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Meigs Shutdown: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing... 

By Michael Miner

Meigs Shutdown:

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing...

At first the papers gushed. "An excellent concept, but one that will require some thoughtful planning," said the Tribune in 1994. "We're already sold on the idea," said the Sun-Times last March, as Mayor Daley got down to specifics. "It's nice when a politician delivers on a promise."

The papers were contemplating the mayor's lovely idea of transforming Northerly Island into a nature preserve. But by this summer their enthusiasm had all but evaporated. An offshore haven from Chicago's shocks and stresses mattered less to them now than the damage it posed to the city's infrastructure. The park lay somewhere off in a gilded future. The closing of Meigs Field was real and imminent.

At least one reporter who listened to the city's case for closing Meigs was utterly unpersuaded by it. Gil Jimenez, transportation writer for the Sun-Times, accuses officials of infuriating "sleight-of-hand." He wrote me a long letter for publication, criticizing their tactics; I offer it here somewhat condensed.

"It is often a challenge to wring the truth from government officials who don't want the public to know everything," Jimenez began. "Each city official and representative I've dealt with on Meigs has tried relentlessly to focus public and media attention on one thing--a park proposal--while trying to hide from view information necessary to evaluate the wisdom of a key component of that proposal--the shutdown of Meigs Field.

"Now, I'm not naive. I've been gathering and analyzing facts as a Sun-Times reporter for nearly 20 years and am a practicing attorney as well--so I know people don't easily reveal all, particularly when they're trying to run a bluff.

"To be sure, the mayor's office, department of aviation, department of planning, and Chicago Park District were not bluffing about the Meigs shutdown. No, their daring gamble is that if they say often enough they have the facts that prove we're better off without the airport, people will stop asking to see those cards. It's only an airport in decline being sacrificed, officials say, and it's going to be transformed into a park for 'all of Chicago.'

"But ask the city about impacts of the closing that aren't addressed in the reports, and officials respond that if it isn't in the study it isn't a significant factor. What a novel, self-proving test: We didn't analyze it because it isn't significant, and if it were significant we would have analyzed it.

"So much for empiricism. Let's try a different test of logic: It isn't significant because we who are in power say it isn't. Meigs must go because we say it must. This is really about making a park, because we say that's what it is about.

"Well, if you gamble with the public's trust, you have to expect to be called on it sooner or later.

"I note that the local pro-Meigs groups are a ragtag bunch of activists, the vanguard of which have little to no experience in grassroots campaigning and political windmill tilting. While long on enthusiasm, they have come up short on the time and funding to factually refute the city's data. As a result, they have little data of their own for me to unravel, and what there is of it is extrapolated from others' official reports. When they get some you can be sure I will be just as strict in my scrutiny as I have been with the city.

"And I am going to give the park and environmental activists the benefit of the doubt because I have no evidence that they actually knew of the factual sleight-of-hand being played by their official champions.

"First of all, as has been clearly stated of late by city and parks officials, there never was any doubt among them that Meigs Field was going to close. Anyone who attended a city-sponsored forum on the plan believing Meigs's fate was hanging in the balance was mistaken. The only question officials ever considered was what to do with the airport once it closed. They have explicitly said so, and on this I'll take them at their word.

"OK, accepting that, then why present report after report purporting to show that Meigs is in irreversible decline, is unconscionably dangerous, and is beyond salvation at any reasonable cost? If the shutdown was a done deal, why after the fact try to convince the public that closing it would be a sound, well-reasoned decision?

"Furthermore, the city's reports are paper tigers. More can be learned about the integrity of our officials from what the reports fail to address and what they have to say about those shortcomings than from what the reports do contain.

"The closing of Meigs and creation of a park can only help the environment? Perhaps that is true, but we wouldn't know it from the studies, because they're silent on several important environmental questions. For example, the reports say nothing about increased auto-emissions pollution resulting from former Meigs users having to drive farther to the downtown business district from the Midway, West Chicago, Waukegan, Gary, and Palwaukee airports they are expected to use now.

