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Josephine Bellalta started her landscape architecture and urban design firm Altamanu nearly ten years ago out of her home in Chicago’s Uptown. Now, co-led by her partner John Mac Manus, Altamanu has developed a knack for creating and restoring public spaces that integrate pedestrians, bike, and public transit. Both principals had experience with transportation design, and knew plans for parks inevitably had to incorporate additional infrastructure after the fact.
“Transportation gets the funding, not parks,” said Mac Manus in the firm’s North Center studio. “We became interested in how we could control that, rather than being asked to put lipstick on the gorilla.”
Now Altamanu is involved with the rehabilitation of Lake Shore Drive’s northern branch, from Ohio Street to Hollywood Avenue. A slew of recently completed streetscape and urban design projects gives a sense of their work.
Oak Park, IL
Mills Park was once a private estate with buildings designed by Prairie School progenitor George Washington Maher. His 1897 John Farson House remains on site and serves as the focal point of the park’s “historic” segment. To improve access to the once-private property, Altamanu needed new entrances, but could not discard the historic fencing. The firm moved pieces of the fence into the park as historical exhibits in some places, and bent it inward elsewhere, preserving the fence itself but not the barrier it once formed. Benches recall the fence’s zigzag pattern.
Oak Park, IL
Originally designed by Jens Jensen, Scoville Park in Oak Park is on the site of the area’s first European settlement. It sits on a glacial ridge that bends through two other nearby parks—Mills and Taylor parks. Altamanu’s redesign includes wending walkways, whose curves are echoed in a series of benches, and improved sightlines to the historic buildings that surround the park. The architects also improved access to a Frank Lloyd Wright memorial to a large War Memorial, which was originally the focal point of the park. Altamanu also used root aeration matting to preserve an ancient oak tree.
Altamanu’s plan to reconfigure Lawrence Avenue between Western Avenue and Clark Street makes the thoroughfare more pedestrian and bike friendly. The design thins the avenue’s three- and sometimes four-lane cross section into one lane of traffic each way and a continuous turn lane. Pedestrian refuge plazas allow people crossing the street to ford one river of traffic at a time. Bike lanes exist to the project area’s east and west, so when completed the Lawrence Avenue rehab will link six miles of continuous bike lanes on the city’s north side.
To help revive Batavia’s historic River Street downtown area, Altamanu borrowed the Dutch concept of a woonerf: a “living street” where cars share the road on equal footing with pedestrians and bicyclists. Laying brickwork where an aging two-lane street and sporadic stretch of sidewalk once stood, the firm remedied handicap accessibility problems and gave the historic downtown what its residents said they wanted most—something different. Farmers markets and café seating fill the street now, while outdoor concerts make use of an entryway Altamanu designed that references the town’s history of millwork.
Sauganash Elementary hired Altamanu to redesign its grounds with an eye toward flood control. The defining feature of the landscape is a bioswale that, rather than being relegated to the corner of the property out of sight, is crisscrossed with bridges meant to bring the students and their parents into closer contact with nature. Originally Altamanu wanted the bioswale bridges to be free of railings. Since they only sit a few feet off the ground, the firm figured the bridges posed little risk. The school thought otherwise, however, and railings were added for safety.
When the Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge 24 years ago—a portion of the upper deck buckled, killing one person—California officials deemed the eastern span of the 1936 steel-cantilevered truss bridge seismically unsound. The route is sandwiched between the Hayward Fault to the east and the San Andreas Fault to the west. A new bridge connecting San Francisco and the East Bay was necessary. After 11 years of construction and several major traffic closures, the new ten-lane eastern stretch of the bridge opened on Labor Day.
In 1998, state officials put together a panel to vote on the best design option to replace the 2.2 mile damaged eastern portion of Interstate 80 running from Yerba Buena Island to Oakland. Forgoing a basic solution, the majority voted in favor of a self-anchored suspension bridge, designed by San Franciscobased Donald MacDonald Architects and New York engineering firm Weidlinger Associates. The winning concept prominently features a single 525-foot-tall tower—the design element in which architect Donald MacDonald takes most pride.
"We slightly tapered the shafts of the tower so as to appear parallel to one another in the approach, and to keep a rhythm and lightness," said MacDonald. A pentagon theme was woven throughout, in the legs of the towers and the piers below, he said.
"The bridge is white, inspired by Oakland's container cranes", explained MacDonald, adding, "cities and bridges can brand themselves through color." The Golden Gate Bridge, cloaked in orange, comes to mind.
The new eastern span is actually comprised of two structural systems: a 1.2 mile concrete skyway and the suspension bridge, with its single loop cable system and tower. The side-by-side decks each contain five lanes flanked by shoulders. There is a temporary pedestrian and bike path on the right side of the eastbound roadway.
