Lake of Ire | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Lake of Ire 

The limestone rocks along the lakefront are crumbling, but are the city's plans to replace them with concrete the best solution? Some Hyde parkers have taken matters into their own hands and commissioned an alternative plan to save their beloved Point.

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In March the city sent its rock crushers to start demolishing the limestone blocks that line the stretch of lakeshore between Belmont and Diversey. These blocks, like those along other sections of the lakefront, are to be replaced with a seawall made of concrete. And that has upset people, particularly some Hyde Parkers, who don't think concrete is the way to go here or on the south side. "We're on our way to another Meigs Field," says Hyde Park resident Jack Spicer, referring to Mayor Daley's unilateral decision to close the lakefront airport. "There's been no real community input in this project. The city's doing what it wants--no matter what people say."

In 1995 the city got more than $300 million in federal money for a seawall. The Army Corps of Engineers came up with a plan that would turn most of the limestone sections of the shoreline, roughly from Montrose to 57th Street, into a concrete slab--a plan that's been widely criticized.

For one thing, the project, which is being done in phases, has taken far longer and been much messier than officials predicted. The first major stretch, from Montrose to Addison, took over three years. From 1998 to 2001 that part of Lincoln Park was fenced off, preventing people from jogging, biking, or just sitting along the lake's edge. At one point construction stopped for several months while contractors squabbled. A huge mound of concrete rubble loomed over the parking lots just west of the lake--residents called it Mount Waveland. "It took way too long--they didn't phase it in so that a portion of the lakefront remained open," says Karen Kennedy, a north-side activist. "The city talks about three years as nothing--but that's a lifetime for a child."

City officials predicted that most residents would forget about the inconvenience and mess once the project was completed. But many were even more upset when they saw what the city had done. The limestone blocks, which had given people a way down to the water, were gone. In their place was a concrete runway. Bob Clarke, a Lakeview activist, says, "It's so sterile and ugly and without any imagination."

Seeing what had happened on the north side, people in Hyde Park grew uneasy. They knew the city also planned to redo Promontory Point, the peninsula of grass and trees that juts into the lake at 55th Street. This piece of the park, with landscaping by Alfred Caldwell, is one of Hyde Park's most treasured spots. For more than 60 years residents have gone there to launch boats, swim off the rocks, wade, or dangle their feet in the water. "One of the most pleasing parts of the Point are those limestone rocks along the edge," says Spicer. "People were concerned that the rocks not be replaced with concrete."

In January 2000 officials from the Park District and the city's Department of Environment came to Hyde Park and revealed their preliminary plans at a public meeting. They told residents there was no way to save the limestone--the rocks were crumbling under pressure from the water. But they promised to be accommodating in other ways--for example, doing the project in stages so that the Point would never be completely closed, and building steps so that people could still wade and swim and dangle their feet.

A year later officials returned to Hyde Park with a more developed plan. But it quickly became clear that they hadn't been accommodating. They said there would be no access to the water, since the lowest level of concrete would be about eight feet above the lake. There would be no phased-in construction--the Point would be fenced off for two years. And once the project was complete there would be no more swimming off the Point.

The room erupted. Outraged residents said they'd been deceived. "A lot of people doubted that the Point was even suffering from serious erosion," says Spicer. "They thought the city only wanted to spend the money on a big construction project." One resident declared, "We will go to war over this issue."

Since then city officials have backed away from the ban on swimming, and they say one tier of the new seawall will extend into the lake so that people can wade. But a large contingent of Hyde Parkers still want the limestone to remain. "The limestone had blocked erosion for 75 years," says Spicer. "Now all of a sudden they're telling us it doesn't work."

In February 2001 a group of Hyde Park residents created the Community Task Force for Promontory Point and enlisted the support of Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston in their effort to persuade Mayor Daley to alter the plan and keep the limestone. By October 2001 the task force had raised about $50,000, which they used to hire a coastal engineer named Cyril Galvin to, as Spicer puts it, "examine the feasibility of a preservation approach to the needed rebuilding of Promontory Point."