"And when questioned on that, officials parrot the party line about how the number of cars passing by a fixed point on Cicero Avenue outside Midway will increase insignificantly and how cars moving around on airport property won't contribute to air pollution in any major way.

"Excuse me, but I do get testy when officials substitute their own questions for the ones I am asking. I wanted to know whether they studied pollution increases resulting from longer commutes and drive times. The final city response (paraphrased): We didn't study that because it is insignificant. If it were significant, we would have studied it.

"Those longer commutes could add 47 tons or more of tailpipe gunk to our air every year. A spokeswoman for a major national clean-air organization expressed outrage that anyone could claim that was insignificant and that it had not been studied--but then realizing the story was about Meigs, she asked that her group not be dragged into the controversy. Thus its name has never appeared in any of my stories.

"Closing Meigs will have only positive effects on Chicago's crowded airspace? Again, that might be the case, but city reports acknowledge that air-traffic delays for Midway and O'Hare airports weren't studied.

"Closing Meigs will only reduce the 'gross regional product' by $1 million? Hmmm...the city admits that a major portion of Meigs's usage is by business fliers, that it had 51,000 flights and more than 176,000 users last year, and also that 12 percent of the business users surveyed said if it closes they won't do business in Chicago anymore. Whoever that 12 percent really are, they must be really poor businessmen and women for the city to earnestly believe that although they come here to engage in commerce--signing contracts, hiring firms, buying materials, selling their own stuff--the loss of their business is only worth $1 million to the region.

"Is there any city analysis of the value of those deals--not of the hotel rooms, meals, taxi rides, and entertainment those businesspeople spend money on--but of the economic value of the business transactions they bring to the city? No. But remember, it must be insignificant or else the city would have studied it.

"On the other hand, the city says the new park--the 'neighborhood park'--will bring $30 million to the city's economy. Why? Because one-half of the 300,000 new visitors it will attract annually will come from out of town, and each individual will spend more than $140 on food, lodging, museum admission, and souvenirs per visit. The other 150,000 will be area residents--you know, people from the neighborhoods--and each man, woman, and child of them is expected to spend about $40 each time they visit, according to the city. That seems like a lot of per capita bucks to expect of families from Englewood, Austin, Pullman, Humboldt Park, Uptown, the near west side, and all the other struggling city neighborhoods just for an afternoon in the park or a walk through a museum.

"Weather conditions force Meigs to close for portions of 100 days per year? Hmmm, interesting. And those were closings of what duration? Five minutes? An hour? Ten hours? Nice spinning, but what are the facts? We still await the answer.

"Meigs has outlived its usefulness because big corporate jets have moved to Midway? Meigs takeoffs and landings from 1980-1995 fell 42 percent. Nationally, over roughly the same period, general-aviation flight hours fell 44 percent. The manufacture of g/a aircraft fell 95 percent. What caused the bottom to fall out of the general-aviation industry? An exponential leap in product-liability claims against, and payments by, manufacturers of small g/a aircraft. In addition, the period from 1978 to the early 1990s will not generally be remembered as one of economic stability and corporate job retention.

"But the city doesn't talk about those factors. In fact, it won't talk about much that's 'off-message.' Hell, it's been at least three weeks since I first began asking the city for Meigs's landing-fee schedules dating back to 1980, wondering if rising fees helped drive some of its business away. I still haven't received that public information.

"And finally, there is the recent revelation in federal court by Park District lawyers that before Meigs becomes a park, it will be transformed into a dump. The Lake Shore Drive relocation, creation of the so-called museum campus, rebuilding of revetments, and reconstruction of several harbors, officials now say, are linked to the city's ability to store mountains of dirt, concrete, steel, gravel, sand, and heavy construction equipment cheaply on the Meigs peninsula, thus avoiding an increase in the costs of the projects. Mountains of dirt (fill from the Chicago Fire, actually) excavated from the Outer Drive and from in front of the Field Museum will be trucked to the peninsula. When those projects are done years from now (perhaps in the next century) that debris will be graded, sodded, planted, and someone will proclaim it a park with a 'sky mound.'

