Deep hurt: here comes the tunnel, there goes the neighborhood | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Deep hurt: here comes the tunnel, there goes the neighborhood 

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Four years ago Doug and Deborah Brooks moved to their dream house--a brick Tudor across the street from an open field in Edgebrook, a leafy residential neighborhood on the banks of the North Branch of the Chicago River. "We thought this would be a great place to live--lots of open space just across the street for our boy to play in," says Brooks. "It would be like a little piece of country paradise in the city."

But in the next several months their paradise will be destroyed. Some 50 trees will be uprooted, a large area of grass will be dug up, and the tranquillity of their quiet little northwest-side neighborhood will be shattered by the rumble of dump trucks and bulldozers.

The work is part of a five-year construction project overseen by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. "We can certainly appreciate the inconveniences construction projects cause--and we will do whatever we can to minimize them," says Roberta Harper, public-information officer for the district. "But the overall benefits for the entire area are enormous."

The Brookses, however, claim that district officials have disregarded community concerns and have consistently refused to tell residents the truth about their plans. "We bought our house expecting to be able to look out on trees, and now we'll be looking out on Porta Pottis and dump trucks," says Doug Brooks. "We've complained, we've written letters, and we've attended meetings. But they refuse to make any changes. They just don't give a damn."

Brooks and his wife became aware of the construction project in January, when they noticed a large X painted on the intersection of Miltimore and Leonard, not far from their house. A few phone calls to local officials determined that the X marked the start of an extension of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan--a project better known as Deep Tunnel, the 20-year-old, $2.5 billion effort to eliminate water pollution and reduce flooding by building a series of massive tunnels deep underground. The first portion of the project was completed in 1985; the second is under construction.

"Before Deep Tunnel was constructed, the sewer system quickly overflowed and emptied into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan during a heavy rain," says Harper. "Deep Tunnel diverts much of that runoff to a treatment plant. It's because of Deep Tunnel that the Chicago River is cleaner and real estate values on the north branch of the river have gone up."

Brooks, an agent for photographers, isn't sure about the project's overall merits: "Until this year I had never heard of Deep Tunnel or the Water Reclamation District." His main concern is how district officials plan to build the portion of the tunnel near his house, where the construction site will be 120 feet wide. "I asked them why they hadn't told us about the project. They said they were waiting until all the contracts had been signed. My reaction was, what kind of moron do you think I am? I mean, why would I want to have a meeting after the contract's signed? I don't have any input on the project then. Their response was the usual bureaucratic thing: 'Well, that's just the way it's done.'"

On February 17 Nicholas Melas, president of the district's board, and several district engineers came to Edgebrook to conduct a public meeting on the matter. "We tried to assure them of the benefits the project would have," says Joe Pivnicka, a district engineer. "We also wanted to answer any of their concerns."

Pivnicka and the others explained that they would be building a connecting passageway, or drop shaft, on the site across from Brooks's house. The drop shaft would hook up the sewers in the neighborhood with the existing Deep Tunnel some 250 feet underground. A total of 20 drop shafts will be built along the North Branch. "We have built 100 drop shafts and mined over 50 miles of tunnels since the project started," says Harper. "This is not a learning project. We know what we're doing."

The residents, however, were not satisfied. They wanted to know why the project would take five years. And why the drop shaft couldn't be built closer to the river's edge, so it wouldn't chew up so much open land. And what the district would do to guarantee the safety of residents, particularly children, during construction. "They showed us graphs and pictures, but between all their experts they were very evasive," says Brooks. "All they could tell us is that it would stop our basements from flooding. And I didn't know anyone whose basement was flooding. At one point they asked me if I had any questions. I said, 'I have 100 questions, but I'll ask the ones that no one else asks. Or I'll reask the ones that haven't been answered.'"

A few days later Brooks drove to seven different drop-shaft construction sites in west suburban Maywood and River Forest. What he saw scared him. "There were safety violations at six of the seven sites," he says. He took pictures to document his claims. "The drop shaft is supposed to be enclosed by a Cyclone fence to keep kids out. But the fence at some sites was falling apart--you could easily push it over. And someone had left a ladder next to one fence, like they were inviting kids to climb over. The drop shaft itself is supposed to be covered by a concrete-and-metal casing that can only be removed by a crane. But I saw one that was covered only by plastic wrapping. It was an invitation to disaster."

Brooks sent copies of his pictures to district officials. A March 26 meeting was arranged with Pivnicka, district commissioner Terrence O'Brien, Frank Dalton, the district's general superintendent, and other district employees. "At the March meeting they thanked us for the pictures of the safety violations and assured us that the problems had been taken care of," says Brooks. "I asked them why the work site couldn't be reduced, and Mr. Dalton told me that the construction crew needs a large area in which to do their work. He said they can't work on drop shafts that are close to fence lines. I asked him why they couldn't move the drop shaft closer to the river, and he said it would be too close to the slope for the workers to do their jobs. At this point we didn't know any better, and we were silenced."

Four days later Brooks returned to the work sites in Maywood and River Forest and discovered that some drop shafts had been built very close to the river's edge or right next to fences. He sent pictures of the sites along with letters detailing his findings to all nine commissioners. "I now realize that Dalton made these claims to quiet me and get the meeting over," says Brooks. "Well, it worked. But I now had proof that they had lied to me."

Brooks sent letters pointing out the district's inconsistencies, along with copies of his pictures, to several county officials, including Cook County Board president Richard Phelan. "Everyone always repeated the same old answers," says Brooks. "They don't have to kill all those trees and destroy that field. But they don't care about us. Terrence O'Brien, who lives in Edgebrook, told me that this project wouldn't bother him. I said, 'Fine. Send me a permission letter, and I'll have a contractor dig a hole in front of your house and put up a fence and some Porta Pottis. And I'll come back in five years and reseed your lawn--I promise.' Guess what? I'm still waiting for his permission letter."

District officials contend that the site near Brooks's house is different from the ones he photographed in the western suburbs. "The flow of water is very intense near his house," says Pivnicka. "That's why they need a bigger work site."

They also say Brooks has exaggerated the project's impact. "When we leave a site, it's always fully returned," says Harper. "We do not leave a site a mess."

And why weren't residents informed of the project before bids went out? "When we meet with residents it's not to ask their engineering advice; it's to explain how the project will impact on their lives and to say what the benefits will be," says Harper. "We're interested in their comments, but we can't build these massive projects by consensus of community groups. If we did that, nothing would ever get done."

Brooks says he thinks the district is trying to save money by refusing to modify its plans. "They didn't stop and figure how their construction project would hurt this neighborhood. They didn't try to figure if they could have built it on the other side of the river or somewhere else away from the homes. They just made their plans. Now it would probably cost them a few extra thousand dollars to draw new ones. So what do they do? They lie. They tell me things I know aren't true. It's easy for someone to tell me that in the total scheme of things my block's problems are small. You wouldn't think that way if this thing was going up across the street from you."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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