Thursday, October 21, 2010

CDOT Takes Another Crack at Upper Randolph

The Chicago Department of Transportation is going to once again try to straighten out the traffic mess that is East Upper Randolph Street.  The street, which climbs between Millennium Park and the Aon Center/Blue Cross/ Prudential Plaza streetwall is a nightmare for tourists and locals alike.

That's because whether looking at a map or just navigating on instinct, it makes perfect sense that Randolph would continue the city's street grid eastward from Michigan Avenue and connect with Lake Shore Drive.

Of course, it doesn't.

What it does do is make a blind 90-degree turn and come to a dead end in the heart of the New Eastside.

How confusing is this?  Well, on a warm summer afternoon there can be such a flood of confused suburban daytrippers that they actually cause their own traffic jam getting into, turning around, and getting back out of the dead end.

But you don't have to be an Okie from Muskogee to have trouble here.  I have a photo somewhere of an articulated CTA bus that got caught in this vehicular trap, and had to be yanked out with a tow truck.

To make things worse, this is no longer an industrial neighborhood.  There are several thousand people living there, and crossing the streets in their own backyard is becoming increasingly dangerous as more and more drivers unfamiliar with the neighborhood blow through the asymmetrical stop signs.

I used to live in the middle of this mess, and had a front-row view of it from my bedroom window.  Some days it was fascinating.  Others, not so much.

So, it was with some interest that I received an e-mail from Alderman Reilly's office recently detailing CDOT's plans for the area.  I'm going to paste Reilly's note, and the CDOT diagrams below.

Will the plan work?  Well, trying something is better than trying nothing.  But the problem is that this is a dead end.  There are only two ways to actually fix it:

  1. Actually complete the long-studied, but very expensive, project to connect North Harbor Drive with East Upper Wacker Drive.  This has been promised by politicians for decades, but nothing has ever come of it.  
  2. Put up some very large "Dead End" signs.  And by that I mean signs that actually read "DEAD END."  Not No Outlet, or Cul-de-Sac, or No Thru Traffic, or whatever the current politically correct version of "Dead End" is.  Hardly anyone knows what those mean, and no one takes them seriously.  "DEAD END" is universally understood and feared.  It's the one thing that will keep people out who don't want to go in there in the first place.

Here is Alderman Reilly's e-mail:

The upcoming improvements under this neighborhood initiative include:
New Bike Lanes on Upper Randolph between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive:
At the Alderman's direction and expense through additional Menu funds, CDOT's bicycle program engineered a number of pavement marking improvements for Upper Randolph Street between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive. These improvements include the extension of the eastbound bike lanes on the north side of Upper Randolph Street from Columbus Drive to just west of Stetson Avenue. Shared lanes were recently installed from the end of the old bike lanes down to Michigan Avenue.
On the south side of Upper Randolph Street, between Stetson Avenue and Columbus Drive, the existing eastbound bike lane has been relocated 8 feet off the curb line to keep school or charter buses servicing Millennium Park from parking in the bike lane. The warning signs have been installed in conjunction with the pavement marking recommendations.
Improvement to Intersection of Upper Randolph and Field Blvd:
The Alderman's office fields numerous reports of vehicles failing to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk in the east leg of the intersection at Upper Randolph and Field Boulevard.
This dangerous intersection will be "tightened-up" by shifting the crosswalk and stop line on the west approach approximately 35 feet to the east. This will improve driver compliance with the posted stop signs and encourage drivers to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.
The City will also be installing new accessible pedestrian ramps, crosswalks and intersection pavement markings at this relocated crosswalk.
Improvement to Intersection of Upper Randolph and Harbor Drive:
Alderman Reilly also receives chronic complaints of vehicles that fail to yield to pedestrians at the intersection of Upper Randolph and Harbor Drive. This intersection will be reconfigured to include a painted median on the curve to provide a buffer between opposing travel lanes. The painted median will also provide an area for pedestrians to stand while waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic - and will encourage slower travel speeds through the narrowing of the adjacent travel lanes.
The City will also be installing additional warning signs to alert drivers to the approaching curve in the road and the presence of pedestrians crossing at the upcoming intersection.
Finally, CDOT recommends the removal of the stop sign and stop line for southbound traffic on Harbor Drive, because the intersection does not meet the necessary stop sign warrants and is inconsistent with the eastbound approach of Upper Randolph that has no stop sign.
There is a stop sign for southbound traffic on Harbor Drive - but eastbound traffic on Randolph is not required to stop at this corner. As a result, pedestrians gain a false sense of security that vehicles will stop at the crosswalk. The Alderman has introduced an ordinance to repeal this stop sign to improve pedestrian safety at the intersection of Randolph and Harbor Drive.
These improvements are scheduled to begin on October 18th and the project is expected to last for 8 weeks. Alderman Reilly is very pleased to announce this exciting project, which will finally address the many complaints we receive regarding traffic and pedestrian safety in the New Eastside community.
Here are the CDOT schematics and plans.  As always, click the pics for larger versions:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Renovating an Old Landmark

