The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is developing a plan to improve the portion of Chicago Avenue between Austin Boulevard and Cicero Avenue. 

As part of the Invest South/West initiative, the city is looking to revitalize several major commercial corridors throughout the South and West sides. The Chicago Avenue corridor is among the initiative’s top priorities. 

City officials are seeking to improve infrastructure and create “safe, walkable, and attractive streets that will foster community and economic growth.” On Aug. 24, CDOT held a virtual community meeting attended by 48 people. 

The attendees asked for more parking, while also expressing concerns that bike lanes could slow down traffic. But many of them also welcomed wider sidewalks, saying that they would benefit local businesses, as well as bus stop improvements. As CDOT refines the design, it plans to hold meetings this fall and early next year, with the goal of finalizing the design by the summer of 2022. 

Lubka Benak, a CDOT program director, said that the planning for the project began in April 2021. While the city talked to a number of stakeholders, the Aug. 24 meeting marked the first time the planning process was open to the public. The goal is to start construction by the end of 2022, with the earliest segments finished up in 2023 and the later segments finished in 2024.  Benak said that the project would cost around $21 million.

She told the attendees that the improvements would include street resurfacing, drainage improvements and curb and gutter restoration. Sidewalks would be widened to give more room for pedestrians. I

The agency would also consider adding curb bump-outs, extending the curbs between the street parking and the street crossing to slow down cars at turns and potentially include small community spaces. In addition, CDOT would consider adding customized garbage cans, benches and bike racks. 

Mike Folkening, one of the project consultants, mentioned the possibility of reducing traffic lanes on the section between Menard and Central avenues. 

CDOT previously added temporary bus lanes along Chicago Avenue, between Ashland and Laramie avenues. Folkening said that the department and CTA are in discussions about either adding bus lanes further west or removing them altogether. 

The department is also looking at adding “boarding islands” between bike lanes and bus lanes that would allow buses to pick up passengers without having to drive up to the sidewalk, speeding up travel.  To improve bicycle safety, it would look at adding bike lanes. 

The department is also looking at several ways to incorporate corridor and/or community identity into the streetscape, such as adding permanent markings attached to light poles.

“They’re made with some sort of metal and they call attention to the identity of the corridor, whether it’s Chicago Avenue, Austin or the Soul City [corridor],” Benak said.

It would also consider adding larger gateways at one or both ends of the corridor that would serve as the introduction to the neighborhood, similar to what the city already has in Little Village, Fulton Market District, Beverly and Chinatown.

Lesley Roth, the design consultant for the project, said that it’s important for CDOT to build on the plans that are already in place and respect community wishes

“We realize there have been a number of planning efforts to date and we wanted to really build on those,” she said. “We wanted to get a better understanding from you all about what the Soul City means to you and how it can be represented.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the portion of the corridor east of Central Avenue, said that she personally agreed with attendees who supported more street parking, while also urging attendees to give some of the proposed improvements a chance.

“I’m excited to see this work coming to the West Side on Chicago Avenue, which is going to make things look a bit different around here,” she said. “And if you don’t like what you see, wait until the projects are finished.”

Several attendees brought up the issue of outreach, saying that many community organizations don’t follow news through social media and may not realize the planning process is happening. Benak said that CDOT passed out and posted fliers along Chicago Avenue ahead of the meeting, which they intend to continue to do going forward.

“We also work with aldermen and various stakeholders to distribute various information,” she added.

CDOT also got questions about involving local businesses. Benak said that they were willing to work with the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Austin African American Business Networking Association and Special Service Area 72, which includes the east end of the corridor, to make sure corridor businesses are informed and have opportunities to get involved with the projects. 

She also said that at least “7.5% of the labor hours must be provided” by workers who live in the nearby zip codes.

For more information about the project and take part in the community survey, visit tinyurl.com/ISWChicagoAve