Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cyclists bring a "home zone" to Logan Square

2400 Block of N. Albany

by John Greenfield

[This article also runs in the May 20 edition of Time Out Chicago, www.timeoutchicago.com.]

Logan Square is poised to get Chicago’s first “home zone.” The European concept tames traffic and creates green space on a street, fostering a safe, friendly environment for walking, biking, playing and socializing. But it might never have happened if a critical mass of cycling activists hadn’t settled on the 2400 block of North Albany Avenue.

After years of effort, the group is nearing final approval for its proposal to slow the drivers who speed through the angled residential street between Kedzie and Fullerton Avenues. The plan would switch parking from parallel to diagonal spaces and add bulbouts (sidewalk extensions), creating a narrow, winding travel lane while accommodating playground equipment and community gardens. Similar vehicle-control features and public-use spaces can be seen in Lincoln Square’s Giddings Plaza and near Uptown’s Truman College campus. But, as a block tailored to its residents’ needs, the Albany Home Zone is unprecedented in Chicago.

It’s no coincidence the idea came from this block, a magnet for movers and shakers in the green-transportation scene. Most are friends who met in the ’90s through the monthly Critical Mass bike parade. Past and present residents include the owner of Boulevard Bikes; staff from the Active Transportation Alliance and Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Bicycle Program; the director of West Town Bikes; a founder of Yojimbo’s Track Cats, a youth bicycle racing program; and the director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an environmental group that promotes enviro-friendly transportation options.

“I like living here because it’s totally normal to ride your bike everywhere you go and worry about the welfare of the city and the environment,” says John Edel, a green developer who lives on Albany with wife Julie Dworkin and kids Zoe, 4, and Miles, 1. His biking buddy Gareth Newfield bought a two-flat here first, in 1989. In the mid-’90s, Edel and fellow cyclist Craig Luddington purchased buildings on the street, inviting their pedaling pals to move in as tenants. “At one point, I counted 23 folks on the block who rode all the time,” Luddington says.

Two of them were transportation planner Lisa Phillips and her husband, Todd Gee. After their daughter Violet, now 2, was born, they grew concerned about the danger that speeding cars posed to children on the block. “It’s not that we wanted to turn the street into a playground,” Phillips says, “but if a kid does get into the street, 20 mph versus 40 could mean the difference between life and death.”

In May 2007, Dworkin caught a presentation on home zones at the Active Transportation Alliance. “I thought, We’ve got to do this,” she recalls. Dworkin and several others brainstormed, drew up plans and promoted the concept to neighbors with meetings, a block party and a website, albanyhomezone.org.

Proposed design for the Albany Home Zone

When they presented their idea to 35th Ward Ald. Rey Colon the following year, he was all ears. “Our community is above the national norm for obesity, so we want to get people walking and biking however we can,” he says. “And a lot of folks on the block are environmentalists, so this is a good fit.”

The Albany Home Zone committee met with CDOT engineers who agreed to edit their designs to meet city specs. Last month, after several revisions, CDOT offered a design that balances the cyclists’ wish for more green space with their neighbors’ parking worries; only two parking spaces will be sacrificed.

Colon has even agreed to foot the bill—an estimated $100,000 to $150,000—with ward funds, provided the advocates get support from 70 percent of the block’s residents. Phillips believes they can gather the signatures by the end of May so CDOT can start construction next year. “We just need to convince people the benefits are going to outweigh losing a little parking,” she says.

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