FOR SALE: 700-acre former Army base, 25 miles north of the Loop, with more than 450 buildings enclosing more than 2.9 million square feet. Golf course, 1.75 miles of beachfront, 900 century-old oak trees, and 11 plant species threatened or endangered in Illinois. Asking between nothing and $2 billion. Final decision on sale and price to be made by a former congressman from Wyoming.

Fort Sheridan looks like a cute little town. Or a middle-sized college campus with a dignified old core of buildings and somewhat tackier ones at the edges. But you can tell it’s an Army base when you realize that every residence is labeled with a small interstate-style white-on-green sign giving the occupant’s name and rank. Both the signs and salutes will be gone by 1995, replaced by what, nobody knows.

“NORTH SHORE LAND WAR” is how the Sun-Times heralded the announced closing of the fort. Now, almost two years later, the ongoing war over the fate of the fort is both more genteel (as befits the North Shore) and more confused (as befits Chicago) than you might expect.

Why fight over an old fort? Its value lies more in where it is than in what it is. Squeezed between Lake Forest on the north, Highland Park on the south, tiny Highwood on the west, and Lake Michigan on the east, the fort would be precious real estate if it were a cornfield. As it happens, it’s an oak-lined campus ending in bluffs overlooking the lake 40 feet below. (One of the better-kept secrets of the North Shore is that the fort is an “open base”; anyone can come in and visit the museum, walk on the beach, or even, for a fee, use the boat launch.)

All the way from Rogers Park to Wisconsin, the only other beach with substantial free public access is Illinois Beach State Park, between Waukegan and Zion, the state’s second most popular state park.

Better yet, the fort’s military past has not drastically altered its landscape. It’s about the size of Grant Park, but a lot more natural. “If you put it in private developers’ hands,” says gubernatorial assistant Tom Skinner, “I can’t imagine a more valuable property in Illinois.”

Not surprisingly, the fort’s beauty and its value have attracted a host of combatants to the North Shore land war, including:

The secretary of defense, who insists he will not let the base go for anything less than its full market value, even though taxpayers have already shelled out for it once.

A developer so anxious to get ahold of the property that out of the blue he sent the Defense Department a check for half a million dollars.

Open-space advocates so desperate to preserve the whole fort as public land that they’ve offered to run what amounts to a rental agency.

The Navy, which wants to acquire the fort’s housing because its personnel can’t afford north-suburban rents.

A small school district trying to cut its enrollment.

A veterans’ cemetery looking for elbow room that has the support of at least one suburb (Lake Forest) that prefers quiet neighbors.

And a Republican congressman trying to forge a consensus.

Three conspicuous noncombatants are Governor James Thompson and U.S. senators Paul Simon and Alan Dixon, who have all taken wait-and-see attitudes. Fort Sheridan has the location, the history, the architecture, and the natural beauty to become a park of state- or region-wide importance. But for some reason, no state or regional leader has been willing to speak up for it. One Dixon staffer has even been spreading erroneous information about the base-closing law. Simon and Dixon have paid so little attention to the whole business that it might as well be happening in Manitoba.

On October 6, 1887, Adolphus C. Bartlett, Charles L. Hutchinson, and John J. Janes “sold” the War Department several hundred acres–most of the current fort area–for $15. As agents of the Commercial Club of Chicago, they wanted the U.S. Army handy to protect affluent Chicagoans–in particular from disgruntled workers demanding an eight-hour day. Protests and strikes often turned violent; four innocent anarchists were already set to be hanged in retaliation for the May 1886 Haymarket bombing, but one could hardly be too careful.

There had already been talk of locating a military base north of the city, and the idea fit well into the Army’s move from temporary frontier outposts into permanent garrisons. First called “Camp Highwood,” the base was renamed “Fort Sheridan” in 1888 after Civil War general, Army commander, and Commercial Club member Philip Sheridan.

By 1889 Fort Sheridan had a few permanent buildings, the first in a series of 66 designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Holabird and Roche. It was no coincidence that Holabird’s father, Brigadier General Samuel Holabird, was quartermaster general of the Army at the time. After 1890 new forts had to follow standardized plans, and after 1896 the use of private architects was outlawed altogether, so this fruitful nepotism was not repeated elsewhere.

