SOUTH SHORE — Federal and city officials are taking steps toward redesigning a South Side intersection once named the most dangerous in the city.
But residents say any plan to improve the complex junction must first look hard at the community’s needs.
The intersection of 79th Street, Stony Island Avenue and South Chicago Avenue — which includes ramps to and from the Chicago Skyway — is a “nightmare” to some South Siders, poses safety issues and requires business owners to serve as navigators for customers.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 69 crashes were reported this year on the two blocks of Stony Island Avenue nearest the intersection, according to city data.
There also have been 28 reported crashes on the nearest blocks of 79th Street and 24 crashes on South Chicago Avenue this year, for a total of 121 at or near the intersection.
A planned study to identify transportation and environmental issues at the intersection could soon receive federal funding. The study’s end goal: landing on an ideal redesign proposal, which would get a full federal review.
With overlapping traffic flows, three bus routes and limited space because of the nearby rail lines and expressway, the intersection is “one of the most complex” in Chicago, said Naomi Savin, a spokesperson for Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat representing the area in Congress.
The proposed study “is the best next step” toward finding a new design for the intersection, Savin said.
“There is a myriad of multi-modal traffic safety and congestion issues at and near the intersection, and while a number of quick fixes to improve traffic safety and operations have been tried, there remains a need for more complex improvements,” Savin said.
Congress is expected to vote on the bill before funding for “surface transportation” like highways, roads and bridges expires Sept. 30.
By taking on a study that considers the needs of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians “early” in the redesign process, officials can get a head start on the environmental reviews and project designs that would be required in later stages, Savin said.
Officials would prioritize “traffic safety for all users,” improving road conditions, and benefits to the surrounding neighborhoods’ economies among its criteria for a redesign, said Mike Claffey, the Chicago Department of Transportation’s spokesman.
A similar study is planned for the intersection of Devon, Caldwell, Central and Lehigh avenues on the Northwest Side, Claffey said.
Since 2010 — when CDOT released a master plan for short- and long-term improvements at 79th, Stony Island and South Chicago — three projects to improve safety at the intersection have been completed, Claffey said.
The city added buffers to the South Chicago Avenue bike lanes in 2013 and 2015. In 2019, it improved accessible ramps on all corners at the intersection and added bump-outs so pedestrians would no longer have to cross multiple streets in one go.
‘Elevate Those Community Voices’
As part of the proposed study, city officials would gather public input on proposed improvements to the intersection before choosing a preferred redesign, Claffey said.
That input process must be accessible to — and consider the needs of — all residents, users of the intersection said.
“I hope, as we move forward with planning, that we elevate those community voices,” said Leslé Honoré, strategy and communications director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “I hope we take time to find them, to make sure that they … work there, live there and thrive there, and give them a seat at the table to shape what happens next.”
“So many streets in Chicago” center the needs of drivers above the needs of able-bodied pedestrians, let alone pedestrians with disabilities or people pushing strollers or carrying laundry, Honoré said.
“There are actually people who inhabit this space,” she said. “It’s not just streets that get somebody on and off the highway.”
When Honoré lived in Grand Crossing and used the intersection every day, “it was my nightmare,” she said.
Since moving a bit north to Park Manor, Honoré no longer uses the intersection daily. But it remains “terrifying as a driver and as a pedestrian,” she said. “It is one of the worst intersections in the city if you’re not familiar with it.”
A successful redesign could attract more investors to the area and capitalize on the long-dormant Avalon Regal Theater at the intersection and the planned Regal Mile Studios site just north of it, Honoré said.
“I would love … for small businesses who have anchored and held this community down, that they are lifted up and that people have safe access to get to them,” she said.
Being near the intersection and its constant stream of potential customers is “a great thing” for business, said Philip Danzy, owner of the It’s Major graphic design and T-shirt shop at 1721 E. 79th St.
But Danzy must frequently explain to customers how to navigate the intersection and find his shop, he said. At one point during an interview with Block Club, he could be heard giving directions to a customer trying to find his storefront.
Easier access for pedestrians and bikes in particular “would be great for everyone” in the community, while improved lighting and signs could improve traffic safety and deter crime, said Danzy, who uses the intersection daily while commuting to and from his south suburban home.
As officials gather public input, they should listen to business owners and bus riders in the area — “those people … get the chance to see everything that’s going on,” Danzy said.
“We know the stories that happen and we see it every day,” he said.
Community engagement will be a complex but necessary process, as the 5th, 7th and 8th Wards converge near the intersection, said South Shore resident Elihu Blanks, a citizen representative on the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council.
To improve accessibility and decrease confusion for community members looking to participate in the redesign effort, Blanks proposed an online meeting with Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th), Greg Mitchell (7th) and Michelle Harris (8th).
Any redesign of 79th, Stony Island and South Chicago must consider the traffic patterns of all three corridors, not just the intersection itself, Blanks said.
Blanks said he would like to see the lights along Stony Island better synchronized to force drivers to stick to the speed limit. It’s an improvement that wouldn’t require construction, he said.
“Sync the lights, set up speed limit signs, and then send a message to the community: If you go the speed limit, you’ll flow through quicker; if you speed, you’ll hit red lights,” Blanks said.
Whatever redesign is selected must be the one that garners the most community support and is “the most viable” given cost and space limitations, Blanks said.
“We should have a voice, and they should hear us,” Blanks said.
The proposed study must build in accountability measures “so residents can say, ‘This is what we discussed and this is what we expect to see’ — and if they don’t, there are consequences,” Honoré said.
As improvement projects move forward, officials should consider paying residents “for their lived experience and expertise in their community, and not expecting them to give up their times and their opinions just because,” Honoré said.
“We should compensate people for building and making the city better,” she said. A redesign would not only “serve those who live around 79th, South Chicago and Stony; it’s going to be an improvement for the whole city if we get it right.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.