On January 28 Jack Spicer and several of his Hyde Park allies arrived at a meeting with city officials and a mediator to work out some final details on a plan to rebuild the shoreline around Promontory Point, the popular park that juts into the lake at 55th Street. Spicer thought his long fight with the city was coming to a close.
About four years earlier Park District and Department of Environment officials had unveiled a plan to remove the limestone blocks around the Point and replace them with a concrete seawall, part of a $300 million project to prevent erosion and flooding of Lake Shore Drive by rebuilding revetments from Montrose to 57th Street. Spicer and other Hyde Park residents were furious. They formed the Community Task Force for Promontory Point, wrote countless letters to editors, attended dozens of meetings, made hundreds of phone calls, held numerous protest rallies. “I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent on this,” says Greg Lane, who lives in Hyde Park. “Jack alerted me to the potential destruction of this national historical resource, and I got involved. I’m merely a reflection of a broad passion in this community.”
A year and a half ago Lane was working his way through a stack of documents on the project that he’d gotten from City Hall when he discovered a 1994 “memorandum of agreement” signed by the city, the Park District, and the Army Corps of Engineers. In it they agreed “that the design and construction of the revetment will match the existing” revetment around the Point and that the “plan that will be designed and implemented will be the step-stone revetment plan.” In other words, the city had signed a legally binding document to preserve the limestone revetment, and the Army Corps had agreed to stop the city if it tried to do anything else. “It’s there in black and white for anyone to see,” says Lane. “They’re obligated to preserve the limestone. The language is clear.”
Yet sometime after signing the MOA the city decided to go with concrete, even though it hadn’t gotten the approval of the Corps. Why the city changed its mind isn’t clear. (Calls to the city were referred to Park District spokesman Julian Green, who said he was only vaguely aware of the MOA’s existence.)
When members of the task force complained about the change, city and Park District officials said they were sympathetic, but limestone wouldn’t keep the waves from eroding the shore. “They said they were willing to work with us and make modifications in their concrete plan,” says Spicer, “but that ultimately most of the limestone would have to go.”
The activists could have gone to court to block the project, arguing that it violated the MOA, but as Spicer puts it, “We thought it would be best to try and work with the city.”
They did hedge their bets a little, raising more than $60,000 to hire a coastal engineer, Cyril Galvin. He studied the erosion at the Point and in the fall of 2002 released an alternative plan that would use limestone and concrete to repair the shoreline while keeping the traditional look. The city rejected his plan, saying it didn’t make the lake accessible to the handicapped. So Galvin altered the plan to make the water accessible. The city rejected that on the grounds that new limestone wasn’t available. The residents gathered letters from limestone quarry operators, who said they had more than enough limestone for the project.
“I realized that no matter what we said, no matter what we proved, the city was going to turn us down,” says Lane. “They said that [federal] access requirements mandated an all-concrete shoreline. Well, our answer to that was we brought in a nationally recognized expert–I can send you his CV if you want it–and he said, ‘Of course you can preserve and provide access.’ Otherwise we’d be destroying the thing to provide access to it–Vietnam war thinking. Then they said, ‘It’s not constructable’–which is interesting, because we have pictures of people in the 1930s building it. It’s very curious to me that you can’t build something in 2004 that you can build in 1937. I think it was when they said that you could no longer cut the limestone because–I’m not making this up–the quarries had thrown away the saws that they used to use to cut the limestone that I came to the conclusion that these people will say anything to destroy our project.”
Daley was largely silent on the issue, though early last year he was asked about it at a community forum. According to one Hyde Parker in the audience, he snapped something like, “Those people in Hyde Park, they’re not getting anything. Promontory Point can sink into the lake, and God help them if it does.”
But then the city seemed to soften its stance. It suggested a compromise–concrete with the top two steps made of limestone–and last August it agreed to take the matter to a mediator. The two sides didn’t wind up meeting until January 12. “The way it worked is, we had our engineer, the city had their engineer, and the mediator had his own engineer,” says Spicer. “The engineers from each side got together and stood in the middle of the room and put their heads together and did their engineering thing.”
On January 22 the engineers, city officials, and activists met again, and the city finally admitted that the task force had been right–limestone would work as well as concrete in protecting the shore.
“So the only remaining issue was, could we afford it,” says Spicer. “The city said their concrete plan would cost $24 million. Our cost analysis for our plan was $18 million. Their original analysis of our plan was $28 million. So now they were going to have the mediator go over all the figures.” The city agreed that if the limestone cost no more than the concrete, it would go with the task force’s plan.
On January 28 city engineers and officials, including Park District chief David Doig, gathered for another meeting with the mediator and the task force members to go over the figures. But before the meeting started, Doig, in one of his last acts before stepping down from his post, announced that the city would no longer participate in the mediated discussions. Then he gave the task force members an ultimatum–accept the concrete wall with the top two steps made of limestone or nothing at all.
“They were trying to get us to accept the exact same plan they had before the mediation ever started,” says Lane. “Six months of working with the city got us nothing.” The city officials said the issue was money, and the task force members were too stunned to ask why their plan, which appeared to be cheaper than the city’s, couldn’t be used.
The Park District’s Julian Green explains that times are hard and the feds are strapped–they don’t have a lot of money to spend, particularly on controversial projects. “We need to set our priorities,” he says. “The Army Corps has seen their funds reduced because of the war in Iraq. We were told by the army that they were going to be short $15.6 million. Since we don’t have an agreement on design [at the Point], we can divert funds from that project to help construction on other lakefront projects.”
He adds, “The ball’s in the community’s court.” If they want the Point protected against erosion they should accept the city’s offer, and they should accept it fast. “The longer it takes them to come to a consensus, the possibilities of the project not happening at all can grow. Congress can come back tomorrow and reduce appropriations even more.”
The activists say the city’s trying to blackmail them, but they don’t seem worried about the consequences if they refuse to go along. “I don’t think anyone really believes the Point was going to fall into the lake–a lot of people think it was just a big public works project,” says Spicer. “We had an outstanding plan we wanted to implement, but if we have to choose between concrete and nothing, we’ll take the nothing.”
Spicer, Lane, and their allies have made it clear–to the Hyde Park Herald and anyone else who will listen–that if the city decides to put in a concrete seawall without their consent they won’t play nice. “This won’t be Meigs Field,” says Lane. “The day the bulldozers show up, people will be chaining themselves to trees–and there will be lawyers in court filing briefs demanding that the city live up to the MOA.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.