Galvin's report, released in October 2002, contradicted the city's stand. "It is feasible and relatively inexpensive to repair and preserve the historic and aesthetically pleasing step-stone revetment of limestone blocks," he wrote. "At least three quarters of the existing limestone on the revetment is reusable."

But the city wasn't convinced. On November 4 the task force received an analysis of Galvin's plan by Alycia Boyer, project manager for the Park District; Vasile Jurca, project coordinator for the Department of Environment; and Joanne Milo, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. They concluded that the plan wasn't doable because it didn't provide "universal access to each level for all residents and visitors to the lakefront." They also said that there wasn't enough limestone available to repair the project: "Of 17 quarries contacted during 2001, including most if not all of the largest Indiana quarries, only one indicated that they had the potential to provide cut limestone block that would match the existing stone at Promontory Point." And even if the limestone were available, they wouldn't want to use it because limestone had proved unstable, particularly on a stretch of lakefront near Solidarity Drive and the Adler Planetarium, where it had washed away.

They also estimated Galvin's preservation project would cost far more than the $4.5 million he'd projected and might go as high as $22 million. In short: "The conclusion and recommendations in the report do not make a strong case to change the design or policy direction of the Shoreline project."

On December 7 Galvin produced a final report that directly responded to every criticism raised by the city. The city's "arguments fall into three classes," he wrote. "Those based on lack of knowledge about existing conditions at the site; those based on ignorance of the report, in part stemming from lack of knowledge of existing facts at the site; and those based on bluff and bluster (to put it politely)."

It was true, he wrote, that his original report hadn't taken into account the needs of the disabled. But that was because "the Task Force advised me not to dwell on access matters in my initial report because the first priority was to demonstrate the feasibility of retaining the limestone." His final report included plans for a smooth path through the rocks that would allow the blind and people who use wheelchairs or walkers to make their way to the water's edge.

Galvin wrote that city officials supplied "no documentation" to justify saying his plan could cost $22 million. He also produced letters from the operators of five limestone quarries in Indiana saying they could provide limestone for the Point. One operator wrote that his company had "the capability and willingness to supply the stone. There is more than enough in present inventory to do this job, although sizing will be required."

And, Galvin wrote, the claim that limestone wasn't strong enough to withstand the force of Lake Michigan was a myth. "The reports about Solidarity Drive seem poorly documented, and have been contributed by persons whose limestone qualifications are not apparent," he stated. "I have not seen anything about Solidarity Drive that rises above the level of anecdotal news reports."

Some residents say the city was looking for reasons to turn down the plan. "It was very discouraging," says Spicer. "It is their excuses, not the limestone, that fall apart when you pick them up."

Nonetheless, the city isn't bending. "The limestone's not usable," says Heidi Kooi, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment. "Once you move [the rocks], they break. We did it already at Solidarity Drive. The first storm destroyed the whole thing."

Local residents at a recent breakfast meeting in Lakeview say Mayor Daley let it be known that he thought the people who want to preserve the limestone are being unrealistic. "I asked Mayor Daley about the lakefront plan, and he launched into a truculent tirade," says one north-side activist. "He said, 'You want all this stuff? You go get the money for it.' I then made the mistake of mentioning that we were working with people in Hyde Park. That really pissed him off. He said something like, 'As to those people in Hyde Park, they're not getting anything. Promontory Point can sink into the lake, and God help them if it does.'"

Spicer and his allies are trying to avoid saying anything critical of the mayor, but they're happy to complain about other city officials. "We've come up with a solid alternative, but they either ignore it or, worse, come up with excuses to dismiss it," he says. "Why do they keep their concrete plan? Because it's too much of a pain in the neck for them to change. Pouring concrete is what they know how to do. People just want to do what they did yesterday. It's easy because they don't have to change. And besides, they don't like making concessions to community groups."

But Spicer isn't daunted. "The strategy of the city is that a howling mob will go away," he says. "But we're not going anywhere. We're trying to be nice. We're trying to be cooperative. We want very much to work with them in restoring the Point in a way that the community and the city will be proud. But we're not going away."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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