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Reconnecting Chinatown with Community, Renderings, and Plans

co-authored by Hugo Coronado, MPC Associate

Re-envisioning viaducts to improve community connectivity

Chicago’s history as a freight hub and rail infrastructure has always been part of the urban landscape. Communities like Chinatown developed around this infrastructure, but over time, people have become more aware of how extremely long viaducts under rail bridges serve as a significant barrier to walkability. Residents of Chinatown have been brainstorming possibilities for years to improve this area of their neighborhood. MPC’s Reconnecting Communities Report formally documented the need to redesign the area under the viaducts as a priority to improve pedestrian connections.

To bring the projects in this report to life, MPC started investigating how projects can get into the pipeline for future interventions. After multiple meetings with local community-based organizations and government agencies, we realized the process is not straightforward. The challenges that communities face to advance projects of this type go from understanding ownership of the infrastructure to figuring out how to develop a nascent idea into a physical project concept to identifying shared maintenance responsibilities of space. However, after discussion with multiple city agencies, the conclusion was that the first step was a clear vision of what the community wants the space to be.

Building a vision for a project is not easy; it requires taking multiple ideas from the community and finding common ground. Given that we learned that communities need to develop their vision to get a project advanced, we needed to find ways to support them in developing it. Design Trust Chicago (DTC) is a local non-profit that provides access to pro-bono design services for community-based organizations. In partnership with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC), we started the work to envision exciting new possibilities for the Chinatown viaducts.

DTC and CBCAC started with a walking tour of the area to understand the community’s lived experiences with the viaducts. With that input, DTC built profiles of each viaduct to share with the community members at the first public meeting and get feedback on how residents wanted them to change. Residents shared how they feel crossing the viaducts, where they try to go, and how these passageways can be improved.

Residents prioritized the viaduct on 23rd and Stewart due to its role in community. DTC used this viaduct to pilot approaches including elements such as murals made by local artists, a “welcome to Chinatown” sign, better lighting, and even one scenario with one side completely dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists.

Chinatown - east perspective

What comes next?

The vision is just the first step. Once communities have renderings in place, they can start advocating with the Alderperson to explore paths for implementation with local agencies like the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DECASE). To install murals and lighting, CDOT must first assess the state of the walls and condition of existing lighting. To assess a scenario with one side of the road under viaduct converted for only pedestrian and bicycle use, CDOT will require a traffic study to evaluate the feasibility of this proposal. The current owner, Union Pacific, has protocols that require aldermanic support in order to move forward with murals. Under any scenario, lighting and maintenance of the wall will remain CDOT’s responsibility. Luckily, CDOT and DCASE already have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for shared maintenance of an art installation project in another location, so a precedent has been set.

Communities historically harmed by rail and highway infrastructure have the opportunity to access federal funding like Reconnecting Communities grants to provide remediation. However, this type of funding can be very competitive and is focused on major infrastructure interventions. On the local level, sources such as TIF funding have funded similar projects like the murals at Ashland and 49th.  With renderings in hand, the community is better prepared to discuss with local agencies a path for implementation. Since CDOT is responsible for the walls of the viaducts, it needs to assess their condition and determine the cost to remove existing paint and repair the wall to allow a new mural. DECASE can help coordinate local artists and maintain a future mural as part of the citywide art inventory. Even though there is not a straightforward process, this vision lays the groundwork for the elements that need to move forward and the agencies that need to join the effort to advance it.

The work conducted by MPC, DTC, and CBCAC was funded by the Equitable Transportation Fund – a project of the Global Philanthropy Partnership.