Two powerful Chicago mayors had big plans for Northerly Island, a 91-acre man-made peninsula on the lakefront a few miles south of downtown.
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley envisioned the site, which was home to a small airport, as a nature-in-the-city escape in his quest to make Chicago one of the greenest cities in the U.S. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to continue that vision.
It has become something different.
After years of wrangling with groups who wanted to retain the airport, Daley bulldozed the airport’s runways without notice in an infamous 2003 midnight raid that set the stage to turn Northerly Island into his nature-oriented park.
But Daley needed funding to begin restoring Northerly Island. In 2005, a 4,500-seat privately-run concert venue was constructed at the North end of the site. A portion of the concert revenue went to the park district to support construction on the 40-acre site that was to be a natural area.
Daley left office in 2011 without seeing Northerly Island restoration become a reality. He was succeeded by Emanuel who had been President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.
Emanuel pursued Daley’s Northerly Island vision by using his knowledge of where federal money might be available and was able to tap into the popular Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Additional funds came from the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2012, Emanuel announced the launch of the first phase of the project.
The $4.3 million expense was split, with the federal government contributing $2.8 million and the balance coming from the Chicago Park District.
The second phase of the project was completed in 2017 and costs topped out at $10.8 million with federal tax dollars paying $7.1 million, but problems quickly surfaced.
In the winter of 2016, the concrete biking and walking path that borders Lake Michigan on Northerly Island collapsed from wave erosion, making it dangerous to use.
The path was closed, making a significant portion of the park inaccessible to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The best remedy, given the unpredictability of Lake Michigan waves over time, was to eliminate the portion of the path that was damaged, according to Army Corps spokesperson Patrick Bray. Construction has begun and will be completed in November, Bray said.
The watchdog not-for-profit Friends of the Park lays the blame on the Army Corps.
“We are dismayed that the Corps of Engineers did a poor job with Northerly Island, underestimating from the start the impact of storms and rising lake levels on the site,” said Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Park’s executive director.
Bray said the original design the Army Corps received included barrier reefs meant to protect the shoreline from wave action. But they were dropped from the final plan because of prohibitive cost.
The vision for the project was to return the land in the park to what it was like before Chicago existed and that was accomplished, Bray said.
Concerts and Hamilton cut into natural area
Irizarry is also not pleased that the music venue, which was to be a temporary structure, has been expanded since 2005 to a capacity of 30,000 and is still allowed to occupy its Northerly Island location.
“The fact that the concert venue is on public trust land makes it extra inappropriate,” Irizarry said.
Declaring it a temporary structure allowed the park district to avoid a public vetting process, according to Irizarry.
The park district has a lease with Live Nation to run the concert venue that runs through 2022, according to spokesperson Irene Tostado. But revenue, anticipated to be $1.2 million in 2019, does not go to support Northerly Island.
“The revenue supports the Park District’s general fund,” Tostado said.
Friends of the Parks is best known for contesting the placement of Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Arts on public land governed by the public trust doctrine. The museum would have been adjacent to Northerly Island.
Securing the museum was a top priority for former Mayor Emanuel but Lucas withdrew his proposal after suffering legal setbacks based on action brought by Friends of the Parks.
In 2019, a portion of Northerly Island became home to a “pop-up” building that was constructed to house the Hamilton Exhibition, based on the popular musical. The bare land around the building was covered with synthetic grass to give the area a manicured lawn appearance.
The Hamilton exhibit closes on August 25, and nothing is planned to replace it. The synthetic grass will be removed.
Tostado said the nature area of Northerly Island is busy with day camps that bring kids to nature.
The programing “is a catalyst for bringing community together to develop awareness, appreciation and knowledge of the island and its surroundings,” she said.
But Irizarry questioned whether loud music and lots of events can coexist well with natural areas.
“Our vision would be more consistent with expansion of the natural area,” she said.
Featured Image: Birdseye view of Northerly Island, Photo by Marco Verch via flickr.com cc 2.0