Plan For Revitalizing Prairie Path And Taft Avenue Unveiled

The Prairie Path in Berkeley during the Halloween season last year. Berkeley’s village board voted on March 1 to adopt a plan designed to guide future improvements along the path and nearby Taft Avenue. | File

Thursday, March 3, 2022 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Village officials in Berkeley and Hillside are a step closer to realizing their ambitions of sprucing up a shared recreational and commercial area that’s considered vital to both suburbs. 

During a regular meeting on March 1, the Berkeley village board voted unanimously to adopt the Prairie Path and Taft Avenue Corridor Plan — a document that’s been about two years in the making and that’s meant to guide future development decisions in the area and help attract funding for future projects. 

The plan was produced by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), in collaboration with the villages of Berkeley and Hillside, and the Berkeley Park District. 

Now that the Berkeley board has adopted the plan, CMAP officials said they hope that Hillside’s village board adopts the plan next. 

Tony Manno, a project manager and senior planner with CMAP, said the plan is only as strong as both suburbs’ mutual commitment to the document, particularly considering their shared interests in the study area. 

The Prairie Path and Taft Avenue Corridor study area is bounded to the north by Burr Oak and Hawthorne avenues, to the east by Wolf Road, to the west by I-294, and to the south by Warren Avenue.

Manno said CMAP started its community outreach back in early 2020, just before the pandemic started. He said most of the planning was done remotely, with CMAP creating a project website last year. The planners conducted in-person interviews, administered online and paper surveys, facilitated virtual presentations and attended community events to gather feedback. 

A screenshot of the Prairie Path and Taft Avenue Corridor study area taken from CMAP’s draft plan. | CMAP 

In addition, the planners created a 10-person steering committee comprising a range of Berkeley and Hillside stakeholders, including local business owners, elected officials and residents who live in the study area.

Manno said more than 150 people gave their feedback about what they want in the study area. More than half of the respondents said they would like to see a coffee shop along Taft Avenue. About 27 percent said they would like to see a fast casual restaurant on Taft. 

Sixty percent of respondents said they use the Prairie Path for running and walking, 25% said they use the path for cycling. Meanwhile, around 80% said they would like to see a farmers market in the study area. 

Most survey respondents said they would like to see better lighting and trail maintenance in the area for cyclists and pedestrians, with respondents indicating that more benches and landscape improvements were their most important streetscape priorities for the area. 

During her presentation before the Berkeley board on March 1, Katie Piotrowska, an associate planner with CMAP who along with Manno drafted the plan, said that the plan focuses on four main areas: economic development, transportation, placemaking and natural resources. 

According to 2020 data analyzed by CMAP, there are about 2,500 residents living in the corridor area, with an unemployment rate of about 11% and a per capita income of around $29,300 and a median household income of about $62,400. There are 23 total businesses in the area employing 214 people.  

“In order to prosper economically, the Taft Avenue corridor needs a mix of housing, offices, shops and restaurants,” the plan states.  

Manno and Piotrowska said it’s important the villages figure out ways of enhancing the corridor without depending on conventional, car-oriented development measures; instead, development should be focused on increased foot and bike traffic. 

Some of their recommendations include installing a sidewalk on both sides of Coolidge Avenue and on Electric Avenue east of Coolidge in order to improve pedestrian access to the corridor area. 

They also recommended engaging the Berkeley Community Garden Club and members of the Illinois Prairie Path as part of an initiative to plant more deep-rooted native plants in the corridor area, which would help mitigate flooding. Deep-root native plants help water filter into the ground slowly and minimize stormwater runoff, the plan states. 

The planners also recommended that village officials prioritize planting oak trees, which comprise the majority of the region’s tree canopy and provide important habitats for a diverse population of animals and pollinators. 

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Overall, the planners provided 16 recommendations in the four focus areas, which can be implemented over a range of time periods: near term (one year), mid-term (two to five years) and long-term (ongoing). 

While the draft plan was met with enthusiasm by the Berkeley board, about a dozen community members gathered for an informational session about an hour before the March 1 board meeting to express their dissatisfaction with how the plan was communicated. 

The majority of those residents at the meeting said they hadn’t heard much about the plan before the board was set to vote on its adoption. Some residents expressed particular concern about some of the concrete recommendations in the plan, such as the sidewalk installation. The concerned residents wanted to make sure that people within the study area who might be affected by future projects are informed about them and have the opportunity to provide feedback. 

“I think the overall sentiment we had is we all want to see beautification in Berkeley, we loved the illustrations we saw,” said Isabel LaBarbera, a Berkeley resident who works at the Berkeley Public Library. “There are concerns that we’re seeing this for the first time.” 

LaBarbera said she was particularly concerned about residents who live on Coolidge. The area is currently affected by construction on the Illinois Tollway. 

“I don’t live on Coolidge, so I have no vested stake in those properties, but those people are going through a lot right now with construction and that is one of the priorities,” she said. “I’m just asking that you show them a little grace and make sure they’re comfortable with the sidewalks … But I do want to thank the steering committee for all the work they must have put in and for being at the meeting earlier, because a couple of them answered questions I just had, which is nice.”  

Manno said that the pandemic presented some unique challenges during the community outreach process, which was largely done remotely. Meanwhile, Tim Chmura, a member of the steering committee, said during the informational session that even relatively robust communications initiatives, such as a survey administered by the Berkeley Park District and delivered to every household in the village, can only go so far. He said that survey only yielded, at most, a few hundred responses. 

A photo of LeDonne Hardware on Taft Avenue in Berkeley taken from the CMAP plan. | CMAP 

“We felt we did what we could, but if it wasn’t enough, we have to acknowledge that,” Manno said. 

During their presentation before the board, Manno and Piotrowska assured community members that the plan up for adoption is only meant to be a launching pad for future development measures. Any projects that may emanate from the plan’s recommendations, such as installing sidewalks, would be subject to additional community outreach, village board vetting, zoning and other processes. 

Berkeley President Robert Lee echoed that sentiment during his comments delivered just before the board vote. Lee said he wrote about the initiative in Berkeley Connects, the village’s newsletter, among other efforts to get the word out. He nonetheless apologized for any lack of communication about the plan before reassuring residents that the document is only the starting point for future planning decisions. 

“This is nothing that we’re going to spend $5 million on, we’re going to take it to the next step,” he said. 

That isn’t to say that Berkeley hasn’t already implemented a variety of measures that are consistent with the plan’s recommendations, Manno said. 

Some of those measures include the Berkeley Public Library’s Story Walk program along the prairie Path. The CMAP plan recommends that the Berkeley and Hillside libraries collaborate to extend the Story Walk program into neighboring Hillside. 

Rudy Espiritu, Berkeley’s village manager, said the village only spent $6,000 on the plan, which represents a significant bargain considering its importance. The CMAP planners and village officials said that the plan will be particularly vital when it comes to securing future grant funding.

Manno said that as federal infrastructure funding becomes available, municipalities vying for those dollars will likely need to have a document similar to the Prairie Path and Taft Avenue Corridor Plan in order to bolster their chances for securing the money. 

You can read the full draft Prairie Path and Taft Avenue Corridor Plan here or scroll down. To access the project website, click here. 

Taft Ave Prairie Path Draft Compressed by MichaelRomain on Scribd

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