ANDERSONVILLE — Neighbors are being asked to weigh in on new ideas for the planned Catalpa Avenue public plaza, including the possibility of closing it permanently to car traffic.
City officials are moving forward with plans to reconfigure Catalpa Avenue between Clark Street and Ashland Avenue into a pedestrian plaza with seating, shade and decorative elements.
Three different design concepts for the reconfigured street were unveiled at a community meeting Thursday held by Alds. Andre Vasquez (40th) and Harry Osterman (48th). They and city transportation officials are looking for input on the concepts, with neighbors also being asked to weigh in on a possible new project feature: a car-free Catalpa Avenue.
“A plaza will be here,” Osterman said. “The question is, what will it look like and how will it benefit the community?”
Plans for the Catalpa public plaza were announced in early 2020 with a preliminary idea to keep the one lane of westbound traffic open while converting parking and other right-of-way space into a pedestrian zone.
Catalpa Avenue is frequently closed to traffic for special events including the Andersonville Farmers Market, held weekly in the summer.
City officials have now created a concept for the plaza that would remove the lane of car traffic and turn the street into a true pedestrian area.
Doing so would increase the pedestrian space in the plaza and bring more design elements into play, said Ellen Schmidt, project manager with Site Design Group, a Chicago Department of Transportation contractor.
With no lane of car traffic, the pedestrian plaza would be 67 feet wide versus about 38 feet wide, Schmidt said.
“It gives us a lot more flexibility,” she said.
The city’s transportation agency conducted a traffic study in Andersonville when Catalpa Avenue was closed for an event and when nearby schools were in session. The study found that other east-west streets in the neighborhood can accommodate the loss of access to Catalpa, should the street be closed for the plaza, Vasquez and Osterman said.
A street light would be added at Berwyn and Ashland Avenues to help accommodate traffic diverted from Catalpa Avenue, officials said. A contra-flow bike lane planned for Berwyn Avenue will help with bike traffic, they said.
The new plaza options come after the city expanded efforts to close or restrict car access to some streets during the pandemic as a way to offer neighbors more outdoor space.
One such example is the Ainslie Plaza in Lincoln Square, which converted a street into a bright pedestrian zone. Last week, a driver damaged the plaza when they jumped the curb.
That incident, plus the recent deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists killed by drivers, makes it important to have adequate separation of pedestrians and cars, Vasquez said as he signaled his support for full closure of Catalpa Avenue.
“That’s top of mind for me when I think of what this space should be,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to bring folks together … and a great way to increase the energy Andersonville has.”
Dozens of neighbors joined Thursday’s meeting on the proposal with mixed feelings about closing Catalpa Avenue.
Some neighbors said keeping the traffic is a mobility issue for the neighborhood’s seniors and that it will increase the drivers cutting through the adjacent Jewel and Walgreens parking lots, adding to an existing safety hazard.
Others said that public plazas and cars don’t mix and that a car-free plaza would be better for the vitality of Andersonville.
“Have you ever been to … a plaza and wished there were more cars driving through it?” one neighbor said.
Other features being planned for the public plaza include neighborhood signs, landscaping, lighting, paving and art.
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