AVONDALE — Construction has been temporarily halted in an underpass below the Kennedy Expressway on about a dozen pitched “anti-homeless” barriers that some residents and local officials have considered unsafe.
Work on the roughly 5½-foot-high barricades between expressway columns — barriers designed to make the spaces too uncomfortable for the homeless to sleep in — began in May on the Kennedy underpass at the corner of Belmont and Kedzie avenues, the site of a longtime transient encampment.
But, according to Ald. Rey Colon (35th), construction of the barriers has been suspended pending development of a safer plan with the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Some residents said the height of the barriers created a potentially dangerous “chunnel” where views are obstructed and pedestrians could be trapped in an emergency.
Barriers on the north side of Belmont avenue were almost complete.
"What I’ve been told is they’re slowing down the process to provide a lower version" for the south side of Belmont, a plan that would make it “easier for police to monitor” the underpass, Colon said.
According to Colon, a meeting CDOT is in the works so he can help decide the construction specifics for the south side of Belmont. Once those are complete, the plan is to redo the north side of the street, Colon said.
The alderman said of the halt in construction: “It’s not that I put a stop to it so much as we had agreed that we could review [the plans] and they put something there that no one agreed to.”
CDOT "didn’t seek my approval last time,” Colon said, adding that the police district’s commander had also expressed doubts over the barrier height.
“There are plans to change it and that’s what has put a stop to construction. It won’t move forward until there’s agreement on what that final change looks like,” Colon said.
Original plans for the concrete rows stemmed from longstanding complaints on safety regarding the homeless encampment. But some residents claimed the barricades simply shifted the transient community elsewhere.
An "off-street cleaning" at the underpass, directed by Streets and Sanitation employees, effectively evacuated a number of transient men on June 6, but many have since returned. With the pitched barriers currently in various stages of development, the area is still used as an encampment, as it has been for about a decade.
About 12 men gather there on any night, according to Lazaro Alcazar, 56, who has lived at the underpass for two years.
As of yet, neither CDOT or Illinois Department of Transportation officials have claimed full responsibility for the construction, though IDOT officials have provided an April 2014 contract with the city for up to $60,000. In the agreement, CDOT agrees to “make the surveys, obtain all necessary rights of way, obtain all necessary permits, prepare plans and specifications, furnish engineering inspection during construction and cause the improvement to be built in accordance with the approved plans.”
IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said the project was being handled jointly by the state and city transportation departments. CDOT spokesman Pete Scales has not responded to multiple messages from DNAinfo Chicago.
Avondale resident Justin Newman, who is seeking information about the planning, construction and cost of the barriers, said two Freedom of Information Act requests — one to CDOT and another to IDOT — on the project were returned to him last week. Newman had requested construction records and engineering reports for the area from July 2012 to the present, but both were effectively declined.
Newman is a technologist and information activist who frequents community meetings in the neighborhood.
“Please be advised the Department of Transportation neither maintains nor possesses any records that are responsive to your FOIA request,” reads a CDOT response to his FOIA.
Likewise, IDOT officials denied “possession” of the records, stating that "the Bureau of Construction found no records of any construction project at the site in question and, therefore, has no information of any meetings.”
But IDOT construction records for the intersection obtained by Colon show that preliminary plans for the pitched underpass barriers were sent to state Sen. Iris Y. Martinez (D-Chicago) distributed after a meeting Colon said took place in October 2013. Colon said the plans didn't reach his office until after construction began.
“The information related to the construction at Belmont and Kedzie has been fairly sketchy — it’s been unclear who designed the improvements and with what input,” Newman added. “As such, I’m very curious to obtain the background information used by the state and the city to make these decision.”
"I'm on a digging expedition," Newman added. "Who’s paying for this? I just want to know.”
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: