Chiberia – The beautiful

Chicago is by no means an easy city to live in during the winter. Contrasted with the summer, when Chicago is a playground of festivals, block parties, above ground pools, food, and glittering lakefront parks and beaches, makes the reality of being on par with St. Petersburg and Toronto makes it just that much harsher. Be that as it may, Chicagoans and Midwesterners should take pride in the great places we call home; even when it is 15°F with a windchill in the negatives. It is still worth taking a moment to breathe deep, let the cold air fill our lungs and recognize there is still a lot of beauty in the city even at its coldest.

Production company Soaring Badger just released a masterful video landscape of Chicago in the winter that brings out the best of the city at what many consider its worst. Although its been making the rounds thanks to websites like Curbed Chicago its worth reposting here 1) in case you haven’t seen it yet and 2) because when something is just this good my feeling is repost it.

[vimeo.com=http://vimeo.com/116455243]

What’s a video post without more videos though? As the title of this video notes, this is the forth in a series of video landscapes of Chicago, which I have included below:

Video 1

[vimeo.com=http://vimeo.com/101195118]

Video 2

[vimeo.com=http://vimeo.com/104314135]

Video 3

[vimeo.com=http://vimeo.com/108434222]

 

Crossroads Goose Island: How a tech project could be the best experiment in urban planning this year

Oh, North Avenue. You so conveniently cut a path, straight as all lines, between two parks, how fine. But wait, you are deceiving and unkind. From end-to-end is but a mile and a half, yet, like the Kennedy you’re often not the best bet. Not a bus in sight. Oh, wait there it is behind the line of Autos Germanic, all stuck in the inconvenient slow. And cyclists go fast do they not? Here doubtful, I say, weave in and out best they may, this is a knot better than a Boy Scout’s on his best day. With no money for an ‘L’ and our poor ol’ streetcars rusting in hell this mess remains to stay.

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Getting from Wicker Park to Lincoln Park via North Avenue is more often than not an unpleasant and slow experience and speeding up that trip and relieving congestion will take some creative work. A pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Chicago River and Goose Island, as proposed by developers seeking to tap the island’s potential might be just the trick. For cyclists and walkers the new path is modern, fast, and quite smart. The best part of the proposal though is the potential it establishes to make a truly bike-centric section of the city on the Near North and Northwest Sides.

As Curbed Chicago has recently (and previously) reported, the development company South Street Capital is interested in investing in Goose Island as a new addition to a growing number of tech hubs in and around Chicago. As more details emerge about the company’s plans to build on the Goose Island Boatyard site and another site across the street so have plans to better connect the island to surrounding Lincoln Park and Wicker Park/Noble Square neighborhoods. The most significant aspect of this proposal, which has the potential to be financed entirely through private investments, pertains to how well this proposal could catalyze better bike infrastructure projects all over the city, but mostly in an area where it is sorely needed.

Boatyard Development Goose Island

Image showing the proposed development on Goose Island including one of two proposed pedestrian and bike bridges. The density and proximity of the area to River North and the Loop is also apparent. 

Although still in the planning and financing phases, the overall scope of the project includes maximizing on ways to connect the new developments with commercial districts in the surrounding neighborhoods, transportation options (including the Red Line’s North/Clybourn stop and Blue Line’s Chicago stop), and improving walkability and bikeability despite Goose Island’s generally difficult to work with infrastructure. The existing roads and connections are primarily remnants of the island’s former heavy industrial character, which over time has changed to high-tech industry and other modern technologies. This is both good and bad. The good is that there is a lot of infrastructure to work with from broad lightly used streets and old rail right-of-ways. The bad is that pretty much everything needs to be built from scratch.

The city and surrounding communities need to catalyze on the private investments to make public dollars stretch further. Some of the more expensive aspects of these proposals are the two bridges being touted as ways to get bikers and pedestrians on and off Goose Island more conveniently while avoiding more infrastructure encouraging driving. The bridges more than any other piece of new bike infrastructure in this part of the city may be some of the most useful tools in truly helping biking as a means of transportation explode. First, they offer better ways around the borders of the multiple neighborhoods that meet at this juncture than most of the main streets in the areas. North Avenue, as mentioned, is seemingly always a mess and even Division Street, which has relatively speaking very good bike infrastructure, gets tight near the Chicago River and Kennedy Expressway. It also helps connect the area to a new growing job center.

The most important thing though is that the costs of overall expansions may be cheaper because of the private investments. This means the city can spend more on improving on street bike routes rather than spending lots of money on bridges and large-scale projects.

As the city and surrounding communities consider the impact of these proposed developments, considering how biking will be integrated into this will be an important part of moving forward. The near North Side neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Uptown, and Wicker Park/Bucktown are already highly congested and dense and need relief. With no money available for new ‘L’ lines or other high-capacity mass transit (with the exception of the still proposed Ashland BRT) biking is the best solution to relieving congestion, but it won’t work if the projects are too basic. While some relief may come with the extension of Water Taxi service north to Goose Island, biking has the best potential to make this area less congested and relieve the car dependency that still exists.

