Improve Lake Shore Drive, but not at the expense of its charm

Two planned Lake Shore Drive improvements shouldn’t further threaten the character of the city’s premier road and the park space alongside it.

SHARE Improve Lake Shore Drive, but not at the expense of its charm

A possible design scheme for Lake Shore Drive at Foster Avenue now being considered by the city and state to improve North Lake Shore Drive.

Chicago Department of Transportation

Lake Shore Drive, Chicago’s most scenic thoroughfare, is undergoing an identity crisis.

The 16-mile roadway was envisioned by its original builders as a pleasant ribbon winding through the city’s lakefront parks. But after 40-plus years of straightening, widening and other adjustments to accommodate traffic, the road often feels more like a highway than a parkway.

That’s why a careful design hand is crucial to make sure that two new planned improvements to the Drive — one aimed at overhauling North Lake Shore Drive, the other tied to the Obama Presidential Center — don’t further erode its character and the historic park space through which it runs.

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‘Redefining’ Lake Shore Drive

There is no doubt that Lake Shore Drive, which handles 100,000 cars and buses each day, needs a makeover. For all its remarkable views of sky, water, architecture and — in warm weather months — green space, it is an aging and crumbling roadway, with unsightly concrete Jersey barriers protecting it from lakefront erosion, particularly on the northern end.

And there are other quirks. There is, most obviously, that traffic-halting Oak Street curve. And there’s that traffic signal at Chicago Avenue that stays red so long a backseat toddler could grow to adulthood and take the wheel by the time the light turns green again.

Many of Lake Shore Drive’s current limitations could be addressed as part of a $3 billion city, state and federal plan to improve and rebuild the road from Grand Avenue to Hollywood Avenue. Called “Redefine the Drive,” the not-yet-funded proposal would include straightening that Oak Street curve, creating park space to protect the shoreline from erosion and improving bike lanes in the park.

Public hearings on the project have been going on since 2013, resulting in five design scenarios for improvements. The public input gathered has been used to help shape what might eventually get built. The planning process will continue this year.

Among the improvement scenarios are proposals to create dedicated bus lanes where cars now run, putting a greater value on public transit without widening the Drive. That could be good, but only if those bus lanes are properly balanced with additional parkland and greenery — and only if accesses to the lanes doesn’t end up looking like interstate highway ramps.

The same goes for proposed solutions to the interminably long traffic light at Chicago Avenue. One idea is to replace the entire intersection with a vehicle overpass or underpass that would require a lot of concrete, space and structure. We urge caution here as well.

In a separate Lake Shore Drive project almost 8 miles further south, city officials want to add a third southbound lane between 57th Street and Hayes Drive. The nearly mile-long lane would be among $175 million in road improvements that traffic engineers claim would improve car access in and around the future Obama Presidential Center.

We’re fans of the Obama Center, but we’re not fans of spending that much public road money in one place to benefit a single project. And we don’t want to see South Lake Shore Drive get any wider.

A special place

We’re not looking to trap Lake Shore Drive in amber or to treat it like an heirloom that can’t be touched. The Drive has always had to keep up with the times.

But Lake Shore Drive is a special street. Before all else, we must keep it that way.

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