Reopen Chicago Street or preserve courthouse parking?
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com July 19, 2013 11:06PM
Ray Wesley, owner of the Red Goose Bakery & Cafe in downtown Joliet, said she wishes Will County and the city would reopen Chicago Street sooner rather than later. Her cafe sits across the street from where Chicago Street would join Jefferson Street on the east side of the Will County Courthouse. | Cindy Wojdyla Cain~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 22, 2013 6:20AM
JOLIET — Ray Wesley wishes more traffic would zoom by the Red Goose Cafe that she and her husband, John, opened on the northeast corner of Jefferson and Chicago streets 16 months ago.
So do city of Joliet officials.
And there’s an easy fix for the problem. All the city has to do is get the county to reopen Chicago Street immediately east of the Will County Courthouse so traffic heading north from Interstate 80 could flow all the way through the downtown. That would be a godsend, Wesley said.
“Anything that would bring more traffic to downtown Joliet would help all of the business owners,” she said. “Everyone up and down the street is suffering because of the lack of people down here.”
Other Chicago Street business owners agree. Gina Duffy, owner of Jitters Coffee House, and Frank Kula Jr., owner of Kula’s Jewelry and Loan, also said they would like to see the street reopened.
“It’s confusing for people who come off of Interstate 80,” Kula said. “It’s about convenience.”
Parking and revenue
While county and city officials have talked about opening Chicago Street for years and most officials seem to agree it’s a good idea, there is one big stumbling block: Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt is opposed to the plan because it would wipe out the courthouse’s only parking lot.
Schoenstedt sent a letter to county and city officials on July 15 outlining his opposition.
“I have been authorized by my fellow circuit judges to inform you that we will take whatever legal action is necessary to protect the interests of the judiciary in that lot,” he wrote. “By doing so this will also serve to protect the safety, security and convenience of those citizens seeking judicial services.”
Schoenstedt said he doesn’t want to be an “obstructionist,” but the convenience of having a parking lot right next to the courthouse is invaluable. Many witnesses, jurors and lawyers prefer to park in the courthouse lot for $5 a day rather than walk from the less expensive parking decks, he said.
Schoenstedt also controls all of the revenue from the courthouse parking lot, which totaled about $400,000 last year, but netted only $85,000 after expenses, county Finance Director Paul Rafac said.
Parking lot revenue is the only income that the judicial branch controls; all other funds come from either the state or the county board. The money is used for continuing education for judges and courthouse needs. But Schoenstedt and chief judges before him have saved $1.4 million in the fund to go toward a new courthouse, which judicial officials say is long overdue because of the county’s population growth. Once there are solid plans for a courthouse, then Chicago Street could be reopened, Schoenstedt said.
“I don’t need to have a building built,” Schoenstedt said. “I just need to be sure we have an unbreakable deal in place. ... It may just be a matter of timing.”
County officials have talked about building a new courthouse for years, but a revenue source for the project, which is estimated to cost about $200 million, has yet to be determined.
The one-block chunk of Chicago Street from Washington Street to Jefferson Street has been closed to through traffic since the late 1970s. Back then, the city agreed to vacate that portion of the street so the county could have a bigger courthouse parking lot and Joliet could create a mall-like atmosphere downtown, something cities across the country were trying at the time to compete with sprawling shopping malls.
But times have changed, and the closed-off road makes it hard to get around the downtown, said Joliet City Manager Tom Thanas. When northbound motorists on Chicago Street reach Washington Street, “they hit the T-intersection at the courthouse and it’s very confusing and they don’t know whether to turn right or left,” Thanas said.
Opening up the street will make it easier for travelers to find the city’s minor league ballpark, the Rialto Square Theatre, Harrah’s Casino, the Joliet Public Library, Joliet Junior College’s new campus (which is under construction), the Will County Office Building, City Hall and the city’s downtown restaurants, Thanas said.
If the street is reopened, truck traffic wouldn’t be allowed on it. Instead, trucks would have to take Route 53, which follows Scott Street north and Ottawa Street south, Thanas said. Also parking would be allowed along some portions of Chicago Street, he said.
Chicago Street’s reopening is a key piece of an intergovernmental agreement being worked on now between the county and the city that involves the swapping of several pieces of property and the extension of sewer and water to the county’s Laraway Road complex. Thanas and Schoenstedt said they are optimistic a deal can be worked out.
“We’re all working toward the same goal,” Schoenstedt said. “Nobody wants to mess up anyone’s projects.”
More traffic, more business
While Schoenstedt and Thanas said they don’t want the Chicago Street reopening issue to wind up in court, they agree that there may have to be a “friendly” lawsuit to clear title to the land. Schoenstedt said he has two court rulings and a state’s attorney’s office opinion to back up his stand on the parking lot.
“All three are very consistent,” he said. “They give the County of Will the lot, which includes where Chicago Street would go all the way through.”
And they also gave control of the parking lot revenue to the judiciary, he added.
While officials wrangle over the plan, the Red Goose’s Wesley is watching closely to see what happens. And she’s even started attending Joliet City Council meetings to keep abreast of the latest news. To her, it just makes sense to reopen the road.
“The more traffic, the more people, the better business will be,” she said.