The dangerous free-for-all between cyclists and runners would end along two widened stretches of Chicago’s lakefront bike path, under a park improvement plan unveiled Tuesday that ignores the elephant in the room: the legal battle over the Lucas Museum.
Runners and bikers would get separate lanes from Fullerton to Ohio and again from 31st to 51st Streets, under the so-called “Building on Burnham” plan proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Seven miles of the 18-mile lakefront path would be repaved “with a clear north and south divider” to improve safety.
The mayor’s plan also calls for: creating a pool and event space at 31st Street Beach Harbor; improving the concert area at Montrose Beach; adding a new triathlon training space at Ohio Street Beach; building a state-of-the-art climbing wall at Steelworkers Park in South Chicago; adding lakefront “gathering places; increasing access to the Chicago River “at almost every mile” from the Evanston border to Little Village; and establishing a goal of increasing protected natural areas from 1,400-to-2,020 acres by 2020.
Emanuel called the 18-mile lakefront trail that runs from South Shore to Edgewater the “recreational heart” of Chicago’s lakefront.
“More Chicagoans than ever before are walking, running and biking along this unique trail — and that’s great. But more traffic brings more bottlenecks — and even some collisions,” the mayor said in a speech delivered Tuesday at Hamilton Park Fieldhouse, 513 W. 72nd Street.
“That’s why, as part of this plan, we will improve the Lakefront Trail to make it safer, more accessible and more enjoyable for Chicago residents. By 2018, we will complete the Navy Pier flyover. We will also create separate trails for runners and bikers. … No longer will you have to hear repeatedly over your headphones, `On your left.’ ”
Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said the group has long pushed for the separation of cyclists and joggers on the lakefront in conjunction with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Area Runners Association.
“We haven’t seen all the details of how wide the path is going to be. But, it sounds like the kind of thing we’d be excited about,” Irizarry said Tuesday.
“There have been many safety concerns as pedestrians, runners and cyclists get in each other’s way on a very crowded lakefront. Improving and expanding those trails and separating the different uses from each other is a good thing.”
The mayor also talked about completing a downtown Riverwalk that’s “transforming the area along the river” in Chicago’s Central Business District.
“We are also expanding the Riverwalk from Roosevelt to Harrison in the South Loop, paving the way for more recreational and economic opportunities in that fast-growing neighborhood,” he said.
“We will construct two bridges. One is the Riverview Bridge — a two-block-long pedestrian-only bridge in Albany Park. The second one is a new connection to Horner Park under the Irving Park Bridge, meaning there will be one less road to cross for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.”
Irizarry said she’s concerned that a concert pavilion “may be part of the plan” for Montrose Beach.
“Many communities have been complaining to us about concerts. People are okay with some concerts, but not others. It’s a decision by fiat about how that space will be used for concerts on a regular basis and concern about construction of new structures on the lakefront and park land in general,” she said.
Those same concerns are at the core of the ongoing legal battle between Emanuel and Friends of the Parks—kept alive by a federal judge — over the mayor’s giveaway of 17 acres of prime lakefront land near Soldier Field to movie mogul George Lucas.
During his 24-minute speech, Emanuel made no mention of the legal battle over the Lucas Museum.
Irizarry argued that the lakefront land grab for Lucas’ $400 million interactive museum casts a pall over Emanuel’s stewardship of Chicago parks.
“It says that he wants to make a deal with his friends without thinking about the public interest. That’s a sad thing,” she said.
“There are questions about his genuine interest in preservation of park space and stewardship of our parks. He’s willing to give away park land when it’s convenient.”
Earlier this month, Emanuel warned that Lucas has his “heart set” on building the museum to house his formidable collection of artwork and movie memorabilia on the disputed lakefront site. As a result, the mayor said Chicago was in serious danger of losing he coveted prize.
Weeks after opening the door to a site change to avoid a protracted legal battle, Emanuel hinted strongly that his efforts to convince Lucas and his wife, Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson, to consider another site have either failed or are not going particularly well.
On Tuesday, Irizarry once again urged the mayor to prevail upon Lucas to build his museum at the old Michael Reese hospital site acquired by the city for an Olympic Village or on the west side of Lake Shore Drive on a deck above rail yards similar to the one that holds Millenium Park.
“If Chicago loses this museum because Mr. Lucas goes to another city, we put the blame on the mayor.This is on him. He should have facilitated a process from the start by which a legal site was found,” Irizarry said.
As for the mayor’s broader plan for the parks, Irizarry questioned how much the improvements would cost and how they would be paid for. More importantly, she questioned why the mayor is “prioritizing these new additions” while existing fieldhouses are “crumbling” and Chicago continues to have a shortage of soccer and baseball fields.
“We are always concerned about the process by which his decisions are made about parks. We have not been included in any of those processes and we hear from community folks all the time who are concerned about the process by which park decisions are made. What was the process to engage the communities about our park needs?” she said.
Last spring, city and state transportation officials held a series of hearings to seek citizen input on how to “re-invent” North Lake Shore Drive from Grand to Hollywood. Their No. 1 recommendation was to separate bike and pedestrian paths. One year later, no progress has bee made on that long-awaited project.