Thirsty Green

Thirsty Green

Chicago’s northwest side is routinely inundated with floods that soak basements, shut down businesses, and slow down traffic. But a targeted green infrastructure program aims to chip away at that problem by swapping pavement for permeable surfaces.

Avondale and Logan Square have a very high concentration of 311 calls for flooding, according to Kara Riggio, a senior research associate with the Metropolitan Planning Council. MPC manages a $200,000 grant from the state Environmental Protection Agency to seed green infrastructure projects along what they call the Milwaukee Avenue Green Corridor—79 acres of North Milwaukee Avenue between Kimball and California avenues.

It’s an inventive solution to a problem plaguing many Midwestern cities with combined sewer systems, where sewage and runoff collect in a single stream before they’re treated. When heavy rains overwhelm such systems, the result can be a toxic spillover.

In Cincinnati, a plan to repurpose about 30 acres of brownfields and vacant lots into a 1.5-billion gallon experiment in green infrastructure recently won the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But where Cincinnati’s Lick Run converts a huge swath of land into green stormwater storage, Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue Green Corridor is dealing with smaller interventions.

Environments Studio helped one resident retrofit his front and back yards with bioswales and a circular rain garden accenting the shape of his corner garden. Altogether they hope to capture 925 gallons of water per one inch of rainfall—a 46 percent reduction in runoff from his property.

Some projects are small-scale—rain barrels, native sedge plantings—while others upgrade an entire site. Several properties have applied for green roves and permeable driveways under the program. Larger still, one blighted cement island could become a neighborhood asset.

Woodard Plaza is, in the words of local Alderman Rey Colón’s email to his constituents, a “triangular cement pork chop.” But under plans from the Chicago Department of Transportation and local landscape architects Terry Guen Design Associates, it could soak up 4,434 gallons of stormwater during every one-inch storm.

Instead of permeable precast pavers, the design features three steel runnels that shunt runoff from Kimball and Milwaukee avenues into five infiltration planters equipped with native plants.

It will also revamp the pedestrian experience, thanks to a parklet funded in part through the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Make Way for People Initiative. Plans for the square include closing off Woodard Avenue, which currently cuts the corner between Kimball and Milwaukee.

“The biggest thing we’re doing is opening up plaza space by actually taking out that section of Woodard Street, and taking that triangle—it’s not much of a location—and expanding it out,” said CDOT Project Manager Hannah Higgins. “It’s a unique way for us to pull space back from cars and give it to people.”

Tax increment financing dollars will pay for 95 percent of the project, with a boost from the green corridor funds enabling some more substantial green infrastructure. NQ Construction will build the project, which originally aimed to break ground this summer. Higgins said construction will begin this fall and finish in Spring 2014.

The pedestrian plaza will be ADA compliant and the street closure will not disrupt any bus routes. A spiral pattern organizes the 1,500-square-foot space, which centers on a slightly raised section that could serve as public event space. Steel runnels and seating round out the shape.

“The spiral concept really grew,” said Higgins. “We felt that we could show the motion of the water.”

CDOT reached out to local arts organizations, including Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival organizers I Am Logan Square, to solicit ideas for public events and ways to use the new pedestrian space.

But maintenance could prove a challenge. CDOT seeks agreements with local groups and business to help maintain sites like this, yet so far has only signed up one: local arts alliance Voice of the City. The site currently abuts a bar. A spokeswoman for Alderman Colón said their office had not seen any permit applications that would indicate a new tenant.