One of the wonders of big-city life is that you can travel the world without leaving home.
In Chicago, you can find a little bit of India on Devon Avenue, a taste of Vietnam on Argyle Street, a touch of Mexico along 18th Street.
You don’t need a passport, though a Ventra pass can help. And increasingly, as Chicago moves in the forward-looking direction of other smart big cities, you may not need a car.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing to make Chicago friendlier to pedestrians, bicyclists and riders of public transportation, capitalizing on a growing demand for culturally rich urban living. It is a push that seems wise to support, even at a time when city finances are in bad shape, understanding that some of this stuff will work out great — and other stuff not so much.
Central to Chicago’s vision for the future is a greater emphasis on public transportation and the neighborhood development it can foster. Last Monday, Emanuel introduced an ordinance that would create incentives for more development near CTA and Metra stations. The ordinance would eliminate parking space requirements, for example, and allow for denser residential construction, especially when affordable housing is included. The Metropolitan Planning Council estimates that the resulting new development would generate an extra $400 million in economic activity each year.
In a companion move, City Hall announced two weeks ago that construction would begin to transform a three-block stretch of Argyle Street, from Broadway to Sheridan Road — straddling an L stop — into a European-style boulevard where pedestrians, bikes and cars would share the roadway. There will be no curbs separating streets from sidewalks; only pavement markings, benches and street plantings to send the message that pedestrians come first.
If this “shared streets” concept works on Argyle, which is sometimes called Chicago’s “Little Vietnam,” City Hall hopes to bring it to other culturally distinctive corners of the city that are in need of spiffing up and promotion.
The danger here is that Argyle Street could lose its immigrant gateway authenticity, so let’s have no cute matching awnings. And some critics worry that restaurants and other businesses could suffer from the reduced number of parking spaces. Time will tell, but similar street revamps have led to a boost in retail business in cities such as San Francisco, San Antonio, Vancouver, Denver and Dallas.
Any change or reform aimed at enhancing urban living inevitably poses a threat to somebody or something, and only through trial and error can an acceptable balance be found. Adding bike lanes on streets annoys motorists. Adding bus rapid transit lanes annoys them more. Reducing the required parking space for a new development near an L stop, if overdone, could make finding a space impossible.
But it’s hard to argue with the overall goal: A more livable Chicago capable of drawing new residents, businesses and investment, even as so many other Rust Belt cities continue to crumble.
A perfect symbol of this might be the 606 trail, the vibrant walking and biking trail built on a defunct freight train line that runs through Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. Before the trail even opened in early June, drawing a wide cross-section of Chicagoans, nearby property values jumped.
The old train line was Chicago’s past. The 606 is the future.
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