This past Saturday, my wife and I took public transit to Logan Square to meet up with some friends, and while we were waiting for them to arrive, we decided to grab a drink on the Logan Bar and Grill’s sidewalk patio. As we were talking, I realized something so common yet so amazing was happening right alongside us.
The street was buzzing with activity!
In addition to the people dining and drinking on the sidewalk with us, there were people of all stripes passing on foot, en route to other destinations in the neighborhood. Bicyclists were riding by. Cars filled the roads in all directions. In one hour at our table, I probably saw more activity along a single block of California Avenue than I see on 95th Street in a week.
Full disclosure: There was a street fest taking place just around the corner, which was starting to kick into gear by 4 p.m. But I speak as a one-time Logan Square resident when I say this scene is not unusual. The intersection of Milwaukee and California avenues is a tremendously busy place. The California Blue Line station sees nearly 5,000 riders per day (1.5 million in a year), while Milwaukee and California combined carry about 28,000 cars per day (12,000 on Milwaukee and 16,000 on California).
What’s most significant about this part of town, though, is that it possesses a traditional neighborhood design that facilitates all this activity. First of all, the main streets are just one lane in each direction, meaning that the type of reckless driving — speeding, jockeying for position, etc. — you see on 95th Street, Western Avenue and other roadways in our neighborhood with four-plus lanes is a bit more difficult. These more predictable and calmer traffic patterns help support a healthy amount of foot traffic bicycle activity on the Logan Square streets, because people feel safer to be on them.
Second, these streets have a mix of uses, including bars, restaurants, professional offices and banks. Many of the buildings on Milwaukee and California also contain residences, which add even more potential pedestrians to the street. In the surrounding residential areas, you have a mix of single family homes, apartments, condos and civic institutions like churches and schools. This physical closeness means daily needs can be met on foot.
Third, the parking that does exist is primarily in the form of on-street spaces. Most individual buildings don’t include their own off-street parking lots for visitors. This is crucial. The metered spaces enable frequent turnover, but they also enable foot traffic. If you park in an on-street space, you can visit multiple businesses in this area during the metered time before having to move in your car. Off-street spaces for individual businesses, on the other hand, all but ensure that a motorist is just visiting a single site in the neighborhood. (In the case of a Wilmette Dairy Queen, you risk being towed for visiting a different business.) Or, they mean a person is inconveniently moving the car any time he or she wants to go somewhere else.
Most importantly, Logan Square’s traditional urban design supports a diverse neighborhood population. For the most part, it remains unchanged from the community’s early days. This walkable format has supported everyone from the primarily blue collar residents who have long lived in the neighborhood to the artists who began moving to the area in the past 15 years to the even newer crop of yuppies. The traditional neighborhood is incredibly adaptable, which is more than can be said for large-scale, auto-oriented developments. Even newer developments in the area are taking a similar form.
If the Beverly area is to grow and develop a healthier business climate, we should be taking cues from neighborhoods where the built environment is clearly having an impact. That doesn’t necessarily mean turning our neighborhood into Logan Square, but it does mean thinking about what it is about that community’s — or a similar community’s — development pattern that supports the type of activity I observed on Saturday. True, we don’t have a train station that is quite as busy as the California Blue Line stop, but our 95th Street Metra station sees 1,013 boardings and alightings (people exiting the train) every weekday. (The Rock Island Line overall has nearly 28,000 passenger trips per week.) That’s not to mention the nearly 50,000 people who live in the surrounding zip code, many of whom are within walking distance of this train station and others. In other words, we have the foundation for a great pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. We just have to ask ourselves whether we want to build on it or rip it up.