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Washington Park Too Focused on Moving Traffic, Landscape Expert Says

By Sam Cholke | February 9, 2016 6:11am | Updated on February 9, 2016 12:25pm

WASHINGTON PARK — Landscape experts who promised to evaluate Washington Park returned on Monday night with ideas for the park that included new roads, lots of new trees and getting rid of a hidden island ropes course.

Patricia O’Donnell of Heritage Landscapes, an expert on Washington Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, promised in November to look into improving Washington Park as part of her assessments of Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance for the Chicago Park District and nonprofit Project 120.

O’Donnell returned Monday for a meeting at the Washington Park Refectory, 5531 S. King Drive, with ideas that could take more than 15 years to complete and cost millions of dollars — with no funding source yet identified.

Her broadest recommendation was sweeping changes to the roadways in the park that would free up 7 acres that are barely used and considerably slow traffic.

“This is a park, not a highway, and we want to favor bikers and walkers over cars because this is their space to get away from the city,” O’Donnell said. “We would like to discourage these high-speed travelers to make it safer for those who use the park.”

She suggested making several roads one-way, particularly around a triangle of parkland bordered by Rainey, Morgan and Payne drives.

“That triangle is seven acres and you can’t get there, there are no paths,” O’Donnell said.

Her plan would route traffic around the intersections of the three drives as if it were a big roundabout and eliminate the tricky turns drivers now try to make across busy traffic lanes.

“Paint is cheap, you can paint it and if it doesn’t work, take it out,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell also suggested restoring a road connecting Payne Drive and Ellsworth Drive at the north end of the park that was eliminated when Dyett High School was built. She suggested replacing the spaces in the current parking lot to street spaces on the new road.

She said the change would allow a more conducive space to be set up for UniverSoul Circus, the African Festival of the Arts and other large park events without disturbing the people who use the park every day.

“It’s just a possible solution,” O’Donnell said.

She also suggested reopening a now-gated island at the park that is home to a ropes course and only open to organized groups.

She said Project 120 and the advisory council were working on more immediate goals too, like getting new picnic tables and resuming regular tree plantings in the park that has lost nearly half of its trees.

“We can fit over 1,000 new trees just to match what used to be in the park,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a lot less alive, you could say, than it used to be.”

The Chicago Park District has agreed to work collaboratively with O’Donnell, Project 120 and other community groups on creating a vision for the long-term future of Jackson and Washington parks and the Midway Plaisance, but there is no funding for any of the ideas for Washington Park.

O’Donnell is starting her investigation of the Midway Plaisance and is expected to return to the community with ideas in coming months.

This map shows the new road O'Donnell suggested to replace a parking lot and the changes to one-way streets for three drives on the far right of the map. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

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