"This area was once a very vibrant pedestrian-oriented area," Cullerton said, recalling how his parents used to go on dates to the Patio Theater and then out to dinner in the neighborhood. "This district needs a facelift. It is badly needed."
A $600,000 city project unveiled late last week is designed to do just that with pedestrian-friendly crosswalks, bigger sidewalks, new light-pole banners and the Far Northwest Side's first "People Spot," which is designed to allow folks to gather in a playful place once ruled by cars.
"I'm excited," said Bettina Boronski, who has lived near Irving Park Road and Austin Avenue for 12 years. "When I visit other Chicago neighborhoods like Lakeview and Ukrainian Village I get jealous to see everything they have to offer."
A People Spot would give the area along Irving Park Road between Austin Avenue and Meade Avenue a "unique identity" that would attract people to the area and entice them to shop at local businesses, said Nilay Mistry, a consultant to the city with Site Design Group Ltd.
The dozen residents who attended the meeting were spilt on whether a People Spot would attract the foot traffic that business owners in the area desire, or whether it would make finding a parking spot near the shops even more difficult.
Cullerton pledged to find an answer to the area's parking woes, but acknowledged that the city's much-loathed parking meter deal makes it difficult to change where the spots are located.
One proposed design for the People Spot would be a life-size timeline of Portage Park's history, starting in the prehistoric era and traveling though the area's time as a prairie and then farmland and finally as part of the city of Chicago, Mistry said.
Key moments in Portage Park's history would be painted on the sidewalk, Mistry said.
The other design would have separate segments that could be changed or replaced easily, Mistry said. One could be designed as a garden, while other parts could display wares from nearby stores or give kids a place to play with some playground equipment, Mistry said.
There was no consensus at the meeting on which design should be selected.
The first People Spots appeared last summer in the Lakeview, Andersonville, Kenwood and Grand Boulevard neighborhoods and drew rave reviews from some residents — and some criticism from business owners for taking up crucial parking spots and driving away customers.
If it is built, the People Spot should be located on McVicker Avenue just off Irving Park Road to avoid taking up parking spots on Irving Park, Cullerton said.
The People Spot would take up at least one but as many as four parking spots, and would be enclosed by a guardrail to protect people from traffic, Mistry said.
From Austin to Meade avenues, Irving Park Road has two 10-foot east-west lanes. Because it is a state route under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Transportation, the city does not have the authority to adjust the width of the lanes or reduce the number of lanes.
In addition to giving the district's businesses a shot in the arm, the city project is designed to "create spaces that create community and culture," said Chicago Department of Transportation project manager Lubica Benak.
The project will also include ramps at each corner to ease the path for wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles, Benak said. Benches, bike racks and new trash cans would also be installed as part of the project, she added.