Chicago Avenue. | Provided

Chicago Avenue on the West Side could get landscaping, branding and infrastructure improvements to make the Soul City Corridor safer, more attractive and more walkable.

The Chicago Department of Transportation is launching public meetings, focus groups and surveys to gather community input on the makeover of one of North Austin’s main economic hubs. It’s part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program and the Chicago Works initiative, a five-year capital infrastructure plan to buoy communities.

The overhauls to the street are aimed at elevating previous efforts to strengthen the Black cultural identity of Chicago Avenue.

“The goal is to build a safe, walkable and attractive street to foster community and economic growth,” said CDOT Program Director Lubka Benak.

Some proposed improvements include street resurfacing, drainage improvements to prevent flooding, better street lighting, traffic signal upgrades, public seating areas and landscaping.

The redesign could also bring more trash cans, benches, bike racks, planters and better signs to the corridor to make it cleaner and more welcoming to pedestrians, she said. The design of those improvements could also be customized to brand the corridor and create a unified look and feel that aligns with feedback from residents, Benak said.

The transportation department will consider every element of the roadway in the redesign, including the sidewalks, the bike lanes, traffic intersections, streetlights and sidewalk furniture, Benak said.

Project planning will continue through summer 2022, and groundbreaking is expected to begin by the end of next year.

“We’re going to be looking at the width of the roadway and the sidewalk and seeing how space could be reallocated for different uses,” she said.

One priority is improving traffic safety. The department reviewed 918 crashes that happened along the roadway 2014-2018. Five were fatal.

Safety infrastructure that will be evaluated includes protected bike lanes, pedestrian refuges in the street’s median and curb extensions or bump-outs to “create shorter crossing distances and make pedestrians more visible,” Benak said.

The city’s design process is incorporating parts of previous community-led studies and plans, like the Austin Quality of Life Plan and the West Side Vision Zero Plan aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities. Building upon those efforts will help transportation officials “understand the priorities the community has already expressed,” said Leslie Roth, principal at Lamar Johnson Collaborative, an architecture group working on the project.

The corridor improvements will also realize some of the goals outlined in the 2020 Soul City Corridor Development Framework Plan, which aims to rebrand Chicago Avenue as a cultural, creative and economic hub for Black Chicagoans.

“There should be a place in the city that functions as a cultural enclave for African Americans. Soul City is it,” said Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, which has led the charge on rebranding the corridor.

Previous community plans for Chicago Avenue have suggested the creation of “a strong network of public spaces for gathering … and including some open plaza space,” Roth said.

The corridor improvement plan may also incorporate previous ideas to beautify the street with more trees, landscaping, public art, design elements like light pole flags, and local monuments like the Chinatown Gateway or the Fulton Market Gateway to give the area a unified visual identity.

Residents “thought the look of the corridor should be modern, it should be artsy and contemporary. Overall, the look and feel of the corridor was really important to Austin community members,” Roth said.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.