Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review of the new Fullerton shoreline improvements

by Michelle Stenzel

The year-long Fullerton Revetment Project has wrapped up, and officially opened for public use once again. The main purpose of the undertaking was to improve the shoreline, and protect infrastructure and the Theater on the Lake from the lake water.
The view of the Chicago skyline from the edge of the new Fullerton revetment. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The plan for the Fullerton Revetment Project.
A large portion of the lake has been filled in to provide nearly six acres of new park space. There’s new grass, sapling trees, and giant prairie stones that provide seating.  
Six acres of new parkland at Fullerton. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The whole area feels a lot bigger, with more room the just breathe and relax. With the great views of the downtown skyline, I’m predicting this new parkland will become a popular spot for wedding and portrait photographers to bring their clients. Public space along the lakefront is precious and well-used, and this is definitely a valuable addition to the shoreline.

The Lakefront Trail at this point was previously a notorious chokepoint due to a confluence of Lake Shore Drive, a drinking fountain, hot dog stand, and scores of trail users, all crammed into a 12-foot wide space. Now the trail runs through the open grassy area, and feels far less chaotic than it did before.

Another huge improvement is that there is now a continuous path immediately along the lake that begins south of Fullerton and extends all the way to the Diversey Parkway bridge. Previously, the shoreline path was interrupted by boulders and damaged areas, forcing people to get back on the Lakefront Trail. The new shoreline is wide, level and provides ample opportunity for casual biking, strolling or sitting on the embankment to enjoy views of the lake.
The new shoreline north of Fullerton. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this week celebrated the completion of the project. In his speech, Mayor Emanuel recalled how crowded the Lakefront Trail was at the Theater on the Lake area, and joked that you used to have to take out a life insurance policy to get a drink of water.
Senator Dick Durbin, Alderman Michele Smith, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Parks Commissioner Mike Kelly, Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, and an official from the US Army Corps of Engineers at the ribbon-cutting.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
There was a lot of mention in the speeches of how there is now separation of the paths for bicyclists from everyone else, and even talk of not having to hear "On your left!" being called out any longer. 

I'm not convinced of that. The new continuous shoreline stretch from Fullerton to Diversey is lovely; however, it will be interesting to see how many people will actually choose that route, since they can't see where it leads after it bends northward, and there are no signs to help them. It's just human nature to stay on the paved, painted Lakefront Trail, even though it's busier and narrower, since it's more direct and they're assured that they won't hit a dead end and have to detour.
It remains to be seen how many people will choose to take the new shoreline path here instead of continuing on the more crowded and narrow Lakefront Trail. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
On the other hand, it may be that the touting of the separation of users was referring to a new gravel path south of the Theater on the Lake area, which extends about 350 yards and is pictured below. It runs alongside the west side of the "real" Lakefront Trail, and is slightly elevated. 
The new gravel path along the Lakefront Trail near Fullerton. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
This short gravel path is a pleasant new option, but it doesn't connect back to the Lakefront Trail on its north end. Instead, it leads northbound people directly to a new motor vehicle turnaround in front of the Theater on the Lake.  From there, they have to either make a "hard right" to get back on the trail, or traverse diagonally across the grass to make their own way (I'm predicting a "wish path" formation here). 
The new gravel path, seen on the lower left, leads users to the motor vehicle turnaround. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
And people arriving to the area from the north are not guided onto the gravel trail at all, so it's unlikely that they will make the effort to use the new path.

So although it's very nice to have another option, let's be honest: The new gravel path is less than 1/4 mile long, will be helpful mainly to people entering or exiting the lakefront at Fullerton, and is unlikely to take much pressure off the congestion of the actual Lakefront Trail.

A note about the turnaround: Alderman Smith advised me that its purpose is to provide drop off opportunities for Theater on the Lake events and for park district use, increasing its accessibility and usefulness, and that it's not meant to be open for public use. I note there is a gate that controls usage, and it's more than occasionally open, at which time drivers quickly flood in to use the "free parking spots", given that there are no signage or markings prohibiting them. Therefore, we recommend the park district keep very tight control of the gate, and that the curb be painted yellow as soon as possible, so that the new parkland isn't transformed into yet another surface lot for private motor vehicle storage.
When the gates to the turnaround are open, drivers flood in to nab what appears to be free parking along the curb and on the sidewalk. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The last issue is the waves hitting the Lakefront Trail. The trail immediately south of Fullerton has been notorious for being flooded with lake water three seasons of the year and iced over for most of the winter, creating conditions from inconvenient to hazardous for all trail users. I would think that this project would have been a good opportunity to eliminate this problem. 
Wind and waves flood the Lakefront Trail in October 2011. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The good news is that the area of the lake that was causing much of the flooding was filled in to create the new parkland, so that portion of the trail is now protected.

