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Uptown Entertainment District Plans Revealed: Plaza, Street Overhauls, More

 The $6 million streetscape plan is scheduled to start construction next year.
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UPTOWN — A $6 million streetscape project in the heart of Uptown's entertainment district would create a people plaza outside the Riviera Theatre and give a nearby street a European-style makeover.

The Broadway/Lawrence streetscape plan, still under development, is part of a larger vision of creating a bustling entertainment corridor in the neighborhood, which could also include the rebirth of the Uptown Theatre.

"We're laying out the foundation to create more economic development in this area, and this is a part of it," 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman said Tuesday night at a town hall meeting with residents and city officials.

The Chicago Department of Transportation showed off renderings of the streetscape plan, as well as plans for the former Borders building, which sits vacant at 4718 N. Broadway across from the Riviera.

The plan will repave parts of Broadway and Lawrence, Clifton and Racine avenues, install light poles, banners and planters identifying the neighborhood, add curb bump-outs and plant more than 50 new trees. But the meat of the effort is the creation of "Racine Plaza" outside the Riviera at Racine Avenue and Broadway.

Renderings show a plaza with outdoor cafe-style seating, a low-to-the-ground stage and a multicolored, ring-shaped sculpture symbolizing various aspects of Uptown's history, character and diverse population. The sculpture could include lighting of some sort.

Resident Kevin Zolkiewicz said the project might increase Uptown's appeal, "so it's not a place where people just go to a show and then they run off and do something else."

"It could hopefully urge more businesses to come into the area, maybe more restaurants and places for people to go," he said.

The city also would give Clifton Avenue between Lawrence Avenue and Broadway a "shared street"-inspired makeover as "Clifton Plaza" that would slow cars, blur the lines between sidewalks and driving lanes and prioritize pedestrian use. A pedestrian island would be installed to help people cross Broadway.

The design concept, also planned on nearby Argyle Street, is more prevalent in European cities and doesn't exist yet in Chicago.

Cappleman said the streetscape projects could set the stage "for this to be a vital area." The strip of Broadway between the defunct Uptown Theatre and a soon to be rehabbed Wilson Red Line station is considered a commercial artery essential to revitalization visions in Uptown.

Uptown resident Albert Johnson, 45, said Uptown is "due for a face-lift." If officials "can tie [the Wilson Station project] along with what they're trying to do on this end of Broadway, it would be a nice transition," toward a new Uptown, Johnson said at the meeting Tuesday.

He said he hopes the neighborhood eventually can add businesses to make the CDOT renderings come to life.

"We don't have the businesses to sustain that," Johnson said. "I don't think a lot of this works until they have the businesses … there's too many vacancies the whole way down" Broadway.

The entire streetscape would be a two-phase project funded by Tax Increment Financing.

The first phase is scheduled to start next spring on parts of the planned streetscape north of Leland Avenue. CDOT officials said the rest of work south of Leland must wait until CTA wraps up the $203 million rebuild of the Wilson Red Line station in 2017.

A contentious topic at Tuesday's meeting was the issue of installing permanent seating in the area.  Cappleman's office maintained that benches in certain parts of Uptown attract public drinking and vagrancy.

Janet Attarian of CDOT told residents "seating has been a little bit of an issue in this neighborhood and we want to be sensitive as to where those benches go." Sometimes, she said, benches "are used for things like drug sales if they're on the wrong corner."

Uptown resident Jeffrey Littleton fired back: "I don't think this is going to turn into a drug corner if you put in benches." He said "senior citizens like benches, and senior citizens don't sell drugs, generally."

Uptown resident Gene Tenner said he supports the entire streetscape plan because it holds "an economic benefit, it looks prettier, and it's safer for everybody."

He said Broadway often has "cars whizzing down the street" amid cyclists and pedestrians, including the elderly and disabled.

"Calm it down a little bit, make it safer for everybody, and with that comes an economic benefit. When you have people slowing down, you have people who can go shop by bicycle as well as car," he said.

He predicts that "if you look at Chicago 20 years from now it's not going to be as car-dominant as it once was. You're going to see projects like this going up all over the place."

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