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A new streetscape in megadevelopment The 78 sets a standard for safe design

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The Wells-Wentworth Connector prioritizes walking and biking over driving

An image of a new road with a bike lane that has landscaping on both sides, a sidewalk with tall trees nearby, and modern glassy and concrete shops. In the distance tall downtown towers.
Wells-Wentworth Connector
Courtesy of Related Midwest

In Chicago, a new street main street built from scratch will consider a lot more than just cars. The Wells-Wentworth Connector will be a road for pedestrians, bikers, and new modes of transportation the city might adopt in the future such as scooters.

In a major city it’s a rare opportunity to construct a brand new road without existing infrastructure to work around or other development obstacles, but that’s exactly the chance developer Related Midwest will get with the Wells-Wentworth Connector.

Earlier this summer work on the project began which will be the main road running from north-south in the megadevelopment The 78. The road will directly and easily connect near South Side neighborhoods to the Loop for the first time.

“It’s the first actual project on The 78 so we want to make sure this was done the right way and people would feel physically different when you enter the site,” said Mike Pfeffer, the vice president of architecture at Related Midwest.

The 78 will feature 13-million-square-feet of buildings with 10,000 residential units and an estimated 24,000 workers. It will have a seven-acre, crescent-shaped park, a 100-foot-wide riverwalk, a new Red Line station, a water taxi stop, and a research center. All of this is going into one of the last empty parcels of land near downtown and will take about two decades to complete.

An aerial view of a sprawling riverfront campus along an urban river with yellow water taxis and a pedestrian riverwalk. The complex features low-rise buildings near the water and tall, glassy tower directly behind. Courtesy Related Midwest

So, the first phase of the development master planned by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) tackles the necessary infrastructure needed to support the massive project, which faces transportation barriers on all sides.

“The area was very inaccessible with a wall along Clark Street, freight and train tracks, then the river. Wells-Wentworth will be the heartbeat of how everything connects,” said Pfeffer. “What we’re doing, it’s what Burnham would want us to do—reintegrating Wells and Wentworth into the city grid.”

The street will only have two lanes for cars and speed tables at crosswalks will reduce the risk of speeding down the straight road. A speed table is similar to a speed bump except it has a flat top. The ones at The 78 will be placed at crosswalks and reach the same height as sidewalks. This removes the dip at most other intersections in the city, and the pavers will intuitively lead people toward the riverfront and park, Pfeffer said.

The bike lane is protected by a double parkway and designed to guard bikers against hazards like dooring and cars pulling into the lane. The entire lane is 15 feet wide with 5-foot planted barriers on either side and a 5-foot space to ride.

Related Midwest worked the Chicago Department of Transportation for two years to make sure that the streetscape would be designed in the smartest way. It was a priority to create a space that was safe and forward-thinking, said Pfeffer.

“It’s precedent-setting. When we thought about the design it was important to design for alternative modes of transportation. Looking out on the streets today there are one wheels, scooters, bikes, electronic bikes. The way people move is changing on a week to week basis it seems.”

The landscaping for the project, designed by Site Design Group, is highly detailed. The bike lane will feature an alternating row of trees that further separate bicyclists from vehicles. Those trees, about 150 of them, were purchased about a year ago to make sure that when they are planted at the end of this year the streetscape will look and feel complete, Pfeffer said.

The Wells-Wentworth Connector will be an important street for the megadevelopment. So far, the plans present a design that some transit activists can get behind. Courtney Cobbs, a former Chicago bike ambassador and transportation advocate, said as soon as she saw these separated lanes she was “drooling” over them.

“I would love to see separated lanes become the standard design within the city. I appreciate that these lanes will feature nature elements and make it pretty clear that it’s intended for people one bikes and prevents cars from driving and parking in them,” wrote Cobbs in an email.

Ultimately, all the infrastructure that The 78 requires like new roads, sidewalks, a developed riverfront, a park, walking paths, and lighting isn’t a limitation or design constraint for the developer. Although, they do have help from the city in the form of a $700 million tax-increment financing district. The Wells-Wentworth Connector starts off The 78 with a well-designed, safe main street.