Editorial: Some portion of Route 53 right-of-way should be home to a bike path
For 50 years, the Route 53 debate tilted on the yin and the yang between how to build the highway's north extension through Lake County and how to kill it.
The project finally virtually died in 2019, although the potential for the conversion of Arlington Park into some major entertainment draw, like a new Bears stadium or other major venue, could suddenly breathe new life into the debate. But failing some surprising big announcement, the state at some point will dispose of the 1,100 acres that has been amassed over decades for a right of way path at a cost of nearly $54 million. A 19-person task force has been proposed to decide what to do with the land that stretches from Lake-Cook Road to Route 120.
That's a lot of valuable property through the heart of Lake County in Long Grove, Hawthorn Woods, Mundelein and Grayslake. The state isn't about to give it away. And, don't expect the communities to fight to turn it all into green space that won't produce much-needed tax dollars. Especially considering the Arlington Park complication, there's no great pressure to rush to judgment, but decisions are going to start being made, and when they are, there's an important concept planners should keep in mind -- balance.
Potential task force members and community leaders have stressed that need. Residential and commercial components will certainly be part of the mix, but there's one idea we've heard in the past and that was mentioned again last week by Long Grove Mayor Bill Jacob that needs to be part of the discussion from the beginning -- setting aside some of the land for a bike path.
There's an opportunity here to designate a narrow ribbon of asphalt or crushed limestone in a natural setting that would extend along the right of way that could connect neighborhoods bordering the area and beyond.
Lake County is home to a network of notable paths, such as the Des Plaines River Trail, Millennium Trail, Casey Trail and many others, and it's likely at least some could link to this one. Those paths are a hit with walkers, joggers and bike-riders, a popularity that has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as people seek refuge outside in a socially distanced way to enjoy a little fresh air and exercise and collect their thoughts.
Such a path would be a unique nod to the planned transportation use of the Route 53 extension land, and the fight by activists to protect environmentally sensitive areas and to preserve open space -- something that's long been part of Lake County's DNA.
Some of that history could be captured and preserved in plaques or displays along the way to explain the half-century of debate.
Future development is likely to look different because of pandemic-inspired changes in the retail and office industries. A little green space highlighted by a bike path could be a fitting amenity.
The Route 53 story is as long and complex as the route itself and who knows yet whether it is completely ended. But if the task force is going to begin creating a vision for what all that land will look like if the road dream does not come true, a long, beautiful bicycle path should be a part of the conversation from the beginning.