Few other military posts are the result of a single distinguished architectural vision. Unified by design and by material–a glowing cream-colored brick made from sand quarried on the property–the buildings surround Fort Sheridan’s trademark water tower in the central portion of the base. The Architectural Reviewer commented in 1897, “Altogether the effect is that of a little city built by one mind . . . [with] sufficient variation in the architecture, and such good taste in the landscape effects, that the result is most pleasing.”

Ironically, the fort served its original purpose of suppressing labor unrest only once, in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland–over the strenuous objection of Illinois governor John P. Altgeld–used its troops to break the nationwide Pullman strike centered in Chicago. More often the fort has provided a mobilization point for foreign military adventures, from the Spanish-American War to the current reserve call-ups for the Middle East. Today it houses the headquarters of the Fourth Army and the Army Recruiting Command.

For a quick, crude picture, visualize the fort as consisting of three ribbons of land running east-west from Sheridan Road to Lake Michigan. The northernmost strip is mostly open–grass and oak trees and golf links and a helipad. The central strip is the “historic district,” including the tower and its massive and adjacent barracks (now offices) plus curving lanes with handsome officers’ homes, each with its elegant arch. The district is doubly historic–on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, and a national historic landmark since 1983. The southern and thickest strip includes utilitarian World War II-era structures and a fair amount of modest 1960s ranch houses and duplexes. These are among Illinois’ least pretentious homes with backyard views of Lake Michigan.

Socially, the fort is something of an oddity on the posh North Shore; economically, it has never given its suburban neighbors quite the boost they might have hoped for in the early days. “At best,” writes historian Michael Ebner in Creating Chicago’s North Shore, the fort “was tolerated as a patriotic necessity.” During the early or middle 1960s, the three suburbs adjacent to the fort began considering what would become of the land if the Army left. Lake Forest now lays claim to about 150 acres at the north end, Highland Park to about 150 acres at the south end, and Highwood the middle and largest section.

As long as the fort is federal ground the validity of such claims matters little. But the land’s future has become a live issue.

In 1971, when the Army moved out more than half of its personnel and left more than 100 buildings vacant, U.S. senator Adlai Stevenson III described Fort Sheridan as “a shadow of its former military self” and urged that it be recycled for recreation, housing, or education: “The crucial question is whether this priceless land is needed to perform miscellaneous administrative functions for the Army.”

Stevenson appointed an advisory committee, which proposed joint public usage with the military. The same idea reappeared in a 1972 plan promoted by Governor Richard Ogilvie, Illinois Conservation Department director Henry Barkhausen, and U.S. senator Charles Percy. They suggested establishing a 170-acre park at the less-developed northern end of the fort, including three-quarters of a mile of shoreline. Lake Forest opposed a park, and on February 22, 1971, its city council had “annexed” the northernmost 150 acres.

When more changes were proposed in 1978, Stevenson (who opposed other Illinois base closings) strongly endorsed the reuse of Fort Sheridan: “There is no justification for maintaining 389 acres of manicured landscape with two miles of unused beaches near the heart of the nation’s most park-starved metropolitan area.” And a report published by the Pentagon’s Economic Adjustment Program in 1979 proposed dividing the fort into seven slices for such uses as recreation, residences, retail, offices, and research and development.

These recurring blizzards of paper left no mark on the actual landscape. Eventually, however, national politics did. The business of closing outmoded military bases had always been difficult for congressmen with job-hungry constituents. In 1977 Congress restricted the Defense Department’s long-standing authority to close bases at will (some say that the Pentagon had used threats of closure on recalcitrant congresspersons once too often) and required congressional approval of any closing affecting more than 1,000 employees. As you might expect–most senators and representatives being hungrier for pork than Stevenson–Congress did not vote to close any base of that size, no matter how obsolete, after 1977.

