City prepares to redevelop 5 miles of Western Avenue into green, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is poised to implement a long-term vision of a thoroughfare connecting North Side neighborhoods like Lincoln Square, North Center and West Rogers Park.

City planning officials held the final meeting Thursday night for their Western Avenue Corridor Study, an effort to transform the 5-mile stretch from Addison Street north to Howard Street.

It’s one of Chicago’s busiest streets, but intimidating for pedestrians and cyclists, and has too many empty stores, according to Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox.

During the virtual meeting, he said the city should help develop a series of “15-minute neighborhoods” along Western Avenue, dense collections of new housing at prominent intersections, including affordable housing, along with better street design and public transportation, ensuring that residents can live quickly. and safely reach new businesses and public services.

“Every resident should be just steps away from the amenities every resident expects and deserves,” he said.

The Western Avenue plan was drafted after nearly a dozen focus groups with residents, business owners and other stakeholders, as well as several public meetings with hundreds of participants. It has the support of all four councilmembers representing the area, and the Chicago Plan Commission will likely approve it at its Nov. 17 meeting, added Cox, who also wants to launch similar efforts for other streets with similar problems.

“We hope this will serve as a planning tool for commercial corridors throughout the city,” he said.

But residents shouldn’t expect a rush of new housing to spring up near Western Avenue. Unlike Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative, where the city dictates the pace of development by soliciting builder proposals for projects on the south and west sides, typically on city-owned lots, most of the land along Western Avenue is privately owned, so planning officials will shape proposals as they come along, according to Katharyn Hurd, the developer who led the 18-month initiative.

“If a developer proposes a zoning change, we’ll want them to comply with the plan’s recommendations,” he said. “As we review these projects, we will refer to this document.”

Hurd said planners identified the five Western Avenue intersections likely to attract the most development, including Lawrence Avenue at Lincoln Square, Devon Avenue at West Ridge and Byron Street at North Center. Along with local council members, they will encourage developers to create high-density housing near intersections, including ground-floor businesses like banks, pharmacies, salons and restaurants, as well as open sidewalks to help pedestrians feel safe.

Outside of major intersections, the city can use Tax Increment Financing funds, or TIFs, to help small businesses renovate existing properties or establish new services and retail stores, such as coffee shops and laundromats.

Lincoln Square is already attracting the kind of development that Hurd and other officials envision. The city’s Community Development Commission last month approved up to $12 million in TIF funds to help finance a new 63-unit affordable housing complex at 4715 N. Western Ave., now a parking lot. The Community Builders’ $35 million development will include approximately 5,000 square feet of ground floor retail.

A person crosses N. Western Avenue near the CTA Brown Line station, October 6, 2022.

But the city doesn’t have to wait to make Western Avenue safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, Hurd said. Officials can also use TIF funds over the next two years to shorten the crossing distance of the four-lane street with shelter islands and sidewalk extensions, among other infrastructure improvements, such as adding green spaces with trees and shrubs and spaces of public meeting. Along with planners from the Chicago Department of Transportation, who collaborated on the plan, they will also study ways to slow down traffic, add new bus stations, bus lanes and protected bike routes.

“It has to be more pedestrian-friendly, less hostile than it is now,” Hurd said.

Ald. Debra Silverstein, 50th Ward, who represents a northern section of Western Avenue, asked Cox to create the new strategy, saying the 18 months it took her to write it is just the first step.

“It’s not over,” he said. “We have to turn this vision into reality.”

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