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Open Streets Fest Sunday Celebrates Alternative Transit

By Mike Brockway | September 13, 2013 6:35am
 A group of children ride their bikes down Milwaukee Avenue in the Wicker Park neighborhood at last year's Open Streets event.
A group of children ride their bikes down Milwaukee Avenue in the Wicker Park neighborhood at last year's Open Streets event.
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John Lankford/Active Transportation Alliance

CHICAGO — When Sunday's Open Streets festival kicks off, it may owe this year's event to the city's recently changed policy to allow free metered parking on Sundays.

The free event, which closes off Milwaukee Avenue between Division Street and Logan Boulevard for five hours Sunday, allows attendees to enjoy biking, walking, skateboarding and other activities on the street sans motorized vehicular traffic.

But according to organizers, Open Streets almost didn't happen this year due to financial challenges. The nail in the coffin would have been having to compensate Chicago Parking Meters, LLC for closing hundreds of metered parking spaces up and down Milwaukee Avenue during the event.

Open Streets Director Julia Kim says while the city didn't bill organizers for meter closures for the first two years of the event, they were hearing that policy was going to change.

"Funding was a challenge this year and we didn't have the extra cushion," said Kim. "It's not access or attendance - we've got that down - it comes down to funding."

The Emanuel administration had been fighting for months with CPM over bills for meter closures, the overuse of handicapped parking placards by drivers to park for free and other compensation events which were in the tens of millions of dollars. Kim says the writing was on the wall and the event would probably have to start paying the meter costs - an amount they had estimated to be between $10,000 to $20,000 for the 695 metered parking spots along the Open Streets route.

"If we had to pay the meter costs it would have killed the event," said Kim. "It would have had to be built into the budget and this year was particularly a challenge because one of our partners couldn't come up with the financing."

But then something happened.

In late April, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his team of negotiators worked out an agreement with CPM on an amount the city would pay the company for past bills, and the meter company agreed to allow free parking at meters located in the neighborhoods in exchange for extending hours of enforcement in most places to 10 p.m. and midnight in River North.

"I was doing cartwheels in the office when they announced free Sundays," said Kim. "We were cheering up and down the hall. The timing was perfect."

City Hall sees situations like this where street festivals and other events can keep their operation costs down one of the positive outcomes of free Sunday parking at the meters.

"This event is a great opportunity for people of all ages to get out and have fun, exercise and explore some great neighborhoods," said Department of Budget & Finance spokesperson Kelley Quinn. "It is certainly one of the positive benefits of free parking on Sundays."

Open Streets, under the umbrella of the pro-walking, biking and alternative transportation group Active Transportation Alliance, debuted in 2011 with a one-day event in the Loop. It was expanded to two dates in 2012 with one in the Loop and another on Milwaukee Avenue from Division to Western Avenue in the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods, bringing out an estimated 25,000 people.

This year there will be no Loop event, but last year's route will be extended through Logan Square to Logan Boulevard.

The three miles of car-free streets is not a street festival per se, but a festival to explore the street according to Kim.

Along the route attendees will be able to try their hand at fencing, take a yoga class, dance to house music at the Silver Room, skateboard on a pop-up skate park, or just bike and walk along the route.

There will be multiple kid-friendly spots as well as places to repair bikes or take a water break. Local craft brewer Revolution Brewing will be selling beer at both ends of the route.

"It lets people discover and explore the corridor safely," said Kim. "I don't think people take the time to explore the neighborhoods."

In order to minimize the number of vehicles towed from Milwaukee Avenue, Open Streets has partnered with RAM Racing, the company promoting the Bucktown 5K race, which also takes place on Sunday, to warn vehicle owners by putting fliers on cars parked along Milwaukee Avenue and the race route several times over the past two weeks.

Last year, only 10 to 15 cars were towed from Milwaukee Avenue in advance of the street closing, according to Kim.

"I would like to see zero cars towed," she said. "We're working closely with Alderman [Scott] Waguespack's (36th) office and RAM Racing to make sure we avoid any type of towing incidents."

Motor vehicle traffic on side streets will not be able to cross Milwaukee Avenue along the route, although Ashland, Damen, Western and Kedzie avenues will all remain open to all traffic.

Open Streets runs Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. down Milwaukee Avenue from Division to Logan Boulevard