Chicago: Wicker Park-Lincoln Park Connections

This map shows the near North Side neighborhoods near Goose Island. Proposed bike lanes and routes are shown in red, existing bike routes are shown in green–the Bloomingdale Trail is in dark green, bike routes built into the boulevards proposed in a previous article on this blog are in orange, and various new bridges are circled and in red or purple. The Water Taxi landing would likely be adjacent to the proposed bridge of Goose Island’s southern tip. 

From this proposal, a master plan for biking in the area needs to be developed which seeks to connect the Bloomingdale Trail to Goose Island, the bridges to existing bike routes and improve those routes to make them high-quality paths, not just painted stripes. Indeed, a large-scale examination of how to improve bike infrastructure radiating from Goose Island could be a role player in connecting the lakefront, the river, and the Loop to the boulevard system and Far North and Northwest Sides. The capacity of the project also needs to be high, so as to facilitate the use of bikes for all kinds of trips in the area and honestly get people out of cars. More than basic bike routes every half-mile to mile are necessary for this to be successful.

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Much like many Parisian streets, Division Street on Chicago’s Near North Side has broad sidewalks, which could easily absorb a protected bike lane like this one in the French capital. Image found on humanisttransit.org. 

Just from anecdotal experience it is clear that a number of streets in the area have the space and low automobile usage to facilitate the construction of new high-quality bike lanes radiating from Goose Island or connecting routes expanding from Goose Island. Even streets with bike infrastructure could easily see major improvements. The wide sidewalks along Division Street could easily absorb barrier protected or curb protected bike lanes from the lake to Humboldt Park and perhaps further for example.

The expansion of bike infrastructure in Chicago needs to stop being done in isolated chunks that result in high-quality infrastructure only at periodic intervals, rather in a consistent way that actually aids the formation of a bike culture legitimately available to all people. Because of the combination of often times ridiculous congestion of these North Side neighborhoods and high-density living with easy access in may parts to mass transit, some of the best opportunities exist here and now to radically improve the experience cyclists have in the city. Failing to take advantage of the impetus being brought about by these privately invested in bridges would be a huge loss for the city.

While the improvements made by the city are admirable, if the city truly wants to become a bike-centric city it needs to take advantage of opportunities like the one being presented to make a big concerted effort to turning streets once entirely the domain of cars into shared spaces like those found in Paris or Amsterdam. This takes confidence though, both on the part of the city government and city residents, to know the investments are worth it. And while it is a shame such potential bike infrastructure improvements help one part of the city out initially before being expanded to other parts, it does set an example. Places like Lincoln Park and Wicker Park have the character and density of bike-friendly European cities and could be the best local examples of how bike culture can and will thrive in the United States if given the chance. Grasping the opportunity to do more with this initial proposal could be the force that really brings the city forward in terms of bike infrastructure. Neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Edgewater would easily benefit form similar projects; it would be a shame to miss a good place to start.

But it can’t be done haphazardly, because let’s be honest, we’re a good biking city, but only by American standards. There is some work to be done yet.

“Urbs in Horto”: Or, maybe not

city_of_chicago_sealDespite a municipal ordinance against building private infrastructure east of Lake Shore Drive the City of Chicago is courting a privately built and owned museum. Although the city has a notoriously low ratio of parkland acreage per capita it is seeking authority to give more parkland to other private interests. Despite the fame of its park system and having the motto “Urbs in Horto” (Latin: City in a Garden), the city has shown little love for its parks lately and is currently moving towards a period in which public land is seen as developable with no recognition of public interests.

Without a doubt, the City of Chicago, its residents and government, should be excessively proud it was considered for cultural institutions like the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts and can bid for Barack Obama’s presidential library (site yet to be determined). These two institutions would be giant jewels complementing the city’s already rich cultural offerings. They will likely act as economic engines, adding jobs, and hopefully bringing more people to the oft overlooked South Side, where they’re most likely going to get built. But, and that is a big BUT, the city is treading dangerous water by so willingly offering already established public parkland for private uses.

The legal issues already facing the Lucas Museum, one of the two institutions proposed on Chicago Park District land, are being clearly established as the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks (FotP website) brings a lawsuit against construction of the museum (museum website). The site sits between Soldier Field and McCormack Place and is currently used as a parking lot. It has started roiling debate about what’s more important: attracting cultural institutions or retaining [lakefront] parkland. If FotP succeeds in preventing the construction of the museum on this site it remains unclear if George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise and museum patron, will look for another site in Chicago or find a waterfront site elsewhere. Access to the lakefront property is apparently one of the biggest keys to Lucas choosing Chicago for the museum.

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The first proposed design for the Lucas Museum (available on the museum’s website) depicts what the site looks like looking south from Soldier Field with McCormack Place in the background.

