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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM CHICAGO

On the Road Again, on Time

The city warned of a commuter's nightmare: Downtown's Wacker Drive would close for two years. But planning made for painless effort.

November 29, 2002|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — City officials began warning drivers months in advance with flashing road signs, posters, even government-sponsored television programs: Wacker Drive, one of downtown's primary arteries, would be closed, shut down for nearly two years.

Please, the messages seemed to plead, prepare yourself. This one is going to be painful.

When the 76-year-old double-decker roadway reopened this week -- on time and within budget -- reaction was almost blase.

The $200-million project had gone so well, Chicagoans had all but grown accustomed to what might have been a municipal nightmare.

During a time when other large public works projects around the country have dragged on and run enormously over budget -- such as Los Angeles' subways, a considerably larger effort -- a few residents here even grew fond of the effort.

"I figured out some back-alley routes and got to work faster," said Michael Greene, who works at one of the many hotels along the route. "It's good that it's back open, but it really wasn't that bad when it was closed."

A good part of the credit for that kind of sentiment should go to transportation officials, who at one point went so far as to lower a bridge for an anxious bride who was worried about the aesthetics of her wedding photographs.

Wacker enjoys almost none of the glitz and name recognition of Michigan Avenue, Chicago's most famous street, with its high-end shopping stretch, the Magnificent Mile.

Conceived in 1909 as part of a so-called Chicago Plan that has helped shape much of the nation's third-largest city, Wacker is a street of function before fashion, a way for commuters and delivery vehicles to cut more swiftly through the heart of Chicago, an area that has become severely congested during a nearly two-decade building boom.

Named for Charles H. Wacker, chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission at the time of its construction, the roadway ferries vehicles and pedestrians along a route arcing southwest to northeast through the Loop and downtown, emptying onto the Michigan Lake-front thoroughfare, Lakeshore Drive.

Although visitors see and travel the more adorned upper level, it is perhaps the shaded bottom half, which runs 25 feet below most of the city, that is lovelier to planning and engineering wonks.

More than 36,000 vehicles travel Lower Wacker Drive each day, many of them semitrailer trucks and delivery vehicles that service 57 high-rise buildings along the route. In a netherworld populated by the homeless in winter and dockworkers year-round, the vehicles disgorge hundreds of tons of meat, cleaning supplies and replacement boilers each day, without blocking the surface streets above.

About 6,000 more vehicles travel the mostly hidden Lower Wacker each day than Upper Wacker.

The route opened in 1926, and after nearly seven decades of heavy use, officials decided in the mid-1990s that makeshift repairs were no longer enough. The upper level was crumbling onto the lower, which was full of potholes and difficult corners; deteriorating columns were keeping the upper level aloft.

With the help of a letter-writing campaign from businesses that would be affected by construction but later, they hoped, benefit from the improvements, the city secured about two-thirds of the $200 million for construction from the federal government, the rest from the state.

The Chicago Department of Transportation then launched a public relations blitz.

"A key to the success was telling people what was coming before it came, telling them again when it arrived, and telling them once more when it was gone," said Stan Kaderbek, the department's chief engineer and head of the project.

The department set up a Web site for the project, offered advice about alternative bus routes, produced maps of the makeshift plywood alleyways, and placed strict timelines on aspects of the project so that businesses and residents would be inconvenienced for only a few months rather than for the duration of the work.

At the Renaissance Hotel, which at one point had three of its four entrances blocked, the city removed a light pole so the hotel could create a new entrance and altered construction hours to provide guests a little more sleeping time.

"I'm not going to tell you my business wasn't affected. It was affected," General Manager Paige Koerbel said. "But almost every time we had a concern, the city responded, and very well."

But not everyone has been pleased. "Horrible. Stupid," snapped a man in his waiter's outfit as he hurried past reopening ceremonies Monday night.

But Kaderbek got only two serious, unfixable noise complaints during the rebuilding, he said. And kudos, rare in the public-works business, have been surprisingly numerous.

The bride with the eye for backdrops had her reception at the Renaissance during a time when the city had raised a bridge across the adjacent Chicago River to keep pedestrians from crossing into the construction zone. It was going to rise right up into her wedding pictures.

"We put the bridge down," Kaderbek said. "Far be it from me to ruin her day."

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