When Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Dick Durbin announced Tuesday that work was finally about to start on an elevated lakefront path near Navy Pier, one moment—apparently unscripted—spoke to the value of the $60 million project.
From behind a podium, with TV cameras rolling, Durbin related how biking through this congested stretch of the 18-mile lakefront trail was like “bumpers cars“ and the game of Whack-A-Mole. “You take your life in your hands,” he said.
Those comments, which appeared to be off the cuff, should strike a chord with anybody who’s ever biked or walked the lakefront trail. The area where Lake Shore Drive bypasses Navy Pier is an urban design mess.
At various street intersections, like those at Illinois and Grand Avenues, and on the lower level of the Lake Shore Drive bridge over the Chicago River, drivers, cyclists, inline skaters, joggers and pedestrians jockey for space. It’s claustrophobic and dangerous—the antithesis of the shoreline as a refuge from urban crowding.
So there’s reason to celebrate the onset of the three-phase project, which will alleviate the congestion by erecting a raised bike and pedestrian trail from the Ohio Street Beach on the north to parkland south of the Chicago River.
Great cities don’t rest on the laurels of their great public spaces. They make them greater. That’s what Chicago is doing here, despite the objections of naysayers who argued during the recession that the project was an unnecessary and unaffordable extravagance.
But recessions come and go. We only cheat ourselves if we use downturns as an excuse to lower our sights and not build a better future. Now the future and better times are here. The feds have promised $18 million for the project’s $26.4 million first phase. Springfield will pick up the rest. As Emanuel said Tuesday, “It’s time to build it.” Construction starts next week.
Called the “Navy Pier Flyover,” the project was hatched more than a decade ago during the Daley administration. Like Emanuel, former Mayor Richard M. Daley is an avid biker. They both grasp the value of the lakefront trail, not just as a strip for recreation, but as a way to cut down on the number of people who drive to work and, with that, air pollution.
The Flyover’s central location only enhances its value. It won’t just improve north-south movement along Lake Michigan. It will upgrade east-west movement between the trail and Navy Pier, the state’s top tourist attraction. Better access to the pier means a better economy.
The project will be built in three overlapping phases:
--Phase one will stretch from the lakefront trail just north of the Ohio Street Beach and stop along the north bank of the Ogden Slip, the narrow body of water southwest of Navy Pier. This phase, expected to be finished by 2016, will include a spur for bikes and pedestrians running parallel to the Lake Shore Drive exit ramp AND leading to the pier.
--Phase two will extend the main trail and the pier spur southward across the Ogden Slip. Then, like a stem at the bottom of the letter “Y,” the two parts will form a single pathway past the now-scrubby site of the planned DuSable Park.
--Phase three will reach across the Chicago River, moving alongside the Lake Shore Drive bridge before sloping down to the park. Unlike the first two phases, which are essentially bridges, phrase three’s central element will be a new sidewalk that will cantilever out from the bridge’s lower level. The target completion date: spring, 2018.
The projected total cost of $60 million is a 33 percent increase from the figure given when the flyover’s design was unveiled in 2011. But the estimate includes additional elements, such as seawall repairs along the Ogden Slip and structural repairs to the Lake Shore Drive Bridge over the river, as well as increases in construction costs over the past few years, a spokesman for the city’s transportation department said.
The good news Tuesday was that there was no news about any major alterations to the project’s sensitive but memorable design, which was crafted by Chicago architects Muller+Muller with guidance from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Janet Attarian. Bureaucrats often tinker with projects to their detriment. That hasn’t happened here.
As I wrote when the Flyover was unveiled in 2011, the pathway would retain the shoreline’s openness due to long spans between its articulated steel columns. The spine-like supports for the pathway’s deck should elegantly wend their way through such tight spots as the gap between Lake Point Tower’s podium and Lake Shore Drive.
“It’s like weaving through a maze,” said Muller+Muller’s David Steele.
Also still part of the design are welcome flourishes, like the curving walls that will shield the park atop Lake Point Tower’s podium from trailgoers.
Nonetheless, there are concerns. For example, even though the pathway will be 16 feet wide in most places, it will still likely be the site of conflicts between single-minded cyclists racing at breakneck pace and slowly-strolling pedestrians who cluelessly meander into the center of the trail.
A modest proposal: Why not mark the pavement to indicate separate areas for those who pedal and those who walk? It works in other cities. Why not here?