Engineering firms T.Y. Lin International Group and Moffatt & Nichol Engineers were hired to make MacDonald’s and Weidlinger’s vision a reality. To make the design seismically safe, the bridge would have to ride an earthquake like a wave. The design of the tower required four steel shafts bound together with shear-link beams capable of absorbing the energy of an earthquake. Hinge-pipe beams allow sections of the bridge to expand and contort. The skyway is supported by 160 concrete-battered piles, replacing the timbered piles of the original eastern span.
Light poles installed with more than 48,000 LEDs line the bridge, requiring about 50 percent less energy than the original section. The LEDs have a longer lifespan of 10 to 15 years, and are angled to prevent glare and minimize light pollution.
The project was not without its challenges. Originally estimated to take four years to build at a cost of $1.6 billion, the bridge became one of the most expensive projects in the state as the price of steel and concrete rapidly rose, mostly due to the building boom in China. In the end, the bridge has come in at $6.4 billion, with cost overruns funded by a 2007 $1 toll increase and state gas tax dollars.
The bridge may be open, but the work is not finished yet. Broken anchor bolts in the seismic stabilizers that were temporarily repaired with concrete saddles will get a final repair by this December. It will take nine months to remove most of the original eastern span and up to three years to completely demolish the outdated structure. Some portions will be kept, others will be recycled or sold for scrap.
After the original eastern span is removed, construction crews will permanently install a bike and pedestrian path, extending it to Yerba Buena Island. They will also replace a temporary ramp connecting the island to the eastern span. Both projects will be completed in 2015.
Newly minted mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is at the top of an uninspiring pack according to some polls. Prior to his self-destructive sex scandal, Weiner had served with some distinction as a liberal firebrand in the US House of Representatives, but, according to some accounts, he had always dreamed of Gracie Mansion.
New York is a famously live-and-let-live city. We enjoy scrutinizing our political scandals, but we also give second chances. Weiner’s personal proclivities are not of much interest to those of us who care about the physical city and hope the new mayor takes up the commitment to improve public space and foster urban sustainability pursued by the Bloomberg Administration. Still, Weiner’s actions raise questions about his judgment.
New York is also a famously hotheaded town. Prior to his underwear debacle, Weiner seemed hell-bent on differentiating himself from Bloomberg by taking on a great menace to the city—at least to the headline and editorial writers of Murdoch’s rags—bike lanes! At a dinner for the New York Congressional delegation, Weiner erupted at Bloomberg, saying, “When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing? I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your (expletive) bike lanes.”
Weiner now claims he was joking and has recently been photographed cruising around town on a Citi Bike. But I’m not so sure we should take him at his word. Senator Charles Schumer—Weiner’s former boss and congressional delegation colleague—and his wife Iris Weinshall, a former Department of Transportation Commissioner under Giuliani, have been on a weird crusade against the Prospect Park West bike lane, a bike lane Weiner objects to for how it looks: “I’m not crazy about the aesthetics of the Prospect Park West bike lane,” he told Capital New York. “You know, that beautiful open boulevard is now more congested.”
Weiner also counts on tremendous financial and political support from the Orthodox Jewish community, support he rewards with extremely hawkish, pro-Israeli statements. Let us not forget that prominent members of the Hasidic and Orthodox communities have opposed bike lanes in their communities, arguably for threatening the insularity of their neighborhoods. Weiner’s position on bike lanes may reflect narrow-minded political commitments over broad-based urbanistic thinking.
Weiner’s comments do not reflect well about his thinking on transportation policy or urban planning. Frankly, they sound dumb. His 64-point “Keys to the City” plan offers one item about bicycling: an anodyne recommendation for businesses to incentivize commuting by bike.
The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives has issued a survey to the mayoral candidates to clarify their views on issues of importance to pedestrians and cyclists. The results are due at the end of July. Let’s hope Weiner, and the other candidates worthy of serious consideration, respond with ideas that are more sophisticated than a headline in the Post.
Lake Shore Drive was originally designed as “a boulevard. It was a pleasure drive early on,’’ said Lee Crandell of the Active Transportation Alliance, among the 15 groups that helped to write the “Our Lakefront” plan.
“It’s slowly turned into a freeway,’’ Crandell said. “We want it to feel like a boulevard.’’Read the full conceptual plan here. Three public hearings are scheduled this week:
- Aug. 6, 6 - 8 p.m., Gill Park, 825 W. Sheridan Road, 3rd Floor
- Aug. 7, 6 - 8 p.m., Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Avenue, Atrium
- Aug. 8, 6 - 8 p.m., Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, South Gallery
The platform calls for separating transit from car traffic with bus-only lanes and other public transit enhancements, such as Bus Rapid Transit. BRT vehicles are often designed to look similar to light rail vehicles (this is why BRT is sometimes referred to as light rail with rubber wheels), and the drawing does intentionally leave it open to interpretation whether LSD could include something like BRT or light rail.