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An airport in the lake 

How Mayor Richard J. Daley’s ambitious plan failed to take flight

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click to enlarge A Lake Michigan site for Chicago’s third major airport, 1970 - CITY OF CHICAGO, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS
  • A Lake Michigan site for Chicago’s third major airport, 1970
  • City of Chicago, Department of Public Works

The next time you're cruising on Lake Shore Drive south of McCormick Place, look to the lake and try to imagine how different your commute might have been if Mayor Richard J. Daley had pulled off his most audacious public works plan—a major airport built in Lake Michigan, five miles from shore.

The idea of building a major airport in the lake predated Mayor Daley. In 1928, the City Council approved funding to plan an airport built on an artificial island stretching from 16th to 31st Street. Seven years later, the federal government denied funding for an island air station east of the Adler Planetarium, on the grounds that the area could not cope with the noise, traffic, and other disruptions a big airport would bring. Downtown would get its airfield, but it would come in the form of Meigs Field, a single-runway facility that could not handle large jets.

In 1945, the committee tasked with recommending the site of a new international airport considered sites north of Foster Avenue (5200 North) and south of Rainbow Beach (7500 South), but due to construction costs it chose the lightly populated site that later became O'Hare. Two decades later, with fears that O'Hare and Midway were approaching full capacity, the city commissioned a study to explore the feasibility of an airport in Lake Michigan rather than in the suburbs.

An airport in the lake would solve a number of problems for Daley. There simply was no place within the city boundaries to put a major airport. It was one thing to demolish 106 acres to make room for a Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, a project largely supported by Chicagoans outside of the near-west-side neighborhood that was destroyed. It was another thing to clear 8,000 acres for a third airport. Although Richard M. Daley considered building an airport around Lake Calumet in the early 90s, this area was still dominated by smoky industries. An airport in Lake Michigan could be situated close to the all-important downtown, yet the city wouldn't have to demolish a single home or relocate a single industrial plant to build it.

Unlike a "Chicago" airport built in adjoining unincorporated DuPage or Will Counties, Chicagoans would take the lion's share of the jobs generated by an airport on the south side. The communities closest to the airport would see dramatic investments in the form of hotels, restaurants, and other facilities to service airline traffic. Moreover, an airport in Lake Michigan would be the kind of make-no-small-plans enterprise that Chicago mayors and their constituents love—an awe-inspiring public works project that would pump tens of millions of dollars into the construction trades and leave a heroic monument to the city's technical ingenuity.

The initial report by the Hanza Engineering Company, a Chicago firm renowned for designing dams and other large-scale hydrological projects, considered a site due east of 35th Street, with the Stevenson Expressway four miles across the lake to the island airport. But in its 1970 report to the city, Hanza settled on a site whose center would be 8.5 miles due east of 55th Street. Hanza envisioned that barges would create a circular dike five miles in diameter, dumping tons of sand or rock-fill into the lake. Over a three-month period, all the water within this circle would be pumped out. After the diked enclosure had been fortified with rock quarried from below the lake bed, the terminals, hangars, and runways would be constructed. A causeway would connect the airport to the mainland. The entire airport would be the antithesis of an artificial island, with planes flying into a space that had been the very bottom of the lake.

Hanza Engineering noted it had employed C. H. Mortimer, a widely respected limnologist who specialized in the Great Lakes, as a consultant on ecological matters, yet the report didn't dedicate much space to environmental concerns. It conceded that fish would be "expelled" from the airport zone during construction, but maintained the total effect on marine life would "be localized and quantitatively unimportant." Hanza was confident that all the wastewater produced by the airport could be piped to treatment plants on the mainland, and that aircraft emissions would not lead to water pollution.

The strongest opposition to the Lake Michigan site came from a fairly predictable lot: Hyde Parkers, who weren't thrilled by the prospect of sharing their part of the lake with a gigantic airport; suburbanites, who saw in the Lake Michigan site a singularly selfish and potentially dangerous scheme; and environmentalists. Unfortunately for Daley, his proposal came at a time when the public was particularly anxious about the health of the Great Lakes. "The lake is already threatened with extinction by pollution," as an editorialist at WIND-AM put it. "It doesn't need any additional threats."

City Hall simply refused to concede any real risks in its pharaonic project. Milton Pikarsky, Chicago Commissioner of Public Works, claimed in May 1971 that water quality and aquatic life would actually improve if the airport were built. "All the evidence we have indicates we can overcome any environmental problems," he told the Chicago Tribune.

Although Pikarsky claimed fog wouldn't be an issue because takeoffs and landings would be automated, air controllers and pilots contended that the airport would be vulnerable to icing and low visibility, and judged its location too close to O'Hare and Midway's crowded airspace for it to be efficient. Nor did City Hall adequately address a 1969 Federal Aviation Administration-commissioned report that warned that catastrophic dike failure was still a modern phenomenon. The barrier protecting the airport could be put under stress by severe events involving weather, leakage, sabotage, or accidents.

Critics also came with common-sense objections that were difficult to wave away. However daring, the experimental design of the airport seemed vulnerable to cost overruns. American airports had several entry and exit points in case of emergency; this would have just one. Traffic on Lake Shore Drive could not handle an airport the size of O'Hare. In addition to how such an unprecedented project might affect the lake ecology, there was also the question of whether the noise of constant flights might simply bounce off the lake and disrupt the peace with incessant jet noise.

In the end, City Hall was unable to contain opposition in Springfield or Washington. In May 1972, Daley told the press that he wanted to end the "emotionalism and controversy" around building an airport in the lake, stating he would oppose building a third airport in any location. With that, his dream airport disappeared as if engulfed by the lake.   v

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