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Park District Unveils Northerly Island Revamp At Meeting

Northerly Island Plan

A rendering of the plan for Northerly Island (Courtesy: Chicago Park District)

roberts250 Bob Roberts
Bob Roberts is a native of Wilmette who has worked in Chicago media...
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CHICAGO (CBS) – One of these days, you may be able to scuba dive along the lakefront and explore a sunken ship among the reefs. That’s right: reefs in Lake Michigan.

That’s just part of a plan to transform Northerly Island into a world-class aquatic park and nature sanctuary. As CBS2’s Mike Parker reports, the plan was formally unveiled Thursday night.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bob Roberts Reports

In 2003, in the dead of night, Mayor Daley’s machines of destruction moved in by surprise and destroyed the old Meigs Field airport on Northerly Island.  During a public meeting, the Chicago Park District revealed the proposed future of the 90-acre island, and it does not include a return of air traffic.

“The only things that will be landing and taking off with two wings in the future are going to be birds, butterflies and some other, various insects,” parks advocate Bob O’Neill said at the meeting.

Officials now envision a wetland haven for migratory birds, with a huge lagoon where people can swim and kayak and canoe. The lagoon would be made safe by a chain of reefs just off shore.

The grand design by noted architect Jeanne Gang also envisions replacing the current outdoor concert pavilion with something more organic — a theater seeming to rise out of the green earth.

Gia Biagi, the Park District’s planning and development director, says it could be one of the great parks of the world.

“It’s very rare to have about 90 acres of public open space, not only along a waterfront that’s publicly accessible, but so close to a business district,” she said. “That’s really one of the great joys and beauties of Chicago.”

At the unveiling meeting, 49th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith, a plan supporter said she wants to preserve that beauty.

“We often say that, but for the Chicago lakefront, we would be Omaha,” she said.

There are many “if’s” attached. The plan – scheduled for completion in 20 to 30 years — has no price tag. Nobody knows what it will cost. And Mayor Daley, who loves the concept, won’t be around to figure out a way to pay for it.

Planners hope for millions of private dollars and some government money, too. Taxpayers won’t be completely off the hook.

“As we figure out the individual projects then we’ll be able to engineer them and figure out what the particular costs are,” Biagi said.

Newradio 780’s Bob Roberts reports there is also the uncertainty of a change in administrations.

Asked what assurances she has that the next mayor won’t want an airport, or a radically different vision for the space, Biagi said, “We assume that in the future we’re going to have great leadership that understands important civic-minded gestures like this one.”

The biggest new feature would be the series of small barrier reef islands in Lake Michigan, creating a lagoon to protect Northerly Island’s eastern shore. A ship would be sunk in the lagoon to attract divers. There would be nearly six miles of trails on the island; zones of prairie, savannah and woodlands on the island’s southern half; and underground parking on the northern half adjacent to a new 14,000-seat amphitheater, shops and restaurants.

Biagi said the amphitheater would remain close to Adler Planetarium, and would be designed in such a way that it can be used for star-gazing and Adler programs on nights that it is not in use as a concert venue.

The plans call for ferry service in the summer and a pontoon bridge in the winter that would provide a second access point, roughly at the point where the old Meigs Field terminal building still stands.

The Meigs terminal building would be gutted, stripped down to its frame and transformed into an open-air pavilion.

The framework was drafted by the Chicago office of the landscape architecture firm JJR and Studio Gang Architects, whose founder, Jeanne Gang, also called the plan “ambitious.”

“It’s an amplified version of nature that will be educational, and I think that’s the biggest component of it all,”
she said.

Only the amphitheater is moving forward; Biagi said that more than 50 interested contractors picked up packets at an informational meeting Thursday. Biagi seeks public-private partnerships to help build the rest.