Ten or twenty years from now, you may not recognize parts of Chicago’s world-famous lakefront: if a plan being pushed by the Chicago Park District becomes reality, there could be new harbors, beaches, islands, and piers, and the chronically underutilized south-side lakefront could come to rival the north side’s in amenities.

The key word, naturally, is “could.”

Much of the lakefront is past the point of simple repair. Those unique “step-stone” revetments have crumbled in certain areas, and that famous storm of February 1987, which flooded part of Lake Shore Drive near the Oak Street Beach, made clear the need for better protection against Lake Michigan’s unpredictability.

This need had seemed clear in the early 70s too, when the lake reached unusually high levels; and in 1974, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the Illinois shoreline and develop a long-term plan for its protection. The Chicago portion of that report, known as the “Draft Interim III Final Feasibility Report,” became public in late 1988.

The Corps study concentrated on finding the most cost-effective protection against erosion, mainly for Lake Shore Drive (which is part of the U.S. highway system). The Corps came up with a disarmingly simple solution: rubble-stone revetments. Which is to say, dumping rubble along the shoreline. Mix in a few “jersey wall” barriers–cheap three-foot-high cement partitions–to protect parts of the Drive, and Chicago’s lakefront could be protected for the 50 years called for in the Corps study. The Corps estimated the cost at about $119 million.

The prospect of Chicago’s lakefront becoming a strip of jagged concrete rubble, though, is popular with no one, nor is it much of a surprise coming from the Corps. As Friends of the Parks executive director Erma Tranter puts it, diplomatically, when it comes to dealing with waterfront erosion problems, “the Corps has tended to favor ‘hard’ solutions.”

In early 1987, Harold Washington had appointed the Chicago Shoreline Commission to produce a long-range plan for the enhancement, development, and preservation of the lakefront. The commission held hearings, consulted experts and citizen leaders, and produced a spectacular plan for new harbors, marinas, parks, beaches, and a host of other improvements, with a price tag that could run as high as $800 million.

However, before the commission issued its report, in May 1988, two things happened: Lake Michigan unexpectedly dropped from its record 1986-87 high levels, and Mayor Washington died. So the question of “saving the lakefront from the lake” passed off the editorial pages, and acting mayor Eugene Sawyer let the report die without setting up the “Shoreline Department” it called for. In fact, Sawyer never commented on the report at all, nor did Richie Daley or Tim Evans in the 1989 mayoral campaign.

It appeared then that the Corps proposal might be sent east without the “local sponsor” required before Congress will consider appropriating any funds, and without any challenge to those god-awful hard solutions.

Into the breach stepped the Chicago Park District, a logical choice given that the district owns 90 percent of Chicago’s shoreline. City Hall agreed to the Park District’s becoming the local sponsor. This does not mean that the district is required to either endorse or pay for the Corps’ proposal. In fact, the Park District came up with its own plan. As staffer Ed Uhlir said, “We’re not going to allow the Corps to come in and dump rubble up and down the lakefront.”

A committee of Park District and City Hall staff met during the first half of 1989, gathering input from consultants, various park advisory councils, and others. Several public meetings were held, the recommendations of the Corps and Shoreline Commission studies were considered, and out of it all came the Park District’s “Shoreline Protection and Recreational Enhancement” proposal.

The Park District proposal, at an estimated cost of $189 million, is something of a scaled-down version of the Chicago Shoreline Commission plan, with an eye toward future expansion of lakefront facilities. The Park District made an effort to keep costs down from the hundreds of millions of dollars projected for the Shoreline Commission plan, but it also aimed to provide not just bare-bones erosion protection but shoreline enhancement.

The stretch between Belmont and Montrose harbors provides a good example of the differences in approach. One of the most heavily used parts of the lakefront, Reach 2N (as it is officially known) is crumbling in several spots.

The Corps plan calls for either topping all the damaged step-stone revetments with rubble stone, or topping some with rubble stone and building a standard-issue rubble-stone breakwater south of Montrose Harbor for protection from lake storms. Estimated cost: between $51 and $76 million.

The Shoreline Commission plan proposes a wide breakwater made of landfill, to create not only new parkland but also space for a large new harbor between the existing ones. Price tag, just for the breakwater: $105 million.

The Park District plan calls for repairing the step-stone revetments that need it and building a simple breakwater placed in such a way as to make future harbor expansion or creation of new landfill parkland feasible. Estimated cost is $51.76 million.

