North Lake Shore Drive is both a beloved highway and a treasured park. As the city revamps it, can it continue to be both?

Today's Chicago lake shore has its roots in the leisure era of the late 19th century, when local business barons convinced the city to build a road along Lake Michigan for pleasure strolls and carriage rides. Hometown architect Daniel Burnham defended this vision for Lake Michigan in his 1909 "city beautiful" plan, arguing that "the Lakefront by right belongs to the people."

Lake Shore Drive passes by Potter Palmer's mansion on Chicago's Near North Side, 1900. Courtesy Library of Congress.

A century later, it hasn't quite turned out that way.

In Burnham's image, Lake Shore Drive has become one of the city's greatest treasures, with a sprawling museum campus, several beloved beaches and parks, and a highly trafficked hiker-biker trail. But the eight-lane artery, which runs between the city's neighborhoods and its lakefront parks, is used by around 150,000 drivers and 75,000 bus riders a day for a quick trip downtown.

A 2011 blizzard that stranded at least 900 cars along Lake Shore Drive offered a visual reminder of just how essential the street had become for Chicago commuters. (John Gress/Reuters)

Now, the half-century-old infrastructure below the road is crumbling. As the city begins plans for an overhaul of the northern seven miles of the lakefront corridor, the tension between the two uses -- peaceful public park versus what some have called "the most beautiful urban highway" -- are becoming clear.

At a minimum, the city says fixing the weakened overpasses and entrance ramps along the drive would cost several hundred million dollars. But local boosters have grander ideas about "redefining the drive." Is there a way, they wonder, to integrate the lakefront with the city -- by transforming some of the overpasses into truly walkable intersections, for example -- without disrupting the flow of traffic? Can the city add new public transport options without further erecting a barrier between city and lakefront?

Thom Greene/Greene and Proppe Design, Inc.

Last month, a coalition of 15 civic organizations released their answer. The "Our Lakefront" plan tries to balance the interests of drivers, public transit riders, bicyclists, and recreation enthusiasts. (It's notable that the coalition itself has a busy job balancing these needs. Its members include groups as diverse as the Active Transportation Alliance, Chicago Area Runners Association, and Friends of Downtown). Their proposals have already dominated the local media attention given to the North Lake Shore Drive planning, and they have had strong showings at the three community meetings with the Illinois and Chicago departments of transportation.

The group presents an appealing image of their hopes for the corridor. The highway is transformed into a verdant, tree-lined boulevard, with high rises in the background, a low-trafficked roadway, a dedicated transit corridor, and a park with bike paths and a pedestrian walkway along the water. In part, they want to return to Burnham's boulevard-in-a-park vision through expanded green space, better landscaping, and a controversial plan to reduce the speed limit to 35 miles per hour (the current limit, 40, is rarely enforced).

"People don’t like to be in places with cars zooming by at 60 miles an hour. It feels like a freeway," says Lee Crandell, director of campaigns for the Active Transportation Alliance.

But there are some fresh ideas too. The plan includes additional public transit options. MarySue Barrett, the president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, says that discussion shouldn't be stifled by a slavish commitment to Burnham's century-old vision. "It's also important for those of us here now that we put forth a vision to accommodate things that Burnham couldn’t have imagined at the time," she says.

But these idyllic images quickly lead to more specific questions: Do we go for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit? Do we want to widen the car lanes, or make them narrower to encourage traffic to slow down? How will this shift impact Chicago's already congested roadways?

In news coverage of last week's community meetings, it seems as every interest group already feels slighted. There are the bicyclists who want a separate, high-speed path, and the pedestrians who hate the speeding bikes. And then there are the frustrated express bus riders who think traffic makes their journey far from express, and the motorists who fear the most basic purpose of the road is getting ignored in this discussion.

•       •       •       •       •

The questions confronting Lake Shore Drive are far from unique. Many reemerging cities are trying to revitalize waterways that have been cut off by heavily-used transit corridors. San Francisco's Embarcadero, Chattanooga's Riverfront Parkway and Portland's Harbor Drive—all examples of this trend—have been hailed as major drivers of downtown rebirth.

John Norquist, the president of the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism and a former Milwaukee mayor, is an advocate of this kind of bold approach. He still sees his efforts to tear down the Park East Freeway as a highlight of his 16 year administration. From Norquist's point of view, Chicago's lakefront parkland is an untapped economic resource. The lakefront, he explains, has been cut off from the rest of the city by a hulking concrete barrier with too many exit ramps and too few real connections to the city's street grid. Norquist even goes so far as to compare the potential of the Lake Shore to Rio's Ipanema or the Thames embankment in London. "I don’t think Chicago’s lakefront’s finest and greatest purpose is as a car route," he says.

But Lake Shore Drive's special status—both as a commuter artery and a beloved boulevard—may make that an impossibility in Chicago. "You don’t put an interstate on a postcard," Barrett says. "Lake Shore Drive, because of where it is and how it’s designed, is our front door."

Top Image courtesy of Flickr user H. Michael Miley.

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