The confounding Mystery Spot intersections of Oak Park

Opinion

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By Brett McNeil

Columnist

You think of the big puzzles: General relativity, the meaning of life, the incoherent nostrums of John Kass. 

Some we humans have figured out, others we still struggle to understand. 

But in those struggles we take comfort that sometimes there is an answer, that life and our experience of it is knowable. Yet we are so often reminded the opposite is true, that it's a baffling and hostile world out there.

Which brings me to the intersection at Forest Avenue and North Boulevard. 

Is there a more puzzling and unknowable intersection in Oak Park, for pedestrians and motorists alike?

It's a kind of Mystery Spot where a road is a parking lot and a parking lot is a road. Where eastbound traffic comes from two places and southbound traffic doesn't know where to stop. And now those cars are blocking the northbound traffic turning into the municipal lot and a train commuter is passing by on a sidewalk that resembles a driveway -- and it's a mess.

Oh, and a couple hundred new neighbors are moving downtown within a year or two. 

I called Village Engineer Bill McKenna, who has a sympathetic ear. This is the guy whose Public Works Department placed stop-for-pedestrian signs in the crosswalk outside the Lake Theater and very recently installed similar signs in the boldly free jazz three-way, stop-stop-non-stop intersection at Forest and Ontario near Austin Gardens. 

What does McKenna make of North Boulevard and Forest? 

"It's a high conflict point," he conceded, and the future of a more heavily developed Downtown Oak Park with more people and more cars promises more conflicts. 

Converging traffic arriving at an irregularly configured intersection is bad enough, then add in a spate of dueling work crews who've spent the spring and early summer digging up the municipal lot and it "adds to the chaos," as McKenna put it. The intersection's strange geometry does not exactly help. 

McKenna said the village has sought to clearly mark the crosswalks at North and Forest -- some of which are among the longest in town given the angles of the intersection -- but regular visitors to the area will find those white stripes pretty dull in places. McKenna said public works crews would survey the visibility of existing crosswalks to make sure they're up to standard. 

I made an additional request: Can the village please stripe the newly poured sidewalk section of the parking lot on the west side of Forest as a crosswalk? Too many motorists seem to consider this space a cars-only zone. 

"I think that's a good point," McKenna said.

McKenna said the village is open to requests from residents about other problem intersections (here is where readers are invited to weigh in directly to McKenna's office (708-358-5700) and to the comments section at www.oakpark.com) and all requests are decided on a case-by-case basis. There is no formal process, according to McKenna, and in some cases "we have to say no." 

 Priority is generally given to locations where children and elderly residents require help making roadway crossings.

In the example at Forest and Ontario outside Austin Gardens, McKenna said the new stop-for-pedestrians signs went up just a few weeks after area residents sought in-street signage for a notoriously confounding three-way intersection. 

Northbound and westbound traffic both stop at Ontario but southbound traffic, rounding the northeast corner of Austin Gardens by the giant Frank Lloyd Wright head, do not stop as they approach Ontario. 

Locals know to beware, even in broad daylight, but the area is smack dab in the middle of the Wright Historic District and headphone-wearing architectural tourists are prone to wander in front of already befuddled drivers. 

McKenna said the decision to act on resident requests for new signs was straightforward. 

"We took a quick look at it and it probably took a couple days to implement," he said. "I placed the work order within one or two days" of the on-site review. 

Of course, in-street stop signs are no guarantee that drivers will actually stop. McKenna said the village has replaced several such signs installed elsewhere in town after motorists simply ran them over. 

"They obliterate them," McKenna said.

Other pedestrian-motorist hotspots are more difficult to regulate. Crosstown thoroughfares like Madison Street, Division Street and Chicago Avenue feature heavy traffic, and getting pedestrians safely across those roadways away from signaled intersections requires a mix of approaches, McKenna said. 

These include a relatively new push-button stop sign at Chicago and Harvey. A similar device is now at Ridgeland and Erie and others are in the works. 

But I called to ask about Forest and North Boulevard -- and that sidewalk striping. 

"We'll definitely take a look at that one," McKenna said.

Please do share your Mystery Spot intersection locations online or to me at brett@oakpark.com, and let us know if you are also requesting help from the village.

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