The University of Chicago announced plans today to acquire the rights to build on 20+ acres in either Washington Park or Jackson Park near its campus in Hyde Park as part of its bid for the Obama presidential library is also proposed for CPD land. It contrasts with many other Chicago based plans that looked at non-park sites to build and indeed include plans to increase parkland and other amenities, not decrease them (see UIC plan; alternative link). The U of C’s plan is backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also backs the Lucas Museum plan, and although public meetings about the acquisition of parkland are planned for next Tuesday and Wednesday at Hype Park locations it seems unlikely that Emanuel will backdown from his support for this proposal and will hold back on handing over the sites to the U of C. It is unclear what type of action the Friend’s of the Parks will take, but it surely will not be in support of this proposal.

In a scenario where both projects go through the city is set to lose something like 30-40 acres of parkland at the hands of private institutions. The sites will both include green space, yes, but no new green space and both will be privately owned and run, cutting off a slice of public land from universal access. While a total of 40 acres maximum seems small considering Chicago has over 12,400 acres of parkland (split between city, county, and state land) the per capita ration of parkland to residents is incredibly low in Chicago. Of high-density cities in the United States, Chicago comes in 13th for the ratio of parkland to people according to the Trust for Public Land. While that doesn’t seem too low, it should be noted that Chicago isn’t even in the top 50 percentile; the average number of acres per 1,000 people is 4.6 acres in Chicago. The median acres per 1,000 people of 18 high-density US cities is 6.7 acres–two acres greater than Chicago. Comparatively Minneapolis has 13.4 acres/1,000 people, Washington, D.C. has 12.8 acres, and Philadelphia has 7.3 acres/1,000 people. Even Detroit has double the parkland average per capita and Pittsburgh has slightly more than double Chicago’s per capita acreage of parkland.

Granted, the city did recently open a new 22-acre park in Little Village called La Villita, it opened the redesigned Maggie Daley Park on the northeast corner of the larger Grant Park, and is slowly opening Northerly Island as it develops through 2017, which will add a total of 91-acres of parkland. Additionally, the 606, commonly know as the Bloomingdale Trail, is scheduled for completion some time next year and will add over 2-miles of linear park on the Northwest Side. This is all wonderful progress on the part of the city to increase the amount of urban parkland, however none of this excuses the slow consumption of existing parkland either. There is indeed a net increase in parkland acreage, but not a total increase, which should be the city’s real goal. The city is well behind some of the countries most desirable cities in terms of parkland acreage, which hurts the city despite its cultural institutions, especially as Chicago competes for investment and looks to retain residents.

michael-sorkins-studio-woodlawn-obama-presidential-library2

The Michael Sorkin designed proposal for a presidential library in Woodlawn, just south of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, puts the library in close access to parks, other cultural institutions and transit and includes green space and trails using empty lots woven together. The UIC plan has a similarly ambitious plan to go well beyond its campus and includes multiple West Side neighborhoods, green space expansion, and new transit options.

There is more a concerning trend out of City Hall though indicating the city’s mayor and Aldermen hold little value in parkland and protecting it. The municipal support for using parkland for private interest goes well beyond being a numbers game. It is an important moral issue facing the city. Regardless of what the numbers say, the use of parkland for private interests show a frustrating and unhealthy precedent for the future that says parks are open for development. This is just another area in which City Hall has shown its willingness to forego public ownership of various assets and hands them over to private interests dressing those new uses up as for the betterment of the city. Eventually this will get even more out of hand than it already has if proposals like the two under scrutiny are not stopped and made examples of.

Chicago needs to value its key existing assets–parkland, educational institutions, public safety–more than it values private interests and institutions, even when they are cultural institutions. Obviously getting these institutions would be huge boons to the city, but at what costs? The city is jumping to potentially dangerous solutions and it is clear that the public interest is of less importance than private ones. Alternatives exist for both projects! If the city was serious about these projects it would look at other past proposals offering more acceptable options (see Michael Sorkin’s proposal, alternative link, for the Obama library and Blair Kamin’s thoughts on the Lucas Museum site), yet the go to solution is using parkland. Its insane. Under Rahm Emanuel’s governance its questionable if alternatives have even been discussed: or, is the glitz of high-profile institutions that blinding?

By putting these two proposed projects ahead of park preservation and investment in existing infrastructure and institutions, the city is going for a gimmicky approach at getting new investments and cultural institutions to establish themselves in Chicago. The city does need to work to draw such things to the city, but the goal should be to attract new institutions by the attractiveness of the city’s merits and not by what assets the city hands over to private interests. The result will be a city that better serves its residents and institutions that have a stronger respect for the city and its residents and the values they hold dear. It is what a city that doesn’t sacrifice public parks for private interests looks like. And clearly, the current power structure of the city has little interest in the public trust and the public’s interest, and that should be hugely concerning. The Obama library’s foundation, the University of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, George Lucas: all these figures need to recognize the problematic roles they’re playing is threatening the long-term vitality of public assets in Chicago and their role in affecting the serious moral issues at hand as does the public, who need to make their voices heard at these debates may creep quietly under the radar.

Urbs in Horto means being a city rich in trees and gardens, and now includes acting in sustainable ways, but at its roots it means being a city of parks–places to play, relax, escape the concrete, and discover nature. Urbs in Horto is the result of building parks for the people, because if it was up to the private interests in Chicago’s past, Grant Park would be a freight rail yard.