The bad news is that plenty of the Lakefront Trail between Fullerton and North Avenue is still very close to lake, including the part immediately south of the new revetment project shoreline, as seen in my photos below. Therefore, the trail in that area will unfortunately still suffer from flooding and ice in the future.
The Lakefront Trail will still experience flooding and ice south of the new Fullerton parkland. Photo taken earlier in March 2016. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
I understand that wind and waves are powerful, and any time there is infrastructure this close to Lake Michigan, it's going to be battered. Also, the unusable portion of the Lakefront Trail has now been reduced in length, which is an improvement. However, these photos were taken when there were only moderately high wind and waves, fairly routine lakefront conditions, so it appears that this problem is far from solved, which is a pity. 
Runners and bicyclists dealing with deep sand deposited onto the Lakefront Trail. Photo taken March 26, 2016.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Mayor Emanuel recently said that he would like to see separate paths for Lakefront Trail users all the way from Fullerton to Ohio Street Beach. That would be fantastic and is in fact a goal of the Redefine Lake Shore Drive project, which covers the Lakefront Trail. The possibilities and constraints of that vision are enough material for another post on another day.

How do you like the new Fullerton shoreline area? Comments welcome below.


  1. Trail separation needs to be designed so as to be enticing for different kinds of users in order to be successful -- people don't care about the intent of different paths and won't pay attention to signs. For example, promenading pedestrians will likely want the more scenic route by the lake and prefer shade in summer over wide expanses of treeless concrete, and may prefer being close to amenities, activities and points of interest -- they'll take the lakefront trail if it provides more that kind of experience. And bike commuters will generally like more direct routes that minimize stopping -- being further from the lake and amenities may be preferable for then. Design will always trump any intent, signage, or pavement markings. It'll be interesting to see how the Park District will handle those design challenges in the future.

    1. I agree that the design "tells" users which route to take, especially first-time or infrequent visitors. I do think some kind of marking, even a nice arrow painted on the ground, would encourage people that the shoreline path is a viable alternative to the Lakefront Trail. Thanks for your comment. -- MS

  2. Thanks for this review. I agree with all of your points, especially about the flooding south of Fullerton last Thursday as shown in your photos. I predict that the "walking path" will become a popular southbound short cut from Fullerton, creating an unpredictable intersection, especially with northbound runners cutting left at various points to catch that path. That path should really be part of a new separated bike-only path extending south to North Avenue along LSD.

    1. Yes, northbound runners and walkers will be crossing the trail to get onto the gravel path. Everyone will need to proceed with caution. Thanks for commenting. -- MS

  3. I'm really curious about the future of the turnaround. With the rehabilitation of the Theater on the Lake the Mayor is intent on making it a year round venue, and with the additional programming there will be additional people coming and more enforcement will be needed here to prevent this turnaround from becoming a parking lot. I am really hoping they will finally allow the 74 fullerton bus to go all the way to the lake to promote people using transit to get there (less will be inclined to walk in the winter months). Has there been any talk of this extension?

    1. I think the parking can be controlled via gate control, yellow paint + signs, and sporadic enforcement.

      As for the #74 bus, I the main problem is that Fullerton west of Clark is vaulted, so the weight of the buses is in excess of allowable limits. The need for good east-west public transit to this area is dire, given the nearby LP Zoo and Nature Museum, and Theater on the Lake in the near future, after the renovations are done. Thanks for your comments. -- MS

    2. Thanks for your info. Do you mean strictly the stretch of fullerton from around Orchard to Clark? I never knew that, and it's very interesting. I always assumed it was too narrow and the people with the nice homes along the strip didn't want a bus going through there!

    3. Yes, as I recall, the given reason is that that section is not structurally able to carry buses. How that same street is able to withstand the combined weight of scores of parked cars/SUVs and very slowly moving motor vehicles making their way through the ever-present traffic jam is for a structural engineer to explain, I guess. -- MS

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