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North Lake Shore Drive Redux
CDOT seeking to revamp seven-mile section.
North Lake Shore Drive at night. Courtesy Paul McGee

When it comes to the cost of major highway reconstruction, $15 million may seem a pittance, but it’s a start. With the Illinois Department of Transportation recently completing a $162 million reconstruction of South Lake Shore Drive, city officials started looking north. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has already allocated the money and is shopping around for consultants to help redesign the stretch of the drive from Hollywood to Grand Avenue.

Brian Steele, a spokesperson for CDOT, said the segment of the highway built in the mid-twentieth century was well-constructed, but 60 years on officials want to prepare for a future that melds the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, and 21st century motorists. “We need to improve access to the lake, to make it safer and more enjoyable for pedestrians and for motorized traffic,” said Steele.

Three challenging sections of the highway top the list for reconstruction. The largest problem being an S-curve at Oak Street, where the highway suddenly careens from a north/south direction and turns west at roughly a 60-degree angle. Next up, the northern terminus at Hollywood swings back into the city grid at an equally abrupt turn. Finally, the intersection at Chicago Avenue brings congestion problems for motorists and pedestrians alike.

The Oak Street S-curve may present the most exciting design opportunity. There, the city is considering pulling the sacrosanct Oak Street Beach further out into the lake and placing it atop fresh landfill. The new surface will also provide an area to reroute the highway and smooth out the severe curve. But Steele was careful to point out that any designs would need community input and approval. “We haven’t technically begun this,” he reiterated. “Any design would not impinge on one of the city’s main beaches.” A spokesperson from the Chicago Parks District said the department was open to ideas, but it was far too early to comment on any particular aspect of the plan.

The redevelopment of the southern portion of the highway will inform design and reconstruction of the northern section. “We’re looking for the same opportunities we found in the south, where we were able to include five new pedestrian accesses [to the lakefront] as well as five acres of new parkland,” said Steele. The highway will be open during construction to allow access to 100,000 daily commuters, athough there will be significant lane closures.

The southern portion received city, state, and federal financing with the city overseeing construction, but overall financing for this project has yet to be determined. Fund acquisition is not part of the initial study. The winning firm would be announced in 2012, and designs could be unveiled by 2014, but construction would not be complete until sometime near the end of the decade.  

Tom Stoelker