UPTOWN — A big sign and new "L" stop was just the beginning of Argyle Street's makeover in Uptown. Soon, the entire street structure will change, creating a "shared street" between North Broadway and North Sheridan Road.
City officials presented initial designs for the Argyle Streetscape project at a neighborhood meeting on Monday. Janet Attarian, complete streets director at the Chicago Department of Transportation, said the design concept eliminates curbs, forces cars below 15 miles per hour and creates a shared space without hierarchy between road users.
Street furniture such as benches, bike racks and storm water planters will be used to give further clues about boundaries.
"What you do is you sort of blur that line between what's a sidewalk, what's a driving lane and what's a parking space ... but you redefine that space, it's not like an open free-for-all," said Attarian, who presented examples of shared streets from London and elsewhere. She said Argyle will be Chicago's first.
The sidewalk on both sides of the street would be widened by about three feet, to 15 feet, narrowing the roadway in each driving lane. Parking lanes would remain about eight feet across, but the project also comes with the expected loss of a few parking spaces.
Some residents at the meeting worried about the shared street concept causing problems for people with disabilities or seniors who might be unfamiliar with the shared street concept.
Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), whose ward includes parts of Uptown and most of Edgewater, acknowledged that concerns about the elderly and disabled were valid, but said that conversations with CDOT had given him confidence that the streetscape would "lead to a safer street."
Officials said keeping speed limits low contributes to safety, in addition to negating the need for separate bike lanes. They referenced studies that show shared streets actually reduce accidents.
But a London-based charity organization for people with sight loss released a study in 2011 that argued that there was no clear evidence of the safety benefits of shared street schemes. The organization accused authorities of building shared streets without fully considering how people with sight loss and other disabilities could be affected by the unfamiliar schemes.
"While most shared streets get rid of all street signs and whatnot, we probably won't do that right away. We don't want people to come here and be apprehensive," she said.
The Argyle Streetscape aims to revitalize an area of Uptown that's home to many popular Asian-owned businesses and community organizations. But the corridor also suffers from vacant storefronts and vagrancy, something that, in addition to occasional shootings and other criminal activity, fuels safety concerns.
Osterman said the Argyle makeover is "critical in the future development of Uptown." He said it will bolster local businesses, lure new business to the area, draw people from both inside and outside the community and instill a feeling of safety along the street.
City officials said the design phase is about 25 percent complete, and will be done by January. The streetscape will be done just before winter of 2014, according to officials. The project has a $3 million budget.
Uptown resident Caroline Dance, 54, attended a meeting about the Argyle Street plan Monday and said she was "impressed" by the city's creativity.
"What surprised me is taking away the curbs," she said. "I like the idea that everybody kind of has to watch out for everybody and have eye contact."
The first part of the streetscape was the much-maligned "Asia on Argyle" sign installed in January, and the city plans to install a vertical community identifier for the Argyle area as well.