Sunday, March 31, 2013

Observations on the way to Chicago's SoNo district

by Michelle Stenzel

I decided to walk to the SoNo area today to pick up some items at Whole Foods. What? You've never heard of the SoNo neighborhood? Well, it's that "no name" area that's SOuth of NOrth Avenue, and west of Halsted. You know, where the giant Whole Foods is. When I first saw a billboard years ago for a developer trying to tout that new moniker, I wondered whether they had thought through the negative connotations of the phrase "So No". The name doesn't seem to have caught on, as the Whole Foods itself claims to be in Lincoln Park, when the border of Lincoln Park is actually more than a block away.

In any case, I walked mostly along North Avenue starting at Sedgwick, snapping pictures along the way, and thought that I'd share my observations about the state of walking, bicycling and generally the  feel of the area. There's not much to celebrate.
North Avenue is a state route that was designed for high-speed, noisy motorized vehicle traffic.
To begin with, North Avenue west of Sedgwick is a wide, car-oriented highway with a design that encourages high speeds. Drivers regularly exceed the 30 mph speed limit, induced by the wide open lanes and long distances between signallized intersections. There are no bike lanes of any kind. There are sidewalks, but not much to look at but the sides of townhouse developments and mini-mall parking lots. (More -->)

There are many people who ride their bikes on North Avenue in spite of the scary, high-speed MV traffic, due to lack of good east-west alternatives.
What's amazing is how many people walk and bike along North Avenue anyway, and they were certainly out on this sunny and mild Friday early afternoon before the Easter weekend.
I noticed that they've had to add "Keep Right" signs to the pedestrian island on North Avenue at Orchard. Did drivers freak out at the sight of this and swerve to the left? Slow down and concentrate, people.
Shaun Jacobsen at the blog Transitized wrote about the poor state of North Avenue on this post. He has some great ideas for improving it, but unfortunately, North Avenue is a state route under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has been reluctant to embrace a "Complete Streets" approach to transportation planning, so unfortunately, I don't foresee much happening in the way of improvements to North Avenue any time in the future. 

The intersection of North and Halsted has some great urban features, and the sight of the el train rumbling by adds to the fun.
The intersection of North and Halsted is the easternmost point of the SoNo area, and it starts off promising. To the north along Halsted, there are restaurants and theatres like Steppenwolf and the Royal George. The building that used to house Borders is empty currently, which is unfortunate. But the shiny new Apple store is thriving, the sunny plaza next to it is charming, and the red line subway stop across the plaza is an important transport hub, bringing thousands of people to and from the intersection each day.  If the nature of those amenities could have been continued and replicated to the west and south, this could have been the next fantastic northside work/shop/play area of the city. 

Unfortunately, it goes downhill from there. The development on the north side of North Avenue starting at Halsted and going all the way to the river was built decades ago in the suburban style, with large surface parking lots in front of the stores, which include Crate and Barrel, World Market and Container Store. 

You know something's not designed well when you have to erect signs telling people to use the sidewalk. On North Avenue, along the Crate and Barrel parking lot.
Is the large surface parking lot a practical design? Yes, if you're planning to buy a coffee table at Crate and Barrel and transport it home via your own car, it is indeed convenient to have a free parking spot waiting for you there. 

But the price paid by the neighborhood is that parking lots are deadening to the street life. The numerous curb cuts to all the parking lots make walking and bicycling unpleasant due to the turning vehicles. Also, the lure of free parking encourages more and more people to drive there, even when they're only planning to pick up something small, like a new tablecloth, which they could easily carry home on the subway, or throw into their bike basket. You build for cars and driving, you encourage cars and driving, you end up with gridlock in the area, and that's what we've got. 

Let's move on. As was noted on the Transitized blog, I have to point out this problem: There's no direct way to continue walking from the red line stop corner west on North Avenue. There's a crosswalk missing. People on foot are expected to take a longer, two-legged, two-interval crossing instead. Right away, that's sending the clear message that people on foot are second class citizens to those driving motor vehicles. 
People walking along North Avenue to the red line subway stop are expected to make a two-legged L-shaped crossing instead of the more direct route.
The anti-pedestrian message is abundantly clear anyway. On the south side of North Avenue, retail buildings were built all the way up to the street edge, with parking lots hidden inside the building. This is better than a large surface parking lot, and that was a nice step forward, I'll give them that.
People walk on North Avenue sidewalks that are a few feet away from passing trucks and other vehicles.
However, the sidewalks in front of the building are woefully narrow, given the high volumes of people walking to the popular retailers (like J. Crew, Gap, Banana Republic), and factoring in the speed of the motorized traffic whizzing by on North Avenue. 
A North Avenue bus arrives next to the bus pole.
When you walk on the sidewalk or stand next to the bus stop pole (no room for a bench or shelter, of course), you can literally feel the whoosh of the cars passing only a few feet away. It feels like standing on the blue zone of the El platform, next to the drop off to the tracks: One false step, and it's Sayonara, Baby. That doesn't make for a pleasant pedestrian or transit user experience. 

