Randy Mehrberg had to work late at the office New Year’s Eve. “It wasn’t my wife’s idea,” he says. As general counsel and lakefront director of the Chicago Park District, he was putting what he hoped were the finishing touches on an intricate three-way transaction among the Park District, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Chicago Academy of Sciences. If the deal goes through, each institution will get something it wants–and the south end of Lincoln Park will get even more people and more traffic.

Under the agreement the zoo offices, which are now scattered through four buidlings, will be consolidated in the Laflin building at Clark and Armitage, for 102 years the home of the academy. The academy, which also needs more space, will realize its long-held dream of moving into a big new building at the high-visibility corner of Fullerton Avenue and Cannon Drive–which is where the Park District’s obsolete North Shops maintenance complex now sits. The Park District needs the shops torn down and any pollution they’ve caused cleaned up–and the academy will take care of that.

It sounds like a win-win-win proposition, but some people think it’s just another case of Chicago hustle substituting for planning. Whatever it is, the pressure is on: the academy can’t construct its new home without a lakefront permit from the Chicago Plan Commission, which will consider the proposal on March 9. And if the building isn’t OK’d by the end of March the whole deal is off.

“Was this well thought through?” asks Friends of the Parks executive director Erma Tranter. “No one had any say on the zoo issue. That was a done deal, and that forced the academy out of the Laflin building. And then they looked only at this [North Shops] site–at what may be the most congested corner in the entire park system. Doing things this suddenly, and behind closed doors, creates problems. And you miss the creative contributions that other people might bring.”

If the triangular trade does go through it will cost tens of millions, yet the deal came about because of a $300,000 gap. For over a year the Park District had been anxious to turn the management of the city’s landmark free zoo over to the Lincoln Park Zoological Society. But last fall Randy Mehrberg’s contract negotiations with the society were stuck. “They said they had to have an operating subsidy of $5.5 million a year [from the Park District for the 30 years of the contract]. We didn’t want to go over $5.2 million. They had justified 5.5 for us, but 5.2 was our number.”

Finally Mehrberg found a bargaining chip. He surprised just about everyone by offering to undo a done deal in order to close this one. “We said, ‘We’ll close the door [and go to $5.5 million] if you agree not to build the new zoo center and move into the Laflin building instead.’ ”

This was a momentous idea for several reasons. Two years ago the zoo got the OK to build a new central administration building–over the objections of park advocates who wanted no more encroachment on green space. “Our offices are literally all over the zoo and across the street [on Lincoln Park West],” says zoo vice president of operations Neal David. “It’s very difficult.” By December 31 a contractor had torn down the plant propagating houses that were on the site and broken ground–and suddenly Mehrberg was saying the zoo could have the money it needed if it would change plans midstream: stop the construction and move its offices into an existing building instead. “That was a very painful and nervous decision for them,” Mehrberg says. And that’s why the larger deal is on the fast track: if the Plan Commission doesn’t OK the academy’s new building, the zoo needs to be able to resume work on its own building.

Mehrberg thinks the three-way trade offers “great synergies”: “There will be fewer buildings on the lakefront, the academy gets a good location with better parking [now it has none], the Laflin building is handy to the zoo, and it helps us get the [maintenance] shops off the lakefront.

“I talked with civic leaders as this went along. I feel like we pulled a miracle out. They’re upset because they weren’t consulted every step of the way. But construction [on the new zoo administration building] had already started! That building would be half built by now [February 9] if we had convened everyone to discuss it and hadn’t closed the deal promptly!”

In its 138-year history the Chicago Academy of Sciences has rarely had a home it considered adequate. At its founding in 1857 the academy was modeled closely–and ambitiously–on the Smithsonian Institution. But its two most charismatic early leaders, Richard Kennicott and William Stimpson, both died young, and its proudly fireproof headquarters at Wabash and Van Buren was reduced to ashes by the 1871 fire. In 1893 it accepted $75,000 from Matthew Laflin–a classic 19th-century Chicago entrepreneur involved in gunpowder, stockyards, resort development, and the Elgin Watch Company–to build its current home.

That arrangement gave the academy the elegant building with which generations of Chicagoans have identified it. But it also relegated the academy to a century in the second tier of the city’s museum. Laflin’s beneficence–along with a contribution of land and $25,000 from the Lincoln Park District–wasn’t enough to build what the academy wanted. The present structure was supposed to be just a wing of a much grander edifice.

Meanwhile the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition had left behind enough exhibits to jump start a museum, but there were far more than would fit in the Laflin building. Edward E. Ayer resigned from the academy board and approached Marshall Field for money to house them, and the result was the Field Museum of Natural History, which nowadays sees roughly 16 visitors to the academy’s 1. As Walter Hendrickson and William Beecher wrote in their 1972 history of the academy, “The large number of exhibits and the world-wide character of the new museum persuaded the academy to limit itself to local natural history and science education.” The museum was limited in resources too–Hendrickson and Beecher make more than a dozen references to its being short of funds. Beecher, an ornithologist and long-time academy director, painted many of the exhibits himself.

