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The People Spot at Little Black Pearl art center in Bronzeville. Photo courtesy of CDOT.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John's weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

Local pundits like ex-Sun-Times columnist Mark Konkol and the Tribune’s John McCarron and John Kass have trashed the city’s new protected bike lanes as a waste of space on the streets. But Chicagoans tend to overlook the massive amount of room on the public way given over to moving and parking private automobiles.

A new Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) initiative called Make Way for People is dreaming up more imaginative uses of the city’s asphalt and concrete, creating new public spaces that are energizing business strips. In partnership with local community leaders, the program is taking parking spots, roadways, alleys and under-used plazas and transforming them into People Spots, People Streets, People Alleys and People Plazas, respectively, lively neighborhood hangouts.

“It’s not a top-down program where we come in and say, ‘We think you need a People Spot or a People Street,’” says Janet Attarian, head of the department’s Streetscape and Sustainable Design section. “Instead we say, ‘We want to help you build community and culture and place and, look, we just created a whole set of tools that wasn’t available before.’”

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The People Spot and bike corral in Andersonville. Photo courtesy of the Andersonville Development Corporation.

Actually, turning parking spots into miniature public parks is nothing new. San Francisco has over thirty of these green spaces, known there as “parklets,” and for several years Chicagoans have participated in PARK(ing) Day, a worldwide event where citizens cover metered spaces with sod, plants and furniture. Semi-permanent People Spots debuted in Lakeview and Andersonville in August. The former is located by Heritage Bicycles and Coffee, 2959 North Lincoln, and consists of sleek wooden flooring, planter boxes, tables and chairs. The Lakeview Chamber of Commerce funded it for roughly $25,000.

The Andersonville People Spot, at the T-shaped intersection of Clark and Farragut streets, has a funkier vibe with boxy blue benches made from recycled plastic and a small patch of sod set at a forty-five-degree angle that’s fun to sit on. A colorful abstract mural by local artist Ruben Aguirre decorates the street-facing side. Bankrolled by the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce and a Kickstarter campaign, the parklet cost about $20,000.

“It’s a great little gathering spot for everyone in the neighborhood: people eating ice cream from [nearby] George’s, parents with kids and people relaxing in the evening between bars,” says Shaina Van Selus, manager of Akira Women and Men’s Clothing, 5228 North Clark, adjacent to the Andersonville parklet. “We use it on our lunch breaks. It’s just people relaxing and enjoying the fresh air.”

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The Lakeview People Spot.

The Lakeview spot required removing two parking spaces and the Andersonville parklet displaced three. Due to the city’s much-hated contract with LAZ Parking, the concessionaire had to be compensated by creating new metered spots in other nearby locations. Both of these People Spots are seasonal—they will be removed in November and reinstalled in April.

In September, two People Spots, similar in design and cost as the Lakeview parklet, opened in Bronzeville in front of Little Black Pearl art center, 1060 East 47th, and C’est Si Bon café, 643 East 47th. The nonprofit Quad Communities Development Corporation paid for both of the spaces, and no metered parking was removed.

Last week Pauline Watson was enjoying a snack and gazing at the sunset in the art center’s parklet as she waited to pick up her son from music and photography classes. “It’s a bit chilly today but this is kind of relaxing,” she said. “Especially if it was warm out this would be a really nice place to sit with friends and enjoy each other’s company.”

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On-street bike rack at Café Jumping Bean.

A related use of parking lanes that’s becoming more common here is on-street bicycle corrals, which free up space for pedestrians by moving bike racks from the sidewalk onto the roadway. A single metered spot can hold up to twelve cycles. Portland, Oregon, has over eighty of the corrals.

Chicago’s first on-street rack debuted in front of Wicker Park’s Flat Iron Building last year, and Andersonville got two corrals last month. One is next to the parklet and the other is in front of the Hopleaf tavern, 5148 North Clark. “It is very often full at night and has steady short-term use during the day,” reports the venue’s owner Michael Roper. Not everyone is a fan. “One cranky guy blurted out obscenities about it,” he says. “But I wouldn’t worry too much about what he thinks.”

South Side Alderman Danny Solis visited the Netherlands last year and returned jazzed to make Chicago more bike friendly. Last week his ward debuted Chicago’s first all-season, on-street bike rack next to Café Jumping Bean, 1439 West 18th in Pilsen. Another parking area is slated for installation under the CTA Pink Line tracks across from the 18th Street station.