Clearly, the building owners or someone recognized this problem, and have mitigated it by adding a row of planters to increase the feeling of safety. It's a nice gesture, and it helps, but it doesn't solve the problem.
The sidewalks along North Avenue retailers are relatively narrow, and perilously close to the moving traffic.
I think the worst part about SoNo is how the area directly to the south of North Avenue has shaped up in the last few years. Those little streets like Dayton, Fremont, Weed and Blackhawk had such potential, given that they are quiet side streets full of low-rise former warehouses that have been converted to condos and office space. I could envision it as an area bustling with office workers by day, and residents and visitors frequenting tucked-away coffee shops and pubs in the evenings. But instead, it has followed the north of North Avenue pattern, and is completely built to encourage motor vehicle use and driving. 

There are new big box pet supply and baby items stores in this area, with big surface lots in front. The latest unfortunate addition is the suburban-styled Anthropologie and Williams-Sonoma stores on Fremont, just one block south of North Avenue, with its own parking lot for your driving "convenience".
Suburban-style parking lots in front of new retail stores on Fremont.
Again, it seems convenient for people who choose to drive to these two stores to shop (as long as they don't mind the gridlock to get here). But keep in mind, if you don't find the French coffee press that you were hoping to buy at Willams and Sonoma and you want to check out what they've got at Crate and Barrel a mere 500 feet away, you'd better get in your car and drive there, or risk getting towed. Is that really very convenient? Does that make for a fun afternoon of shopping in the city? Who ever thought this was a good idea?

I kept walking and when I finally made it all the way to Kingsbury Street, on the western side of the SoNo area, I finally got closer to my destination. This Whole Foods is known for being bike-friendly in that they provide a large bike parking lot, in front of the store, which is well-used. They also have a fix-it stand where you can pump air in your tires. This is nice.

However, that's where the bike-friendliness ends. Kingsbury was resurfaced last year in order to cover up the old rail tracks that were a hazard. The new surface is nice and smooth. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing at all in the way for bicycling infrastructure yet. Drivers pulling in and out of the front parking lot, the garage parking structure, and the parallel parking spots on the street (three different choices of parking for motor vehicles!) all make for a stressful ride.
Kingsbury Street south of North Avenue is now free of those old railroad tracks, but doesn't yet have anything to help people riding bikes.
I'm assuming that help for bicyclists is still on its way, because Kingsbury is marked as light blue on the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, meaning it will receive bicycling infrastructure of some sort. However, I don't see it on the specific list of projects to be done between now and May 2015, so it may be many years until we see any improvements. 
The Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 has Kingsbury Street designated for future bicycle infrastructure.
But besides providing nothing good for people on bikes, Kingsbury is just a pathetic experience for everyone. The sidewalks are weedy and garbage-strewn.
The sidewalk on Sheffield leading to the Whole Foods Lincoln Park.
The intersection of Sheffield, Kingsbury and Weed is a five-legged junction that's confusing to drivers, which makes it haphazard for everyone, especially people trying to cross on the crosswalks. 
A view of the Sheffield/Kingsbury/Weed intersection from within Whole Foods. Notice all the people walking in spite of the poor planning in the area. 
I guess I've said enough about the state of SoNo. I think you get the idea.

This area needs help, if it's not too late already. If there's any hope for improvements, it needs to be led by a person or agency with an overall strategic vision and plan. Who or what might that be? The Chicago Department of Transportation is organizing to deliver a Complete Streets approach to all new changes in the city involving streets and public spaces. They might be involved, but the city's Department of Housing and Economic Development would certainly also be an important force (**Note: See update below). This area will fall under the 2nd ward (Ald. Bob Fioretti) and 27th ward (Ald. Walter Burnett) under the new ward boundaries. The Metropolitan Planning Commission did some detailed analysis of the area directly to the east of here five years ago, and perhaps they could lend some insight and recommendations for the SoNo area.

