Two years of construction on Congress Parkway yields…bleh

The Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin provides an overview of what the two years of construction of Congress Parkway have yielded…and his verdict is ambivalent:

Yet two years and innumerable construction delays later, it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the nearly complete, $20 million undertaking, which was paid for with city, state and federal stimulus program funds. That’s not because the job has failed to accomplish what it set out to do. Rather, it’s because many of those things have been done and, still, no one would mistake the new Congress Parkway for the Champs-Elysees…

Handling more than 60,000 vehicles a day, Congress became a barrier that separated the revitalized Printers Row district to the south from the Loop to the north. The recent appearance of dormitories and other academic buildings on both sides of Congress has only accentuated its identity as an asphalt moat…

For now, though, the new features remain overwhelmed by the still-intimidating width of the road and its vast field of shiny black asphalt. The cars don’t seem to have slowed down. Engines still rev. Horns still honk. Some pedestrians still jog through crosswalks to avoid speeding cars. As cars accelerate as they near the Ike, Congress feels more like a highway than a parkway…

Perhaps that will happen, but it will be more important in the long-run for city planners to keep attacking other problems that continue to make Congress Parkway a Champs-Elysees wannabe, such as the ragged building edge and a relative lack of street-level shops. The present revamp, while welcome and attractive, is but one step down a very long road toward taming the highway monster.

Several thoughts:

1. This seems like a very unique project: how many American highways with this kind of traffic end up turning into regular city streets within a few blocks? This is a reminder of what can happen when highways are imposed on the cityscape – the construction of highways in Chicago altered a number of neighborhoods.

2. I’m not sure why Kamin refers back to Burnham’s 1909 plan when talking about this road. While the Burnham Plan tends to get idealized, how much of it was actually carried out? Going further, how much of it was even realistic with the shift to cars and highways that Burnham could have only dreamed about?

3. A major issue seems to be that Congress Parkway itself is not a living street. Traffic is not necessarily an inhibitor of an interesting street. However, if there aren’t businesses along this road itself, such as shops and restaurants, this remains simply as a road to cross rather than a place to go for its own purposes.

4. Does anyone consistently do cost-effectiveness studies of highway/road projects? Kamin notes that this project cost about $20 million and took longer than expected – can we ask whether it was worth it? Should the public have gotten more bang for their buck?

5. Fairly, Kamin notes that the streetscape is not complete and some interesting design features have yet to be installed.

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