Not Just Ugly | Essay | Chicago Reader

Not Just Ugly 

Opponents say the expensive new wall that's replacing the rocks along the lakeshore creates a whole new set of problems.

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Bob Clarke doesn't want to say he told them so, but he did. Over the past few weeks stiff east winds have sent the lake crashing hard into and over the multimillion-dollar steel and concrete wall the city recently built to protect the shoreline just south of Belmont Harbor. The waves have smashed into the corrugated steel face of the wall, shot up and over the concrete, and washed out the gravel running path and dirt behind the wall. That's pretty much what Clarke and other lakefront activists predicted would happen. "The new revetment doesn't look good, and it doesn't work," says Clarke, a member of the South East Lake View Neighbors. "They managed to get the worst of both worlds."

The whole lakefront-repair saga started in 2001, when the city announced the first stage of the federally funded revetment project, which runs from Montrose to Promontory Point in Hyde Park. That first stage, fixing the stretch between Irving Park and Belmont, upset nearby residents because the city replaced the old limestone boulders that had been in place since the 30s with a series of broad concrete runways, fortified by a solid wall of steel along the water's edge.

"They put a roadway on the lake," says Karen Kennedy, a community activist who lives in Lakeview. "It's a bad design. You can't see the park from the bottom of the walkway, and you can't see the lake from the top. Thanks, guys."

Soon after the revetment project was announced, Kennedy, Clarke, and other north-side residents started meeting with officials from the Park District and the city's Department of Environment, which oversees the project. The residents wanted the city to come up with a better-looking design, one that used limestone boulders like the old ones, for the final phases of the north-side revetment, the sections between Belmont and Fullerton.

City officials said no, they had to have a solid wall of steel at the edge of the concrete runways to prevent the sort of erosion that had undercut the limestone boulders.

Fine, keep your steel wall, the residents responded, though they insisted the boulders had done a pretty good job of preventing erosion. But at least put boulders between the wall and the lake to break up the waves and diminish their force. "We told them it's elementary science," says Kennedy. "The waves will crash against the wall and go up into the air and over the wall. We said, 'You need to put rocks in front of the wall to diffuse the waves.'"

The city wouldn't budge. "They had this air of superiority--'We're the engineers--we know best,'" says Clarke.

"They would tell us, 'No, no, no, we have to contain the lake,'" says Kennedy. "I grew up on the lake. I love the lake, but it's a beast. The lake is very humbling. You can't contain the lake."

The two sides went back and forth for the better part of two years. (A spokesman from the city's Department of Environment didn't return calls for this story). The city said aesthetic concerns were too arbitrary for engineers and planners to be bothered with--a curious stance for an administration that obsessed about the details of the gardens, walkways, and sculpture in Millennium Park. The residents said aesthetics could also be practical. The city said that it had already finished one leg of the project and couldn't alter the plan, since the design needed to be consistent from one stretch to the next. The residents said, why repeat a mistake for the sake of consistency? The city said it would cost too much to put rocks in front of the wall. The residents said it would cost even more to regrade the land and replace trees every time they were washed out by a storm. "We warned them there would be greater spray," says Clarke. "We said it would happen."

The residents couldn't understand why the city was being so stubborn. No votes would be gained by sticking to the original plan, which hardly anyone had stepped forward to praise. The residents eventually concluded that the city sees compromise as weakness--if it bends in one place it will only encourage people to demand that it bend somewhere else.

The argument was over in early 2003 when Mayor Daley finally entered the fray, telling people at a meeting in Lakeview that limestone rocks weren't going to be used and that the revetment was coming whether they liked it or not. And of course once he spoke, all the other local officials and aldermen and congressmen fell in line.

The fences around the latest phase of the north-side revetment, from Belmont south almost to Diversey, came down in August, and indeed the first major winds of November, the weekend after Thanksgiving, sent water crashing over the top. Clarke took pictures of the eroded running path and the big puddles of water in the park behind the wall and e-mailed them to friends, supporters, and reporters. "It wasn't even a big storm," he says. "It's nothing like we can expect to get over the winter."

If you walked along the lake south of Belmont this past week you could see pools of water well into the park. "I'm not saying the old limestone rocks would have prevented spray from hitting the land--obviously that's not so," says Kennedy. "Spray has always been a part of the lake, and it will always be a part of the lake. But the spray factor has been substantially worse with the wall. You can see it for yourself if you go to the part of the lakefront [south of Diversey] where they still have the rocks, where they haven't put in the wall yet."

The activists haven't given up the fight yet--the last major stretch of the north-lakefront revetment, between Diversey and Fullerton, isn't finished. According to Kennedy, this may be the most critical phase of the north-lakefront project, because it's where Lake Shore Drive curves east and comes close to the lake. "If the drive's going to flood, this is where it will happen," she says. "They can't put the same design in--not unless they want major flooding during even the mildest of storms. You can't out-engineer the lake. We've been telling them that. Maybe now they'll finally listen."

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

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