Even if we write the specific SoNo area off as being beyond help by now, there are areas nearby currently being built or planned, including the Target at Division Street and Halsted. Most significantly, the former New City YMCA site at the southeast corner of Clybourn and Halsted is going to be built out soon. According to this article in Crain's (Google for "Look Who's Moving Into the Clybourn Corridor" if the link doesn't work for you), there will be a Mariano's supermarket and a movie theater. Has it already been designed? Was there any input from the community? I never saw any notices for public hearings.
Halsted and Clybourn lies within two miles of downtown. Will the new development here follow the same unfortunate suburban style pattern as nearby areas?
I just hope it won't be more of the same ugly, unplanned hodgepodge that's already there. Nobody wants more parking lots and more drivers and more cars and more motor vehicle gridlock. The developers should take advantage of the site's proximity to transit and downtown Chicago. They should play up the advantages of the neighborhood's urban features, and make it something perhaps worthy of being called So Yes.
04/01/2013 -- In my quest to look into the web page for the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development, I came across this study of this area from 2010, called "The Halsted Triangle Plan". It covers the exact area I discussed above, and it's very thorough. Although there are some recommendations in it that are a little outdated already (e.g. they recommend shared bike/car lanes on Division and Clybourn -- no thank you), there's plenty to like. They talk about improving east-west connectivity, widening sidewalks, adding pocket parks, adding a pedestrian access over the river to Goose Island, and more. Now it's a matter of making it happen.


  1. I often go to the 5 Boroughs pizza shop on Sedgwick at North, because I love their pizza, and it's close to this "SoNo" area that has the Whole Foods I like to go to. I almost always take the bus from Sedgwick to Kingsbury. More than half the walk distance is just boring – like you said, entrances to strip-mall developments and townhomes. The bus really isn't that much faster, either, because like you said there is just too much traffic. I can't help but think this is also because there are so many entrances to strip-mall parking lots everywhere.

    Wherever there are parking lots, no matter how small, in front of any stores in dense urban neighborhoods like this one (I also think of Diversey near the brown line stop) it really changes the character of the neighborhood. Sometimes the contrast is right in front of you because one side of the street is what should be (storefronts up to the street, wide sidewalks) and the other side has the storefront parking lots. I usually cross to the friendlier side!

    Hopefully the new Target will learn from the Target in Uptown where I live. I heard (don't have any evidence, but I believe it was from the Alderman) that the underground parking garage at Target, which is pretty large, is very underused. While it's not necessarily "wasted space", since it is underground, the cost of the garage needs to be paid by Target which translates into higher prices for everyone, no matter if you walk, bike, or take the bus or L.

    At North/Halsted/Clybourn, the whole intersection could be so much better. Just having the red line stop there brings so many people to the area yet walking out of the stop and going west on a narrow sidewalk is just unpleasant. All these observations and photos are great. Hopefully someday, despite all odds, we can have better streets (and IDOT will understand this too).

    1. Thanks for the comments, Shaun. I've been meaning to write about this area for a long time, and your post inspired me to action, finally. I also hope it's not too late. It's hard to retrofit improvements instead of doing it well in the first place. -- Michelle

    2. The worst is the Patagonia a bit further north on Clybourn (next to the Goose Island brewpub). The store itself butts right up against the sidewalk, but the actual entrance fronts the parking lot on the other side! If this is not a failure in urban design, I don't know what is.

    3. Yes, exactly. Lack of access via sidewalks to a store broadcasts the message that only drivers are welcome. Or at least, that they expect all shoppers to arrive in a motor vehicle. It's particularly disappointing from a store like Patagonia, which is all about sustainability and minimizing harm to the environment. (To give them credit, they've been there for years and the character of the area has changed somewhat since they moved in.) -- MS

  2. I cringe every time I read "SoNo". It's a terrible name for this neighborhood.

    I believe the semi-official name of this area is the "Clybourn Corridor", but few people use that term.

    1. I just added to my post to link to a city study of the area that called it the "Halsted Triangle". Yes, Clybourn Corridor is probably most used of any of the names, although that would cover a very broad and long swath of land, from Division up to, who knows? -- Michelle

    2. I suppose many neighborhoods got their name from real estate companies anyway, but "SoNo" seems to be pushing it a bit. Chicago already had well-defined neighborhoods; no need to create new ones. I remember a while back, some companies were pushing "West Bucktown" as a name for eastern Humboldt Park, to avoid the stigma that the neighborhood has (deservedly or not).

  3. I refer to this area as Suburban Lincoln Park. It has yet to catch on...

  4. I avoid that area as much as possible for all the reasons you've stated. It's a complete disaster. SoNo = So NOT a good place to be.

  5. The North-Clybourn CTA station originally had an auxilary entrance at the southeast corner of Clybourn & Dayton. What plans does the City have to rehab this station and make it accessible (e.g. Grand-State, Clark-LaSalle-Division)? Having an new entrance on the north side of North Ave. would help make this area more pedestrian friendly.

    1. Do you mean accessible for people in wheelchairs, or accessible via more convenient entrances? They did re-vamp the station to an extent in the last few years, but I'm not sure that they added an elevator. I haven't heard of any plans to add more entrances. -- MS

  6. I agree with everything you said in this post.

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