To get out of this stalemate and deal appropriately with out-of-date outposts, in 1988 Congress passed another base-closing law, the Base Closure and Realignment Act, under which an independent base-closing commission would decide which bases should close. Congress then had to approve or disapprove the commission’s list of closures in toto, all or nothing.

Sure enough, the list, as presented at the end of 1989, recommended closing 86 bases in only a few congressional districts, thus giving all the other representatives a vested interest in OK’ing it and preserving their own bases for the time being. Since the list was virtually assured of passage, local congresspeople could feel free to rail against their local closings without any danger that their complaints might actually be effective. Even today–more than a year after the secretary of defense accepted the commission’s report and Congress failed by a hefty margin to overturn it–Illinois representatives and those who speak for them find it politic to talk about future land uses at Fort Sheridan only after a lengthy disquisition on how they opposed its closing in the first place.

The 1988 law made two tiny adjustments at the levers of power in Washington that had large effects in the hinterlands. First, it gave disposal powers to the secretary of defense instead of (as before) the General Services Administration. Second, it earmarked the money from base sales for a new “base closure account.” As a result, the secretary of defense has more incentive than GSA ever did to sell the closed bases for as much money as possible: the more he gets, the less he has to use from his budget to cover closing costs.

The GSA also had the authority to lower the price of disused federal property if the buyer would provide “public benefits” of various kinds (enough kinds added together could discount the price all the way down to zero). The secretary of defense still has this same authority, but obviously he would rather not exercise it; his agency can use the cash.

This “profit motive” goes at least double for Fort Sheridan. Unlike many other installations being shut down, this one is undeniably a choice piece of real estate. One member of the base-closure commission said in exasperation during its deliberations on whether to close Fort Sheridan, “Can’t we in this case say that obviously there is a better place [for the Fourth Army] than a $2 billion site and let them decide [what to do with it]?”

Even on the North Shore, $2 billion for 700 acres sounds a little steep. Other commission documents estimate the fort’s fair market value at the much lower figure of $56 million. More recently, knowledgeable estimates have ranged from $140 to $490 million. The uncertainties include zoning; the status of the modest housing at the southern end of the base (if it were demolished it certainly wouldn’t count as an asset); and several yet-to-be-evaluated toxic-waste “hot spots,” in particular the southernmost ravine, now entirely filled with an unknown mixture of wastes, which still occasionally exudes odors into the air and leachate into Lake Michigan.

Kathy Martin, a real estate specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisville, Kentucky–which will oversee the sale of the property–says that her agency has made in-house preliminary estimates of the fort’s fair market value. But she’s not talking.

Even though nobody knows what the place might cost, the line of would-be future owners of the fort (or part thereof) is getting longer all the time. For starters, the Army will keep 60 to 90 acres in the southeast corner for reserve activities. After that, the secretary of defense must consider applicants in the following established pecking order:

(1) Other branches of the Defense Department. The Navy wants 329 of Fort Sheridan’s housing units, most in the southeast corner, to relieve some of its shortage at the Glenview and Great Lakes bases and to house some remaining Army personnel. (Fort Sheridan base commander Colonel Robert Offer Jr. has endorsed this request, telling the base’s newspaper, the Tower, “I have soldiers who live in Wisconsin because they can’t afford to live in this area.”) In this category only, the secretary’s discretion is limited: if the Navy can come up with the fair market value (whatever that may be), it gets the housing automatically.

(2) Other federal agencies. The Department of Veterans Affairs wants 188 acres at the north end for a national cemetery, which would include the existing seven-and-a-half-acre Army cemetery. (The DVA is also considering cheaper and larger locations south of the city, in the small towns of Grant Park and Cissna Park, which may be less accessible than Fort Sheridan but are closer to what the agency has called “the Chicago area’s veteran-population focal point.”) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants about 300 acres–the beach, the bluffs, four ravines, and some buffering open space–because of its “very unique habitat.”