Considered small from the start, the Laflin building was out of date within 20 years of its construction. Dioramas replaced the academic exhibits that had segregated rocks, insects, birds, and mammals in their own halls, but the Laflin’s space remained inflexible: load-bearing columns every 12 feet and a central atrium with halls running around the edges. The building’s high windows let in more natural light than the dioramas could stand, and most of the windows have been closed up over the years.

Despite all this, the Laflin building’s compact size and the academicians’ ingenious use of every nook and cranny in it have made it a favorite with generations of visitors. But the academy has come to see itself as an agency providing programs, of which museum exhibits are only one. It now houses the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy as well as teacher-training programs in science, both of which desperately need office and assembly space. The academy’s current director, primatologist Paul Heltne, notes that the Laflin building remains hopelessly ill-suited to the academy’s museum needs. “Now we’re talking about exhibits in large open spaces, where the visitor can make the most of the exhibit and not be constrained to engage in one thing at a time. Linearity has not been a primary mode for a long time. Now exhibits are interactive. They involve choice and multiple outcomes,” not filing past dioramas lined up in rows.

Although it has its own board of trustees, the academy–like the other eight “museums in the park”–is in many ways a creature of the Park District. Not only is the district its landlord, but the academy gets about one-third of its operating budget and about half of its capital needs from bonds floated by the Park District. In 1989 the academy’s board proposed adding on to the Laflin building, but the Park District suggested the North Shops site as an alternative and eventually agreed to vacate the buildings by June 30, 1991. (At the time, park advocates called the idea premature because the Lincoln Park framework plan was still being developed.) Yet when park maintenance crews didn’t leave North Shops as promised the academy couldn’t enforce the deal. “The date came and went,” recalls Heltne. “We kept talking, but there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. You don’t sue your landlord unless you want to move out.”

Instead the academy bought a nearby building at Clark and Dickens, as stopgap office space, though it still hoped to expand to the North Shops site sooner or later. “It is perhaps the most ideal site for an institution with an interest in the midwestern environment,” says Heltne. It backs up on North Pond, which “is not virginal but has soft edges and is a remnant of an interdunal pond” dating to the time when Chicago’s lakefront looked like Illinois Beach and Indiana Dunes.

But it’s one thing to dream of a trip to Mexico and another to be handed your passport and train tickets for tomorrow. As late as October 25 the academy board–assured by the Park District that the zoo-privatization negotiations wouldn’t affect it–was laying plans for a five-year expansion into the North Shops, while keeping the Laflin building. It wasn’t until November 1 that Heltne got word of the emerging terms of the triangular deal.

Heltne and his staff say they’re delighted with the challenge and opportunities inherent in the move. “It’s been a thrilling three months,” Heltne said in early February. After all, this could be the academy’s second chance at the big time. The museum’s new building will nearly triple the square footage available for exhibits, and it will have indoor-outdoor possibilities (Paleo Park?) the Laflin building never did. Normally the academy would have to raise matching funds on its own before claiming part of its $13 million share of Park District bonds issued for museum capital improvements. But the Park District has sweetened the pill by allowing the academy to draw $5 million up front, and by forgiving the match altogether on about $2.2 million used for moving, storage, and environmental cleanup at the North Shops.

Still, no amount of enthusiasm can obscure the fact that the academy was blindsided. None of its earlier plans had involved leaving Laflin behind, let alone in the middle of a show; the academy’s current marquee exhibit, “Nature’s Fury,” slated to run through August 6, will have to be cut short. Having vacated Laflin at what for a museum is the speed of light, the academy will also have to make do in temporary quarters for at least a year while its new home is under construction. And it won’t have much time to raise the $11 million in matching funds.

But the only people who acknowledge the difficulties the academy faces are outsiders or near-outsiders. “We feel bad about the position they’re in,” says Kathleen Dickhut of the Lincoln Park Steering Committee, a coalition of park and neighborhood groups. “They can hardly address anything but the immediate needs. We all acknowledge Paul Heltne’s in a tough spot.”

James Marshall, a life member of the academy who lives in Schaumburg, has taken a dim view of Heltne’s direction of the institution. He fears that it may be unable to raise the matching funds needed for new construction and wind up either “in limbo,” a homeless and increasingly obscure wanderer, or forced to raise admission fees sky-high. Marshall insists that the Laflin building is adequate and that any move will destroy its treasured dioramas. “And given the traffic problem, they should build a satellite facility in one of the western parks. Why add to the aggravation on the lakefront? I’ve seen this kind of hurry-up thing in the suburbs. They stampede you, and then people are sorry for years.”

