Neighbors divided over potential Highland Park sidewalk project; ‘We want to save the trees’

Neighbors divided over potential Highland Park sidewalk project; ‘We want to save the trees’

On a warm summer day, Highland Park’s University Avenue is mostly shaded, due to an abundance of century-old trees lining the residential street. The deafening buzz of cicadas can be heard throughout the Highlands, a single-family neighborhood in the city, as the periodical insects find temporary habitat in towering trees.

Many of those trees could be cut down to make room for a city sidewalk project — initiated through a resident request — dividing neighbors into those who support the trees and those who support the sidewalk installation.

The city is considering a sidewalk to encourage more non-motorized transportation.

According to the city of Highland Park, a sidewalk project on University Avenue is now in the public engagement and evaluation phase, but no decisions have been made concerning a sidewalk in the area.

The next steps for the project include a further study, including an engineering survey and tree-impact report, to provide a comprehensive report and recommendation to the City Council, according to the city’s website. The report is expected to be available at the city’s Transportation Advisory Group meeting on June 19.

Developed in the 1920s by socialite Edith Rockefeller McCormick, the Highlands were envisioned to offer a forested oasis to the bustle of city life, according to an American Lifestyle magazine article written by Highlands resident Linda Stein in 2022. There are few sidewalks on the residential streets of the Highlands, which is home to a primary concrete path on Summit and Krenn avenues.

Feedback on sidewalks to the city from October 2023 revealed a relatively “even split” among affected residents — those who reside in the proposed area — according to a city report. Thirty affected residents supported the sidewalk installation, 33 were not in favor and 31 did not respond.

Mark and Marla Portman have lived on University Avenue in the Highlands of Highland Park for nearly 40 years. When the couple learned about the potential sidewalk seven years ago, they were opposed to it immediately.

“We are so upset about this for no other reason than we want to save the trees,” Marla Portman said.

The couple, who commissioned a forestry study for the potential sidewalk, believes tree destruction is inconsistent with the core principles of the city, which includes environmental sustainability, according to the its website.

Residents in favor of the sidewalks argue the pathway would provide greater safety and accessibility for neighbors and children.

Barbara Hurwitz, who has lived on University Avenue for 46 years, said the narrow width of the street provides no leeway for pedestrians if two cars are passing at the same time. Add more vehicle traffic and groups of bikers, Hurwitz said, and  the street becomes “increasingly unsafe.”

“When I first moved here a long time ago, I had little kids and the street was a much different,” she said. “It was much quieter. In the decades following, it has changed … dramatically, and it has become an extremely busy street.”

While Hurwitz said she loves the trees and natural beauty of University Avenue, she believes the sidewalks are of greater importance to the community.

“I don’t want to say I don’t have concerns about trees, because I’m totally into nature,” she said. “But when you stack it up against the safety, kids and adults, no it’s not an issue.”

Support for sidewalks flip-flops

In 2017, residents were first notified by the city that there was consideration of adding a sidewalk to either side of the street based on a resident initiative. At that time, the policy required a resident receive 75% support from others living on the affected streets, which included University Avenue, Hyacinth Place and Western Avenue. A city memo indicates the survey met the required threshold.

Two years later, the Portmans circulated a counter-petition, which showed 57% of residents opposed the installation – a significant decrease in support for the sidewalk, according to city documents.

A sign in front of a residence on University Avenue in Highland Park welcomes passersby to walk on the grass instead of the street. (Credit: Chloe Hilles/Lake County News-Sun)

After various city engineering plans, community surveys and feedback sessions, residents of University Avenue received a notice in January 2020 that the city was not going to pursue the proposed sidewalk installation due to a lack of support from residents. In the letter, the city said it would not consider a new request for sidewalks for at least three years.

Later in September 2020, a new guideline for local sidewalk installations was approved by the City Council, to reduce the required residential support from 75% to 51% of affected residents, establish a survey template for residents and detail city follow-up steps, among other changes.

Three years later, the city revisited the sidewalk plans, after receiving inquiries about potential sidewalks during the resurfacing of University Avenue, according to a city memo.

In October 2023, 112 affected residents received a letter requesting feedback concerning potential sidewalks on University Avenue and Old Trail Road. The letter proposed five feet of green space between the curb and a five-foot sidewalk.

The city noted in the letter that a lack of response may be interpreted as support for the new sidewalks.

The city’s rationale for revisiting the sidewalk proposal is because the plan aligns with the city’s MoveHP plan, which encourages non-motorized transportation through street and sidewalk improvements.

This spring, the Portmans – along with a couple of dozen neighbors on University Avenue – commissioned an arborist report to better understand the potential consequences to their street foliage. The group wanted to have an independent report to compare to the city’s forestry report and has not yet shared the report with the city’s council or staff, the Portmans said.

The tree preservation plan by SavATree Consulting Group, a certified arborist in Northbrook, concluded the proposed sidewalk installation would cause a significant negative impact on many mature trees.

The plan, shared with the News-Sun, indicates many of the impacted trees are considered heritage, key or protected trees by the city due to their size, species or other unique value. The plan also offers preservation strategies to limit destruction to trees and their root zones.

A couple of parents and teens spoke in favor of University Avenue sidewalks during public comment at a March council meeting. Many mentioned that it was difficult for children to bike safely or walk to school on the street.

Other residents disagreed with their neighbor’s characterization of the safety of University Avenue. During the March public comment, Larry Walters said he taught his three young children to bike on their neighborhood street and his senior-citizen mother, who lives with the family, has no problems walking on the grass or sidewalk.

chilles@chicagotribune.com

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