The South Lake Shore Drive extension, Chicago's newest roadway, is less than two weeks away from opening along a part of the city that for more than 100 years most people have seen only from a distance.
It has been 21 years since the blast furnaces at U.S. Steel Corp's massive South Works plant went silent. But the cyclone fences that have cordoned off the roughly 600-acre site — about twice as big as Grant Park — are about to come down.
Removal of the barriers on the old USX property will clear the way for thousands of drivers and many cyclists each day to use the roughly 2-mile extension of South Lake Shore Drive from just south of Rainbow Beach, at 79th Street and South Shore Drive, to 92nd Street at Ewing Avenue, near the Calumet River. It is also marked as the relocated U.S. Highway 41.
The road's opening will also provide the key piece of infrastructure that for years has been missing from far-reaching plans to develop an area that has been approved to include up to about 18,000 residents, beaches and marinas and 25 million square feet of retail, commercial and research facilities.
The South Lake Shore Drive extension is scheduled to open Oct. 27, according to the Illinois and Chicago departments of transportation, which worked on the $64 million project that began in April 2012.
The 30 mph speed limit on the new roadway is less than the 40 mph limit on the rest of Lake Shore Drive. The south extension is designed to function as an arterial street, project managers said, with the added aesthetics of a landscaped-median boulevard and stunning views of Lake Michigan. Almost 600 trees have been planted, officials said.
The extension runs two lanes in each direction and includes a bicycle lane in each direction between 79th and 87th streets and shared vehicle-bike lanes south of 87th, officials said.
In addition, locations have been set aside for future parking when the largest undeveloped parcel in Chicago is built out.
Your Getting Around reporter toured the extension last week with CDOT and IDOT engineers. It was like going back in time to walk past a deep-water shipping slip where, for 112 years, lake freighters delivering iron ore that was mined near Lake Superior unloaded their cargo into three-story-tall bins than extended almost a half-mile in length.
On part of a remnant of one of the massive bins, a painted sign can still be made out: "Work safely in all ways.''
From the iron ore, South Works produced the beams and other structural steel that hold up McCormick Place, Sears Tower, John Hancock Center, the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower — as well as the steel for the assembly structure that helped launch NASA rockets at Cape Kennedy (later to be renamed Cape Canaveral) in Florida.
"For me, what's unique and fantastic about this project is having the historic opportunity to build a brand-new 2 miles of South Lake Shore Drive in a city that is over 160 years old," said John Sadler, assistant chief highway engineer at the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Drivers who travel regularly between Chicago and northwest Indiana have been anxiously awaiting the opening of the new road as an alternative to congested and potholed streets and expressways.
"I live in the city but work in Hammond, Ind., so I've been taking U.S. 41 to work for many years," Jeff Grimm, who lives in Lincoln Park, recently told your Getting Around reporter when he inquired about when the South Lake Shore Drive extension would open. "It seems like this project is taking forever. I'm really tired of all the construction detours and terrible road conditions."
The opening has been delayed. The decision was made to accommodate installation of natural gas mains, electric lines and telecommunications cables for future expansion, said Dan Burke, CDOT deputy commissioner and the department's chief engineer.
The stretch between 87th and 92nd streets was constructed in 2003, when limited funding became available, but the roadway has been closed the whole time north of 89th Street, said Anthony Quigley, IDOT's project implementation engineer in the Chicago area.
He said the site was used this summer for a natural-disaster scene for the movie "Transformers: Age of Extinction.'' At the southern terminus of the South Lake Shore Drive extension, the 100-year-old 92nd Street Bridge over the Calumet River was used in a scene from "The Blues Brothers.''
Construction crews are completing striping the pavement, doing landscaping and streetlight work in preparation for the grand opening.
The extension marks the city's first large-scale implementation of LED lighting, which uses about half the energy of high-pressure sodium lights, Burke said.
In addition, the parking lanes along the extension are made of permeable asphalt that helps with drainage by funneling rain into the subgrade material instead of directing the water into the storm system, he said.
The extension, built to fit into Chicago's street grid system rather than be a controlled-access roadway like other parts of Lake Shore Drive, was designed to handle about 27,000 vehicles a day, Sadler said.
Traffic signals and pedestrian signals at east-west streets (83rd, 85th, 87th and 89th) are interconnected to provide smooth traffic flow on the new part of South Lake Shore even at 30 mph, Sadler said. Vehicle-detection cameras are mounted overhead so that signals at the cross streets will operate based on the presence of drivers and pedestrians rather than cycle through on set timings, he said.
Officials are confident the extension will help absorb some traffic that now uses neighborhood streets, but they also say drivers should not consider the extension a high-speed shortcut.
"The new section of South Lake Shore Drive will provide an arterial-boulevard hybrid,'' Burke said. "If you are interested in a 30 mph beautiful drive, it is certainly a route you should consider taking. For ease and quickness of access, we would encourage drivers to remain on the expressway system."
Now that the 2.08-mile extension is about to open, expectations go far beyond it being a traffic-easing bypass road on the relocated U.S. 41.
Transportation officials, South Chicago residents and real estate developers are banking on the South Lake Shore Drive extension fostering a rebirth of Chicago's far south lakefront.
"This piece of land was basically behind walls for 100 years,'' said real estate developer Dan McCaffery, who has been concentrating for almost nine years on remaking the South Works site into a development he calls Chicago Lakeside.
"You practically had to go in a four-wheeler to take someone to the site. Now, I will be able to show retailers and potential home builders and research center builders: 'Here is your access. And there is the Chicago Skyway, 1 mile away. You can go north on Lake Shore Drive for 9 miles and you are in the Loop. Here are all the east-west connecting streets,'" said McCaffery, chairman and CEO of McCaffery Interests Inc.
McCaffery said he is involved in talks with companies to launch the project by building "a major retail center, a large data center and a research center."
He believes the initial development would be strongly supported by the large population west of the former South Works site, and that residential construction would follow.
He declined to identify any of the parties, saying only, "So when you ask me, 'Is there a viable plan?' God, yes. We have spent $30 million in the planning already."
He said the entire development will be built on the principles of sustainability, from having its own power generation and water reclamation systems to broadband across the 600-acre site, which is currently a joint venture between McCaffery Interests and U.S. Steel.
Others see McCaffery's unrealized dreams as a tall order.
"There is no doubt the South Lake Shore Drive extension is key to McCaffery having any success in building that whole complex out there, which I always found to be uncertain in attracting thousands of people to buy houses and move to that part of the city,'' said Neal Samors, co-author of "Chicago's Lake Shore Drive: Urban America's Most Beautiful Roadway.''
To anybody who will listen, McCaffery is also pitching the site as the future home of the Barack Obama presidential library.
"The Obama library location has the potential to be one of the most dramatic structures on the lakefront and in the community that first elected him to public office,'' McCaffery said. "If that happened, it would blow the socks off the whole Southeast Side of Chicago.''
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