It was one of those looks-great-on-paper ideas that floats out of the Park District from time to time. They wanted to fill in a portion of Lake Michigan so that pedestrians could stand on a spit of land at the mouth of the Chicago River and watch the boats pass by.

The spit of land–which would curve out from the southern bank of the river, creating a “landscaped turning basin” for boats–was part of a multimillion-dollar lakefront beautification plan that includes the renovation of Navy Pier and the construction of a 400-boat marina. The Park District came up with the idea, the planning department had all but signed off on it, and the Chicago Plan Commission was holding hearings on it. Then the plan hit a snag.

Much to the apparent surprise of Park District planners, the Chicago River is a major commercial waterway through which tugs and barges carry oil, gas, concrete, and other industrial products to and from dozens of warehouses and factories along the river’s banks. And the critics said the marina and turning basin would restrict access to the lake, causing a backup of boats, threatening the safety of boaters, and jeopardizing the livelihood of dozens of riverfront businesses. As word of the plan spread, barge operators and industrialists began to protest.

“I think that the Park District did not understand the significance of that water at the foot of the lake,” says Richard Race, president of Hydrographic Survey Company, an offshore surveying firm. “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s an oversight. Those folks are in the recreation business. To them it’s just a nice piece of real estate. They just don’t know how the river system works.” Park District and city planning officials say they never intended to promote a plan that would harm industry.

For the most part, the original plan has been supported by civic groups. “We think it’s a great urban design concept, a stunning visual concept,” says Beth Davis, executive director of Friends of the River, a not-for-profit group. “The revenues generated from the marina could pay for pedestrian improvements and link the riverfront to the lakefront.”

Over the last few years Friends of the River has organized hearings on the matter, soliciting opinions from a wide range of sources. From the start there were tensions between recreational and commercial boat operators. “The first time I saw this plan was in about 1988, and I objected then for the same reasons I object now–it would create navigational problems,” says Robert Hensley, port captain for Hannah Marine, a barge operation. “They were just trying to do too much in a limited amount of space–and I told them so.”

Nonetheless, planners steamed ahead. In 1989 Mayor Daley and Governor Thompson struck a deal, agreeing to spend $150 million redeveloping Navy Pier and building the marina and turning basin. Lost in the praise for the deal were the concerns expressed by Hensley and others.

The river now meets the lake near Illinois Street. At its mouth is a large holding bay where barges and boats wait to pass through a federally operated lock. Immediately to the south is a large dock where barges and big boats can tie up when the lake is rough. The Park District proposal would have converted that dock into a marina. It would also have diminished the size of the holding bay, by filling it in with land to create the turning basin along which pedestrians could walk.

“The Park District sees the turning basin as being the ‘last link in the emerald necklace’–that’s the language they use,” says Michael Holzer, a planner for the Local Economic & Employment Development Council, a coalition of north-side industries. “We see it as the lakefront equivalent of turning an eight-lane highway into a two-lane road. Any way you look at it, it’s going to cause problems.”

In December 1990 the planning department released its “Navy Pier/Turning Basin Development Guidelines,” a 127-page booklet with photographs. The publication began with the statement that it was a draft to be revised (if necessary) and adopted by the Chicago Plan Commission, which oversees large-scale developments. Then the guidelines would become “the official proposal for how Navy Pier and its environs are to be developed. . . . These guidelines are intended to maximize the redevelopment’s regional and local benefits and minimize any negative impacts it might have on the surrounding Near North neighborhood.”

Nowhere does the document mention the impact of the turning basin and marina on river industries or barge operators. “This plan is serious because it limits commercial access to the river, which dozens of businesses depend on,” says Hensley. “By filling in the water to build the southern wall of the turning basin, they are cutting down the space a boat has in which to maneuver. I shouldn’t even call it a turning basin, because it’s not. A turning basin is for turning large vessels. The way they want to do it, you couldn’t fit anything in there. Hell, I’ve got barges 420 feet long. And that’s just the barge. Now I’ve got a 110-foot tug behind that. And we’re carrying 8,000 tons of cargo. You really need room to operate. There’s no way big barges can get through there smoothly.”

Worse, he says, the project would increase the likelihood of accidents. “Anytime a boat comes into the river from the lake, it has to go through that lock. If you shrink that basin where the boats mingle, there’s going to be an accident. You can take that to the bank.”

Moreover, the plan threatened the livelihood of river-based industries at the very time planning department officials were trying to help such companies expand. “There are at least 14 companies on the North Branch that use the river to bring products and supplies back and forth,” says Holzer. “The river is the big reason they stay here.”

Indeed, the city has recognized the importance of these companies by limiting residential and commercial development along portions of Clybourn Avenue and on Goose Island–two industrial corridors on the river’s North Branch–to protect them from encroaching shopping centers and condominiums.

The city’s favorable reaction to the Park District plan left many observers confused. Did it signal a retreat by Mayor Daley–who counts residential and commercial developers among his biggest backers–from an industrial-retention policy favored by Mayor Harold Washington? If so, why had Daley previously promoted tax breaks for Goose Island industries? And why was the Army Corps of Engineers planning to dredge the north bank of the river to make it easier for larger vessels to pass?

“What you’ve got is a major contradiction,” says Richard Race. “On one hand you have the city trying to encourage industrial development. And on the other hand you’ve got the Park District trying to discourage it. Why dredge the Chicago River–and then build a wall that restricts access to the lake? It doesn’t make any sense. I wrote [Park District board president Richard] Devine a letter about this, but he didn’t even have the courtesy to respond.”

Race was only one of a number of people who wrote or called the city to complain. City officials have since been scrambling to distance themselves from the plan. “The idea by the Park District is not set in stone. It’s a draft–a schematic drawing–something that we want the public to review and comment on,” says Greg Longhini, an aide to planning department commissioner David Mosena. “There is no way we are going to ignore the needs of industries on the North Branch. We’re not going to walk away from them.”

Why then do the guidelines make no mention of the project’s impact on river-based industries? “That was an oversight,” says Longhini. “It was not intended to send any kind of message.”

Park District officials say there is no need to adjust their plan. “We have not altered the navigational channels at all,” says Shawnell Richie, a Park District spokesman. “This is an enhancement. We are not trying to impact industry in any way.” Why then has industry complained? “I presume that is a misunderstanding.”

On April 15 the Plan Commission held a hearing on the matter. So many barge operators and industrialists attended (one came from Michigan) that there wasn’t enough time for all of them to speak. In the meantime, Mosena has created a task force that includes barge operators and river-based companies to study the plan.

“The task force hasn’t scheduled any meetings yet, but we think the city’s sincere and not just setting this thing up to make us go away,” says Holzer. “This is a very important issue. There’s a lot of jobs and businesses at stake. Once we get the city’s attention, I’m sure some reasonable compromise can be reached.”

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