If city officials thought their plan to convert Meigs Field into a park would fly without opposition, they were wrong.

Last week an eclectic and pugnacious band of aviation enthusiasts–including several members of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen–showed up for a forum on the future of Meigs Field.

They easily outnumbered park backers at the lunchtime discussion sponsored by Friends of Downtown and confronted Edward Uhlir, a Park District planner, with a string of pressing and pertinent questions for which he had no easy answers. It was, they said, their first salvo in an uphill campaign to convince the public that Meigs Field is too valuable to lose.

“I now realize how strong a resistance we’re facing,” says Steven Whitney, president of the ad hoc group of airport supporters Friends of Meigs Field. “All we’re asking is for a fair and open debate.”

The controversy began last year when word surfaced about Mayor Daley’s plans for Meigs Field, the 90-acre peninsula just east of Lake Shore Drive at Roosevelt Road that the city inexplicably calls Northerly Island. Daley argued that it’s a waste of natural splendor to use that land as an airport. Instead he wants Northerly Island to become part of a lakefront museum and park campus–an ambitious effort that includes freeing up acres of land by moving the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive west of Soldier Field. In March Daley named his wife, Maggie, to a three-person commission that’s helping to plan the conversion.

“For all the people of Chicago, let us create a new park on our lakefront like no other place in the world,” Daley said when naming the commission. “[It would be] a park that through…its recreational, educational, and landscaped natural settings lifts our spirits, stimulates our minds, and offers gentle respite for our souls.”

It was highfalutin language for Daley, who regards himself as an ordinary guy, and his remarks showed a significant turnabout in the city’s attitude toward lakefront preservation. Daley’s father, when he was mayor, led the charge to build McCormick Place, an ugly glob of concrete that disfigured the south lakefront. For a while, the first Mayor Daley even advocated building a third airport on Lake Michigan.

That airport was opposed by some of the same environmental and open-land advocates who back Daley’s current park plan. As their guru they cite turn-of-the-century planner Daniel Burnham, who envisioned a series of lakefront parks stretching the length of the city.

In the 1920s Chicago devoted millions of dollars in public-works funds to build these parks, including Northerly Island. “But in 1933 the city got caught up in world’s fair fever,” says Joyce O’Keefe, associate director of the environmental group Openlands Project. “The original Burnham plan was thrown out the window.”

In 1946 the Park District signed a 50-year lease with the city, renting them Northerly Island for $1 a year. Meigs Field was built shortly thereafter. “The glamour of aviation caught up with the city,” says O’Keefe. “The city [wanted] to locate 72 airports around the region, the idea being that private planes would be common.”

That idea was scrapped as Midway and O’Hare absorbed most of the air traffic. Since the 80s the city has stopped pretending that Meigs serves an important function in its future aviation plans. Instead officials note that it operates at an annual deficit of about $200,000 and handles less than 1 percent of all the air traffic in the Chicago area. Mostly it’s used by private carriers and state officials, such as Governor Edgar and his staff, whose landing fees are waived.

It’s unlikely that traffic to and from Meigs will increase without a major reconstruction plan, since nasty lakefront winter weather makes the airport almost unusable for two or three months of the year. Moreover, the airport’s a major source of pollution, with fuel runoff seeping into the lake. For these reasons Daley decided that the city should close the airport when its lease with the Park District expires in September.

“The lakefront by right belongs to the people,” says O’Keefe, who argues that developing a lakefront park would attract tourists. “Twenty-six million people visit Chicago each year. They spend $11.8 billion a year. They come for beauty. It makes good business sense to invest in our strong suit.”

But from the outset the park plan has been opposed by Friends of Meigs, who argue that it wouldn’t cost much–maybe $500,000–to install modern landing gear to make Meigs more accessible during the winter and at night. “If they had better runway equipment you would have more use during inclement weather,” says Whitney, a businessman who flies his own plane. “It’s really misleading to restrict hours because of inadequate equipment and then complain about a lack of traffic.”

In general they say the reason Meigs traffic is minimal is that the airport is so poorly run. “There’s a large market for a centrally located airport, particularly in the downtown business community,” says Whitney. “We should be developing this market instead of discouraging it. It could be an important source of revenue for the city.”

As Whitney and his allies see it, the public has been bamboozled with promises that will never be achieved.

“There’s no great market for a park,” he says. “It will be a big white elephant. They say no one uses Meigs in the winter. Well, tell me: who’s going to use a park in the winter? They say the city needs more parks. Well, how about using the money you would spend converting Meigs to improve the parks we already have?”

So far few business leaders have been willing to champion the Meigs Field cause for fear of alienating Mayor Daley, Whitney says. Friends of Meigs says neither the mayor nor Maggie will return the group’s calls. The City Council has ignored their request for a hearing on Daley’s plans. And Park District officials treat them the way they treat most critics, as a bothersome bunch of insignificant sideline players.

“You’d be amazed by how many powerful business people want to support us but say they can’t,” says Whitney. “They’ve been told they can’t speak out or they’ll lose city business. They say the mayor refuses to even listen to their point of view.”

Their main opportunity for exposure comes at forums like the meeting sponsored by Friends of Downtown. After Uhlir and O’Keefe gave brief speeches endorsing the park, airport proponents pounded home their point of view.

“You say the airport’s closed for about three months due to inclement weather, but what about a park?” one man asked.

“How much will this park cost, and who will pay for it?” asked another.

“Name one park in the world which is a major tourist draw?” asked a third.

Uhlir handled most of the questions, but he was short on specifics, saying he wasn’t prepared to talk about what the park would look like or how much it would cost, since he and other planners were still designing it (the plans will be made public at a June 26 Park District meeting, he said).

He did say that there’s no chance of keeping Meigs open. “We are in the business of fostering park space,” Uhlir said. “It is our mission to convert public land into open park space throughout Chicago.”

But long after Uhlir left, airport advocates remained to press their case to anyone who would listen. Some of the more compelling testimony came from the six original members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black squadron of World War II pilots, Charles Nichols, William Roberts, William Thompson, Alvin Steele, Roy Chappell, and Milton Williams.

“I’ve lived in this city for 72 years and never heard anyone call it Northerly Island–everybody knows it as Meigs Field,” says Roberts. “Every year the Tuskegee Airmen operate our Young Eagle program out of Meigs. We’ll take students and let them fly. For many it’s a first. Now they want to take Meigs away; it doesn’t make sense.”

“They should make it an aviation park–a place where kids can go to learn about flying,” added Whitney. “Which do you think would be more popular with kids? If a teacher says, ‘Where would you rather go: to a prairie or to Meigs Field flight simulator?’ I guarantee you nine out of ten people will go for the second option.”

Of course, the odds against his case are overwhelming. This may be the only time in recent city history when open land advocates get to steamroll over proponents of lakefront development.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.