Tomorrow’s Chicago

By Katherine McCarthy

In the centennial year of Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, it is fitting to adopt a major new plan that carries its legacy into the new century. The 2003 Central Area Plan (CAAP) responded to the remarkable transformation of Chicago’s Downtown over the previous 20 years. The first Downtown plan produced by the City since 1958, it detailed the potential for the growth of the Loop and surround area over the next two decades.

The Chicago Plan Committee recently approved the CAAP, meaning the city may start allocating funds or petitioning for state and federal grants to fund the ambitious proposals. Despite the current slowdown in the economy, long-term planning will position the central area for sustained growth, and will ensure that it continues to be the economic engine for the city, region and state.

The CAAP is the product of an 18-month planning and prioritization effort by a broad group of local business and civic leaders. It is the result of extensive input regarding economic development and land use, transportation, urban design, the waterfront and open space.

Total employment in the central area is estimated to reach between 630,000 and 650,000 by 2020. These employment estimates represent an average growth of 4,500 to 6,000 jobs per year. To reach this potential, the committee feels that the central area must improve its current 45%-50% share of regional office growth to approximately 60% by investing in mass transit and by strengthening its attractiveness to knowledge-based workers.

But the Loop and collar neighborhoods are more than business. From 2000 to 2007, the residential population of the central area grew by nearly 54,000 to reach approximately 165,500, and population projections for 2020 range from 215,000 to 230,000.

To maintain its relevancy as the central business and transportation hub in the region, the CAAP committee has proposed some bold changes to the Chicago landscape, most to transportation infrastructure. The underfunded Block 37 airport express train service to O’Hare and Midway, for example, is given new legs in the proposal.

The CAAP also has high goals for Union Station, expanding its role as an inter- and intra-city hub. High-speed intercity rail expansion would increase regional travel to and from the central area. Connections from Metra and Amtrak to and expanded CTA service would feed those regional travelers to various points throughout Chicago.

A new system of grade-separated transitways would allow faster transit connections within the central area. The Carroll Avenue Transitway, for example, would link the West Loop to Streeterville and River North. Additional transitways will enable travel east-west across the Loop, and north-south through Grant Park.
A major improvement of North Lake Shore Drive would smooth the curve at Oak Street and expand the intersection at Chicago Avenue. The CAAP also proposes moving Lake Shore Drive east into the lake on landfill. These improvements would enhance the safety and function of the road network and create additional open space.

Pedestrian traffic wouldn’t be ignored. Enhancements in the Grand and Illinois corridors would better connect Navy Pier to hotels and pedestrian bridges across the river would further empower pedestrians. The bicycle network would be expanded and improved with additional on-street bicycle lanes Loop stations. Completion of the Riverwalk would provide new opportunities for walking and water taxi service for residents and workers along the Chicago River.

The central area would be composed of dynamic mixed use districts served by transit and linked by pedestrian-oriented streets and welcoming open spaces. Each urban design, waterfront and open space project would use green building materials and environmental best practices. By strengthening Chicago’s transportation infrastructure, the spirit of the 1909 Burnham plan won’t be lost as we move into the next century.

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