In any other city, the press conference held last December 13 would have been the most newsworthy local event in years. Mayor Daley was announcing nothing less than “completion of The Chicago Lakefront Plan, which should serve as a protection for the lake and guide for development of lakefront recreational and cultural uses for at least 20 years,” as the official press release put it. What a scene—flashbulbs popping, cameras rolling, pencils scribbling frantically, newsmen knocking over furniture and each other as they rushed to the phone … .

But the Chicago press just stood around, covering their yawns politely with one hand and trying to look interested. In this city, a new plan for the lakefront is about as earthshaking as another scandal in the police force or news that the school board is out of money. A year without a lakefront proposal would be like St. Pat’s Day without a parade—unthinkable. It’s a Chicago tradition. In fact, it’s so traditional that they always use the same plan.

The only new feature this year was acquisition of the South Shore Country Club (between 67th and 71st on the lake, which had been stale news since mid-November. The Mayor and his commissioner of development and planning, Lewis W. Hill, spent the rest of the conference talking about all the lakefront improvements that politicians have been talking about since the days of Daniel Burnham: bigger parks, less crowded parks, safer parks, more facilities, longer beaches. They even promised a longer swimming season. But they didn’t actually present the Plan— that would require another press conference, probably next week. They just announced its “completion.” Very few details were revealed, and soon the more imaginative reporters were chewing their pencils and wondering why the Mayor had picked that particular day to tell them what they already knew. The less imaginative reporters were wondering how long it would take to rewrite last year’s story.

They had an easier time of it than the headline writers. “New” was clearly an unsuitable adjective. “Comprehensive”? “Sweeping”? “Expansive”? They had all been used before. And lakefront plans are always “proposed” or “suggested”—never “adopted” or even “approved.” Much less funded … .

The original proposal was made in 1909 by Daniel Burnham, whose plans for the lakefront were largely incorporated into the Lakefront Development Ordinance passed by the City Council in 1919. Its most spectacular provision was a string of five park-islands, between Grant Park and Jackson Park, which Burnham envisioned as an almost continuous strip of land enclosing a series of lagoons for boating and water sports. The 1919 ordinance was a contract between three parties: the City Council, the Park District, and the Illinois Central Railroad. The railroad agreed to electrify and depress its tracks, which it did, and to build a new terminal at Roosevelt Road, which it did not do. The Park District agreed to build the five islands —but it only built one of them, Northerly Island, and in 1947 it gave that one away to become Meigs Field. The city was supposed to see that both parties lived up to the agreement. And therein lies a tale, which didn’t become apparent until 1959, exactly 40 years later.

In 1959 James Clarkson, a reporter for the Southeast Economist, “rediscovered” the 1919 ordinance and pointed out that “THE PARK BOARD IS STILL OBLIGATED TO BUILD THE ISLANDS, BEACHES, BRIDGES AND BOULEVARDS.” The public demanded an explanation. Where were the islands, the sheltered lagoons, the boat moorings and sandy beaches? They hadn’t been built, said park district superintendent George T. Donoghue, because they were too expensive. “The cost today would be prohibitive. Even the cost of Northerly Island was staggering when it was built more than 30 years ago. We had to sink steel and wooden pilings to hold the fill and it all had to be made watertight so that the lake would not be contaminated. After the island had been created it kept settling for years. It finally settled three feet and had to be filled to place it back to grade … .” Alderman Leon Despres called for an investigation, and it soon became clear that adequate funding had never been available. The Park District had never expected to fulfill the terms of its contract.

Why had they signed it? Because in 1919 there had been lots of public pressure to “beautify the lakefront.” Sentiment was particularly strong against the Illinois Central. Citizens were demanding that the tracks be covered over, or even forced off the lakefront altogether. The ordinance of 1919 had been a convenient way out for both the Park District and the railroad; by making relatively in expensive cosmetic changes along the lakefront, and by agreeing to wildly unrealistic future plans, they effectively preserved the status quo.

Not much came of the 1959 flap, except that Mayor Daley may have learned a trick or two. He’s been proposing islands (and/or peninsulas) in the lake ever since. In 1965, for example, while the city was trying to ram Lake Shore Drive straight through Jackson Park and women were chaining themselves to trees, he held a press conference and announced that four peninsulas would be build on the south side. No money was available: M.W. Newman of the Daily News called them “lakefront peninsulas in the sky.”

At another City Hall press conference the following year, the “comprehensive Plan of Chicago” was unveiled. This plan stated the grand principle, faithfully repeated by each successive proposal, that “The Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago is a priceless natural and man-made asset for the entire region. It is the most important single recreational resource in the metropolitan area … .” New lakefront parks were proposed for the Far North Side, as well as between 39th and 55th and between 71st and 79th. These beaches haven’t been developed yet, but they are included in every lakefront plan.

