Last days for the Western-Belmont overpass

May 6, 2013

The City of Chicago is planning to tear down the Western Avenue overpass at Belmont-Clybourn. The junction of the three streets will once again be a normal, at-grade intersection.

Back in 1902 the Riverview amusement park opened at the northwest corner of Western and Belmont. The park drew thousands of patrons each day, most of whom arrived on streetcars—one of the lines was even named Riverview-Larrabee. Private vehicles of any type were rare.

By the 1960s more and more people were driving cars. Traffic around Riverview was congested.  The modern solution to the problem was the Western Avenue overpass.

Fifty years ago, the city was in love with fly-over intersections. Similar viaducts were being built at Archer-Ashland and at Ashland-Pershing. Dozens more were in the talking stage. They were mini-expressways, an efficient way to move traffic.

The Western Avenue overpass opened in 1962. It did its job well for five years. Then Riverview closed. The new businesses that went up on its site generated significantly less traffic. And when a police station was built at the Western-Belmont corner, the viaduct actually impeded its operations.

In 1962 few people had complained about aesthetics. Once the overpass was no longer needed, critics discovered it was ugly. It blighted the neighborhood. Besides, the traffic lanes on the viaduct itself were too narrow.

Demolition costs were high. So for decades, there’s been a death-watch at Western-Belmont—a death watch on a viaduct. How long before the thing would fall apart, and the city would be forced to tear it down? Now it looks like this is finally going to happen.

Partly because of the Western-Belmont controversy, overpasses have gone out of fashion in Chicago. The city recently announced a project to reconfigure the Elston-Fullerton-Damen intersection.  Before a plan to reroute Elston was chosen, there was a proposal to run Fullerton through as an underpass. I don’t believe that a viaduct was even considered.

I have no idea how tearing down the Western Avenue overpass will affect traffic in the area. We’ll all have to wait and see.