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South Side Pedestrian Bridges Don't Get The Love Of Their North Side Counterparts

By Chuck Sudo in News on May 8, 2014 9:30PM

Photo credit: Carmen B

Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin took a detailed look at how the city determines the infrastructure projects that get greenlighted and which remain stagnant for years, even decades, by digging deeper into the pedestrian bridges that connect Lake Shore Drive with the lakefront.

It should surprise very few that, while pedestrian overpasses Near North Avenue Beach are maintained on a regular basis, others on the South Side don’t receive the same treatment. Kamin singled out the overpass at 35th Street as the epitome of the “feast or famine” disparity.

Ten years ago, there was optimism that these problems would be solved when Chicago held a design competition for pedestrian bridges at five lakefront sites, including North Avenue and 35th, 41st and 43rd Streets on the south shoreline. Residents of the mostly African-American North Kenwood and Oakland neighborhoods anticipated better access to nearby Burnham Park. So did developers building townhomes and apartment blocks in the reviving neighborhoods.

The winning plan for a new 35th Street bridge, by the Chicago architectural and engineering firm Teng & Associates (now the Chicago office of exp), called for a curving suspension bridge with a distinctive A-shaped tower. Gently sloping ramps would allow cyclists and people in wheelchairs to easily use the bridge. It was an arresting but not visually overwhelming design, one that promised to lend new luster to the south lakefront.

Work on the 35th Street bridge, city officials said, would begin in 2006 or 2007. It didn't. By 2007, the anticipated groundbreaking was pushed back to 2009 or 2010. By 2012, the target was shifted to 2013. At that point, Pete Scales, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation, attributed the delays to the need for citywide street repaving and critical maintenance projects, as well as the recession's impact on federal, state and local transportation budgets.

Again, in 2013, nothing happened.

Finally, late last year, the city accepted bids from construction teams, and McHugh Construction emerged as the low bidder. But even though the project is now expected to be finished in fall 2015, it still hasn't crossed the starting line.

And the proverbial can continues to get kicked down the curb. The Illinois Department of Transportation has yet to approve releasing funds for the project. Kamin also notes the winning designs for new pedestrian bridges at 41st and 43rd Streets remain in a bureaucratic limbo. It’s unknown if those projects will ever become a reality.

Not all is ignored on the south lakefront. A pedestrian bridge overlooking 47th Street is relatively new and secure, while 31st Street has been reborn as a new crown jewel for boaters. But connecting Bronzeville residents with the lakefront should take precedence and they shouldn’t have to negotiate accessing it via rickety, crumbling bridges.

Kamin writes there is no excuse for the endless series of delays.

"I'm happy to hear that things are, in fact, moving forward," said veteran community activist Shirley Newsome. "At some point, we will be able to access Burnham Park on brand-new bridges." But on the South Side, she added, "it seems that things move slow, that's all. And then there are other things that take off like gangbusters."