One of my favorite old Chicago buildings is going to be renovated.

I've long admired the Old Republic Building (307 North Michigan Avenue).  Maybe because of its anonymity -- it's not as flashy as the Carbide and Carbon Building (230 North Michigan Avenue) across the street.  Maybe because it suits its corner so well.  Maybe because I've spent any number of hours standing in its shadow waiting for a 151 bus.

Regardless of the reason, I'm happy to note that the City of Chicago has decided to also recognize this venerable piece of architecture.

In the latest newsletter from Alderman Reilly notes that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has approved a tax incentive to help with the rehabilitation of the Old Republic Building.

"Class L" is a property tax incentive encouraging the preservation and rehabilitation of landmark commercial, industrial, and income-producing non-for-profit buildings. Owners can have their property tax assessment levels reduced for a 12-year period provided they invest at least half of the value of the landmark building in an approved rehabilitation project. While the Class L incentive is a Cook County incentive program, the City of Chicago and the local ward alderman must support granting the incentive.
The Old Republic Building went up in 1925 and was the first high rise in the area now dominated by the Illinois Center.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Chicago Architecture Info Forum Launches

A couple of months ago, some people approached me about starting an online forum for people to talk about Chicago.  They told me they were frustrated by the quality of other internet fora, some of which are so large that it's like being lost in a crowd at Wrigley, and others that are so full of anger and hostility that people are afraid to express their opinions.  Some have elements of both.

I sat on the idea for a little while, and then two weeks ago asked the people in our Facebook and Twitter groups what they thought of the idea.  The response was overwhelmingly positive.  So the result is:

(CAIF for short)

To quote from the welcome message I just posted:

This forum was created to give people a place to talk about the city of Chicago. Its main focus is on the city's architecture, development, real estate, construction, and urban life; but discussions of any Chicago-related subject are welcome.
If you just want to read what other people write, that's fine. If you want to post messages, sign up for a free account. Don't be afraid to ask questions, or even just start your own thread to talk about your neighborhood. You can upload pictures to your own photo gallery, chat with other people, even start your own blog right here. And don't forget to check out the calendar of events. I'll keep that updated with community events that are of interest to like-minded people.
I know that several thousand people read this blog, and I encourage all of you to at least visit the new forum.  The primary truism of internet fora is that most people just read messages, a few reply to messages, and very few will start a new thread.

But I do encourage you to start your own messages.  Ask questions.  Seek opinions.  Share your thoughts.  Tell the rest of us what's happening where you live.

The forum also comes with a number of extra features for you to use.  You can start your own blog there, create photo galleries you can share with friends, even yak it up in an online chat room.

