‘Shared street’ on Argyle is off to bumpy start

'Shared street' in Uptown opens to public

A three-block stretch of Argyle Street in Uptown that was transformed into Chicago’s first “shared street” has created confusion among drivers and garnered mixed reviews from local business owners and pedestrians.

The $3.6 million project on Argyle between Broadway and Sheridan Road, designed to mirror a European-style plaza shared by pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, reopened in late August to traffic in each direction after more than a year of construction. But drivers are uncertain how to maneuver the street, which is at the same level as the sidewalk and without curbs, signs or typical pavement markings.

Asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks were swapped out for colored pavers on the shared street, which is dotted with Vietnamese restaurants, Asian grocery stores, flower shops and a few empty storefronts — as well as the CTA‘s Argyle Red Line stop, which received $10 million in improvements in 2012. The street is so confusing to some people that the local alderman’s office is handing out fliers telling people how to navigate it.

“The parking here is kind of confusing after this (project) because you’re not sure where to park, so you park anywhere,” said Kuin Lieu, 20, who has lived nearby for 10 years and works at Miss Saigon restaurant on the street. He said he’s seen people park blocking an alley and encroaching on the sidewalk.

Officials stressed the project is not finished. New pavement, streetlights and decorative bike racks have been installed, but signs, parking meter boxes and trees are still missing. Landscaping is slated for later in the fall when cooler weather arrives.

“Because this is a new concept, we’ve been well aware an education effort is required,” said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Claffey acknowledged one hiccup in particular: the hues of batches of pavers to signify parking spots did not match. The city decided to have the contractor install them anyway to avoid delaying the project, he said. Over the next four to six weeks, crews will continue to replace the pavers in the parking lane so they are one consistent color, a cost that will be paid for by the contractor, not the city, he said.

The city selected Argyle as a pilot location with the aim of boosting economic development, creating space for outdoor cafes and providing flexibility to easily close the street to vehicles and host special events, such as Chinese New Year festivities and the Argyle Night Market held weekly in the summer at Sheridan Road, Claffey said. The project also addresses traffic on Argyle, which has heavy pedestrian use but isn’t a major through street, he said. Argyle has low vehicular traffic but enough that city officials wanted to reduce drivers’ speed because it’s a shared space — not a typical city street, Claffey said.

The project was funded by money from tax-increment financing, bonds issued by the city’s Department of Water Management and city funds allocated to the alderman for infrastructure projects, Claffey said.

The new road slightly curves with the help of planters, which will collect stormwater. It also features raised crosswalks and retains parking and loading areas. Light sandstone-colored pavers designate parking spots, while brown pavers are used for pedestrian areas and traffic lanes. Dark gray grooved pavers mark the curb line, but drivers appear to be incorrectly using the concrete gutter as the defining line where the street meets the sidewalk.

It’s easy to see how the street has become chaotic. While construction was underway, the street was temporarily turned into a one-way route to keep access open. Now, traffic is allowed to travel east and west. But despite orange road signs indicating two-way traffic, cars still park on both sides of the street facing east.

Leigh Ferguson, who works in the area and visited Argyle Street for lunch on a recent afternoon, said she liked the idea of a more pedestrian-friendly area with wider sidewalks. “It invites people to come, eat and shop in the area,” she said.

But Ellen Duong, 25, who had to endure noise of construction while working inside the Qideas plant shop her family has owned for 15 years, said “it wasn’t built efficiently or effectively.” She said more lighting is needed on the street, and people have stumbled over tree grates that have holes where trees will be planted. The holes have been temporarily covered by wood planks.

Employees and volunteers from Ald. Harry Osterman’s office are planning to hand out fliers to drivers and pedestrians Thursday and Friday informing them how to use the street, said Dan Luna, Osterman’s chief of staff. On Friday, the alderman visited various businesses, asking them to post fliers in their windows showing customers how to park and drive there, he said.

Chicago doesn’t have many pedestrian-oriented corridors, said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. Having a bigger space for pedestrians allows people to gather, explore and shop without cars whizzing by, he said.

The project has marketing benefits too, Schwieterman said, because it helps “give Argyle a more distinctive cultural brand and image, and that’s long overdue.” That identity can help Argyle Street become more of a destination for people with spending power and those looking for a cultural experience, he said.

“Argyle has never quite achieved that. When people think of an Asian neighborhood they think of Chinatown, and Argyle Street barely registered,” Schwieterman said.

Officials hope the shared street will encourage businesses to stay open later. “It’s the alderman’s wish to really try to keep Argyle energized not just before 6 p.m. but throughout the evening as well,” said Luna, of Ald. Osterman’s office.

Shop owners said their businesses suffered duringthe road construction, but they are hopeful things will pick up.

“Now it looks better than before,” said An Dang, owner of New World Watch Sale & Repair. “But business I hope goes up when it’s finished.”

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