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Emanuel wants to split lakefront trail for bikers, joggers

Some stretches of Chicago's often-packed lakefront trail would get split into separate lanes for bikers and joggers under a plan Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to announce Tuesday as he tries to make the case for his stewardship of the city's parks.

The widening, which would happen from about Fullerton Avenue to Ohio Street on the North Side and from 31st Street to 51st Street on the South Side, doesn't yet have a price tag. And officials were vague about how it would be paid for, other than out of the Chicago Park District's budget the next three years.

The trail, which becomes perilously packed with zooming riders, inline skaters and runners on summer weekends, wouldn't be separated at some of the most heavily used areas near downtown and the museum campus because there isn't room.

Emanuel will talk about the widening Tuesday during a speech on his second-term plans for parks. The mayor's speech on his vision for improving public access to parkland in neighborhoods on the Chicago River and along the lake comes as his administration is locked in a bitter legal fight with Friends of the Parks. The group argues Emanuel's offer to allow George Lucas to build a museum south of Soldier Field amounts to an illegal giveaway of a public piece of the lakefront.

The mayor said the condition of Chicago's lakefront can't be reduced to the Lucas lawsuit.

"You can't just focus on that," Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune in a Friday phone interview. "The guy who's jogging on the trail, shouting 'on your left!' because the trail's packed, isn't thinking about that. He's thinking about how crowded it is. This is a look at how to improve the experience for people who use the lakefront."

It's also a chance for Emanuel to present some good news to Chicagoans after he was used as a proxy punching bag in several recent primary races, including the Democratic presidential contest between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The mayor often ties together prior accomplishments, wish lists and bits of news into packages he can present as a broader vision on an issue.

As he prepares to enter the second year of what could be his final term, the parks issue is a way for him to talk about putting a lasting stamp on Chicago. "It's not mine, it's the city's legacy," he said. "But I do believe the things we're talking about will stand the test of time."

Emanuel said he has proved his focus on park improvements is sincere rather than driven by political expediency.

"I've built up some street cred on this," he said. "I laid out a vision for the parks almost as soon as I took office. I've been talking about the Chicago River as a body of water that was punching below its weight class since the first day. And we are going to see the completion of that first set of goals by the late summer, early fall. So this is timed as looking ahead at a new set of goals."

The speech Tuesday will highlight the boathouses Emanuel has had built along the river and ongoing efforts to preserve more acreage throughout the city as natural areas.

Emanuel will propose lakefront "gathering spaces" near the trail for people to take part in programmed activities, bird watch or hang out. And he will announce that part of an existing concrete ore wall at Steelworkers Park on the lake in South Chicago will be turned into a rock-climbing wall.

In addition, the mayor will talk about improvements he wants to see at 31st Street Beach and harbor, as well as to a Montrose Beach concert area that has hosted Huey Lewis and the News and other acts on the North Side.

Despite Chicago's myriad financial problems, Emanuel said funding will be available for the wide-ranging work.

"The money will be there," he said. "The Park District does a great deal of capital spending, and it's just about prioritizing that."

jebyrne@tribpub.com

Twitter @_johnbyrne

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