Redesigning a Civic Icon and Highway with Community Input

9.10.13 | I suppose the headline was irresistible: Chicagoans want better LSD. The historic irony is that Mayor Richard J. Daley justified his brutal crackdown during the 1968 Democratic Convention in part based on rumors that hippies and “yippies” planned to spike the city’s water supply with… LSD.

The truth is more mundane, but frankly more interesting: It’s (long past) time to rebuild the northern half of Lake Shore Drive—our city’s premiere lakefront highway—which carries, depending on the location, anywhere between 62,900 and 154,000 vehicles daily, including Chicago Transit Authority express buses, and whose infrastructure in places dates back to the 1930s. (And right on cue, on the afternoon of September 3, a 30-square-foot chunk of concrete fell from a Lake Shore Drive overpass onto the heavily trafficked North Avenue, closing its entrance and exit ramps for four hours.)

The possibilities for shifting its paradigm are paramount.

First, the Illinois and Chicago Departments of Transportation are vowing to use the Context-Sensitive Solutions and Stakeholder Involvement Plan approaches, which open the door to a redesign that includes stronger transit elements (these already use the Drive, but are tied to ambient traffic), and better connections between the city’s street grid to the immediate west and the lakefront parks to immediate east.

Indeed, in July a coalition of groups including the Active Transportation Alliance, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Chicago Architecture Foundation, Congress for the New Urbanism, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Metropolitan Planning Council, National Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club jointly submitted a plan titled “Our Lakefront: A Civic Platform for the Reconstruction of North Lake Shore Drive.” And a trio of community meetings was held in August to begin soliciting citizen input.

(The official, Chicago Department of Transportation, Illinois Department of Transportation, and Chicago Park District effort is “Redefine The Drive,” whose website here does a nice job of laying out the scope of the project and providing background information.)

Having many voices at the table is important, particularly if a region has a history of heeding only the power brokers, or of shutting out particular communities. But, as the BRR Network’s own Margaret Weir has noted, horizontal power isn’t enough, in and of itself; vertical power is essential to moving major projects along. As was noted in the BRR Blog here:

Bottom line: When trying to implement regional change, the authors argue, “no matter how inclusive and collaborative the networks or innovative the plans for regional transportation, they will produce little real change if not backed by vertical power.”

In this case, North Lake Shore Drive is not strictly a Chicago concern. Myriad motorists from Evanston and other North Shore suburbs use it to drive to and from work or to evenings out (recall “Risky Business” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” for example, but not “When Harry Met Sally;” driving from the University of Chicago to Brooklyn doesn’t take you south along North Lake Shore Drive).

In Chicago, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (our MPO), the Metropolitan Planning Council, Metropolis Strategies are among organizations that are particularly good at integrating power and community voices.

In this case, however, I’ll venture a guess that vertical power won’t be a problem. Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be fully invested in ensuring a smooth process and eventual rebuild of North Lake Shore Drive. After all, he’s up for re-election in 2015.

P.S. Since this is Lake Shore Drive we discuss, homage must be paid to Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah, whose “Lake Shore Drive” can still be heard on occasion, and wonderfully encapsulates the road. Thanks for sharing Next City:

Photo / Mason Liu

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