Heltne, however, remains optimistic. “People assume that when we leave we won’t be delivering programs. That’s not true. We’re looking at a series of alternative sites. I’m pleased with the options. We hope to be in the North Shops by mid to late 1996–it’s not a complex building to build.” The dioramas, he says, will be “refurbished.” Will admission–now a bargain at $2 for adults–cost more? “If we go up at all we’ll be well below the price of a theater ticket.” Museum attendance, which has held steady at around 100,000 for the past few years, is projected to jump to 200,000 in the new building. Some may think Heltne is whistling past the graveyard, but indications are that he’s a very good whistler.

Heltne and the academy are also bearing the brunt of park and neighborhood advocates’ concerns. “This isn’t a plan–it’s a deal,” says the Lincoln Park Steering Committee’s Kathleen Dickhut. “There’s less planning here than I’ve seen in a while. For instance, in the Lincoln Park framework plan there’s a suggestion that the North Shops might be replaced by a [low-profile] parking structure. Now that may not be the right solution, but at least it’s trying to deal with the problem. This deal is totally the opposite–it increases activity at a very busy corner and does nothing about parking!

“I’ve been told that the Park District will never do anything for the south end of Lincoln Park if this doesn’t go through. But some people [she is not among them] don’t see that as such a bad option!”

For the park and the neighborhood this deal is not the chance of the century that it is for the academy. It’s more of too much already: traffic and visitors. “There’s a lingering question in the minds of many,” says 43rd Ward alderman Charles Bernardini, “whether this is the right place to put this beautiful new building. Should it go on the south lakefront instead? Or in Garfield Park?” Under Bernardini’s auspices, the Wrightwood Neighbors, Lincoln Park Conservation Association, Lincoln Park Advisory Council, Lakeview Citizens Council, Friends of the Parks, Friends of Lincoln Park, and the 43rd Ward Traffic and Parking Committee have laid down several concerns they want met before they will go along. High on the list are public transit from El stations into Lincoln Park south of Diversey; some safer way for pedestrians to cross Fullerton between Stockton and Cannon; limitations on nearby parking lots; and lowering the profile of the new academy building.

These groups have no veto, but they do have some leverage, because the more opposition there is, the more the Plan Commission’s approval–and thus the entire deal–is in doubt. So the order of the day is negotiation. The Lincoln Park Steering Committee is meeting regularly with the academy and the city Department of Planning and Development, and has already backed off from a demand for an overpass or underpass at Fullerton. “There’s no simple solution,” acknowledges Dickhut. “We’re trying to get everyone together on what would be good.”

“These are long-term problems,” cautions Park District attorney Randy Mehrberg. “We can’t put them all on the back of the academy. Remember, their current building has no parking at all. I hope we won’t hold the academy hostage to 20 years of problems. If we do, we’ll end up with a vacant shops building, no money to demolish or remodel it, no money to fix up [North Pond], the academy cramped in its old building, and a zoo administration building built after all. On balance, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity if you look at the whole picture.”

Allan Mellis, director of the Wrightwood Neighbors, disagrees. “If we don’t “hold the academy hostage,’ then just when does he plan to address this?” Erma Tranter of Friends of the Parks agrees with Mehrberg that the deal would be an improvement–but only if the conditions are met. “It’s not just a little bit more congestion. The academy is a very quiet museum right now. It’s not overly used. There’s not a lot of foot traffic. If they get an outstanding design, then they’re looking to compete with the Oceanarium and the Omnimax Theater. So the public transit and pedestrian issues should be high on the agenda to solve–now. Not ‘we’ll study this’ or ‘in five years.’

“The institutions must work to make the park succeed. We’ve encouraged one or all of the Lincoln Park institutions [the academy, the zoo, and the Chicago Historical Society] to apply to the state department of tourism for money to fund a rubber-tired trolley during the peak summer weekends.” It might shuttle people between the park and institutional parking at DePaul University or Children’s Memorial Hospital. “If they’re sincere about trying to work these things out we’ll work with them on it–and I’m sure we can do it in time. I hope they’re not waiting until the end and then saying that we made it all impossible.”

The city Department of Planning and Development came on the scene late, in its role as the Plan Commission’s staff, and will not make its recommendation until shortly before the commission meets March 9. “I think there’s truth on both sides,” says the department’s Greg Longhini. “Sure, no individual program should be held up on comprehensive planning grounds. But in the absence of comprehensive planning it’s only in hearings like this that these issues come up. Otherwise they’d never get dealt with.”

Did the deal happen too fast for anyone to cope with the big picture properly? “Academically, when I teach in planning school,” says Loughini, “I would say it shouldn’t happen this way. In the real world, with limited time and limited resources, it does happen this way–and that’s the only world we know.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/David Nelson.