Cap over Kennedy among many ideas at NoWL meeting
September 7, 2018

A conceptual image of what the Kennedy cap might look like, developed by Ratio design architects in collaboration with Fifield Companies.

By Susan S. Stevens

Putting a roof on the Kennedy Expressway north of the Byrne Interchange and making it a green space is the most ambitious plan the Neighbors of West Loop (NoWL) community organization is promoting, though the group’s members have many other ideas.

In an extensive neighborhood plan unveiled Aug. 14, the group also calls for height limits on buildings, a new police station, more parks, and other ways to fulfill its mission statement’s goal to “preserve and enhance the quality of life.”

May Toy, president of the Skinner Park Advisory Council, chairs NoWL’s parks and green space committee. “You build a deck over the Kennedy and it becomes a park,” she said, noting other cities have capped expressways successfully. Toy explained that Dallas, TX, boasts an acclaimed park on one of its freeways. She thinks Chicago could create one in five to ten years.

“This was first proposed by the City of Chicago in the 2003-2004 Central Area Plan,” Toy said. “We decided to start pushing it as a priority because the City has made significant progress in the other open space initiatives like Ping Tom Park and the Riverwalk but has not done anything at all for the Kennedy cap. Initially, the City proposed a cap over Monroe Street, but I think based on the needs of the community we are going to push for a cap to start further north.”

That is “the only way we are going to get significant amounts of green space,” she said, noting existing land is prohibitively expensive. Toy would be delighted if the land occupied by the Chicago Police Academy became part of Skinner Park once the academy moves further west. Toy also wants upgrades in all the current parks to benefit residents of all ages and interests.

“I love the Kennedy cap idea,” resident Nikki Kanter declared at the meeting, where the idea met a favorable response from several people.

NoWL president Matt Letourneau said the group has backed the Kennedy cap idea for five years.

Building height limits

Concerning highrises, the NoWL plan recommends limiting buildings standing 150 feet or higher to areas along the expressways (east of Halsted Street and north of Van Buren Street), along the railroad tracks in Fulton Market (between Wayman/Carroll Street and Kinzie Street), and east of the Kennedy.

Also, the City should use setbacks to limit the imposition of taller structures along these routes, the plan notes.

Two large land areas would limit structures to no more than 80 feet high. One area is adjacent to Skinner and Bartelme Parks, a section with a concentration of townhouses.

“We need to have a more comprehensive traffic study,” Letourneau said. Several in the audience complained about traffic dangers due to extensive construction in the area blocking streets and sidewalks, mentioning the death of a bicyclist beneath a dump truck at Halsted and Madison streets. A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesperson took notes about specific concerns and said he would have employees address them as well as inspect the entire area.

The group also calls for resident permit parking, shared parking in lots with office workers in the daytime making way for restaurant and club patrons in the evening, protected bike lanes, and better street lights.

Officials should speed the timeline for infrastructure repairs and improvements, “just like downtown,” Letourneau said. NoWL also wants the City to invest in public art.

NoWL residents raised concerns about losing the old 12th District police station at Monroe Street and Racine Avenue and called for a new station in the area. They also want increased foot patrols, a neighborhood watch program, and connections between commercial and residential security camera footage and the Police Department.

Aldermen agree

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and Ald. Daniel Solis (25th) attended the meeting, as did former Ald. Robert Fioretti.

“Whatever you guys ask for, we try to get it done,” Burnett said, speaking for himself and Solis. “The West Loop gets a lot,” he said. “I’ve always wanted the expressway covered—the Ike [Eisenhower Expressway] too.” 

See the full plan at http://neighborsofwestloop.com/neighborhood-plan/np-development-land-use/.

In 2012, there was a cost estimate of $300 million for a cap park from Lake Street to Adams Street, but Toy said the cost can be reduced significantly by taking the best practices from similar projects. A new feasibility study for Kansas City’s proposed project, a four-block park over Interstate 670, was able to reduce original cost estimates by over $60 million, lowering it to $139 million, she said. The highway configuration for the Kennedy differs from Kansas City but Toy believes the cost can likewise be lowered by 30% to around $200 million by minimizing infrastructure re-configurations and moving the cap north to where the green space need is the greatest.

Armando Chacon, president of the West Central Association, also attended the meeting and stated afterward he had not reviewed the plan in great detail yet. Also, his association offered its own plan, calling for “taller and skinnier” buildings to allow for more open space. His group also is pushing for a new open enrollment high school.

Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Fulton Market Association, had no comment. A fourth group, the West Loop Community Organization, could not be reached for comment.