I think this will also be good for this blog.  The comment feature for articles here is a little limited.  I'm going to try to integrate it with the forum so that people can have a truly interactive experience when they want to post about things written here.

The address to click is

Wooden Architecture Contest Winners

A while back we told you about the Wood Design Awards, a competition for architects and engineers who use wood in their buildings, but not in homes.

Two of the winners in the Midwest region are from Chicagoland, and one of them is local rising star Studio Gang, so here's the press release and I'll paste in pictures of the various projects so you can see what was done:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Plea For Chicago's Theater Scene

There's an interesting plea in the Tribune today.  Essentially, the author is asking the still-to-be-chosen mayor of Chicago not to screw up the theater scene that the outgoing mayor worked so hard to create.

I'm not a theater person.  I can't stand musicals.  But I lived in the Loop during Wicked, and I think most people have no idea the kind of economic impact that one play had, and continues to have, on the city.  The neighborhood was flooded with out-of-state tourists and tour buses five days a week just because of that show.

But part of the Trib article I don't get is the notion that neighborhood theater should be preserved.  This is counterintuitive to me.  If anything, the city's theaters should be encouraged to move into the theater district.  It's not like there isn't a ton of empty space in the northwest corner of the Loop.  Moreover, you end up creating a critical mass that spurs creativity and creates a more vibrant, closer knit cultural community.

There's a reason all of the Broadway theaters in New York are along, or just off Broadway.  There's a reason so many dot-com companies are in a particular neighborhood of San Francisco.  There's a reason that during the age of the automobile, all the world's great car companies were in Detroit.

Chicago has already proven it has the potential to be a world class theater city.  But what it lacks is the scale of a Broadway or London's West End.  It needs all those minor theaters in the 'hoods to come downtown.  That then gives the crappy tiny theaters a chance to thrive, grow, and flourish until they're ready to move downtown, and so on.

So, I encourage the new mayor to continue cultivating the arts in Chicago.  But do it with a plan for the future, now that Mayor Daley's plan for right now has been realized.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Battle in the Sky Brings History Back to the Hancock

What once was old is new again.  The more years I gain, the more I see that things are cyclical.  But I didn't see this coming.

The seemingly friendly Battle of the Observation Decks being waged between the Sears Willis Tower (233 South Wacker Drive), and the John Hancock Center (875 North Michigan Avenue) has seen both sides dip into the old bag of tricks to bring in new customers.

The first shot was fired in July of last year when Willis opened "The Ledge."  If you haven't been to Skydeck Chicago (the current name for what used to be the Sears Skydeck) in a while, this is alone worth the price of admission.  Check out our previous piece on The Ledge for pictures and video.

While The Ledge is all high-tech glass, and physics calculations, and safety regulations, what it does is simulate the experience of hanging off the edge of a skyscraper.  To the majority of people in the 21st century, this is a novelty.  But it's not all that novel.

Hanging out on steel beams is a very late-19th and early-20th century thing to do.  Think back to black-and-white Looney Tunes, or those iconic photographs of construction workers just sort of sitting there, having lunch, perched on a girder hundreds of feet above the street below, without a care in the world.  The same lower-belly giddiness we experience looking at those photos is the same feeling we get to experience first-hand and intensified by visiting The Ledge.

The old thrills are new again.  Except you don't have to be a construction worker to experience it.  You can just pay your $15, close your eyes, and take one giant step into the air.

A year later, it's time for the Hancock Center to return fire.

Last week, newspapers around the world lit up with news about Big John's newest attraction, Skating in the Sky.

The idea is that there will be a skating rink on the 94th floor of the building.  That puts it 1,000 feet over North Michigan Avenue.  But it's not actual ice; it's a slippery synthetic substance that's being used.  Adolescent fantasies about crashing through the glass aside, skating at the Hancock is nothing new.

In fact, shortly after the John Hancock Center first opened, it had a real ice skating rink in the sunken plaza right in front of the building.  The plaza is a public amenity, required to get the zoning permits needed to build such a huge tower in what was then a low-rise area.

