Aldermen held off June 24 on a temporary closing of Elgin Road for a traffic study to look at possibly closing the downtown street to traffic someday. Rendering from City of Evanston materials 

Members of a City Council committee applied the brakes June 24 to an alderman’s proposal for a temporary closing of Elgin Road just north of the downtown later this summer for a pilot traffic study, after extensive public comment in which residents raised strong objections to the move.

Aldermen on the Council’s Planning & Development (P&D) Committee opted not to pursue the pilot plan for now and switched gears to looking at holding a future meeting on how to make the road safer.

Aldermen Judy Fiske, in whose First Ward the diagonal street is located, had proposed a discussion of a pilot study to take place in July and August, to evaluate a temporary closing of Elgin Road between Emerson Street and Orrington Avenue. The proposed study would look at the potential benefits of restoring the City’s original grid system at downtown’s northern edge.

Ald. Fiske referred to an email from a former resident of the City, now living in Melbourne, Australia, as spurring her own long-held concerns about the safety of the street.

In his April 2 letter and attached material, Ted Rosenbaum, citing his work on transit issues in cities around the world, called Elgin Road an “outlier” to the downtown’s otherwise regular grid of streets, running northwest at a sharp angle until reaching Emerson Street.

Mr. Rosenbaum, who grew up in Evanston, argued that  closing Elgin Road between Emerson and Clark streets could produce a new parcel at the corner of Clark Street and Sherman Avenue, large enough for a new Civic Center, as well as create new public green space and allow for a new protected bicycle route in the former right-of-way.

Presently, he maintained, “Elgin Road acts as a traffic sewer – as 1960s IDOT [Illinois Department of Transportation] engineers likely intended –  and as a bypass for drivers wanting to go between points north/west of downtown Evanston and the lake or points south, while avoiding the downtown area to the extent possible.”

Along the entire half-mile stretch of road, the only building that faces Elgin Road in a meaningful way is Northwestern University’s School of Music, he maintained.

Ald. Fiske said her interest was in the safety aspect of the changes and that space for a new civic center was not her focus.

“I, myself, when I was riding my bike, was hit by a car in the middle of the intersection,” she said. “Elgin Road is a very busy street where people are going from Point A to Point B pretty much as fast as they can.”

In a memo on the issue, Community Development Director Johanna Leonard and Transportation and Mobility Coordinator Jessica Hyink noted that “restoration of the traditional street grid provides increased connectivity. The closure of Elgin Road is anticipated to result in improved pedestrian safety and walkability. Furthermore, it will enhance the downtown shopping experience and make access to downtown from surrounding residential areas more user friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

 But a number of residents living in the area spoke against the street closure, citing the little advance notice of City consideration and questioning the assumptions behind the change.

“The proposal to close Elgin Road has the potential to seriously and materially adversely affect the access of owners, residents and their guests at 800 Elgin,” said Julie Workman, speaking on behalf of the 800 Elgin Condominium Association as well as for the property manager of the 16-story, 246-unit building.

“The sheer volume of traffic into and out of the property that would be rerouted is enough, in and of itself to make a person question the wisdom of this proposal. The proposal would effectively eliminate the delivery and pickup point for people and packages. The Association and the property manager of 800 Elgin are fully in favor of evaluating improvements to pedestrian and vehicular safety on Elgin Road. However, these improvements cannot and should not be imposed impulsively and without considering the impact on property owners in the vicinity,” Ms. Workman added

Carole Bass, a member of the Downtown Evanston board and president of the 800 Elgin Road association, challenged a statement in Mr. Rosenbaum’s report suggesting Northwestern’s School of Music was the only building that faces Elgin Road in “a meaningful way” in the entire half-mile stretch of road.

“Our building is a block long and 16 stories tall – it’s a presence,” Ms. Bass told Council members. “Our front door is on Elgin Road. The box for the building’s emergency services is at our Elgin Road entrance. Our many elderly and disabled residents catch their cabs, Ubers and Lyfts on Elgin Road. School buses use the Elgin Road entrance. … Delivery services deliver more than 30 meals and more than 200 packages each day at our Elgin Road entrance. I would characterize this activity as meaningful.”

Jerald Segall, another resident of 800 Elgin Road, called the proposal “very destructive.” “I know any of you on the board would hate to have your house barricaded,” he told aldermen. “And that’s how I feel: you are barricading our house.”

 In discussion, Ald. Fiske stressed that the pilot traffic study was set on the committee’s agenda for discussion. She said some of the ideas raised in Mr. Rosenbaum’s letter related to issues she has been trying to work on with neighbors for many years.

In the vicinity of Elgin Road, between Maple and Chicago avenues, she said, there have been several instances of people being hit crossing the street. “So we have a problem that I see for pedestrian safety from Orrington Avenue all the way up to Maple.

“These are concerns to me as ward alderman, and when I was reading the letter,” she said, “one of the things I was struck by was is it plausible for us to do a redesign of the north end of the downtown to make it safer for pedestrians.”

 “We have a big table here in Evanston. If this isn’t going to be a win-win for everyone then it’s not going to work, and I’m not going to support it if it’s not a win-win for everyone,” she said.

On the other hand, she pointed to past proposals, which initially received opposition at the start, such as the bike lanes on Chicago Avenue, as well as the Fountain Square redevelopment, and  are now regarded as successes.

Other Council members did not challenge the alderman’s concerns about safety, but suggested the City first had to take some other steps.

“I think probably the one thing everybody in the room could agree on is this road could be safer,” said Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward. “I don’t think there is anybody who could take issue with that point.”

Noting that the item was up for discussion, the idea of a traffic study was “not up for a vote, it’s not up for approval or not approval, he said. “The point of this is to vet the idea,” he said.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, spoke of the City’s moving prematurely on the issue, which appeared in the City packet late last week as an item for discussion, and had not been a topic of previous City meetings.

 “You should not have heard about this like you did,” she said. “This was our fault.”

 If this was an idea that the Council wanted to entertain, then having community meetings and discussions with residents living along Elgin Road would have been a much better way of proceeding, she said.

Short of a street closure, “we have lots of tools available to us to model traffic,” said Ald. Wynne, a longtime member of the City’s Transportation and Parking Committee. “We don’t need to shut down this road to find out what would happen if we did.”

The City has made use of computer models for years to determine traffic questions, such as a left turn from Ridge Avenue onto Dempster. “So there are a lot of actual ways to study this without closing the road,” she said.

 She said Elgin Road serves as her own route and that of others, heading to the Morton Civic Center, where City meetings are held.

 Driving north on Hinman Avenue, “I cross across Clark from Elgin and turn on Foster. So this is my diagonal route, along with everybody who lives in my area of the City. If we close, I have to find another route across Evanston. The other routes are Davis, filled with pedestrians … Dempster or turning north on Ridge,” she said.
“I do my best not to drive on Ridge for reasons we all know. Elgin has been in place, by my calculations 57 years. That’s one third of Evanston’s history. If we’re going to alter something that much, we need a really significant discussion about what’s the value of doing that.”

In his letter, Mr. Rosenbaum noted that Elgin Road grew out of an Illinois Department of Transportation engineer’s vision of State Route 58 stretching from a growing exurb named Elgin right to the Lake Michigan beaches.

“Fifty years on, it’s important to ask: ‘Is Elgin Road working for current and future Evanstonians?’” he said.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.