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On a warm summer day, University Avenue in Highland Park is mostly shaded as the residential street is lined with a multitude of century-old trees. The deafening chirp of cicadas can be heard throughout Highlands, a single-family home neighborhood in the city, as the periodic insects find temporary habitat in the tall trees.

Many of these trees could be cut down to make way for a city sidewalk project – initiated at the request of residents – dividing neighbors into those who support the trees and those who favor building the sidewalk.

The city is considering adding a sidewalk to encourage non-motorized traffic.

According to the City of Highland Park, a sidewalk project on University Avenue is currently in the public participation and evaluation phase, but no decisions have been made regarding a sidewalk in the area.

Next steps for the project include further study, including an engineering survey and tree impact report, to provide a comprehensive report and recommendation to the City Council, the city’s website states. 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 was intended to provide a wooded oasis amid the hustle and bustle of city life, according to a 2022 American Lifestyle magazine article written by Highlands resident Linda Stein. There are few sidewalks on Highlands’ residential streets, with a main concrete path running along Summit Avenue and Krenn Avenue.

Sidewalk feedback to the city in October 2023 showed a relatively “even split” among affected residents – those who live in the proposed area – according to a city report. Thirty affected residents supported the sidewalk construction, 33 opposed it and 31 did not respond.

Mark and Marla Portman have lived on University Avenue in Highland Park’s Highlands for nearly 40 years. When the couple learned about the proposed walkway seven years ago, they immediately opposed it.

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

The couple, who commissioned a forestry study for the potential walkway, believe that destroying trees is inconsistent with the city’s core principles, which include environmental sustainability, according to the city’s website.

Residents who support the sidewalks argue that the path would provide greater safety and accessibility for neighbors and children.

Barbara Hurwitz, who has lived on University Avenue for 46 years, said the narrow street doesn’t give pedestrians any room to maneuver when two cars pass at once. Add more car traffic and groups of cyclists, Hurwitz said, and the street becomes “increasingly unsafe.”

“When I moved here a long time ago, I had young children and the street was very different,” she said. “It was much quieter. In the decades that followed, 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’m not worried about trees, because I’m a big outdoors person,” she said. “But when you consider the safety of children and adults, it’s not a problem.”

Sidewalk flip-flop support

In 2017, residents were first informed by the city that a resident initiative was being considered to build a sidewalk on both sides of the street. At the time, the policy required a resident to receive 75% support from other residents on the affected streets, including 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 showing that 57 percent of residents opposed the construction – a significant drop in support for the sidewalk, city documents show.

A sign outside a residence on University Avenue in Highland Park asks passersby to walk on the lawn instead of the street. (Source: Chloe Hilles/Lake County News-Sun)
A sign outside a residence on University Avenue in Highland Park asks passersby to walk on the lawn instead of the street. (Source: Chloe Hilles/Lake County News-Sun)

After various city zoning proposals, citizen surveys, and feedback sessions, University Avenue residents received a notice in January 2020 that the city would not move forward with the proposed sidewalk construction due to a lack of support from residents. In the letter, the city stated that it would not consider a new sidewalk application for at least three years.

Later in September 2020, the City Council adopted a new policy for local sidewalk installation, which includes reducing the required housing assistance from 75% to 51% of affected residents, creating a survey template for residents, and detailing the City’s follow-up steps.

Three years later, the city revised the sidewalk plans after receiving inquiries about possible sidewalks as part of the repaving of University Avenue, according to a city memo.

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

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

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

This spring, the Portmans — along with a few dozen neighbors on University Avenue — commissioned a tree management report to better understand the potential impacts on the trees along their streets. The group wanted an independent report to compare with the city’s forestry report and has not yet submitted the report to the City Council or staff, the Portmans said.

The tree conservation plan by SavATree Consulting Group, a Northbrook-based certified arborist, concluded that the proposed sidewalk construction would have significant negative impacts on many mature trees.

The plan, which was News-Sunpoints out that many of the trees affected are considered heritage, keystone or protected trees by the City due to their size, species or other unique value. The plan also provides conservation strategies to limit the destruction of trees and their root zones.

Some parents and teens spoke in favor of sidewalks on University Avenue during a public hearing at a council meeting in March. Many mentioned that it is difficult for children to safely ride their bikes or walk to school on the street.

Other residents disagreed with their neighbor’s assessment of the safety of University Avenue. During the public hearing in March, Larry Walters said he taught his three young children to ride bikes on the street in their neighborhood and his mother, a senior citizen who lives with the family, has no problem walking on the lawn or sidewalk.

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