land the City has given to the Obama Center.

WHAT WOULD IT COST? WHO WOULD PAY?
Although no one will say, estimates are certainly out there.  A recent Sun-Times article quotes a City Hall source as saying it would in the realm of $100 million-plus; another news report details some of the expenditures city taxpayers would pick up.  Each report notes Mayor Emanuel’s effort to deflect of questions about actual cost estimates by asserting that he was focused on the “forest, not the individual trees” – an ironic comment given the number of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mature trees that will be cut down to make way for the Obama Presidential Center and the reconfiguration of the adjacent golf course. As more and more Chicagoans find out what costs and what benefits are actually entailed, we will see what they conclude.

WOULD IT WORK?  AND WHAT IF IT DOESN’T?
If CDOT assumptions and numbers are right, it could work — albeit it with much grumbling — until the “new normal” is finally accepted.  But if those assumptions and numbers are wrong, traffic headaches could multiply for years, especially if Woodlawn and South Shore and the South Works areas experience the promised residential growth and economic development.  The Obama Presidential Center itself could be mired in traffic gridlock.  But this would be no pilot project — there would be no going back. Overall the planning process for these major infrastructure investments around Jackson Park is notably rushed compared to the extended planning being done for Northside projects such as the rebuild of North Lakeshore Drive.  It would be better to take the time to get it right.

IS IT A CHICAGO-STYLE “DONE DEAL”?
It has all the signs of a “done deal,” long in the planning, even though CDOT staff assert they are “just beginning” and have many problems still to address.   We note that the displays assume that  a new “South Lakefront Framework Plan” is already in place containing all of the road changes, the OPC, and the proposed golf course, underscoring the cursory nature of the “community input” involved.  That said, CDOT has put together a plausible scenario entailing massive road changes and huge public expenditures.  It has shown some flexibility on resolving minor details, but none on the overall major thrust. The plan could be snarled up in some regulatory reviews.  Or Chicagoans could decide it’s not worth the price tag. The fact that our Mayor feels compelled to defend the expenditure even before we know the final tab shows that potential.

Details and Questions about the CDOT Proposals

Below is a summary overview of the major proposed changes.

You can see full details at  https://southlakefrontplan.com/cdot-community-meetings-transportation-mobility-823-824 .  There are two versions:  a slide show and copies of the poster boards displayed at the SSCC meetings.  We recommend the Boards version for the most detail about what is proposed to date.

*  Widen Stony Island: Add two lanes to Stony, taking from parkland to the east.  Add a median (a.k.a. “pedestrian refuge”).  All-day parallel parking on both sides.   As is now the case, no stop lights or stop signs between 60th and 63rd; a traffic light to be added at 64th.
Some questions:  Would widening Stony Island encourage faster driving?  Would there be pedestrian safety issues with the increased traffic? Should there be a stop sign at 62nd Street to serve residents who live directly across from the OPC?  Would a wider Stony Island inhibit neighborhood access to the Obama Presidential Center and to Jackson Park generally?
*  Widen Lake Shore Drive:  Add one southbound lane to Lake Shore Drive between 57th and Hayes Drive/63rd by taking land from the west (park) side.  This would entail widening underpasses at 59th and just north of Hayes and widening the bridge with its historic façade that spans the channel between the lake and the 59th St. harbor.
Some questions:  How would the widening affect the environmental restoration work done by the US Army Corps of Engineers along the western edge of LSD?  Would there be financial penalties for disturbing that work?  How would the widening affect the Lawn Bowling facility, whose fence is now right at the edge of LSD?   Would the bike/pedestrian path between LSD and the golf driving range be affected?
*Change Hayes: Make Hayes four lanes by banning all parking along Hayes.  Add a concrete barrier to separate the two directions.  Enlarge intersection turns at LSD, Richards, and Cornell.  Add a traffic light at Richards.  Possibility of a pedestrian underpass under Hayes, but location not determined.
Some questions:  Hayes is now heavily used for parking by local residents who are playing soccer, golf or basketball or going to the beach, and tour buses park along the drive while school kids and tourists are at MSI.  Where would all these people and buses go?  Would users of the three parking lots along Hayes be able to enter and exit those facilities easily and safely?  Would the elongated “S” curve between LSD and Cornell, marked with three traffic lights, be a Southside version of the much maligned “S” curve by the Oak Street beach?
*  Re-do 59th St. and 60th St. intersections with Stony Island.  Remove stop lights at 59th and 60th.  Prohibit turning north onto Stony from 59th  and 60th and prohibit turning into either of those streets from the northbound lanes of Stony.  CDOT staff are considering allowing a right turn from 59th onto southbound Stony, an adjustment that is not shown on the current boards.
Some questions: Would pedestrians crossing to the OPC from the proposed Obama Foundation parking garage cause traffic slowdowns?  What would be the impact on neighborhood residents and on children being walked and driven to and from the Lab Lower School and the adjacent daycare facility?
*Re-do connections between the Midway, Stony Island and Cornell:  Close eastbound Midway between Stony Island and Cornell, forcing northbound traffic to turn left onto Stony Island and then immediately right onto what would be an expanded two-way, four-lane road (formerly the westbound connector) between Stony Island and Cornell.
Some questions:  Could this new configuration accommodate all the traffic being forced into another “S” curve, this one tight and interrupted by a traffic light?  As above, would pedestrians crossing to the OPC from the proposed Obama Foundation parking garage cause traffic slowdowns? And what would be the impact of traffic (including buses) associated with the garage?

No doubt you can think of many more questions that need to be answered before these proposals are approved.

What you can do?

* Write directly to CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld (Rebekah.Scheinfeld@cityofchicago.org ) and send a cc to Mayor Rahm Emanuel (rahm.emanuel@cityofchicago.org)
* You can also submit questions and comments on the South Lakefront Framework Plan website (https://southlakefrontplan.com/contact-us).

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Jackson Park Watch co-coordinators