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What’s Next for Northerly Island?

Chicago planned to turn the 91-acre peninsula into an oasis on Lake Michigan. A decade later, it’s a noble failure.

Somewhere, Daniel Burnham weeps.

In 1909, the 19th-century architect first floated the idea of a manmade park off the coast of Chicago, stretching seven miles between Grant Park and Jackson Park. The island was to be a reprieve from the bustling city nearby — a lush oasis on Lake Michigan for rest and relaxation.

Today, more than a century later, Burnham’s dream has taken the form of a ratty island stuck in development purgatory. Tall prairie grass and rare birds thrive at its southern end, where the rising waters of Lake Michigan threaten to swallow the landmass completely. Walking the parkway, it feels almost inevitable that nature will reclaim the 91 acres of land.

Welcome to Northerly Island, Chicago’s most cursed public park.

As Chicagoans await a full reopening of the lakefront, City Hall seems to have all but forgotten Northerly Island. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has stayed mum about its reopening, and the Chicago Park District has offered little more clarity.

“I actually don’t know about that,” said an employee in the Central Region Office when asked about a reopening date two weeks ago. She directed the inquiry to the Visitors Center in the former Meigs Field hangar, where multiple phone calls went unanswered. When I asked Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons how the park fit into the city’s reopening plan, she said that, like other parks east of Lake Shore Drive, it remains closed and that “[t]here is no projected reopening date at this time.”

Sure enough, when I stopped by Northerly Island myself a few days later, a traffic officer was blocking access to Solidarity Drive, the street that crosses the land bridge to the peninsula.

Even less clear than Northerly Island’s reopening date is whether Chicagoans miss it at all, especially with summer concerts canceled at the Huntington Bank Pavilion. That’s thanks in part to a century of unfulfilled promises by the city to turn the peninsula into usable public parkland.

The latest attempt was in 2010, with an award-winning plan by urban design firm SmithGroupJJR and architect Jeanne Gang. The Northerly Island of its pages is a dazzling tableau of natural biomes and outdoor recreation areas, connected by five miles of pedestrian paths. There’s forest, savannah, prairie, wetlands, and even a series of small barrier islands. Some of Gang’s more ambitious plans included a 12,000-seat amphitheater for stargazing and a shipwreck in the lagoon for divers to explore. It was to be “the Millennium Park of nature,” she told the Tribune in 2015.

But little of Gang’s plan was implemented. To do so would have cost $40 million — about four times the project’s budget. “Our design was never fully realized,” Studio Gang wrote in an emailed statement.

A rendering of Jeanne Gang and SmithGroupJJR’s 2010 Northerly Island design     Image: Courtesy of Studio Gang

Today’s version of Northerly Island Park finally opened in 2015 to the tune of $9.7 million. But the park remains largely unacknowledged in its own backyard, much less by the rest of the world. Lemons said in an email that Gang’s vision is an “active, long-term plan,” but remains on hold due to a lack of funding.

Money isn’t the only issue. Near–record high lake levels have severely eroded Northerly Island’s infrastructure. And in the age of COVID-19, the 12-foot-wide trail that snakes around Northerly Island isn’t wide enough to comfortably practice social distancing.

Of course, Northerly Island isn’t without its charms. As Burnham intended, the park is a sliver of curated wilderness in the heart of the city. Thanks in part to its unpopularity, it’s one of the only places downtown where one can ditch the crowds, sit peacefully on the docks, and take in a view of the skyline.

“I think the bottom line is that, although it’s had its challenges, Northerly Island is a successful project,” says Patrick Bray, chief of public affairs at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District, which built the park in the early 2010s. “We created a natural habitat that didn’t exist before, and it’s an asset to the city.”

And, he continues, “the birds certainly love it.”

 

Most modern accounts inaccurately recall Burham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, which outlined what would later become Northerly Island, as advocating for a series of barrier islands along the entire lakefront. But the blueprint actually only designated barrier islands on the North Side. For the south shore, Burnham proposed a channel-like lagoon running parallel to the coast. He called the outer strip of land Shore Park.

