Under ‘L’ path among ideas for West Lakeview

By Blair Kamin Tribune critic

Back when I lived in Chicago’s West Lakeview neighborhood, practically in the shadow of the Gothic steeple of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church at 1429 W. Wellington Ave., it was easy to spot the disconnect between the ever-more-lavish private homes going up in the area and the impoverished character of its public spaces.

In those years, from 1992 to 2002, fancy new town houses were replacing tired old bungalows and frame houses faster than you could say “Richie Daley.” But walk to the area’s main drag, North Lincoln Avenue, and you confronted cracked sidewalks, eyesore streetlights shaped like a cobra’s head and grotesque modern storefronts that had been slapped onto traditional buildings, marring their Old World craftsmanship.

It was as though we were living in a time warp, stuck in a hellish past while Daley’s Martha Stewart-izing beautification programs buffed Lincoln Park to the south and Lincoln Square to the north. The epicenter of Lakeview’s ugliness was the harsh intersection of Lincoln, Belmont and Ashland Avenues. There, packs of roaring cars and trucks made the simple act of crossing the street a test of human bravery.

Not much has changed since then. But this section of Lakeview finally may be getting its act together, courtesy of a new master plan that isn’t afraid to think big or outside the box. Among its more audacious ideas: a proposed pedestrian path, or “Low Line,” that would slink beneath the CTA’s Brown Line elevated tracks, compensating for the area’s lack of open space.

It may be dreamy and it certainly faces daunting funding obstacles, but give the plan this much: it has kick-started a conversation about the area’s future. The two local aldermen, Tom Tunney, 44th, and Scott Waguespack, 32nd, confirmed the plan’s political relevance when they attended its unveiling Tuesday night. If the plan’s recommendations are ever realized, they’ll have a significant impact on area residents and business as well as Cubs fans who visit nearby Wrigley Field.

Drafted by two local firms, Place Consulting and Moss Architects, the plan is sponsored by the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, whose territory ranges from Diversey Avenue on the south to Irving Park Road on the north, and from Ravenswood Avenue on the west to Racine Avenue on the east. The other sponsor was Special Service Area 27, one of the Chicago business districts that typically levy a modest property tax to pay for such projects.

At root, this is a business blueprint, primarily aimed at drawing new stores to the area and bolstering those already there. Yet it also makes an intelligent case that there’s a link between good design and good business, echoing the same theme in Daniel Burnham’s great 1909 Plan of Chicago. Offer shoppers a pleasing pedestrian experience, it argues, and they’ll linger instead of zipping in and out of a single store.

Many of the plan’s proposals for achieving that end (widened sidewalks, more trees, restored historic facades, pocket parks) are time-tested and worthy. Others, like the plan’s call for a bean-shaped traffic roundabout at the Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland crossing (good luck selling that to traffic engineers), are sure to go nowhere fast. For the good ideas, at least, the big questions revolve around scope and funding.

What’s unclear, Waguespack told me Wednesday, is whether the Chicago Department of Transportation will confine its own planning efforts for the dreaded Lincoln-Belmont-Ashland intersection to streetscape improvements or look at a full-fledged reconfiguration of the intersection.

Waguespack and Tunney are scheduled to hash out that issue with Chicago transportation officials next week. The hope here is that the department, which has proved adept at making Chicago’s streets more human-scaled, will find a way to examine the bigger picture — and then find the funds to get the job done.

As for the proposed “Low Line,” whose name plays off New York’s “High Line,” a much-praised public space built atop dormant elevated tracks, it’s an intriguing concept but one in obvious need of a reality check.

True, it would be a creative way to add to the area’s supply of open space and funnel pedestrians between the Lincoln Avenue and Southport shopping strips. And the design, which calls for native plants, a semi-pervious walking surface and solar-power light displays, could bring the now-forgotten space beneath the “L” to life.

But how about the ear-shattering roar of the “L”? Or the inconvenient fact that the CTA rents parking spaces beneath the tracks? Or the fact that some homeowners have extended their side yards below the tracks, even fencing in what appears to be public property? And who would be responsible for monitoring this public space to prevent it from becoming a haven for muggers? And how would the city ensure that bolts and other objects wouldn’t fall from the “L,” injuring pedestrians? These are thorny issues, but big plans — and the fates of neighborhoods — often ride on the smallest details.

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