Traversing Oak Park's stretch of Madison Street might get tighter in the near future for motorists. On the other hand, it might get a little easier for bikes and pedestrians.
Village officials are considering putting the busy four-lane thoroughfare on a "road diet," which could involve dropping a traffic lane on either side of Madison to allow for wider sidewalks and bicycle lanes, said John Mac Manus, a land planner hired by the village last year to come up with a new vision for the street.
Years ago, Madison was known as "Auto Row," with dealerships lining the street. But those businesses have disappeared, he said, and now Oak Park needs to figure out a new identity for the road.
"Madison Street is becoming something else," Mac Manus said. "And we have a choice — whether we just accept whatever happens, or that we really guide and shape that and create the Madison Street of the future that we all want."
Oak Park hired Mac Manus' firm, Altamanu, back in November, at a cost of $100,000, to devise a plan for Madison between Harlem and Austin. The village has a tax increment financing (TIF) district along the stretch — with between $4 and $6 million in the fund — which needs to be allocated by the end of 2011, according to Village Planner Craig Failor.
Altamanu has held several meetings since November, Mac Manus said, with business owners and neighborhood groups, trying to figure out the right recipe for Madison. Two concepts they're focusing on are a "road diet" (eliminating or narrowing lanes) and "complete streets" (i.e. making the roadway usable by cars, bikes and pedestrians).
About 25 percent of cars traveling down Madison go straight through without stopping, Mac Manus said. He hopes fewer lanes will cause cars to slow down and possibly look closer at Oak Park businesses.
"If your idea of Madison Street is to get from Austin to Harlem as quickly as possible, you're not stopping to spend any money in Oak Park," Mac Manus said. "You're not helping local businesses. We've found that slowing down traffic allows people to get to know the streets and retailers and see things they might want."
Oak Park plans to host a community meeting on May 11 at Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland, to give residents a chance to respond to the plan. Another meeting will likely follow, too, in June. Failor was unsure as to when the village board would discuss the plan or how much the project might cost since Altamanu is still shaping it.
Gary Balling — head of the Park District of Oak Park and member of the Madison Street Coalition — said he's enthusiastic to see some of the ideas being suggested for the street.
"I think it can be a positive thing, but everyone's going to have to open their minds up and really think about what's best for Madison," he said.