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Marisa Paulson/MEDILL

After years of inaction, the Polish Triangle might be getting some attention with the help of a new WPB SSA steering committee, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) and the construction of a trans-oriented development nearby.

After years of neglect, Polish Triangle may get a little attention

by Marisa Paulson
March 06, 2012

Polish Triangles by the Numbers

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The Polish Triangle sees a lot of traffic on a daily basis. Counts are from the Metropolitan Planning Council's 2010 "Placemaking at the Polish Triangle" report. CLICK FOR FULL-SIZE IMAGE.

Polish Triangle Snow

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The Polish Triangle has 10,000 square feet of space, but is rarely used by the public, especially outside the summer months. Its only "art" installment is the fountain at its center, which was installed in 1998 in Nelson Algren's honor.

Polish Triangle Bus Stop

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Three bus routes stop at the Triangle. Those waiting for the 70 Division bus gather under the shelter, away from the wind and the pigeons.

Division Station

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The CTA Division station, frequently cited as one of the worst in the system, is currently undergoing a station renewal: cleaning, painting and repairs.

Zygmunt Dyrkacz steeps his tea bag up and down in his ceramic mug while his clear blue eyes gaze off into the distance as he admits that he is defeated.

“I must say that we fail. After 25 years, a quarter century now, I can say I feel often I’ve wasted my life here,” he said.

“We” is Dyrkacz and his wife, Lela Headd, who own the Chopin Theatre. “Here” is Wicker Park, or more specifically, the Polish Triangle, where the Chopin Theatre is located and Division Street and Milwaukee and Ashland avenues meet.

But Dyrkacz isn’t referring to a failed business venture: Dyrkacz and Headd’s theater hosts 500 shows annually and has attracted a million people over the years.

What Dyrkacz means is that his impassioned efforts to transform the Polish Triangle into a dynamic, inviting gateway to a thriving artistic community have failed.

You only have to look outside the windows of the Chopin Theatre to see why Dyrkacz feels that way: the Polish Triangle, a 10,000 square foot public space that is the center of Chicago’s Polish Downtown and a major transportation hub, is gray and barren.

The only color can be found on the bus stop signs: 70 Division. 56 Milwaukee. 9 Ashland. The centerpiece, an iron fountain, is covered with planks of plywood that only have traces of the green paint that must have covered it years ago. The only dwellers are flocks of pigeons, after the circular benches that surrounded a few of the trees were removed to prevent the homeless from sleeping there.

Dyrkacz moved to Wicker Park from his residence on Lake Shore Drive in 1986 and opened the Chopin Theatre in 1990.

“We were trying to make Wicker Park a Chicago destination like New Orleans’ French Quarter or Broadway in New York. There were a lot of galleries and boutiques when we came,” Dyrkacz explained. “We thought Chicago needed that kind of creative, alternative place where people from other cities, other countries come to.”

Now, the Chopin Theatre is the only creative, alternative place on the Triangle. Pawn shops, currency exchanges, banks and sports bars call it home. Tens of thousands of people come to the Triangle daily via public transit, but no one stays: It’s just a connection point instead of a destination.

It’s something Dyrkacz doesn’t quite understand.

“We are a very special area, geographically. We have the train station, three bus stations. We have Division street with huge sidewalks and trees. We have a tradition of art, many famous people here, and very cool houses and churches,” he said. “This Triangle could easily be one of the postcard places in Chicago.”

Dyrkacz isn’t just a wishful dreamer; others have had big plans for the Triangle, too.

Wicker Park-Bucktown has had a Special Service Area program (#33) for more than seven years. Wicker Park-Bucktown’s Special Service Area is referred to simply as WPB. WPB funds expanded services and programs through a localized property tax levy. The estimated tax rate for the 2010 levy was 0.299 percent.

Expanded services and programs include “public way maintenance and beautification; district marketing and advertising; business retention/attraction, special events and promotional activities; auto and bike transit; security; façade improvements; and other commercial and economic development initiatives,” according to the WPB website. The Polish Triangle is included in the WPB Master Plan, which was drafted in 2009.

WPB teamed up with Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council in 2009 to transform the Triangle into a well-used public space. After months of research, including surveying 700 people for their ideas, a report called “Placemaking at the Polish Triangle” was published in July 2010.  

The report suggested many recommendations for the Triangle with various timeframes: ongoing, short-term (completed by 2010-2011) and long-term (completed by 2010-2015).

The report outlined the key players for executing these recommendations: WPB, Wicker Park-Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, First Ward office, Chicago Department of Transportation, Chicago Transit Authority, East Village Association and a couple local schools: Near North Montessori School and Holy Trinity High School.

Maybe there was confusion about who was to do what, or just a lack of funding, but most of the recommendations have yet to be implemented: including landscaping, planting and hanging flower baskets; permanent and temporary artwork installations; an information kiosk; enhancing the fountain through cleaning and repair and adding a decorative cover for the winter months; and increased lighting.

Joanna Trotter, Metropolitan Planning Council community development director, said there have been several successes since the report was published, including significant participation in Bike to Work Week, live theatrical performances and a popular weekly evening farmer’s market in the summer months, and the Triangle is progressing as expected.

“This is only two years old,” Trotter said. “The thing about placemaking is that it’s never done. You have to engage people and they have to take ownership, and that’s happening. The structure has been put in place, and it’s been made a priority.”

But based on WPB 2009 and 2010 audit reports, funding doesn’t seem to be an issue. It’s more like the Polish Triangle just hasn’t been one of the top priorities, since the Special Service Area is one of the largest in the city and other projects have received the dollars.

