The Logan Square Bicentennial Improvements Project calls for pedestrianizing parts of Milwaukee and Kedzie Avenues. Credit: BICENTENNIAL IMPROVEMENTS PROJECT

Logan Square’s Illinois Centennial Monument, the eagle-topped column ringed by a hectic multilane traffic circle, is an icon of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The pillar’s surrounding green space, Logan Square proper, is a popular site for relaxing on benches, sunbathing, and skateboarding. But in a community whose Latino population fell by about 36 percent between 2000 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census, while the number of whites grew by roughly 48 percent, the meaning of the monument depends on who you ask.

Latin United Community Housing Association director Juan Carlos Linares illustrated that point during a panel on preventing displacement, part of a symposium on equitable transit held downtown earlier this month. First he showed a photo of a Chase ATM screen with an image of two young white men with facial hair, coffee, and cruiser bikes lounging on the steps to the pillar. “This is what Chase wants us to see when we go to the Logan Square monument,” he said.

“This is what you really see in Logan Square,” he said, showing a slide of the same location crowded with Latino mothers and children holding placards against local school funding cuts, a demonstration organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “Visuals matter.”

But one thing Logan Square residents agree on is that the layout of the traffic circle is a pain in the neck. The circle stands at the six-way junction of Milwaukee, Kedzie, and Logan/Wrightwood, just southeast of the Blue Line’s Logan Square station. Currently people on foot have to cross three or four traffic lanes to get to the monument, and walking from one side of the intersection to the other requires crossing the street up to four times.

This discourages travel to and from the northern portion of the neighborhood; in fact, for better or for worse, this has slowed, though not stopped, the proliferation of new upscale retail and residential developments common southeast of the square.

The circle is a confusing, dangerous intersection for cyclists and motorists as well as pedestrians: the number of traffic lanes varies on different sides of the circle, and they don’t always line up. There were 280 collisions within a 500-foot radius of the pillar between 2009 and 2014, including 62 injury crashes and one fatality, according to state crash data compiled by the Chicago Crash Browser.

Now the Chicago Department of Transportation is trying to address the situation. At a Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting on December 13, staffers discussed plans to make the area around the monument safer and more accessible as part of a full makeover of the Milwaukee corridor from the circle to Belmont Avenue in Avondale.

This summer the department completed a $253,000 redesign of Milwaukee in Wicker Park and Bucktown, using street paint and plastic posts to do “quick-hit” improvements. The Logan-to-Belmont project is a more ambitious, $10 million-plus initiative that will include more permanent safety fixes. At the December meeting CDOT planner Nate Roseberry said the department will present potential designs at another hearing this winter, and will unveil final plans at a meeting later in 2018. Construction could start in 2020.

Roseberry said that the improvements could involve new bike lanes, including “wraparound” lanes that would sit between the sidewalk and bus stop islands, reducing conflicts with buses. Bus service could be enhanced by consolidating stops, adding more shelters, and implementing transit-friendly stoplight technology and “queue jumps” that give buses a head start at intersections. People on foot would benefit from new sidewalk bump-outs, which shorten crossing distances, and pedestrian islands. Meeting attendees were generally jazzed about these possibilities.

But the boldest ideas for remaking the square were first floated by Logan residents in a 2014 proposal called the Logan Square Bicentennial Improvements Project. This recommends pedestrianizing the segment of Milwaukee that crosses the square, which would connect the roughly triangular piece of parkland that houses the Comfort Station art space to the rest of the square. In this scenario, through traffic on Milwaukee would go around the square rather than across it.

The proposal also calls for pedestrianizing a half block of Kedzie north of the monument, by Longman & Eagle, El Cid, and Logan Liquors, to create a new “Zocalo People Plaza” (vehicles on Kedzie would be rerouted west of the Blue Line station). Almost 500 people have signed an online petition in support of the proposal, which would create roughly two acres of new green space.

“This kind of opportunity doesn’t come along often,” says Charlie Keel, a painting company owner who’s coordinating the Bicentennial project. Fortunately, he says, city officials have been open to the residents’ forward-thinking ideas. “They understand that it’s not just about fixing Milwaukee now, it’s about doing something awesome and leaving a lasting legacy for our kids.”

CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey says the department’s taking these outside-the-box ideas seriously. “Our next public meeting will show alternatives for consideration, which will include [new] public space as an element.”

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, whose ward would be affected by the rehab, didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for this column. But in 2015 he told DNAinfo that he’d secured the mayor’s support for the Bicentennial Improvements Project. “I think it will be a project on the scale of the Bloomingdale Trail,” Ramirez-Rosa said at the time.

Paul Sajovec, chief of staff for Alderman Scott Waguespack, whose ward would also be affected, says the alderman is excited about the proposal to create a lively public space similar to the vibrant plazas common in Latin America and Europe. “We want the square to function as the name suggests, rather than just a dead space surrounded by traffic,” Sajovec says. “Not that it’s horrible right now, but we think the area has the potential to get several times more use.”

Closing streets to motorized traffic often draws a backlash, but hopefully CDOT, backed by political muscle from the aldermen and the mayor as well as community support, will move forward with the Bicentennial Improvement Project’s recommendations. Safer streets and more green space would benefit residents from all walks of life.  v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.