Continuing with our project to interview all 50 aldermen about sustainable transportation, I recently caught up with Ameya Pawar (A-MAY-ah Puh-WAR) at the 47th Ward service office, 4243 N. Lincoln. His ward includes parts of Lakeview, Roscoe Village, North Center, Roscoe Village and Lincoln Square.
After longtime alderman Eugene Schulter retired last year, Pawar ran a grassroots campaign that defeated Schulter ally Tommy O’Donnell, making Pawar Chicago’s first Asian-American alderman and, at age 30, the youngest current member of City Council. So far he’s shown himself to be a strong advocate for walking, biking and transit, as well as environmentally sustainable street design.
His staff includes Transportation Planner Bill Higgins, a former colleague of Steven’s from UIC’s urban planning program. After studying the ward’s existing bikeways, Higgins proposed building the city’s first neighborhood greenway (AKA bike boulevard, a traffic-calmed, bike-and-pedestrian-priority side street) in the ward on Berteau Avenue (4200 N.) from Lincoln Avenue to Clark Street.
In our interview, Pawar and I discussed his commuting habits, the upcoming Lawrence Avenue streetscape and road diet and the proposal for a new retail and housing development in conjunction with Metra’s Ravenswood station rehab. We also talked about plans for relocating bus stops, his idea to pilot Portland-style street murals as traffic calming, and whether Berteau is a good location for the neighborhood greenway.
Do you do much walking around the ward?
Yes. During the campaign we walked the entire campaign, and then after taking office we spent a lot of time last summer walking to the block parties. We also walked the retail areas to meet the business owners and get to know the chambers of commerce.
Do you sometimes commute by CTA or Metra?
In general, yes, but since taking office it’s been a little nuts. But this year my hope is that I can ride my bike to City Hall. When I was on the full-time staff at Northwestern [in the Office of Emergency Management], I used to ride my bike to work a lot.
Many Aldermen lead ward bicycle tours. I think Gene Schulter used to lead one. Is that something you’ll be doing?
Yeah, we did last one fall and we had over 70 community members showed up.
What do you think you got out of that?
Part of the reason for leading that bike ride is you get to interact with constituents in a way that you normally don’t get to. And secondly, it raises awareness by having that many people riding together. The biggest thing here is that cars, pedestrians and bicyclists all need to coexist. I think the biggest issue we have from a safety standpoint is making sure that people in cars understand that, and that people on bikes know they have a responsibility to obey the law. The ride is one way we can promote those goals.
I wrote an article for Time Out Chicago in 2010 about the Lawrence Avenue streetscape and road diet [a “four-to-three conversion” between Clark and Western that will include wider sidewalks, curb bump-outs, pedestrian refuge islands and new bike lanes]. Back then they were planning on building it in 2011. What’s going on with that project?
CDOT rendering of Lawrence Avenue streetscape
Well, we retooled the entire project to make sure it’s not just simple beautification, but that it now incorporates more green infrastructure so that it has permeable pavers and it manages storm water better, with a number of bioswales [landscaping designed to remove pollutants from runoff water] and bumpouts that are planned. We’ve looked at what other cities have done in their streetscapes and have incorporated some of the innovative things that we’ve seen.
When you walk down the streets of Manhattan nowadays, you see a lot of seating areas in the pedestrian refuge islands. That’s one thing that we’re looking at for Lawrence Avenue is to see if we can incorporate a bench or a small table in the refuge islands so that people who can’t cross in time have a place to sit. But also it will hopefully slow the entire experience down so that people feel like this truly is a pedestrian and bike-friendly project.
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Seating area in a median at 74th and Broadway in NYC – photo by Ed Yourdon
So the area between Clark and Western is funded now, and that’s definitely going to be built in 2012?
Yeah, they’re going to start the construction in 2012 and it will take pretty much all of 2013 for it to be completed.
What kind of funding is that?
It’s coming from TIF [tax increment financing], the Western Avenue North TIF District.
How is Metra service important to your constituents?
The Ravenswood Metra station is the most heavily used stop in the system, from what I understand. On every given weeknight when you walk past the stop at 5:30 or 6 there’s just a flood of pedestrians. We’re very lucky in this ward, we’ve got six Brown Line stops, a Metra stop, and a lot of bus access, so transit-oriented development is something that we’re going to be looking at over the next four years. [Transit-oriented developments are commercial and/or residential areas built near transit stations, often with less off-street car parking than usual.]
As part of a transit-oriented development plan, would you be discouraging developers from providing a lot of car parking?
When we have development that is dense and clustered near mass transit, yes. We’ll be asking not only that [the developers] lower the amount of parking but also that they work with car-sharing companies like I-GO and provide parking some spots for them, so that there’s a car share service available to the residents.
Would you be interested in changing the current zoning ordinance to reduce the number parking spaces required for new developments?
Look, do we want to get people to use trains, bikes and other forms of mass transit? Yes. For example, we’re really working hard to make sure that bus rapid transit is realized. The thing is, people are still relying heavily on their cars and what we don’t want to do is to make a changeover so quickly that people move out of the city. One of the things we want to be able to do is build up the mass transit infrastructure so that it can support additional riders, and target those improvements in areas that are ripe for development. It’s not going to be with the flip of switch that we can get people out of their cars and onto mass transit. It’s a longer-term process.
The Ravenswood Metra station is being rebuilt. Is anything interesting going on with that?
I think when you couple the Ravenswood Metra project with the Mariano’s and the residential development there with the streetscape, I think you’re going to see a transformation of Lawrence Avenue over the next three years. [A new residential and commercial development, anchored by a Mariano’s Fresh Market, has been proposed to be built next to the Metra station on land currently occupied by a Sears parking lot.] It’s not going to look anything like it looks today and I think that’s important, not just from a standpoint of diversifying the tax base but also making it more livable.