Further, the WPB has rarely spent all the money it has available. For the past several years, the WPB has left tens of thousands of dollars unspent. It had $600,010 of unrestricted net assets left over at the end of 2008, $209,346 at the end of 2009, and $73,093 at the end of 2010.

The organization concedes in those earlier audit reports that it is “well aware of” and “regrets” the large amount of carry-over included in the budget for the upcoming year. However, the WPB’s first bookkeeper’s overview of this year shows that they had another large carryover. The commission only spent 68 percent of its 2011 budget, leaving $349,905 going into 2012. Executive Committee reports from this year outline policy revisions intended to give committees a clearer picture of how much money can be spent.

“A lot of times it happens because the money comes in at the end of the year, so we try not to spend it until we have it,” explained Jessica Wobbekind, the WPB program manager. “Tax bills are due twice a year, in March and November. We’re not guaranteed to get the money, so we don’t spend the money.”

Wobbekind took the post of WPB program manager about six months ago. She said there is a lot that remains to be done at the Triangle, and she plans to invigorate it this summer into something more than what most people consider it: a bus stop.

“I think people, locally, have sort of given up on it,” Wobbekind said. “It’s just like a pass-through for a lot of people.”

Wobbekind is involved with a new steering committee for the Polish Triangle. Formed in the fall, representatives from WPB, East Village Association, Pulaski Park Neighbors and the Near North Montessori School meet monthly to discuss the future of the Triangle.

Wobbekind said the farmer’s market will reappear this summer, on Thursdays, 3 p.m. to, from June 7 to Sept. 27, so commuters can pick up some fresh produce on their way home. WPB would also like to sponsor the arts performance series “Out of Sight” again this year.

While other improvements are on the list, the Polish Triangle steering committee does not have a budget, and there are currently no Special Service Area funds specifically allocated to the Triangle. To gain funding, Wobbekind said WPB is applying to a Chicago Department of Transportation program called “Make Way for People” in the plazas category.

The department will rank the submissions in a couple of months, then seek sponsors to fund improvements.

If funding is obtained through the transportation department program, Wobbekind said WPB would like to see an umbrella or some sort of covering over the CTA Division station, plantings around the fountain and in the tree pits, increased lighting and the eradication of those pesky, plump rats with wings: pigeons. Wobbekind said some of those improvements will happen even if the Triangle is not selected for the plazas category; the steering committee will look for fundraising opportunities.

Steven Vance, WPB transportation committee member and co-founder of, said he’d like to see the Triangle made more friendly to sustainable transportation in the future by adding bus stop bays, curb extensions, more bike racks and signage in the CTA Division Station directing to the Triangle. Division, frequently cited as one of the worst El stations in the city, is currently undergoing cleaning and repair through CTA’s station renewal program.

Vance said with some improvements, he can envision the Triangle becoming more of a citywide destination.

“When you talk about certain neighborhoods, you can usually imagine its center where you would meet people and then explore,” Vance said, mentioning Lincoln Square, Pilsen and Logan Square. “It would give a center to the neighborhood.”

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) said the Triangle is the gateway to the neighborhood, but not the proper gateway that he wants.

Moreno said it was unfortunate that he had to exercise a short-term fix to the Triangle’s homeless problem by removing the circular benches that once surrounded trees, but is looking at adding staggered seating.

Moreno said he is committed to realizing some improvements in the Triangle within the next year, including gathering proposals from art and design students, plantings, and large, colorful flags, like the neighborhood flags on street lamps, to attract attention to the space from near and far.

“I don’t want to have the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Moreno said. “I want to get some things done.”

Moreno said funding is an issue, but he’s excited about a new neighbor the Triangle is expecting. Construction is slated to begin in June on a development across from the Triangle at 1434 W. Division St., where a Pizza Hut once stood.

Developers Rob Buono and Paul Utigard, along with architects from Chicago firm Wheeler Kearns, have held community meetings revealing their plan for an 11-story building that would house retail on the ground floor, rentable offices and art studios on the second floor, and residential studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments on the third floor and above, all topped by a partially green roof.

PNC Bank and Intelligentsia Coffee have already claimed two of the possible three to four retail tenant spaces on the ground floor. Moreno is working to get a CTA pass kiosk on the ground floor, as well, since the space will be rezoned as a planned development, so that a parking space will not be required for each residential unit.

The development will be trans-oriented, meaning that residents are expected to be carless and use the public transit at the Triangle nearby, bike or walk. There will be parking spaces only for the retail tenants and guests of the residents, and the development includes an elevator and an indoor bike storage room.

“We have to get things done, and I know this development will help spur it because that’s going to throw off some dollars. That’s going to bring some attention and it’s going to bring density,” Moreno said. “I’m very excited about that; it’s a very important part of this Triangle.”

Dyrkacz said he’s happy to see some new faces involved with reclaiming the Polish Triangle and said improvements will help, but are minimal compared to the plans he and Headd have advocated, including 2007 proposals for a new fountain design and selected designs for a “visual spectacle” from a juried competition of local and international artists, including Ed Paschke and Dessa Kirk. However, no financial commitment was made by WPB to implement any of the designs.

Dyrkacz said that things like plants, artwork by children and a small fountain that is more often off than on won’t attract anyone.

“People do not want to come because of a Ferris wheel or a fountain,” Dyrkacz said, shaking his head. “Every place has those, usually bigger.”

“These people want to look for something more alternative than the same thing every major city has. You build a destination when you have super places.”