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South Blvd streetscape

First, a disclaimer...I speak for myself on this blog. Obviously. My views are my own and I do not in any way speak for anyone else 

When I first moved to Oak Park, Marion Street was still a pedestrian mall. With plenty of empty storefronts at that. I remember when the cheese market was across the L tracks where the electronic cigarette store is now. So there's no denying that the streetscape project that opened Marion Street back up to auto traffic has had a huge impact. It's now a crowded, bustling corridor that makes a great backdrop to community events and business is thriving. Would I have used bricks? No, they're horrible to ride a bike on. Would I have suggested Marion be made a one-way street because two-way traffic doesn't quite fit? Yes. It's not perfect but certainly better than what was there. The same can be said of the Phase II project that streetscaped South Marion on the other side of the L.

And the same can be said of what was presented to us last night about South Blvd between Marion and Harlem.

For those who need the background, Oak Park has an approximately $1 million-ish grant from the federal government to streetscape South Blvd--with some funds from the village required--in conjunction with the new development being built at the Harlem/South corner. Last night's Transportation Commission meeting was a presentation from the design consultants for our input and comments. The project is due to be bid in November with construction in 2016.

Is it perfect? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! No. No, it's not. But it does offer some very strong positives in exchange for a few very bad trade-offs. And we spent 3 hours last night trying to figure out where the right balance is. To start, one of the least sexy issues that is hugely important is that the streetscape project would go down to sewer level with upgrades in infrastructure that would eliminate viaduct flooding. It would widen the turn lanes near the traffic light at Harlem that are currently too narrow. It would provide organized, upgraded, additional bike parking for commuters using the train station. Yes, there would be bricks and lighting and a new pedestrian crossing at the entrance to the station.

But the constraints of the Harlem viaduct, the CTA's needs, IDOT's requirements mean that a few very pressing concerns cannot be met. First, the busy crosswalk crossing Harlem cannot be fixed in any satisfying way. At least not until the viaduct project is completed at some point in the future. As it stands now, because of the timing of the traffic lights on Harlem, no further walk time can be given to pedestrians crossing Harlem...we're essentially stuck with left-turning cars moving to southbound Harlem having the same green light. I suggested a pedestrian-only cycle. No dice. Any interference with the time at that light requires re-timing surrounding traffic signals. Do we really want to open that can of worms? A countdown timer would be awesome going west, but a crosswalk timer for crossing north-south along Harlem is about the best we can achieve at the moment, apparently. That was sort of the theme last night.

Short of changing South Blvd into a one-way street (a suggestion that would require changes to the design that would threaten the funding deadline), the commission last night mostly had to suggest ways to emphasize that bikes and pedestrians need greater protection...since a major focus of this project seems to be the 5000 estimated cars that will use the street after the new development is built. (80% of that traffic is westbound, 20% eastbound.) Frankly, I'm confused why any designer in this era would not have already baked more bike/ped into the plan...the consultant seemed confused that we wanted bike signage and sharrows in the brick, an enhanced crosswalk outside the train station with lighting and signage, etc..

Finally, the last major sticking point was Maple. Long story short is it's due to be closed as a thru street. Instead, it will become a driveway for the new development...which leads to an interesting discussion about whether it's better to send that traffic east--into the neighborhood--or let people exiting the development make a very awkward left turn onto South Blvd to access the traffic light at Harlem. Do we recommend a diverter to enforce Right Turn Only? Just signage? No "fix" at all and let's wait to see if people actually struggle with the issue during real world use? Not to mention the concern of residents about cut-thru traffic then using the alley. Meh. I'll go into this more in my closing thoughts.

My primary criticism of the whole project is that, whether it's Oak Park taxpayers or US taxpayers as a whole, we're spending hard-earned cash and the public is going to expect improvement. To the naked eye, it looks like some bricks and trees and very superficial. It--on many levels--fails to meet the public where they actually need it and use it. Pedestrians come out of the train station and are not going to cross politely at the tiny, standard crosswalk. People need help crossing Harlem. Drivers want improved traffic flow during rush hour to access Harlem. Bicyclists don't just want someplace to park, they want a safe route to the station with some dedicated road space. Businesses in the area--I'm guessing since they weren't at the meeting--would probably not appreciate having Maple blocked as it's a valuable side street.

But that brings us to the larger issues at play. Last night's presentation felt a little bit like the horse is already out of the barn and we're trying to close the gate. The new development is already in the works and seems to have been given preference over the public on certain matters. Auto traffic is being given very high deference in a mainly transit/walking area. And, despite obvious problems with the setup, the ball seems to be rolling and we'd rather take the million in funding and get something built than take the time to really think about how we could improve the corridor beyond fancy bricks. This streetscape project is a great example of the need for higher level discussion that, honestly, is above my responsibility as a commissioner. We offered our thoughts, but the real problem is the challenge of thinking in a more comprehensive way. We install one thing only to reconfigure it a few years later because we didn't think it through the first time. I fear we're headed that way with the South Blvd streetscape. In a decade, people will be wondering why we allowed a half-baked plan to go forward and why they have to mop up the mess. I certainly feel that way in my role. If you're going to spend $1 million to completely rebuild a street, how much better does it need to be to justify spending the $1 million? I don't know that I have an answer for that other than the strange feeling that the design presented last night was inadequate.

Put another way, it will be beautiful when completed, but I question the value and whether we'll really see an improved quality of life from it.

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