Reactions mixed to removal of cement planters on Madison Street in West Loop
June 4, 2017

“There are intangible benefits of having a tree-lined street that provides a calming effect,” said P.S.
riraj of UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. (Photo by Christopher Valentino)

By Eva Hofmann

According to 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, the time has come for the concrete median planters on West Madison Street between Halsted Street and Ogden Avenue to go. The alderman is considering a proposal to remove the planters, which divide east and west traffic on Madison. The City installed them more than 20 years ago as part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s move to beautify the Near West Side and West Loop ahead of the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

“Basically, it’s to free up traffic,” said Reginald Stewart, chief of staff at Alderman Burnett’s office. Taking out the wide concrete planters would allow for turning lanes at some intersections, clearing up traffic during peak hours. Traffic on that stretch gets congested, Stewart said, especially during rush hour and before and after United Center events.

“There is no down side,” Stewart said. “These planters were installed back in the day, when Madison Street was Skid Row and there was no traffic. Today, we have multiple businesses and residences as well as the United Center, so we have major traffic backups. With the planters, even when buses pull over, the traffic can’t get around.”

Stewart said eliminating the planters isn’t the only solution but will provide significant relief. The community appears divided
on the issue, according to Matt Letourneau, Neighbors of West Loop development committee chair. “While they add a somewhat distinctive aesthetic element to the roadway and provide an area of refuge for crossing pedestrians, they also present some functional issues,” he said. “Specifically, they can act as a barrier for traffic to bypass stopped vehicles and can cause larger trucks to get stuck when turning onto Madison. The planters have also fallen into disrepair in some spots.

“In general, I think the community would benefit from an installation-by-installation review of the planters, with some of them being removed to eliminate bottlenecks and others retained and refurbished,” said Letourneau. “To preserve pedestrian safety, sidewalk bump-outs should be considered at corners where the planters are removed.”

Letourneau favors having these improvements made as part of the wider enhancements that another area group, the West Central Association, is promoting along Madison Street.

Planter benefits

“It’s complicated, but I do think that the planters provide a lot of benefits,” said P.S. Sriraj, director of the Urban Transportation Center at UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. He also is director of the Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative. The issue comes more from perception than metrics. “In the absence of any data of accidents before the planters were installed, it’s hard to say whether they have a negative impact on safety,” Sriraj said.

According to Sriraj, field studies talk about how planters improve the urban environment in terms of aesthetics and environmental perspective.

“There are intangible benefits of having a tree-lined street that provides a calming effect, not just on residents and pedestrians but also on motorists,” he said. “It’s been documented that stress levels tend to go down. From a safety perspective, it provides refuge for pedestrians so when they’re crossing the street they can take a break in the median area.

“Again, it’s about perceptions,” he continued. “Pedestrians feel safer if they see a median that’s a little bit raised where they can feel protected from motor vehicles. As far as disadvantage is concerned, the perception is that it is more risky to be driving closer to a concrete median planter.”

The probability of getting into a crash because of a tree or a planter is very low, according to Sriraj. “This is where perception versus reality should be weighed,” he said. “We have to look at actual accident statistics to determine whether removing the planters is safe.

“I think the concerns regarding the cost of maintaining the planters versus the cost for removing them ought to be taken seriously,”
Sriraj said. “There is a lot of investment that has gone into it and a lot of money needed to keep them up. It’s a question of what are the main reasons for removal. These need to be clearly outlined.”