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After Toddler Killed By Van, Aldermen Differ On How To Make Street Safer

By Alex Nitkin | November 18, 2016 6:20am
 A makeshift memorial for Noah Katz, 2, at the intersection of Giddings Avenue and Central Avenue, where he was struck by a van Sunday.
A makeshift memorial for Noah Katz, 2, at the intersection of Giddings Avenue and Central Avenue, where he was struck by a van Sunday.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

JEFFERSON PARK — Ald. John Arena (45th) is plunging into an effort to slow down traffic along the stretch of Central Avenue where Noah Katz, 2, was struck and killed by a man driving a van Sunday.

Just after 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Noah and his mother were crossing Central at a crosswalk when Alexander Vasquez, 48, made a left turn from Giddings Street and struck both of them, according to police.

On Monday, Arena pledged to revive a proposal to extend sidewalks out into Central, a strip residents have long decried as a dangerous thoroughfare in a residential neighborhood. The alderman had submitted a plan in 2015 for the "pedestrian bump-outs" on Leland Avenue — a block south of where Noah would be killed — but city transportation officials shot it down, according to his chief of staff, Owen Brugh.

As a first step, Arena proposed a measure in the City Council this week to strip away parking restrictions along Central during rush hour, which would turn the avenue into a permanent one-lane street. He hopes to see the measure approved by the end of December and the bump-outs built by the spring, Brugh said.

But complicating the process is the boundary that ends Arena's ward, straddling Central itself and placing a large chunk of the area in question into the control of Ald. Nick Sposato (38th).

And Sposato, unlike Arena, expressed caution over potential changes to the streetscape.

"This is a complicated issue, and it's not as simple as just being able to say 'Let's immediately lift the parking restrictions,'" Sposato said Thursday. "For every action there's an opposite reaction ... do I want to see bumper-to-bumper [traffic] on that street?"

"I can assure you, if I lift those restrictions, people are going to park on those streets forever, and businesses are going to be upset about that," he added.

Sposato also balked at the cost of the bump-outs, which Brugh said would be about $125,000 to install at Central and Giddings.

Sposato will meet with representatives from the Chicago Department of Transportation to discuss possible projects, he said. But at the end of the day, he puts the burden of safety on drivers, not the streets they travel.

"I get calls every day about how we need to get more speed bumps, or more stop signs," he said. "But how do you get people to stop blowing stop signs? How do you get them to stop cutting through alleys?"

After he hit Noah, Vasquez was arrested and ticketed for violations including disregarding a stop sign and failing to yield at a crosswalk, according to police.

The strip of Central Avenue has long been a point of concern for residents, according to Bob Bank, president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. Staggered with three-way intersections, it can be hard to get drivers to look out for pedestrians, he said.

"It's very difficult to cross over there — cars can build up some pretty good speed," Bank said. "Even at Lawrence [Avenue], people will just roll through making a right on red."

The neighborhood has been "broadly supportive" of methods to increase safety, like installing flashing stop signs or electronic speed signs, but it hasn't taken a position on pedestrian bump-outs, he said.

Arena, like Sposato, promised to meet with city transportation officials to hash out possible solutions. Also like Sposato, he acknowledged that it wouldn't be enough to guarantee safety.

"All of the tools we have will not be effective unless drivers adjust their behavior," Arena wrote in a Monday Facebook post. "Minding stop signs, reducing our speed, and staying focused on driving by actively looking for pedestrians and cyclists will have the biggest effect on safety in our city."

As of Thursday night, a fundraising page for Noah's family had collected more than $27,500.

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