“Islands in the lake” appeared again in the 1968 plan prepared by the consultant firm of Johnson, Johnson and Roy, and in the firm’s 1970 plan. In 1971, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission’s proposal spoke of “peninsulas and islands.” And on July 25, 1972, a “Tribune headline read, “Daley Aide Asks for Man-Made Islands in Lake.” The aide was Louis B. Wetmore, a professor of planning at the University of Illinois in Urbana, who prepared the plan which will be unveiled next week. The islands in his plan apparently are the biggest yet, stretching from Howard Street to Navy Pier and from Northerly Island to 79th. They would create a 20-mile stretch of sheltered water, up to a mile wide, for boating and water sports. Private automobiles would be banned from the islands; access would be by foot, bicycle or public minibus.

Where will the money for such an ambitious project be found? According to the official press release, “a multiple approach to intergovernmental sharing of costs must be pursued. All levels of government should be called upon to participate and make available financial resources and other assistance necessary to achieve the objectives and recommendations set forth in this plan.” Any other questions? (It would save money, Commissioner Hill pointed out, if landfill from the projected new subway system in the Loop and from the Sanitary District’s proposed tunnel network could be used. Neither of these projects has yet been approved or funded.)

In short, the beauty of the “islands in the lake” idea is that it sounds so good and is so far removed from reality. The city avoids the responsibility of carrying out the proposal, but gets credit for proposing it. And not even the lakefront conservationists can object—they don’t know enough about the ecological effects of man-made islands.

“Nobody in our group feels super pro or con about the islands,” says Judy Eyring, co-chairperson of the Lakefront Coalition, “except for personal reasons like ‘when I look at the lake I want to see water, not islands.’ But nobody has any scientific reasons to object. Not enough studies have been done. Maybe they should impede the current or cause increased erosion of the shore. The islands might not be all bad, in fact if they’re planned right they could be good, but how can you guarantee that? We don’t know enough.”

One person who might know is Edith McKee, a geologist who has been mapping the bottom of Lake Michigan and studying current patterns for several years. She told the Reader, however, that the alongshore area has never been mapped in detail. “Land geologists usually stop when they get their feet wet, and deep-water geologists stop when it gets too shallow for their boats.” An adequate study could be done in less than a year, the thinks—but for now, she’s not taking any position on the man-made islands.

The Mayor and his planning team are well aware of the need for further study. “The Lakefront Plan stresses the fact that none of the changes to the shoreline or lake fill will take place until extensive studies dealing with such things as erosion prevention, ecological balance, currents, lake bottom topography, and the effect of wave action, weather, and water levels are completed.” (This statement, by the way, comes from the same people who brought you the airport-on-the-lake proposal). These further studies are as yet unfunded, of course, although the city managed to find $600,000 to spend on preparing the plan, which is just a re-hash of previous ones. The city is also eager to hold public hearings—and why not? No secret land grabs or pay-offs are involved, and they’ve got all the time in the world.

Ald. Leon Despres has been watching City Hall use this tactic for many years, and his advice is very simple. “Forget about the islands. The long-term proposals are a lot of hot-air—the short-term effects are what you have to watch for.” One such effect, he fears, will be the “improvement” of Lake Shore Drive through Jackson Park, a plan which his Hyde Park constituents vehemently oppose. “It’s true that the lakefront proposal says that Lake Shore Drive should have ‘parkway’ rather than ‘expressway’ standards, but that’s just playing with words —now they have in mind making it an accelerated parkway.”

The proposal’s chief short-term effect doesn’t have anything to do with the lakefront, however. It means lots of good publicity for the Mayor. Despres points out that the December 13 press conference was held in the midst of the O’Hare parking lot scandal; Judy Eyring says that the Lakefront Coalition had held a large public meeting only two weeks earlier, and the Mayor hoped to take the steam out of their save-the-lakefront-from-highrises campaign. “They’re talking about that plan as if it’s going to save the world, but we’re interested in the here and now. What we want to see is zoning to curtail highrises. They Mayor says he’s opposed to new buildings east of Lake Shore Drive—big deal! What’s east of the Drive?”

All observers agree that a major consideration in releasing the plan next week is state Senator Robert E. Mann’s “Lakefront Bill of Rights,” which he will re-introduce later this month. The Mayor emphasizes that the lakefront should be “publicly owned and locally controlled“; his chief objection to Mann’s bill, of course, is that it would place the lakefront under state protection. It would also make man-made islands nearly an impossibility; there could be no landfill or construction without the special approval of the state general assembly, the governor, and the state Environmental Protection Agency. Now the Mayor’s aids in Springfield can say “look at the wonderful plan the city has prepare. You see, we know how to take care of the lakefront perfectly well by ourselves—and you wouldn’t want to prohibit all those pleasure islands in the lake, would you?”

It will probably work, and we’ll be stuck with the same old plan—and the same old questions. What exactly is meant by “parkway standards” for Lake Shore Drive? What will become of Soldier Field—will parking lots and access roads be expanded, adding more concrete to the lakefront, or will a new stadium be built, and where? When will mass transit to the lakefront be improved, so that the whole city can enjoy the shore? Where will the visitors to all those pedestrian islands park their cars? When will we get effective anti-pollution control? Will this plan be used as an excuse to permit higher and higher population densities along the shore? Where are effective zoning regulations to prevent the proliferation of highrises? And where is the money coming from? Until he answers these questions, when Mayor Daley talks about “islands in the lake” he might as well be talking about islands in the sky