(3) State and local governments and qualified nonprofit organizations. Assuming that any part of the fort remains unclaimed after stages one and two, the secretary of defense is then legally required to consult with state and local authorities about their plans. (Agencies providing housing for the homeless receive “priority of consideration,” according to the just-amended Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act.) If those authorities agree on a plan, he may pay them more attention during the earlier stages. With this in mind, in May 1989 Tenth District congressman John Porter organized the Fort Sheridan Commission with himself as chairman, and further consisting of the post commander, the three neighboring mayors, local state legislators, Lake County Board members, and representatives of Illinois’ governor and U.S. senators–funded by $75,000 from the Defense Department’s office of economic adjustment, $30,000 from local governments, and $10,000 from the state of Illinois.

(4) Private enterprises. So far, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Louisville office has listed seven businesses with an expressed interest in the fort: two development firms with a general interest in all base closures; Inland Real Estate of Oak Brook (which got brief notoriety when, in February 1989, it offered $52.35 million, complete with a certified check for $500,000 in earnest money, even before Congress approved the base-closure commission’s list of bases to be axed; the Jack Nicklaus Development Company; the Broadlands Retirement Community; Baird & Warner; and the PGA.

Despite its official-sounding name, the Fort Sheridan Commission in fact has only an advisory function. Its advice will count for even less if it’s not unanimous, and that could be a problem. Lake Forest has already unilaterally endorsed the national cemetery. “We need a cemetery there like I need to go to the moon,” replies Highwood mayor Fidel Ghini, who wants the fort’s golf course and some commercial development space for his landlocked town. “When Mr. Strenger introduced it, I said I would support it as long as they bury everybody above ground, so they can enjoy the view of the lake.” (Marshall Strenger, former mayor of Lake Forest and its representative on the commission, did not return repeated phone calls.) Highland Park has developed its own separate land-use map for the base.

The commission has failed to pass motions both for and against the national cemetery. It has agreed on one thing–opposing the Navy’s housing request, largely in deference to the plight of tiny School District 111. The district includes Highwood and northern Highland Park, and consists of two elementary schools and one middle school, which educate all of the fort’s children through eighth grade. About 400 of its 1,200 students come from Fort Sheridan, and since the fort pays no property taxes the U.S. Department of Education provides the district with a subsidy called “impact aid.” Unfortunately, according to school board member and commission representative Joe Reich, the impact aid is now about $2,000 per child per year, while the district’s cost per child is $8,000. As a result, District 111 has some of the most crowded classrooms, lowest-paid teachers, and highest tax rates on the North Shore–and still runs a million-dollar-a-year deficit and is approaching its debt ceiling.

“We like the diversity of students we get,” says Reich, “and the parents from the fort contribute in many ways. But for years under Ronald Reagan and now under the ‘education president,’ they just kept cutting impact aid.” Paradoxically, although the Navy housing proposal would reduce the number of children, it would not bring relief. Just the opposite: Reich believes it would cut enrollment just enough to drop District 111 into a lower-priority category, for which there is no impact aid at all.

Even if Porter’s Fort Sheridan Commission reaches a positive consensus about what to do with the fort, that’s no guarantee that all the locals–or even all the local governments–will agree. That’s because Porter purposely omitted area park districts (and other special-purpose government units) from the commission. In early 1989, under the leadership of Peter Koukos–an investment banker with Mesirow Financial and at the time chairman of the Highland Park Park District–they banded together with the Open Lands Project, the Sierra Club, the Landmarks Preservation Council, and other public-interest groups into the Advocates for the Public Interest in Fort Sheridan. (The group is now chaired by Frederick Bates of the Open Lands Project.)

Cast in the role of outsiders, the Advocates agreed on a goal–“to maximize the preservation and general public access and use of the recreational, environmental and historical resources of Fort Sheridan through single jurisdiction of the property”–and found their own funding ($20,000 from the Chicago Community Trust) for a consultants’ study. The study, completed in June 1990 by Chicago’s Clarion Associates, concludes that the fort can be kept in public hands for open space and historic preservation, at no cost to the taxpayer, if it stays under the management of a single entity and if the nonhistoric housing is rented out for the first ten years or so in order to finance the maintenance and adaptive reuse of the historic district and open space.

