Residents protest; IDOT moves Circle flyover 26 feet; construction imminent
August 1, 2013
Protesters asked for a “no flyover zone” and called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to step in. (Photo by Tamara Bell)

By Patrick Butler

Residents and businesses in the Greektown and University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) area got a last chance to voice their views on the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) updated plan to reconfigure the nearly 60-year-old Kennedy/Eisenhower/Dan Ryan expressway Circle Interchange.

The number of supporters and opponents of the controversial plan seemed even during the June 27 public hearing at the Crown Plaza Hotel, 733 W. Madison St., although some opponents charge a firm doing business with IDOT may have tried to “stack” the meeting with supporters.

Alderman Robert Fioretti (2nd Ward) said that, while he cannot prove anything, he has heard the rumors and “isn’t surprised.”

Opponents, including 20 protesters who marched to the hotel carrying “no flyover” and “save our neighborhood” signs, said IDOT still has not been listening to the community.

Ann Brodley, who noted she has lived in the same building on the 400 block of south Sangamon Street for the past 25 years, said that, if the expressway moves closer to her building as planned, “I will be practically on the highway. The cars will practically be going through my living room. That’s not good.”

“Any time you’re under a bridge, that’s not considered an optimal place to be,” said Madhuri Tadtl, who said she lives at the Circle Interchange and now can “walk down Halsted and get to Pilsen, UIC, Greektown, the restaurant corridor. And you’re relatively safe as a pedestrian.”

She fears that will change when workers build a “flyover” ramp over Halsted.

Locals force IDOT changes

Steve Schilke, the IDOT Circle Interchange project manager, said one of the most important changes already made as a result of previous community meetings has been to “adjust our geometry and put the northwest flyover further away from the residential buildings. At this point, the closest point” between the proposed expressway ramp and a residential building at 400 S. Green St. “will be 26 feet. Before there were reports it was seven feet, but now it’s 26.”

IDOT concessions also include building a 24-foot noise abatement wall, putting vibration monitors in up to 26 building basements, and widening the pedestrian walkway along Peoria Street.

Tadtl still thinks the flyover “will be detrimental to West Loop residents and business owners in the long run.”

Jennifer Powers said although the construction project will provide more jobs she worries the overpass could become a barrier isolating some parts of the community from others.

“I believe it will stop [UIC] students from coming to Greektown,” she said. “I love the small businesses in that area, and small businesses cannot survive when the economy goes down,” as it would in any area “that’s become isolated,” Powers said.

John Theoharis, owner of two Greektown restaurants and president of the Greektown Chamber of Commerce, agrees the traffic congestion and “isolation” pose a threat to businesses in his neighborhood, especially those just beginning to recover from the recession.

The flyover will create a psychological barrier discouraging pedestrians, public transit riders, and UIC students from visiting outside their immediate neighborhood, he said. Bob O’Neill of the Grant Park Conservancy, a neighborhood resident for 31 years, noted that “The big concern I have is that this project be a model that doesn’t just move cars, but moves people — pedestrians and public transit riders — and connects the UIC community physically and aesthetically to downtown.”

Said Schilke, “We are improving multi-mode opportunities throughout the area—bike lanes, more walkability, better access to public transit.”

Proponents testify

Among those testifying in favor of the $360 million project was Steve Schlickman, executive director of the UIC Urban Transportation Center, who said he has been working on the plans with IDOT since last year.

“We see this as a very important project serving the campus, and we [the UIC Urban Transportation Center] have submitted a letter to IDOT supporting the project,” he said. “It’s going to improve public transportation and bike access.”

The project “is going to be a great thing for the community,” agreed Frank Caputo, former president of the West Central Association and a commissioner for Greektown Special Service Area 16, which oversees infrastructure development in the neighborhood.

“I don’t believe it’s going to be a divider,” Caputo continued. “People were thinking of it as a viaduct. And it’s not. It’s much higher. People will walk under it and will hardly even notice it.”

Caputo said he recently talked to Governor Patrick Quinn “and he’s been on top of this. I know where he’s coming from. He wants to improve safety and ability to free up traffic flow.”

Other supporters included Michael Kleinik of the Chicago Laborers District Council, Tony Ballay of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, and Ed Maher and John Rickert of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.

Proponents have predicted the reconfiguration will cut delays on the expressways by as much as 50% and generate up to 5,000 jobs.

“I don’t see any drawbacks,” said Rickert, who lives near the intersection of Roosevelt Road and Prairie Avenue and said that, under the current expressway configuration, “if you try to get north of Roosevelt Road, you’ll spend 15 to 20 minutes trying to get anywhere.”

Reconfiguring the interchange “would help at a number of levels — create jobs, clean up the atmosphere, shorten the ride,” Rickert said. “Any drawbacks would be infinitesimal.”

“We’re going to have a lot of carpenters, bricklayers, laborers, electricians — a lot of work here,” Ballay said. “It’s going to be one of those things that will move Chicago forward even more.”

Ben Brockschmidt of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce expressed mixed feelings.

“We support this project even though we understand there is no such thing as a perfect project, especially in an area with a footprint as small as the Circle Interchange,” he said. Bottleneck Supporters and opponents agree something must be done about the Circle Interchange, rated as one of the country’s worst bottlenecks and racking up more than 900 crashes annually.

Despite IDOT concessions, Fioretti believes more work remains, including economic analysis and studying how different lighting might improve the area along the reconfigured interchange.

The alderman, who earlier this year called for additional public forums, said he also wants to see IDOT “just show more respect for the community” in its future dealings here.

Peter Steinau, who helped organize the protest march before the forum at the Crown Plaza, said, “we’re glad for the chances we got because of the community uproar” and “I think it’s greener than it would have been” but compared IDOT’s concessions to “putting lipstick on a pig. The pig’s going to be a little pretty, but it will still be an awful project. It will still be a pig.”

Quinn and IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider on July 17 announced that work on the $475 million Circle Interchange project would begin by early August, starting with reconstructing the Morgan Street Bridge.

“The Circle Interchange reconstruction is the State’s biggest and one of our most important construction projects,” Quinn said. “Not only will this endeavor create thousands of jobs for Illinois workers, the new Circle Interchange will help local businesses and industry move products, and drivers will reduce the time they spend in their cars each day. By making these critical improvements today, we will guarantee the interchange is a safe, efficient, and modern transportation hub for generations to come.”

The construction project is expected to last up to four years.