By Ben Joravsky

The world might not know about the new docks at Diversey Harbor if not for Carol Breckenridge. But one day a few weeks ago she strolled by and saw seven long and narrow finger docks stretching deep into the harbor and mucking up the view.

Now, there may be many for whom a finger dock or two (or even seven) in a harbor is a natural thing. But they don’t understand the beauty of Diversey Harbor. “This is a harbor, and they’re making it a marina,” says Breckenridge. “We have lived harmoniously with boaters in this harbor. Our concern is the encroachment of boaters. This is a quiet, peaceful, lovely place, and they’re essentially turning it into a parking lot for boats.”

The site in question sits just west of Lake Shore Drive at Diversey. For years it’s been a quaint and quiet little harbor. It has a small wading beach, kids can feed the ducks, and there were enough star-shaped floating docks to satisfy the demand of several dozen boaters. “The rest of the lakefront is a place of speed, with biking, jogging, rollerblading, or fast walking,” says Breckenridge, who teaches history at the University of Chicago. “But this harbor is a place of pause. This is a place for people who don’t feel compelled to run here or there, where they can pause and listen and see.”

To the south and east of the harbor rise the skyscrapers of the near north side, hovering over the lake. “It’s that view, that vista, with the lake sweeping out to the horizon that makes this spot so special. It’s a spot that makes me appreciate how wonderful Chicago is. There’s no place like this spot in the east. My husband is from India, and he says it reminds him of the oceanfront in Bombay.”

One day last year she noticed a series of uprights planted along the harbor’s northern edge. “They call them tie-ups,” she says. “They’re for people who want to harbor hop from one harbor to the next. They boat in, tie up, and go about their business. It’s nice for the boaters, but the tie-ups are intrusive for everyone else because they block the view. I wish I had taken action as soon as I saw them. I should have known something worse was about to happen.”

The new docks were installed in March. “I was startled to see them,” says Breckenridge. “The star docks were not visually intrusive. But these docks shoot far into the water and they ruin the vista. You won’t have a clear view of the horizon against the skyline once the boats are docked here in the summer. They each have about 30 slips, so in the summer the harbor will be overwhelmed by all the boats. Imagine how noisy, dirty, and congested it will be.”

She called the Park District to complain, but it was difficult to get officials to return her calls. Undaunted, she called her alderman and the local park advisory council; she talked to construction workers at the site and to Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks. By piecing together bits of information Breckenridge discovered that the new docks were part of a larger $33 million harbor renovation plan overseen by Westrec Marinas, a for-profit business. The project, approved by parks superintendent Forrest Claypool and the Park District board, was intended to address the concerns of boaters who had complained for years about shabby conditions on the harbors. Now, instead of having to tie up at floating docks and row to shore, boaters could tie up at the finger docks, which would be outfitted with running water and electricity. And because the project would be financed by an increase in mooring fees, there’d be no new taxes. Or so the Park District promised.

But for Breckenridge, the plan made no sense even from a fiscal point of view. It’s not as though the new docks would raise more money for the city; at best, they’d only pay for themselves. They wouldn’t enable more boats to dock at Diversey; in fact the district could probably park more boats and make more in docking fees by installing additional star docks. Moreover, the project might be illegal because it was never presented for approval to the Chicago Plan Commission, as is required for any lakefront construction.

Breckenridge understands that her complaint might seem insignificant when compared to, say, crime in the streets. But that’s just the point. There was no need to make changes at Diversey when there were so many more important things to do. Here was yet another case of unnecessary intrusion, the city taking something good and making it worse. “Now there will be no place to pause, no place for quiet contemplation,” she says. “There’s only the loud roar of engines, the smell of gasoline, the blare of radios, the trash the boaters leave behind.”

In the last few weeks Breckenridge and other Lincoln Park residents have formed a group called the Diversey Harbor Public Trust, in order to “protect the interests of the walking public and paddlers who use the waters and harbor’s shore for casual recreation.” Their efforts are starting to pay off. “Carol was the second person to call to complain about the project, so I went for a look,” says Tranter. “I remember when the Park District came to us with their plans. They said it didn’t need Plan Commission approval because the building was going in the water and it wasn’t going to be intrusive. And they had to act fast, to complete construction for the boating season. Now I see we were all hasty because it is encroachment, and in my opinion they should have gone to the Plan Commission.”

After Tranter called to complain, the Park District arranged a meeting with Westrec vice president Scott Stevenson that Breckenridge attended. “I was invited to the meeting by Friends of the Parks and I made my points that this was a harbor, not a marina–a place for beauty and peace. And they took it all in,” says Breckenridge. “We parted ways with Scott saying he would address our concerns. So I think we accomplished something for the public good.”

Stevenson did not return calls for comment, but Park District officials and boaters are not so certain that the cause espoused by the Diversey Harbor Public Trust is so good for the public. If group members care so much about the parks, why didn’t they attend any of the Park District or local advisory meetings last year (all of which were advertised in the neighborhood paper), where the harbor renovation plan was discussed? There was nothing secret about these plans. If they’d been paying attention they could have registered their complaints at the start. Yes, a bit of the view might be blocked. But so what? What’s more important, some strollers, or the need of dozens of boaters for a more attractive spot to dock? Don’t boaters have rights? Aren’t they entitled to any consideration?

“This is a great plan,” says Betsy Altman, president of the Lincoln Park Advisory Council. “For several years we were making plans and this woman [Breckenridge] didn’t know what was happening, and now she’s angry. I appreciate her anger because when things happen in the park you feel anger, but in reality she’s wrong. Her problem is that she feels we’re turning the park over to the boaters and that’s not accurate. It’s true you won’t be able to walk down the docks–there will be an entry-key system for security reasons–but you will be able to walk along the northern edge of the harbor. In her mind she thinks of this as a pond, not a harbor. But it is a place to dock boats. It wasn’t being used in the most efficient way for boaters so we had to improve it.”

As for Westrec, Altman says the company should be applauded. “I think Scott [Stevenson] has been wonderful throughout this. He’s a wonderful individual, a sailor by the way, who understands community process. His biggest concern is not ramming it down people’s throats. He went to the Diversey Harbor Advisory Council, he went to the Diversey Harbor Yacht Club, he even went to the Diversey Harbor Neighbors, which is a group in a high-rise not far from the park. This woman [Breckenridge] just missed the boat.”

Park District officials say that with one or two minor adjustments (like removing the uprights) Breckenridge should be satisfied; and if not, too bad. As one Park District employee puts it, “You’ll never satisfy everyone no matter what you do.”

However, opposition to the new docks is spreading, particularly among canoeists and kayakers who contend the piers leave them little room to paddle through the harbor. Other observers say higher docking fees (to as much as $1,800 a year) will drive away boaters who are not rich.

At the very least, Tranter says, the Park District should seek Plan Commission approval for other marina development plans. “They need more scrutiny,” she says. “You need a public hearing, with both sides airing their points of view. We can’t let this happen again.”

If the Park District does not compromise by removing some of the northern docks, Breckenridge says it would be appropriate to ask the courts for a stop-work order on the grounds that building the docks without Plan Commission approval violates the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. “I see this as a test case of how far Chicago has gone,” she says. “They talk about the new Chicago where everything is about new ways of raising revenue. How far are they willing to go? How much are they willing to destroy?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Carol Breckenridge Photo by Bruce Powell.