Keeping future development options open, Uhlir said, is a Park District goal, one that’s notably absent from the Corps proposal. “The Corps plan has a 50-year cycle: we’d be committed to whatever was built for 50 years,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. We want to maintain flexibility.”

Tranter said, “I’m real pleased that the Park District took it upon themselves to move forward with their own recommendations. I think the district recommendations are close to what we’d like to see happen.”

Glenda Daniel of the Lake Michigan Federation said, “It certainly looked a lot better than the Corps proposal.”

Some of the biggest changes proposed in the Shoreline Commission report were for the chronically underused stretch between 31st Street and Hyde Park Boulevard (51st Street) on the south side. During the 1987 storm, this part of the lakefront suffered considerable damage, little of which has been repaired.

The Shoreline Commission proposed $164 million worth of breakwaters and landfill, creating space for a major new harbor between 35th and 40th streets and protected water for boat sailing and new beaches between 40th and 51st, as well as some new waterfront parkland.

The Corps proposed either basic rubble-stone protection ($56 million), or breakwaters similar to those in the commission’s proposal (but for $173 million) and without the new parkland.

The Park District more or less split the difference between the commission’s proposal and the Corps’ low bid: several new breakwaters, placed to allow future landfill or harbor construction, along with some basic shoreline repair and a small new beach at 31st Street. The estimated cost is $76 million.

Tranter said that “we would have gone farther” in this stretch of parkland: “The Park District should take an aggressive stance on developing the south-side lakefront, which is clearly underdeveloped between the South Loop and Hyde Park: there are no ball fields, only one playground, only one beach. We do need additional marinas, too.”

Colonel Jess Franco of the Corps’ Chicago District said the Park District plan is being forwarded to Congress together with the Corps plan, so “Congress will get to look at both. The Corps headquarters [in Washington] will then recommend something, and Congress will make a choice.”

Funding for the work would come from two basic sources: Congress and a “local share,” to be raised by the state, the city, the Park District, or (most likely) some combination of these three.

The good news, Franco said, is that the Corps will almost certainly recommend that Congress appropriate funds: “We feel that there definitely is a problem, and definite potential for federal funding.”

There are a couple of catches, though. The glory days of nearly complete federal funding for such infrastructure work are over. Moreover, in federal funding decisions, Franco said, straightforward erosion control takes precedence over recreational enhancement, which is why the Corps report includes only basic erosion-protection structures.

“Recreational projects right now are not likely to enjoy the administration’s support,” Franco said. Even if federal funding is approved for the Park District proposal, he added, its greater emphasis on recreational enhancement would likely drive the federal share down from as much as 75 percent to 50 percent or even less. Meaning the local governments would have to pony up millions more.

Daniel predicted that the Park District will have to make some more hard choices: “They can’t possibly afford all of it.”

Tranter, though, is more optimistic. She noted that “the state came up with substantial funds for recreation this year” in appropriating $150 million for the new Navy Pier-McCormick Place development authority. Also, the Park District could sell capital-improvement bonds, with income from new marinas producing revenue to retire them.

“I’m more hopeful about the local match funds than the federal moneys, I guess,” Tranter said. “Though there is the federal Highway Trust Fund surplus, and Lake Shore Drive is a federal highway.”

Uhlir said the Park District “won’t accept anything less” than its own plan, and has begun the political lobbying effort that clearly will be needed to pry the funding loose in Washington. “We are accumulating letters of endorsement for our proposal,” he said. Mayor Daley, Governor Thompson, both of Illinois’ U.S. senators, and the federal Interior Department’s regional administrator are already on record in support. “All of Illinois’ congressmen have been notified of the plan,” he said, “and will be approached again” for endorsements.

Tranter said the Park District should take advantage of the lakefront’s place close to the hearts and minds of private citizens. “They should reach out to the civic groups who can help them lobby,” she said, including Friends of the Parks as well as environmental groups like the Lake Michigan Federation and others headquartered in Chicago. “They need to start the grass-roots lobbying process now.”

Uhlir said the plan has been sent to “all the civic groups we could think of,” but not much else has been done so far to rally citizen interest. “I think we’ll have to, in the future,” he said, mount public as well as behind-closed-doors political pressure.

In any case, Uhlir said, in Washington the process of studying, authorizing, appropriating funds for, and planning work of this magnitude would require “several years.” The Park District appears willing to take it slow and careful, in order to get more than just piles of rocks along the water’s edge. “We won’t settle for anything less,” Uhlir repeated, “than what we think is best for the lakefront.”

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