JEFFERSON PARK — For the past few months, construction crews have been hard at work across from the Jefferson Park transit center to wrap up a community project six years in the making.
The alley, 4870 N. Milwaukee Ave., will soon be home to the neighborhood’s first pedestrian plaza and gathering space, designed and planned by the community. It sits between Weston’s Coffee & Tap Co and a Popeyes, and it exits near Jefferson Memorial Park.
The plaza features an archway advertising Jefferson Park. Locals hope it will revitalize the area and bring in more people. It will also have fixed tables and chairs, a stage and hanging lights.
The temporary traffic, loud drilling, dust and construction facing Milwaukee Avenue has been worth it for Weston’s owner Nick Davis, who has worked with the city’s Department of Transportation and local groups on the project.
“It’s a huge connector alley, but it wasn’t very nice,” said Davis, who opened Weston’s in 2017, when the project was in the works. “The idea was to connect all this, which also feeds into the nice park [and] the arts center. Having an anchor business here is crucial.”
The alley project began in 2016 under then-Ald. John Arena (45th), who helped secure nearly $500,000 from the city’s Jefferson Park Tax Increment Financing District for the alley’s planning, design and construction. Once the funds were approved in 2019, Ald. Jim Gardiner conducted a community survey along with Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce, Jefferson Park Forward and the transportation department to get feedback on the design.
The project used $477,200 of tax increment financing, including design and construction costs. Neighbors chose from two design ideas and picked finishing details like art colors, brickwork and furniture layout.
Construction began this September, and the alley repaving was completed last week. Now, just the finishing touches need to be added: fixed furniture and trash cans, outdoor lights, bollards at the entrance and the stage, Davis said.
Work is scheduled to be complete by early January, city officials say.
The plaza will serve as a space to sit and enjoy a coffee, connect with neighbors and experience arts programs organized by Jefferson Park Forward and the chamber, said Susanna Ernst, a member of Jefferson Park Forward who was on the planning committee for the project.
Jefferson Park Forward signed a contract with the city to maintain the plaza and pay the electrical bill for the overhead lights that will be installed, Ernst said, while Davis will manage the trash cans and snow removal during winter.
Ernst sees the plaza as an important step towards a reactivation and revitalization of the downtown Jefferson Park area, which has seen economic and demographic shifts over recent years.
“What was once an area full of dumpsters, garbage and potentially nefarious activities from across the transit center will now become this open space where people can sit, enjoy coffee, enjoy music and programming, especially in summer, so people can feel like this is their space, their community,” Ernst said.
Ernst also hopes the plaza can bring people to the neighborhood and show them what Jefferson Park has to offer. With the $25 million overhaul of the Jefferson Park Blue Line completed in 2019, new businesses and changes to longtime Far Northwest Side arts businesses in the works, the plaza could put the neighborhood back on the map.
Ernst and Davis said they are especially excited for the planned Northside Cultural District in Jefferson Park, which would include three major art institutions — all within walking distance of the new.
“The cultural arts center is huge. It will connect all of the pieces between here and there,” Davis said.
Under that proposal, the Ed Paschke Art Center at 5415 W. Higgins Ave., which is temporarily closed, would be relocated to a three-story building that would be built on a vacant lot at 5374 W. Lawrence Ave. The National Veterans Art Museum would move from its Six Corners home at 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. to the Paschke Center site on Higgins, where a 4,600-square-foot addition to the rear of the building would be built, according to Nadig Newspapers.
“What we are hoping is in a few years down the road, people will come into that transit station and the first thing they will see as they are walking toward the arts center and Jefferson Park is this lovely sign and pedestrian plaza that will be inviting them: Here’s Jefferson Park,” Ernst said.
Gardiner stopped by the project when the alley was under construction earlier this month and said the plaza can help local businesses.
“While checking out new additions to our Jefferson Park community, don’t forget to support small businesses like Weston’s Coffee & Tap,” Gardiner wrote on Facebook.
The Far Northwest Side plaza joins other citywide initiatives to promote underuse green and alley space to revitalize business corridors, create opportunities for community engagement and art and deter crime in some areas.
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