Since first established over 80 years ago as a parkway boulevard along Chicago’s lakefront, planners have struggled to strike a balance between increasing traffic volumes and preserving the character and feel of this legendary, scenic roadway. While Lake Shore Drive has been updated and improved throughout the decades, the City of Chicago has always voiced an interest in remaining sensitive to the character of the historic boulevard parkway along the route.
The current proposal from the Chicago Department of Transportation represents a radical departure from the past and would completely overhaul North Lake Shore Drive from Navy Pier to its northern terminus at Hollywood Avenue. The estimated $2 billion to $3 billion overhaul is being referred to as “Redefine the Drive.” While still in the early planning phases, one primary objective would be to bring North Lake Shore Drive up to current highway grade standards.
The proposed work includes the potential to widen Lake Shore Drive from its current four lanes in each direction to five in each direction. For comparison sake, the Eisenhower Expressway is primarily three or four lanes in each direction with the CTA running in the median.
Many of the plans to date include removing these bridges and sinking Lake Shore Drive into a deep trench or tunnel, significantly below lake levels at various locations between Navy Pier and Foster. To avoid flooding, these new sub-surface roadways will be controlled by pumps, which will remove the water following both rainstorms and flooding. However, we all know that systems break down and these recessed roadways will also be susceptible to flooding over time. After all, it’s usually flooding at the Oak Street and Michigan Avenue tunnel to the Outer Drive that hampers traffic and shuts down after heavy rains and high waves from Lake Michigan. In a time of rising sea and lake levels, sinking an essential arterial roadway into a trench below the adjacent lake level is risky. The current occasional heavy storms that cause flooding on Lake Shore Drive are inconvenient and scary, but if the roadway were to be sunken into a trench below grade, flash floods caused by these storms could prove catastrophic.
The North Lake Shore Drive “improvement” proposal calls for all of the historic Art Deco bridges and spans at North Avenue, Fullerton, Belmont, Montrose and continuing up Lake Shore Drive to be completely destroyed. We agree that due to profound neglect and consistent failure to provide routine maintenance, many of these historic bridges are suffering from decades of deferred maintained. However, these bridges and their unique historic design features can and should be repaired and restored with appropriate ornament, rails and light standards, much like the repairs to the historic bridge at 47th and South Lake Shore Drive. The cost to maintain these historic structures is a fraction of the cost for new construction.
These proposed plans would add more pavement, more lanes for cars and more traffic, removing many of the wonderful sight-lines, vistas, lookouts, hills, bridges, special features, some old growth trees and the enjoyment one currently experiences on North Lake Shore Drive. It will turn this very special street and boulevard into another version of the Eisenhower Expressway and take away many of the beautiful aspects of experiencing the park and Lakefront shoreline in a vehicle, which is important to both residents and visitors alike.
Why must we rethink a pastoral Lakefront boulevard which is currently an amazing place to enjoy and experience? Let’s reconstruct what we have as required, repair the historic bridges, and encourage a calming of traffic, rather than add dedicated bus lanes, extra on-off-lanes and introduce highway standards to Lake Shore Drive. To add more capacity has often shown to further add additional cars and traffic, often leading to more delays, and greater bottlenecks at just past the off-ramps. Let’s instead try to rebuild the features which are in need of repair and protect one of Chicago’s most picturesque boulevards.