Traffic concerns raised on new high school plan on Oak Park
by BRIAN NADIG
Concerns about traffic flow and safety around the planned new high school at 4001-4201 N. Oak Park Ave. were raised at the Oct. 19 meeting of the Chicago Plan Commission.
Area industrial users testified that Normandy Avenue, which would serve as the sole vehicular exit from the school, would not be a safe route for students given the high number of trucks that use the street. The commission approved a planned development ordinance for the project, but business owners are hoping some revisions can be made.
"The 53-foot trucks that drop off our raw materials and pick up our finished goods on a heavily utilized 8-10 a.m. drop-off and 3 to 5 p.m. pickup schedule will compete with cars and school buses dropping off/picking up children and children walking down Normandy.
"In addition to producing a snarled mass impacting our businesses, the mixture is a safety issue with a disaster waiting to happen," representatives of area businesses said in a letter to the commission. The school would be located on an 18-acre parcel next to the Wright Campus Business Park in the Read-Dunning development area.
Currents plans call for a one-way eastbound roadway with protected bike lanes to be installed along the north end of the campus from Oak Park Avenue to Normandy, which currently dead ends where the 69-space parking lot for the school would be built. Normandy is a two-way street that runs through the industrial park between Montrose Avenue/Forest Preserve Drive.
Eli’s Cheesecake owner Marc Schulman said that a better alternative would be to install a two-way street which would run from Oak Park to a circular driveway in front of the school. He said that the circular driveway would help discourage parents from dropping their children off on Normandy or in one of the parking lots for a nearby company.
"We believe that entry and exit to the school should be from Oak Park and Irving Park, streets designed to accommodate higher volume, mixed-use traffic, and Normandy should continue to remain as is," the letter states.
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th) said that he and project officials plan to meet with Schulman to discuss alternatives but that use of Irving Park for the school is "out of the question" because of the congestion that already exists on that street. Incorporating Bittersweet Place, which runs east from Oak Park into the industrial park, into a traffic flow plan for the school may be considered, he said.
Schulman said that business owners support the opening of the school but wish area businesses has been included earlier in the planning process. "We think mixing truck and school traffic is a recipe for disaster," he said.
Schulman also recommended that there be access to the school from the nearby Wright College campus to assist those high school students who would be using the Narragansett Avenue bus.
In a report to the plan commission, project officials stated that the site plan was designed in part to "keep students away from major traffic flows" on the main thoroughfares and for "optimal orientation for play fields." A three-story classroom building and a one-story gym would be built at the northeast corner of the site, with an outdoor jogging track at the southwest end, near the Oak Park-Irving Park intersection.
"It also was determined based on traffic counts that Normandy has capacity to accept additional traffic. The school has agreed to provide traffic support and direction to prevent parents from utilizing Normandy as a drop-off-pickup area," the staff report states.
The campus would be constructed next to the 38th Ward Streets and Sanitation Yard and a planned city vehicle repair facility, and plans are being made to reroute traffic between the yard and the pile of roadway salt which is stored there "to eliminate cross traffic at the school," according to the report.
Sposato said that the salt pile is "an eyesore" and he hopes it can be relocated but that finding another area location that is convenient for city salt trucks could be difficult. "Let’s chip away at it this year and next and then take a look at it," he said.
The report also states that the site plan was developed in part due to "archeological concerns" in an apparent reference to the possibility of human remains could be buried on or near the parcel. Thousands of indigents and mentally ill, many of who were believed to be patients at what is now the Chicago Read Mental Hospital, were buried on the Read-Dunning site in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Oak Park Avenue runs through a former cemetery, and the presence of human remains under the street delayed a roadway project there about 2 years ago. The project was redesigned to avoid the caskets.
The school is being constructed near a former children’s village for the hospital, and there are reports that some of the children would dig up skulls and bones, but it is not clear if the digging occurred in the village or further away where one of the two main cemeteries were located, according to historian Barry Fleig, who has documented the graves in the area.
Project officials have indicated that any digging for the school’s construction has been planned for areas where bodies are not believed to have been buried," Sposato said. "They feel it’s not going to be an issue," he said.
Fleig said that his "best guess" is that there were no organized burials on the site of the planned school but that human remains have been found in many parts of the Read-Dunning development area, where 38,000 people are believed to have been buried. "They kept running out of places for (the caskets)," he said.
The school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019. It will be used as a freshman campus of the overcrowded Taft High School or as a new 4-year high school for the Dunning area.
Some of the area’s businesses owners have expressed concern that the planned 69-space parking lot for the school would not be large enough to accommodate teachers and visitors.
Following the plan commission’s recommendation, the City Council Zoning Committee also approved the planned development ordinance for the school, according to Sposato.
Meanwhile, construction of a multi-purpose athletic field that would be located on the Read-Dunning site north of the school campus is expected to start next year, Sposato said. The Chicago Park District will be maintaining the field, whose construction is being funded with a state grant.