WICKER PARK — Neighbors in Wicker Park and West Town are split on a plan that would add protected bike lanes to a mile-long stretch of Wood Street.
The proposal would turn Wood from Grand Avenue to Ellen Street into a northbound one-way to accommodate the bike lanes. Traffic currently flows in both directions on that stretch. But residents who live on the street or nearby have had mixed reactions to the proposal.
The Wood Street proposal is one of seven approved through the 1st Ward’s 2021 participatory budgeting initiative, receiving 67 votes in favor through the online process. It’s estimated by the 1st Ward office to cost $325,000, and it will preserve residential parking on the street.
Other projects include building pedestrian bump-outs at certain intersections and repainting bus lanes.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said at a community meeting Wednesday the proposals will now be “vetted, reviewed and engineered by the Chicago Department of Transportation.” That could lead to changes to the bike lane plan, he said.
Some neighbors support the measure, saying it will make the neighborhood safer and easier to travel through. Others are opposed, citing disruptions to traffic patterns while decrying the 1st Ward’s budgeting process.
Critics highlighted that if the plan goes forward, it would create three one-way northbound streets in a row: Honore Street, Wood Street and Hermitage Avenue.
“Because of the way the side streets work here in East Ukrainian Village, you’re forcing everybody to go north to then do giant loops for them to come back to Chicago Avenue or anywhere else,” said Stephan Zander, who lives between Honore and Wood Street and is opposed to the plan. “You’re just going to increase the side street traffic, which is going to annoy a whole bunch more people, because now they’re going to have people driving around on their side streets that they don’t have today.”
A few blocks north, neighbors Kay Whitchurch and Jonathan Webb expressed similar concerns about difficulties the proposal would create when driving to and from their block on Crystal Street.
“It seems to me that this has been looked at as a bike lane and not understanding the greater ways in which the people who live in and around Wood [Street], how they move and how they utilize that space,” Whitchurch said.
Other neighbors praised the bike lane plan, saying it would make biking and driving safer along Wood, which is a city-designated neighborhood bike route.
“While [Wood] is a good option to get places, I think in its current state it sucks both to drive on and to bike on …,” said West Town resident Lisa Soverino, who said she regularly bikes and drives on Wood. “There’s really not adequate space for cars to go in both directions. And especially on a bike when there’s cars going in both directions, there’s really no space, and drivers get upset and frustrated when they have to wait behind the bike.”
Rachel Reichman and Jordon Novak, who said they frequently use Wood to commute Downtown and bike around the neighborhood, welcomed the chance to make the thoroughfare more bike-friendly.
“Even though [Wood] is a greenway, even though that is designated by the city of Chicago as a bikeway, you get squeezed out all the time, and cars get frustrated, they try to pass and then there’s another oncoming car, and they’ll get really close to you,” Novak said.
Novak said adding protected bike lanes to the street would encourage more people, including children and older Chicagoans, to ride their bike.
Soverino said she recognizes the proposal could create some immediate hassle, but it’s worth it in the long run.
“Everyone talks about how we don’t have room for a bike lane, it’s going to cause more congestion, it’s going to take space away from us, but we never talk about all the space that we’ve already given to cars,” she said. “The space was taken away from people to give to cars at one point. This is just taking a little bit of it back.”
A Contentious Meeting
During the community meeting Wednesday, which was hosted by the Wicker Park Committee, La Spata gave a brief presentation about the participatory budgeting process and took questions from neighbors about the Wood Street bike lane proposal.
“… We are trying, while hearing from residents and also hearing from CDOT, trying to not essentially force major thoroughfares into being forced for bikes. Ashland, Western, those are never going to be safe options for cyclists, nor does it make sense to try to force that into happening,” La Spata said. “And so a lot of folks have been saying to us that it makes more sense to pursue options on interior streets.”
La Spata said the Wood Street proposal originated from ideas proposed by constituents and then made its way through the budgeting process.
“At every single level of participatory budgeting process we’ve consulted with our residents; in fact, more than consulted: [We] let them lead the way on this from the ideas that came forward to how they received the proposals to how things were voted on,” he said. “None of that came from my office. All of that came from 1st Ward residents.”
But neighbors pressed La Spata on the particulars of the process and questioned whether he and his office adequately publicized the vote ahead of time to make sure enough residents were aware of it — especially since just 67 votes led to the Wood Street plan.
Several neighbors who live on or near Wood Street said they only recently became aware of the process, well after voting had been completed.
“It doesn’t seem like there was sufficient outreach to inform people in the area,” Webb said. “I’ve been here for 20-plus years now, and rarely have I come across a situation where the community is so alarmed at a decision like this because they weren’t informed.”
Members of several neighborhood groups said they were unaware of the budgeting process and vote until the past few weeks or even past few days.
La Spata said his office posted about participatory budgeting on social media and in his ward newsletter, and also passed out flyers at “L” stations.
“We tried to use every mode of communication that our office has available to reach out to folks,” La Spata said. “But I am always open to more ideas about the most effective way to reach residents.”
Some neighbors at Wednesday’s meeting also criticized the voting process, which only allows residents to vote in favor of proposals, not against them. The Wood Street proposal received 67 votes in favor. The top proposal, to repaint bus lanes and add a bike marker on a stretch of Chicago Avenue, received 92 votes.
La Spata said he would raise process concerns with the University of Illinois Chicago program which administers the online portal.
But others pushed back on the idea that the voting process wasn’t publicized effectively, saying they had heard about it since the summer.
“It’s true that not that many people participated. But [La Spata] did reach out for input. That input was submitted. He put it up for a vote, he publicized the vote,” Novak said.
Soverino said she’s not “super involved in local politics” but she felt like she was “bombarded” by information about the vote.
When asked if he would consider holding a revote now that more residents are aware of the process, La Spata said that would “make me feel like I was saying that vote didn’t count.”
“After we’ve gone through seven, eight months of meetings, after we’ve gone through voting by our residents, for me to come back as alderman and invalidate those votes and invalidate this process … that is not something that actually gets people bought in, that that does not make people feel like you ran a fair democratic process,” he said.
Last week, Ben Clauss put up flyers along Wood Street urging neighbors to contact La Spata’s office to oppose the project. Clauss, who owns a salon at Hubbard and Wood, is concerned the change in traffic flow will impact his business.
Now, Clauss is organizing a petition against the proposal, which he plans to submit to La Spata and CDOT.
Clauss said he’d like the alderman to instead explore installing the bike lanes on Wolcott Avenue, which sits a few blocks west of Wood.
Wolcott “is a wider street, it’s already one way, it would take minimal effort to you know, add a two lane bike superhighway from north to south,” Clauss said. “For those who choose to use Wood on a bicycle, that’s an option if you want to commute you know faster, maybe possibly more efficient routes and if that could be installed on Wolcott, the neighborhood is behind that.”
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