So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright: Chicago’s Never-Built Crosstown Freeway

Commuters on Chicago’s I-90/I-94 Dan Ryan Expressway know what the term “sitting in traffic” means.  According to ABC Channel 7, Jason Knowles reports that several of the worst bottlenecks in Chicago traffic are all on the Dan Ryan, including one at Canalport Avenue and another at 18th Street.  The Dan Ryan has seven lanes in each direction, with four serving as “express lanes” and the remaining three serving local on and off-ramps.  That doesn’t stop traffic from slowing to a crawl at certain times of day, however:

 

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One of the reasons traffic in Chicago is so bad are the limited number of directions you can travel in: since the entire city sits on the western shores of Lake Michigan, there is simply no way to go “northeast” or “east” or “southeast” from downtown (unless you have a boat in port!)  Thus, auto traffic out of downtown is limited to due north, due south, and westward.

Also complicating matters is the fact that the Dan Ryan is the only north-south arterial through much of  the city proper.  That doesn’t mean there weren’t any plans for another freeway to be built.  In 1967 there was a proposal made by the federal government to build the “Crosstown Expressway”, which would have been designated as I-494.

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The freeway was originally planned to split off the Dan Ryan between 75th and 87th Streets (near the existing I-90 Chicago Skyway), traveling west before turning north at Cicero Avenue and continuing up through the west side of the city before merging with the I-90/I-94 split north of downtown.  One particular advantage of this path would have allowed easier access from the south side of the city to Midway Airport.

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An artistic model of the proposed Crosstown Expressway, with Midway Airport on the left.  In this concept the freeway lanes were split in order to minimize displacement of people and the tearing down of buildings.

 

 

Cicero

A view of Cicero Avenue at Belmont, part of a stretch where the Crosstown would have been built.

 

A political tussle ensued between then-Mayor Richard Daly and the governor of Illnois, Dan Walker, with Daly being a strong advocate for the Crosstown with Walker staunchly opposed.  Plans for the Crosstown were finally canceled in 1979, with the designated funds going for other transportation purposes, though there have been minor rumblings in the years since about reviving the highway.

One particular note of interest in regards to the proposed Crosstown is that the route would have taken it through the Garfield and Humboldt Park neighborhoods of Chicago as well as the nearby suburb of Oak Park — places where the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright had designed and built many residential houses and other buildings, an idea that wasn’t lost on the residents who opposed construction of the highway.  The Crosstown Expressway serves as another prime example in the United States of the continuing fight between developers  and preservationists.

 

Additional Sources:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/transport/features/2010/unbuilt_highways/chicago_the_crosstown_expressway.html