New visions for Lake Shore Drive are forming in Chicago

Lakeshore-Drive1My Aug. 10 Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

You can have the rest of the roads in the country.

I’ll take Lake Shore Drive.

Although, five decades ago, that’s just what Chicago tried to do – take Lake Shore Drive.
In 1960, Mayor Richard J. Daley proposed that the city’s iconic thoroughfare be widened and turned into a “real” expressway that would have run south through Jackson Park, zipping behind the Museum of Science and Industry and eventually leading down Stony Island Avenue to the Chicago Skyway.

According to the Chicago Reader, many Hyde Park residents protested the plan, with some going so far as to tie themselves to trees along the proposed route. That prompted Daley’s surrender – one of the few high-profile defeats in “Da Mare’s” storied political career.

And thank goodness it was. Because if Daley and the Chicago Planning Commission had gotten their way, most of Grant Park between Buckingham Fountain to the east and Columbus Drive to the west would have been bulldozed too.

What today is a swath of tranquil green space home to tennis courts, baseball fields, the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, Lurie Garden, and Maggie Daley Park would instead be covered by concrete. The area that’s now Millennium Park would neighbor a noisy expressway, meaning sounds of the symphony would be replaced by sounds of cacophony.

Fortunately none of that happened. And here in 2013, Lake Shore Drive, much like rush hour traffic on a Friday, isn’t going anywhere. However, the 7-mile northern stretch of LSD – as picturesque a drive as there is in the country – does need to be rebuilt due to age.

And it could end up being altered, perhaps dramatically.

This week, Chicago held a series of public meetings seeking input to help shape the renovation project, which likely won’t begin until 2018. Ironically, after years of Chicago investigating ways to speed up Lake Shore Drive, much of the push is to now slow it down.

A vocal coalition of 15 civic groups wants to reduce the speed limit from Grand Avenue to Hollywood from 40 to 35 mph. The coalition also doesn’t want to increase the number of lanes, but still somehow carve out lanes for only rapid transit buses (or a high-speed-rail line) and another for high-speed bicyclists.

I’m unclear on how all of that could fit. But Lee Crandell of the Active Transportation Alliance, part of the coalition, told the Sun-Times this week that Lake Shore Drive was designed in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan for the city as “a pleasure drive early on. It’s slowly turned into a freeway. We want it to feel like a boulevard.”

That sounds great in theory, but far less plausible in practice. Because while I hardly want LSD to be a “true” expressway, it does still need to move swiftly for those trying to travel north-south in the city. Slowing the drive down further really wouldn’t add “pleasure” for anyone.

I do favor the idea of adding bus-only lanes to help de-congest traffic, but only if it doesn’t decrease the space used by cars. I’d most like to see LSD’s entrance and exit ramps redesigned to help cut down on weaving cars and bottlenecks – especially at Belmont, where fans exit for Wrigley Field – as they contribute greatly to the average of three crashes a day north of downtown, according to accident data.

I’d also call for better pedestrian access to the lakefront with more footbridges over LSD and safer, better-lit tunnels underneath it. Additionally, the trail system along the lake should better help keep walkers, runners and cyclists separate rather than on top of one another.

If all that happens, I might even take Lake Shore Drive.

More often.