Reports of the day indicate that the skating rink was popular, and attracted crowds similar to those that now spin themselves into frigid dizziness at the McCormick-Tribune ice skating rink at Millennium Park.  But it didn't last.  It opened in the winter of 1971, and the following year, instead of ice it was covered with Christmas trees as a safety precaution because it was feared that winds whipped up by the Hancock Center would hurl debris from nearby construction projects at the helpless skaters.  By the winter of 1973, the ice was replaced by crushed rock and planters.  Skating at the Hancock faded from Chicago's collective memory shortly thereafter.

Interestingly, during the same time period there was another ice skating rink nearby at Lake Shore Park that is also gone.  People who have lived in the area far longer than me say the city used to be lousy with ice skating rinks, and nearly everyone enjoyed the sport from families to dating couples to loners and gangs of teen-agers.  But as the city's tastes matured and more and more people sought refuge in warm apartments with television sets to tick away the dark winters, the neighborhood skating rinks became fewer and fewer.

With any luck, the new rink at Millennium Park, plus the new fake skate at the Hancock Center will trigger a resurgence of good, wholesome, outdoor winter activity.  Lord knows Chicago's children could use a little less time playing virtual snowboarder on the Xbox, and more time learning how use their muscles to balance on some blades in a nearby park.

TweetEcho: September 1-12, 2010

For those of you who don't subscribe to our Twitter feed, here are the tweets we posted over the last week or so:

  1. #Chicago building of the day: 2440 North Lakeview Avenue - 2440 North Lakeview Avenue -
  2. Added to the #Chicago Architecture web site: 60 East Walton -
  3. #Chicago building of the day: The Montgomery - 535 West Chicago Avenue -
  4. RT @CRED_by_Crains: Blue Cross parent to exit Illinois Center, consolidate at HQ
  5. Added to the #Chicago Architecture web site: 48 East Walton (Urban Outfitters Gold Coast) -
  6. #Chicago building of the day: 2242-2244 North Lincoln Park West - 2242-2244 North Lincoln Park West -
  7. RT @Chicagoist: City Council gives Mayor Daley green light for $1 billion in bonds O'Hare Expansion:
  8. Added to the #Chicago Architecture web site: 11 West Division Street -
  9. #Chicago building of the day: 325 North Wells Street - 325 North Wells Street -
  10. Added to the #Chicago Architecture web site: 50 East Chestnut -
  11. Ronald Krueck discusses the restoration of Mies van der Rohe's 1951 landmark Chicago project 860-80 Lake Shore Drive -
  12. #Chicago building of the day: Metcalfe Federal Building - 77 West Jackson Boulevard -
  13. #Chicago building of the day: 33 North Dearborn Building - 33 North Dearborn Street -
  14. South Side Chicago church moving to Wisconsin. Not the people. The WHOLE church:
  15. @aThousandFeetUp You and Willis should shoot lasers at each other as a spectacle. Maybe you shoot green and Willis shoots red for Christmas!
  16. #Chicago building of the day: Hotel Raffaello - 201 East Delaware Place -
  17. #Chicago building of the day: Northern Trust Center (Chicago South Wacker) - 125 South Wacker -
  18. RT @HOKNetwork: Evaluating each plan in the St. Louis Gateway Arch design competition -
  19. RT @archpaper: Is the #Venice #Biennale a complete waste of time—and money—anymore? @ArchDaily
  20. #Chicago building of the day: 1300 North Lake Shore Drive - 1300 North Lake Shore Drive -
  21. #Chicago building of the day: Olympia Centre - 737 North Michigan Avenue -
  22. New 44-story tower at Lake & Garland in the Loop: RT @CRED_by_Crains: Hot downtown apartment market piques developer
  23. #Chicago building of the day: Schweepe Building - 1500 South Indiana Avenue -