DOWNTOWN — The people who want to straighten out Lake Shore Drive's S-curve around Oak Street Beach have eye-popping new renderings of the ambitious project's side effect — a new 70-acre park jutting out into Lake Michigan.
As part of the project, the beaches at Oak Street and Ohio Street would get enormous upgrades.
That's because straightening out the drive's S-curve would require government officials to push the beaches into the lake and buffer them with the 70 acres of new parkland, proponents say.
Such work would be on par with the recent conversion of Meigs Field to a nature preserve on Northerly Island, or the completion of Downtown's Museum Campus just off the drive in 1998. If realized, the new park could be just as popular as either, proponents say.
Keeping Chicago's lakefront "forever open, clear and free" has been a public mandate since 1836 and was championed by legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who co-authored the 1909 "Plan of Chicago."
"This is one of the best things we can do to improve not just our neighborhood, but the entire city," 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins told Streeterville neighbors Tuesday night. "I think Daniel Burnham would be proud."
The new park and revamped drive have been discussed for years, and such work requires the cooperation and funding of various government entities. The project's cost was last estimated at $177 million in 2014, but it would certainly command far more than that based on the latest renderings, which include sinking Lake Shore Drive underground for a stretch.
The North Lake Shore Drive project, formally hatched in 2013, is a joint effort between neighborhood groups, the Chicago and Illinois departments of transportation, the Chicago Park District and the Federal Highway Administration.
Construction wouldn't start until at least 2020, even if the plan is approved, proponents say. Where bus lanes would go and many other variables have not been determined.
Plans also call for reconfiguring the Chicago Avenue exit off Lake Shore Drive, a common source of traffic jams today.
The new renderings were shared at a public forum late last year, and at a town hall meeting Tuesday hosted by the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents.
"We are encouraged by the response and feedback we are receiving during the study process," Gianna Urgo, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said in a statement. "We will review and evaluate this proposal as we do all others as part of this project."
A Park District spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment.
Plans also call for reconfiguring the Chicago Avenue intersection off Lake Shore Drive, which Hopkins said "defies" all sound practices in modern traffic engineering.
The Chicago Avenue exit currently requires a traffic light in the middle of one of Lake Shore Drive's narrowest, most congested stretches, causing long backups both on the drive and in Streeterville as drivers there wait to enter.
New entry/exit lanes would be built off the drive, and the drive itself would run beneath a new underpass in an attempt to clear traffic at the busy intersection.
Howard Melton has lived in Streeterville since 1997 and is part of the neighborhood group that has long advocated building a new Downtown park east of Lake Shore Drive, mainly to protect the drive from winter storms. A new, proposed man-made island somewhere between Grand and North avenues would protect the lakefront, too.
"Given the current political situation in Illinois, everything is focused on the day-to-day; this is long-term," Melton said. "It's probably a once-in-a-couple-lifetimes opportunity."
[Renderings courtesy of VOA Associates]