This was the most detailed reuse study up to that time, but the commission received it rather coolly–because of its assumption that the Army will not charge the public anything for the fort. Representative Porter called the Advocates’ plan “very interesting,” but insisted on asking them, What if we have to pay for it?

“I’ve talked to Dick Cheney personally on three different occasions,” Porter elaborated in a recent interview. “He said he can’t justify closing the base without getting fair market value for each of its components.

“I have said to the commission all along, we are not in the process of simply making a wish list. We can make the strongest possible case for large or 100 percent public-benefit discounts, but he’s made it clear that they’re going to be hard to come by. We can’t just go in with no kind of backup and say, ‘Give it to us for nothing.’ We have to be practical about those things.” (Environmentalists note that in Congress Cheney represented Wyoming, the nation’s least populous state, and that his record there on open-space issues was, as a Sierra Club spokesperson puts it, “abysmal.” Porter believes that Cheney’s long-standing friendship with Donald Rumsfeld will give him considerable insight into “how people here think about it.”)

This is partly a question of negotiating strategy–will open-space advocates do better by starting at zero or at $30 million?–but Pete Koukos and the Advocates see it as a matter of principle. “Fort Sheridan was given to the Army without cost,” Koukos told a congressional committee early this year–“that is, given to the people of the United States for the Army to use. It is unseemly for the Army to now want to sell it back to us.”

Not only is it unseemly, Koukos argues, but under an honest accounting it won’t even save money. If the fort goes to a developer or (as Porter has hinted) to a public agency paying fair market value, the Army will get paid–but local taxpayers will foot the bill for road improvements, infrastructure, extra traffic, and maybe even the public agency’s budget. In particular, if the fort is balkanized into cemetery, open space, housing, and golf course–one plausible compromise–all under separate managements, it won’t be self-supporting as it would under the single-management system proposed by the Advocates. Just as the feds have saved money by victimizing District 111 taxpayers, so the Army will make money at Lake County’s expense.

Koukos is disappointed that so many commission members have “swallowed the propaganda that the Army must get paid for the base.” On the other hand, he can take some cheer from the fact that hardly anyone thinks the shoreline, bluffs, or ravines should be sold off or developed. Or so they all say. Everyone pays ritual obeisance to keeping these parts of the fort in public use. But how will that be done? There’s quite a variety of strategies:

Sell some to save the rest. State senator Roger Keats, a commission member, suggests selling off the fine brick homes in the historic district (with appropriate covenants to keep off the aluminum siding); that, he thinks, would produce about $30 million, which should satisfy the Army so that then “hopefully they’d give us the rest of the property.” But he admits he has no reason to think the Army would agree. “I have little confidence in the Department of Defense. I haven’t the faintest idea of what they’re going to do or whether they’re paying attention to us at all.”

Hold them off with zoning. Any buyer would need local zoning to use the fort’s land. And zoning technicalities are such that as few as 7 of the 24 Lake County Board members could block any proposal objected to by a suburb within one and half miles of the fort. This is precisely the sort of intergovernmental conflict Porter wants to preempt, but it can hardly be ruled out. (Highland Park itself might be in an even better position to wage such a defensive struggle, since Mayor Daniel Pierce believes any new owner will probably ask his town for police and water service.)

Make an end run. The Sierra Club favors a national park but knows that the National Park Service will take no initiative without a nod from Congress or Secretary of the Interior Manual Lujan. According to associate midwest representative Carl Zichella, the club may try to get a rider affixed to next year’s Interior appropriation that would require the Park Service to study Fort Sheridan as a possible park. Would such a rider come in time to derail the base-closing process? Zichella is not sure.