"In court Park District lawyers talked about how this 'coordination has gone on for years.' For years city officials have known they wanted Meigs closed so it could serve a higher purpose--a dump, a staging area for construction debris and material. Now the Park District is talking about a five to seven year build-out for the park it urges is desperately needed so Chicago's masses can find refuge from their daily lives.

"But the reason now offered as to why there is no additional time for debate, reflection, or reexamination of the Meigs decision is because timetables for other construction projects won't allow it. The closure is urgently needed, but apparently not for the transformation of Meigs into a park.

"Let there be no mistake. I am not fighting to keep Meigs open, nor to close it. My sole interest is in an informed public and an intellectually honest debate. To be told again and again that Meigs must close to make a desperately needed park so Chicagoans may, at last, find respite leaves me wondering how, with so many square miles of lakefront and community parks, beaches, pools, and playlots, we can only achieve the peace of mind that for so long has escaped us if officials have their way with a 5,000-foot-long sliver of land.

"Is Meigs worth saving? I do not know. The bottom line is that whether Meigs lives or dies there are no winners in this. Not when city and parks officials hide the Truth behind their 'facts.' Not when the government we are supposed to trust continues to operate under the belief that the end justifies the means.

"My deepest frustration is in seeing the people of Chicago treated this way--in hearing their name muttered by officials like some kind of incantation to ward off scrutiny of the actions, rationale, and motivations of our public servants."

...Or a Sheep in Wolf's Clothing?

Mayor Daley's Northerly Island proposal has retained one prominent friend in the media court--Blair Kamin, architecture critic at the Tribune. "I looked closely at the economic impact study of the city, and I made a point of saying both sides are throwing out numbers," he told me. "But to me that wasn't the core of the issue. Both sides were claiming economic benefits, but only people supporting the park were claiming both economic benefits and recreational and cultural benefits.

"And that to me is the core of the issue. It goes back to Montgomery Ward and his fight in the courts. When Ward fought in the courts for Grant Park he was vilified by the newspapers and by the people--and now he's a revered figure. He's the guy who had a vision, who fought for it, and who kept the lakefront forever open, clear, and free. Thank God for people like that."

Instead of tussling with bureaucrats, Kamin hopped on his bicycle in search of facts. "I rode from 3000 north down to 67th and the Drive," he said. "I wanted to see with my own eyes exactly what was going on out there. On the north side you had these packed beaches, volleyball leagues, Oak Street beach, Navy Pier. And south of Grant Park, where Burnham Park started, it was like someone had dropped a bomb. I reached a very different conclusion on this 25-mile trip than other people reached. My conclusion is that Burnham Park has never really been built as Burnham envisioned it--with islands. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take back this island and make Burnham Park a welcoming place.

"The great irony here is that it took me, an architecture critic, to point out the relationship of Daley's plan to the rerouting of Lake Shore Drive and to the connection of Roosevelt Road to the lakefront. Coverage went on in a vacuum. It was Meigs versus the park, and that was it. The rerouting of Lake Shore Drive will change the way we see Burnham Park and create an enormous amount of green for pedestrian use. All the more reason to make this island a special sanctuary of green space. There will be nothing like this!"

Maybe not, but it's been months since that prospect excited either paper. I asked Kamin if he thought the city simply did a lousy job of promoting Daley's idea. "Absolutely," he said. "There are two interpretations. Daley thought this would be a slam dunk, a no-brainer. Or, on the other hand, there was the sort of Sun-Times theory that they just wanted to steamroll it. Clearly they didn't sell it very well."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gil Jimenez photo by Paul L. Merideth.

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