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Can Car-free Pedestrian Plazas Transform the Chi?

By JoshMogerman in News on Jul 4, 2010 7:00PM

57th Street Art Fair by jmogs
It is Street Fest season. And with the Taste giving way to a patchwork of neighborhood festivals and block parties throughout the summer, the Trib’s architecture writer Blair Kamin is waxing poetic on the positives of street closures. Can you blame him? Sure, the shifting weekend barriers are yet another driving irritation, but who doesn’t love the respite from traffic, parking, and noise when the fest is in your hood? Why not make those happy feelings permanent in places throughout the city?

Kamin’s thoughtful post focuses on Lincoln Square’s uber-cute Kempf Plaza as an example of how small-scale, permanent street closures can make huge impacts on quality of life. He also notes a proposal to do something similar on Wilton in Lakeview. Kamin isn’t alone in his embrace of more walkable neighborhoods. The concepts of smart growth and new urbanism are getting significant buzz as plenty of folks are re-thinking the American city in light of the mortgage collapse and escalating gas prices. Americans are walking and biking more and driving less, which makes car-free areas all the more enticing and potentially profitable.

We love the idea of more pedestrian plazas in Chicago. But Northsiders shouldn’t have all the fun. Where can we swing these urban islands on the South Side? On hot nights, long Italian ice lines already do the job of limiting car traffic by partially blocking Taylor Street, so how about a new piazza in Little Italy? Harper Court was a half-baked effort at this type of pedestrian plaza, but it is blessedly gone. If the redevelopment plans for that property remain stalled, maybe Hyde Park could try a little harder by closing off part of 57th Street near Bixler Park to create a real urban oasis? The streetscape in Pilsen is already pretty vibrant, but it would get a real kick if the short strip of Loomis by Rudy Lozano Library got the plaza treatment in its tiny two-blocks before being cut short by a viaduct.

Taste of Chicago is a reminder that these work best when placed in areas with food, so can we find a place closer to Rainbow Cone? Until that happens, let’s hear your suggestions for Chicago pedestrian plazas!