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Visionary plan to cap the Kennedy Expressway with a park might still happen

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The highway-capping trend has caught on in other U.S. cities

A park filled with native prairie grasses between roadway bridges, surrounded by taller buildings.
A rendering of the Kennedy Expressway topped with public park space.
Courtesy RATIO Architects

A visionary idea to create a deck over the Kennedy Expressway with a public park between Chicago’s central business district and the West Loop is getting attention after a long hiatus.

The “Kennedy cap” was first explored in a 2003 draft of the city’s Central Area Plan, but didn’t get any traction back then. Scott Sarver of RATIO Architects, who got involved with the project in 2012, explains to Curbed Chicago why it could be successful now.

“The idea’s been around for a while,” says Sarver. “People continue to talk about it, especially given the dynamics of the West Loop, which is developing rapidly but doesn’t necessarily have a lot of open space.”

Chicago is hardly alone when it comes to topping highways with parks. Similar projects are in the works for Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Denver, and Atlanta. In 2012, Dallas completed the 5.2-acre Klyde Warren Park above the Woodall Rodgers Freeway and began work on a second deck park in 2018. Dallas city officials embraced the concept after realizing that a lack of green space was hurting the city’s competitiveness, according to a Pew Research study.

“It’s happening all over the country,” Sarver tells Curbed. “In Chicago, the closest parallel is Millennium Park, which stretches roughly the same four blocks, just a mile-and-a-half east. That project has gone on to generate billions in new construction, jobs, and tax revenue.”

The architect also envisions cultural amenities such as performance spaces on top of the deck to knit the park into the urban fabric of Chicago. “[The Kennedy cap] would represent a proactive approach to Chicago’s growth patterns and will generate the quality of life that will keep people in the city for years to come,” adds Sarver.

The concept resurfaced at a January community meeting regarding the proposed hotel and apartment tower at nearby 725 W. Randolph. Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) expressed a desire to make the plan a reality as a means to address overcrowding at existing West Loop parks. “We support [the project] 100 percent,” said the elected official. “We just have to get the dollars to do it.”

Burnett explained to the Chicago Sun-Times the park would be a public-private partnership that could use money from the area’s expiring tax increment financing (TIF) districts. “If we don’t use it, we lose it,” the alderman told the newspaper.

Allocating TIF money, which by design should be earmarked for blighted areas, to the West Loop might be a tough sell for some Chicago residents and politicians—especially following the public backlash associated with TIF-subsidized megaprojects like Lincoln Yards. Burnett’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Provided the city can amass the political willpower to deck over the multilane highway, the project would cost an estimated $50 million to $70 million per block. It could be completed all at once or incrementally, according to Sarver.

The challenges associated with the Kennedy cap are more bureaucratic than practical, according to Sarver. It will require a degree of cooperation between state and city officials. From a timing perspective, the project also missed a chance to combine construction with the ongoing work to rebuild the bridges near the Jane Byrne Interchange.

“Physically, the project is not that difficult,” notes Sarver. “So much of the Loop is already built over rail tracks.”

An aerial image showing green space above a highway. Tall buildings stand on either side.
The cap park would provide green space, improve pedestrian connectivity, and boost property values.
RATIO Architects
Pedestrians walk from the sidewalk up a landscaped incline to a park flanked by high-rise buildings.
Cultural amenities could make the park a civic space similar to Millennium Park.
RATIO Architects