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Lake Shore Drive sure is scenic, but it needs a vision

The entire future of the Drive should be reimagined. It’s not enough to simply keep it from falling apart.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) says now is the time to re-envision the future of Lake Shore Drive, rebuilding it and adding park space.
City of Chicago

Emergency barriers are fine and necessary, but let’s show a little vision.

Work crews were out earlier this month on Lake Shore Drive, once again, installing temporary barriers as an ever-rising Lake Michigan threatened to flood the road.

It was an excellent reminder, as Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) argued on Thursday, that the entire future of Lake Shore Drive should be reimagined — a safer road, with more parkland and beaches. It’s not enough just to keep it from falling apart.

Chicago is at its best when it thinks like that. It’s what gave us the Drive in the first place, one of America’s most scenic urban thoroughfares.

Workmen install temporary barriers along Lake Shore Drive in 1987.
Workmen install temporary barriers along Lake Shore Drive in 1987.
Sun-Times file photo

All kinds of proposals for improving North Lake Shore Drive have been around for years, some of them more imaginative than practical. They come and go. The best ideas, though, have been generated with substantial public input and would enhance a lakefront that has always made Chicagoans proud.

South Lake Shore Drive already has had a $90 million rehab.

Most obviously, as Hopkins said, the city should finally straighten out the notorious S-curve around Oak Street Beach — which has been a hassle for drivers for years — and at the same time add 70 acres of parkland to the east of the Drive. This could result in a significant expansion of Oak Street Beach.

Our larger point is that Chicago has been thinking too defensively, stringing out barriers like Lego blocks and even closing down parts of the Drive when the lake’s waves are especially high.

Every problem is also an opportunity, and Chicago’s problems with Lake Shore Drive should be embraced as an opportunity to create a faster road, with safer walkways and bike paths and, of course, no more flooding.

Some of that could have been done a lot better back in the 1930s, when the Drive was first getting off the drawing boards, but nobody could have foreseen all the ramifications of running a boulevard through a string of lakeshore parks. Nobody could see how traffic on exit ramps would back up into the through lanes, causing regular rear-end crashes. Or that increasing congestion would discourage many future Chicagoans from even using the amenities of the lakefront — the beaches, parks and paths.

On a nice summer day, as many as 31,000 people use the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street. But the trail has been closed this summer on days when storm-driven waves flooded it.

Some parts of the original Drive, including bridges and lower pavement levels, have exceeded their expected useful lives by 30 years. Earlier this year, the northbound lanes of the Drive over the Chicago River were closed because of cracked steel support beams, an example of what can happen if roadways are allowed to deteriorate.

Because of high water, beaches have been receding and breakwalls have been crumbling. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is saying that — based on current water levels — Lake Michigan could set a record high in 2020 because it will start off above the level it did this year.

The city no longer should ignore the Drive’s more long-term needs — and its possibilities. About 161,000 autos and 3,300 CTA bus trips, moving some 69,000 people, depend on the Drive each working day. Repairs on the Drive could be done as part of a larger plan, a vision, to substantially improve the entire lakefront for generations to come.

Hopkins says that he has talked with Gov. J.B. Pritzker about getting money for rebuilding the Drive from the state’s new $45 billion capital bill. That’s a tall order this late in the budgeting process, and we know that every city and town in Illinois is looking for a piece of that pie.

But, yes. Hopkins is on to something.

The most stellar stretch of road in Illinois deserves a good healthy cut of the funding, and we urge other city officials to join Hopkins in making the case.

Rear-enders were the leading cause of crashes on North Lake Shore Drive in 2011.
Chicago Sun-Times. SOURCE: Refine the Drive

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