Credit: Rachal Duggan

It’s another case of parks versus parking lots.

The Chicago Park District plans to put more than 250 new parking spots near the recently revamped 31st Street Beach and Harbor, in addition to the more than 650 existing garage and surface lot spaces already available within a roughly five-minute walk of the beach. That would make for a whopping grand total of more than 900 stalls at the lakeside facility.

On top of that, to make room for the additional parking, the project would involve the elimination of 85,000 square feet of existing green space south of a current car park.

The Park District says the additional parking is meant to accommodate future demand for access to the 900-slip harbor—although a spokesperson admits the department hasn’t conducted a parking demand study.

But here’s what really gets me: the parking lot expansion has been endorsed by none other than Friends of the Parks, the same group that helped tank George Lucas’s proposal to replace Soldier Field’s 1,500-space south lot with his Museum of Narrative Arts.

“Friends of the Parks has been hearing from stakeholders as well as the Chicago Park District about the great demand for parking for both beachgoers and boaters at the 31st Street Beach,” executive director Juaniza Irizarry said via e-mail last week.

An aerial view of 31st Street Beach. The Park District plan proposes adding spots to the west lot, center.
An aerial view of 31st Street Beach. The Park District plan proposes adding spots to the west lot, center.Credit: Google Maps

I’ve had mixed feelings about Friends of the Parks’ previous advocacy work. I respect the group’s role as a guardian of our city’s recreational spaces—working, for example, to stop private music festivals from destroying public parks. It’s also taken progressive stances on parking at other parks. Still, I saw its stance in rejecting the Lucas Museum as a case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

In the case of 31st Street Beach, though, I think the group’s support for the parking expansion is misplaced. The number of planned car spaces seems excessive, and too much parking is always a bad thing. Not only would the elimination of one-and-a-half football fields’ worth of green space be unfortunate, but adding all that tarmac would contribute to the city’s storm-water runoff and heat-island woes.

The city should accommodate people who may truly need to drive to the beach, such as those with mobility challenges, families with small children, and boaters and barbecuers transporting bulky gear. But overbuilding parking creates “induced demand”—if residents believe it’s easy to drive to the beach, they’re more likely to do so rather than use other, more sustainable forms of transportation. The result is more congestion and pollution.

That’s one reason the Active Transportation Alliance opposes the 31st Street Beach lot expansion. “Car parking and streets are a poor use of the city’s very limited park space. Let’s give people MORE open space, play areas, trails and other attractions and LESS pavement for cars,” executive director Ron Burke says via e-mail.

But Irizarry argues that adding parking at the 31st Street is an equity issue. The harbor, completed in 2012, includes a large garage topped by an inviting, nautical-themed playground.

“Friends of the Parks is not going to tell people of color that they can only utilize the beach if they arrive by CTA or bicycle.”

—Friends of the Parks executive director Juanita Irizarry

“Unfortunately, Chicago’s south side beaches and parks were disinvested for many decades, and historic discrimination against minority communities in Chicago is a well-known theme,” Irizarry says. “Despite our own historic concerns about losing green space in favor of parking and other development, now that the south side has a lovely lakefront amenity that is finally being highly utilized, Friends of the Parks is not going to tell people of color that they can only utilize the beach if they arrive by CTA or bicycle.”

There are a couple of problems with that logic.

First, Chicago’s communities of color stand to gain the most from healthier transportation modes, since these neighborhoods have the highest rates of illness associated with sedentary lifestyles, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Moreover, many residents of the predominantly African-American communities near the beach don’t have the option of driving there. In 12 out of 18 U.S. Census tracts located within about two miles of the beach, more than a third of households don’t own cars, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. That’s higher than the city average of about 25 percent without cars. In six of those south-side tracts, the majority of households don’t have autos.

Meanwhile, the only direct transit service to the beach is the CTA’s 35th Street bus. The agency is reviving the discontinued 31st Street bus line as a pilot in September, but that route will stop half a mile west of the beach—a deal-breaking distance for many Chicagoans.

The 31st Street Beach
The 31st Street BeachCredit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Building tons of parking while providing mediocre transit service exacerbates transportation inequality. People of color will still be able to drive to the beach even if those 250-odd extra spots aren’t built. But limited transit access discourages the many nearby African-American residents who don’t own cars from using the beach.

Offering bus service to the lake for residents along the 31st Street corridor would also help reduce parking demand, but Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner says this option wasn’t considered as an alternative to laying down more asphalt.

The parking lot expansion will cost $1.65 million, according to Maxey-Faulkner. Meanwhile, the six-month bus pilot will only cost $251,000, less than one-sixth as much.

Maxey-Faulkner says that it wouldn’t be possible to use the parking lot money to extend the bus route instead, since harbor bond funding is bankrolling the new lot. Still, those numbers are a reminder that, while Chicago has been promoting sustainable transportation in recent years, transit still often takes a backseat to driving.

Irizarry says that Friends of the Parks “will happily support collaborative efforts to increase access [to the 31st Street Beach] by public transit.” She also rejects the notion that, by supporting the parking lot expansion, her group is promoting parking at the expense of parks. “Those who collaborate with the mayor’s spin machine to mislabel Friends of the Parks as a lover of parking lots are participating in a campaign of disinformation,” she says.

Again, I think Friends of the Parks’ advocacy work is valuable. And I don’t think the group’s solely responsible for the fact that we’re likely stuck with Soldier Field’s south lot for the next generation or three. But when it comes to 31st Street Beach, I wish they’d prioritized green space over blacktop. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.