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Tenochtitlan Plaza in Pilsen, slated for improvements as a People Plaza. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers.

Meanwhile, the People Streets initiative is turning blocks of side streets into vibrant public spaces. DePaul University approached CDOT about closing a block of Kenmore Avenue south of Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park, surrounded by campus buildings, to create something similar to Lincoln Square’s Giddings Plaza. To drum up community support while the block was temporarily closed for traffic counts, the school recently threw a block party with bike-repair classes, live music, chalk drawing and stilt walkers.

The Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce is interested in shutting down a dead-end block of Hermitage Avenue, between Milwaukee Avenue and the Blue Line tracks, to create a new plaza. Attarian says there’s also talk of doing a People Street in Pilsen.

Chicago’s first People Alley is planned for Couch Place, a brick-paved passageway between State and Dearborn streets in the Loop, connecting the Goodman and Chicago theaters. Folks from a nearby condo approached CDOT about closing the alley so their kids and the public could recreate there. Several arts organizations also want to hold events in the space.

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Attarian (in black) at the ribbon cutting for Cermak/Blue Island “The Greenest Street in America.”

Attarian says the People Plazas program will take some of Chicago’s fifty-three-plus existing public squares and activate them with new programming. CDOT is working with community leaders in Pilsen to improve Tenochtitlan Plaza, the triangular space at 18th Street, Blue Island Avenue and Loomis Street, featuring an obelisk topped by the eagle and snake from the Mexican flag.

The department also plans to permanently close a snippet of Woodard Street between Kimball and Milwaukee avenues in Avondale to connect a triangular traffic island to the “mainland” next to Crown Liquors, 2821 North Milwaukee, creating a plaza with arts programming. “The Hairpin Lofts [arts center] is right across the street—they look down on the plaza—so it’s a natural pairing,” she says.

Make Way for People is just one aspect of Attarian’s work creating pioneering public spaces. She also spearheaded projects like the Millennium Park bike station and the ped-friendly Congress Parkway rehab, and she’s currently managing the city’s ambitious endeavor to build the Bloomingdale elevated park and greenway. What else is on her to-do list? “Oh, I don’t think I really want you to print all the things I have on my plate,” she says with a laugh. “Let’s just say I have a very exciting and fulfilling job.”

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  • Allan Mellis

    The trouble with the proposed closing of Kenmore is that removes 47 parking spaces in a parking challenged community and diverts 30 percent more traffic to Sheffield which is already congested.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks for the feedback Allan. Look for a update on Kenmore on Grid Chicago on Friday.

    • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

      I don’t live in L.P. but I also have an issue with the proposed closing of Kenmore. There are already too many mega blocks (such as parts of the DePaul campus and the former Children’s Memorial site) that force a lot of traffic onto a handful of major streets to get through the area. Sheffield is already congested much of the time, and often hazardous to bikes and peds. Closing Kenmore is likely to make that worse.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      The removal of parking spaces in a project should not be a reason to prevent that project from moving forward. A city’s purpose and charter is not to provide a nearly-free space for the storage of large, private property.

  • jared.kachelmeyer

    One of the short blocks in Andersonville between Clark and Ashland would make a good spot for one of these.

    • eco-Andersonville

      We are looking to do a people street between Clark and Ashland at Berwyn. Its where we currently have the farmers market. We had talked about closing down the space from Clark just to the Alley. There are also a couple of other possibilities we are looking into; the streets between Clark and Ashland are prime candidates for this type of space. We are hoping to begin working with CDOT on this in the next few weeks, but at the moment we are resting up a bit after the busy summer.

  • duppie

    I am a big fan of community supported public spaces. Unlike plans driven by CDOT that invariably end up being spread around the city regardless of whether there is a need for it, these public spaces allow neighborhoods to differentiate themselves from other neighborhoods by putting their money where their mouth is.
    eco-Andersonville saw this as a differentiator and rallied the community around the public space (through a Kickstarter campaign). Kudos to them.

    I am looking forward to their plan of closing of Berwyn between Clark and Ashland.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      CDOT is billing this as a bottom-up approach that is driven by the community. Most of the projects mentioned above were funded by the local chamber of commerce and/or special service area (SSA).

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