Committee OKs $174 million Jackson Park transportation redesign

Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC), speaks about the “wonderful” things that the closure of portions of South Cornell Drive would accomplish for safety, security and access to and in Jackson Park during Thursday’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way meeting in City Hall. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff Writer

CITY HALL — The Committee on Transportation and Public Way today unanimously signed off on a phased, systemic reworking of roads and pedestrian ways in Jackson Park that will accommodate the planned Obama Presidential Center. The plan now moves to the full City Council.

The $174 million plan calls for Cornell Drive to be closed between the westbound Midway Plaisance North and 62nd Street; the eastbound Midway Plaisance South will be closed between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive, and there will be significant changes to Stony Island Avenue.

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner (CDOT) Rebekah Scheinfeld, said the land vacated by the road closures is approximately 3.74 acres which will become the city-owned OPC site. The ordinance also will turn 1.62 acres of park land along Stony Island into a 100-foot wide, public right-of-way adjacent to the OPC site from Midway Plaisance north to 62nd, as approved by the Chicago Park District Board in February.

“CDOT’s goal has been to work very carefully over more than a year to support the vision of the Obama Presidential Center,” Sheinfeld said, noting and thanking Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) for her support through the community process to develop the plans. Sheinfeld said CDOT has worked “diligently in an iterative process with the community” to develop plans to mitigate the effect of the roadway closures.

Two lanes in each direction will be added to Stony Island, and a central median for left-turn lanes and pedestrian oases will be added from 59th to 67th streets; on-street parking will be preserved. Two traffic lights will replace the current four where Stoney Island passes the Midway Plaisance. New traffic lights also will be installed at 62nd, 64th and 67th streets.

A third southbound lane of Lake Shore Drive will be added from 57th to 63rd streets and the removal of existing on-street parking along Hayes Drive will allow for two new lanes in each direction to accommodate more traffic while preserving parkland. The Hayes Drive intersections with Lake Shore Drive, Richards Drive and Cornell will be redesigned to accommodate the traffic to be diverted through them.

Cornell Drive south of Hayes to Stony Island will be widened, with two lanes in each direction separated by a median. Westbound Midway Plaisance will be widened to create two-way, four-lane traffic to accommodate the closing of the existing eastbound lanes.

Trails within Jackson Park will change according to roadway modifications, and CDOT will build five new pedestrian underpasses within the park.

Sheinfeld said “maintaining or improving park access and mobility” also would occur through two road closures: Marquette Drive from Stony Island to Richards Drive and northbound Cornell from 65th to 67th streets. The ordinance presently before City Council concerns only the roadway closures within or adjacent to the OPC site. Another ordinance will be introduced to “vacate and dedicate” that land, but she did not say when.

Cornell Drive will remain open “until significant portions of the transportation plan as described are completed,” Sheinfeld said. “We need to ensure that we can accommodate the diverted traffic substantially before the section of Cornell is closed.” The ordinance allows three years to complete the work.

Sheinfeld said CDOT sees the plans as “a major investment that is an opportunity for the city to demonstrate its commitment to opportunities in contracting and workforce development,” saying it has worked with Hairston and the Obama Foundation to consolidate “the pipeline of opportunities” to workers and firms to leverage benefits.

Construction will be financed through federal and state funds, the latter of which are included in the state budget, and bid out under requirements to women-, minority- or disadvantaged-owned business enterprises, depending on the funding source. The recitals mandate that state and local funds require at least 50 percent city-resident hiring and 15-percent project area hiring — double the city’s standard ordinance amount.

Federal funds require 22.7-percent DBE participation; Sheinfeld said they are attempting to require that a fifth of workers reside in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. A dedicated compliance team is planned to be on-site.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward includes parts of Bronzeville and Washington Park, said she was concerned about construction companies like Seven D and K-Five “coming into our communities, because when they come into our communities, they do not hire people from our communities,” saying it takes work with CDOT to “make them do the right thing.” She urged Sheinfeld not to hire them.

Ald. Sophia King (4th) also called for more tax dollars to go to communities of color. She also asked for context, given the large-scale reworking of Lake Shore Drive around Soldier Field and the Museum Campus in the 1990s. Sheinfeld said the work planned today is similar in cost to that work, but the downtown reworking shows that the Jackson Park work is possible.

“What these changes will do is support that vision for an improved, reconnected park with seamless access to the lakefront,” said Sheinfeld, calling contemporary Jackson Park “fractured” by its overlaid roadway network that leaves small spaces with limited recreational use and a myriad of safety issues for pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists.

“The plan that we have here and the changes will unite these sections of the park and provide a better, more contiguous park for more enjoyable access while still managing effectively the movement of vehicles through and around the park.”

Public comments at the meeting were generally favorable. Michal Nowicki expressed concern on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind about the blind and visually impaired pedestrians and called for audible traffic signals in Chicago. Hairston responded that they were considering having them already, and the committee chairman, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), said Sheinfeld would note his concerns, too.

Hyde Parker Jerry Levy said he took his granddaughter’s Lab School class to Wooded Island earlier this week and said he was worried about them crossing Cornell Drive.

“It’s going to make such a difference as far as the accessibility, for people to be able to come and use the natural areas of the park,” he said. “I’m very much thrilled at the prospect that that part of Cornell [Drive] traffic is going to be diverted. It’s going to be just as convenient for people to get through Jackson Park, that people who want to use the park, who want to use the natural areas won’t have to worry about their safety.”

David Reed, a social worker at the Good Shepherd Manor, 6720 S. Cornell Ave., senior living facility, said residents at his building have been hit crossing Cornell, noting that one now has severe cognitive issues and another is in a wheelchair.

He also lives nearby and commutes via Cornell Drive. “For a beautiful edifice and this wonderful thing that people will be talking about the same way people talk about the Museum of Science and Industry 100 years later … it’s worth it for me to have to drive two more minutes.”