Not only is there a long history of old bases being recycled into parks (Discovery Park, Magnuson Park, and Fort Worden State Park, all in Washington State, are three), but even under the current base-closing act there have been a couple. The San Francisco Bay area’s Presidio is on the closing list, and back in 1972, Representative Philip Burton got a bill through requiring that any part of it not needed by the Army would automatically revert to parkland. (I asked Porter if he ever wished he had done the same thing for Fort Sheridan. “That would be very hard for anyone who isn’t in a majority leadership position,” he chuckled. “I expect it was buried in some bill, without any hearings or debate or knowledge of anybody. That’s the way Phil Burton operated.”) On the opposite coast this summer, a united effort by Maryland officials resulted in 7,600 acres of Fort Meade wetlands being legislatively removed from the base-closing process and given without charge to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congressman Philip Crane, who represents the suburban district just west of Porter’s, has his own idea for an end run. He introduced a bill to transfer the 188 acres for the veterans’ cemetery without charge, and will reintroduce it in the new Congress. Was Porter consulted? “He was told,” said a Crane spokesperson.

Ride piggyback. The best way for local or state interests to get to the head of the line is to team up with a federal agency. The Lake County Forest Preserve District–which is the members of the Lake County Board with their hiking hats on and a different chairman–is now considering joining in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s request for the prime pieces of Fort Sheridan.

Another option is the National Park Service’s “surplus property program,” which helps local or state governments apply for surplus land under NPS auspices. (This is not the same as getting a national park, but it could lead to a single agency running the whole show, as the Advocates propose.) Wendy Ormont, who manages the program, says she’s received applications for bases in Indiana, Florida, California, Kentucky, and elsewhere–but none from Illinois.

Ormont says that the Army seems to be playing down the Park Service’s possible role in the base closing. But like most bureaucracies, it will move when nudged. For instance, Indiana representative Lee Hamilton was having trouble with his request via NPS to get the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant on the Ohio River turned into a state park. According to Ormont, once he requested and received a study from the congressional budget office explaining how the base-closing law permits and encourages public-benefit discounts, the Army became more open to the possibility.

And in fact the lack of pressure from Illinois is letting the park option slip away. The Army’s final environmental-impact statement on Fort Sheridan’s closing, released October 26, dismisses public recreational use of the fort in two curt paragraphs, mainly because the idea has lacked the necessary “extensive support from one or more public recreation agencies.”

If this mixture of strategies seems a bit incoherent–especially considering that Fort Sheridan has been on the way out for almost two years now–perhaps it’s because the fort is a regional issue still in search of a regional leader. Consider the candidates:

Representative Porter’s participation so far has been limited to convening the commission and lobbying on behalf of Secretary Cheney’s insistence on getting “fair market value.”

Lame-duck governor James Thompson, according to his assistant Tom Skinner, is “sitting back and waiting for the Fort Sheridan Commission and the communities to come together” on a reuse plan. Does that mean the state won’t take any leadership? “Not unless we’re asked to.” (A March 1989 Illinois Department of Conservation analysis urged the formation of an interagency task force to forge a state policy on the fort and to take a “leadership role.” Clearly times have changed.)

Not only have U.S. senators Paul Simon and Alan Dixon said little about the fort in public, they hardly ever send representatives to the Fort Sheridan Commission meetings. Simon prefers keeping the beach public, according to a spokesperson, but “doesn’t want to impose his views right now.” His staff referred me to Dixon’s defense adviser, Charles Smith, saying that the two senators “have the same approach.”

Smith told me that the senators would “wait and see what the secretary of defense does.” Why abdicate? Because, Smith says, “the law is very specific that whatever is not used for the military must be sold at fair market value.”

But this statement is untrue, as the bill’s author, Armed Services Committee staffer Bob Bayer, and others confirm: the secretary of defense has political and financial incentives to go for fair market value, but no legal requirement. Dixon and Simon need a better excuse for their passivity.

The cause of open space at Fort Sheridan–perhaps the North Shore’s last chance for public land–has gone begging for a champion. In the absence of Senator Stevenson, Illinois may need the Paul Douglas treatment in reverse. Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois, led the fight for an Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in the 1960s, when the Hoosier politicos chickened out.

“In Maryland,” says Pete Koukos, “the whole delegation–governor, senators, congressmen–pulled together and got [the Fort Meade amendment] passed. That’s what clout can do for you. They were interested in promoting the best interests of their constituents, which is more than I can say for Illinois’ representatives.”

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