Rendering of Ravenswood Terrace proposal, modeled after Chicago’s Alta Vista Terrace
That’s a big reason why we’re moving forward with that streetscape. We want to draw people to that area of the ward but we also want to get them to stay for the long term. And that means making sure that people feel like they can get to and from mass transit, that they can ride their bikes safely down Lawrence Avenue and connect from Lincoln Square to the lake. We’ve got a lot of great assets here in the ward. Now it’s a matter of connecting them in a way so that we can extend the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that you see on Lincoln Avenue onto Lawrence Avenue and to Clark Street.
Is there any other CTA news in your ward?
One of the things we’ve been doing with the CTA is looking at the placement of our bus stops, to move them from near side of the intersection to the far side. That also increases pedestrian safety. Most bus stops are placed before a light. That creates a situation where, while it’s illegal, cars like to make a right turn in front of a stopped bus. That creates a dangerous situation for pedestrians and for bicyclists.
Any other pedestrian safety projects we should know about in your ward?
We’re looking at traffic calming all over the ward. One of things we want to do is move away from the idea that speed bumps are the only way to calm traffic and make it safe on side streets. We want to be able to incorporate things like bioswales or painting chevrons in the street, using things that not only calm traffic but also reduce the unintended consequences of speed bumps. For example speed bumps increase flooding. Streets are “pitched” [higher in the middle so that storm water flows to the gutters]. When you put a speed bump in that ruins the pitch of the street. On streets with a lot of single-family homes, that increases flooding in those homes because the speed bumps act as a dam.
So we’re looking at different ways and innovative ways to reduce speeds and divert car traffic off of our side streets. One way is the neighborhood greenway on Berteau. It will be the first of its kind in Chicago, and we’re looking at what other cities have done. I think Portland, Oregon, and Seattle have been leaders in this area. Bill Higgins is a transportation planner, so this is his field of expertise. I’ve told him to swing big, look at what other cities and other countries are doing and let’s see if we can bring some of those best practices to Chicago and the 47th Ward.
Bill is working with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) on this. One of the things I would love to see is a street mural. I’ve seen them in Portland and I think it would be really cool to have a street mural at an intersection to see if that can serve as traffic calming. Opinions are a bit mixed on whether that actually calms traffic or not. I’ve looked at one study that suggests that it does and one that suggests that it doesn’t. That said, I think it might be a nice feature. It’s a great way to get the community involved and engaged in this neighborhood greenway, because the greenway is going to impact people on Berteau. So we want to make sure that they can not only live on it but also be a part of its creation.
Painting a street mural in Portland – photo by Stoast
So what’s the history of the Berteau greenway – whose idea was that?
One of the things that we said early on was that we knew that the mayor’s plan was to add 100 miles of protected bike lanes. So we knew that the mayor is an avid cyclist and so is [CDOT Commissioner] Gabe Klein and we wanted to plug into that. We said, let’s push things forward and let’s be aggressive because now’s our opportunity. So one of the things I asked Bill to do was just take a look at what we have.
During my time [as a planning intern] at the village of Riverside we took a lot of the existing bike routes in Riverside and connected them in such a way that we could bring people to Riverside and see the sights. There are a lot of historic homes and the downtown area that are destinations for folks on bikes.
I’d like to take a similar approach in this ward, looking at the existing bike lanes to see if we can connect them in a cohesive manner so that we draw people to the ward, get them biking around the ward and then connect them to local businesses so they might stop and get a bite to eat. That’s a longer-term plan, but we want to do is make sure that the infrastructure’s in place so that we can do that.
I don’t know if you saw my interview with Mike Amsden from CDOT about the upcoming Streets for Cycling projects, but one thing that we talked about was the argument that Berteau might not be the best place for a neighborhood greenway because it ends at Graceland Cemetery instead of continuing to the lakefront. What are the advantages of Berteau?
Berteau Avenue at Ashland Avenue – photo by Steven
Well, it’s a pilot. Neighborhood greenways are not a new concept in this country but they’re new to Chicago. One of the things that we wanted to do was to look at the traffic calming aspects. If we’re going to get people to go from using their cars to using a bike or walking places or using mass transit, we’re talking about a cultural shift that needs to happen over time. Could there have been better places to do a greenway? Yeah, of course. And could we have been more aggressive with it? Yes.
But we wanted to pilot the greenway and monitor it to see how much bike ridership there is and how the greenway impacts the community impacts in terms of traffic and traffic calming. We thought Berteau would be a great place to start, and it likely won’t be the last. We want to look at it from a cost perspective, because there’s a limited amount of money available on an annual basis. We’re still using aldermanic menu funds, so that’s why we’re piloting it in on a street where we can monitor performance and stay within our budget [since the project is of limited scope, .9 miles].
Do you have a cost estimate for the greenway yet?
It will probably cost around $100,000.
Anything else you’d like to tell me about transportation in your ward?
If the bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor happens on Western Avenue, we hope to connect those riders to our other arteries. So that opens up Western to different kinds of development over the next 10 or 15 years. What we’ve been told is that if everything goes as planned the Western corridor could be done in the next five to six years.
The thing with transit-oriented development is it’s not just about transit. It has the ability to turn unproductive parcels of land into productive parcels from a tax revenue perspective. If you can get people to believe that they can live on Western Avenue and not live on a highway because now you have BRT there, now you can turn a parcel of land into a more productive parcel. So I think BRT has a lot of potential not only to make this city more livable, but also to keep people in the city over the longer term.