Burnham envisioned Shore Park as a “supremely beautiful” outdoor playground. “When this parkway shall be created, our people will stay here, and others will come to dwell among us — the people who now spend large amounts of money in Paris, Vienna, and on the Riviera,” he wrote in the plan.

But, in the early 1920s, the South Park Commissioners downsized the Shore Park plan in favor of a series of five islands along the south lakefront. Ultimately, they only built one — Northerly Island — in 1925.

Daniel Burnham’s vision for Chicago’s lakeshore, from his 1909 Plan of Chicago
Image: Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Center

In the 95 years since, Northerly Island has seen a series of controversies and what-ifs. The one constant has been Adler Planetarium, which opened in 1930. For two years, Northerly Island hosted Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair.

Then, for the next decade or so, it was nothing. “Most of the time in the late ’20s and ’30s, the island was basically a hobo jungle,” a historian told the Tribune in 2003.

In 1946, Chicago lost a bid to make Northerly Island the site of the United Nations headquarters. Instead, it opted to turn it into a small boutique airport, Meigs Field.

Not everyone loved the idea of the airport, which violated Burnham’s dictum that the lakefront “belongs to the people … and should be treated as park space.” Among them was Mayor Richard J. Daley, who insisted Northerly Island be made “more park-like,” starting with his 1973 Lakefront Plan.

Basically every mayor since has revived Burnham’s dream but never executed it. Harold Washington considered a family-friendly “Discovery Park” on the island, but those plans died with him in office in 1987. Jane Byrne proposed closing Meigs for the 1992 World’s Fair, but that year’s bid went to Seville, Spain.

Then, in 1996, the second Mayor Daley announced Northerly Island Park, a $27.2 million project which included a lagoon, snorkeling bay, stargazing hill, nature center, and botanic gardens, all accessible by ferry and a rubber-wheeled trolley. It was to be “a park like no other in the US or in the world,” claimed then–Park District General Superintendent Forrest Claypool.

But Daley’s dream got stuck in a legal quagmire over the future of Meigs Field. In 2003, without warning, he ordered bulldozers to tear up the runways, digging a series of giant Xs in the pavement. He justified the so-called “midnight raid” by citing post-9/11 concerns about terrorists using the airport to launch an attack on the Loop.

It earned Daley the nickname “X-man,” and bolstered his reputation as a big city boss. But even he couldn’t finish what Burnham started back in 1909.

 

When the Park District and Army Corps teamed up to implement Gang’s design in 2010, they tried to do so on the cheap. That meant skipping the reef and barrier islands in favor of redeveloping 40 acres of the former Meigs Airport runway.

That’s been a big problem. The original plan’s barrier islands served a practical purpose: to shield Northerly’s eastern shore against powerful Lake Michigan waves, which can crest 10 to 13 feet high seasonally. As a substitute, the Army Corps stacked a row of large rocks along the side of the peninsula to absorb the blows.

It was a miscalculation, says Juanita Irizarry, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Parks. “It’s clear the Army Corps of Engineers did not do appropriate worst-case scenario planning.”

As early as October 2015, one month after the park opened, the erosion around the east side of the mile-long concrete walkway became noticeable. Soon, the path was cracking into large pieces. Bray, the public affairs chief at the Army Corps of Engineers, claims that the rock seawall would have been enough, had the flora in that section — mostly indigenous grasses and wildflowers, but no trees — been planted earlier.

“The plants haven’t developed a deep roots structure, and so the water washed away the soil. Given more time, the plants would have fortified that area,” he says.

After a proposed Army Corps plan to rebuild the path didn’t happen, the Park District simply closed the eastern path for much of the last four years. In 2019, the Army Corps tapped into $800,000 in funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — part of the EPA — to beef up the rock wall with armor stone. But it may not be strong enough to stave off Lake Michigan. This year, the Army Corps permanently eliminated the east side of the path, altering what was once a loop around the center lagoon into a C shape.

The eroded portion of the Northerly Island trail, as pictured in October 2015     Photo: Ryan Smith

It’s a short-term fix, but it’s no substitute for the barrier islands of the original plan, or more robust vegetation — like a swath of trees — to fortify the compromised eastern shore. Our city is now a much wetter place than even ten years ago. Since 2013, the lake has risen nearly six feet. As a result, storms are destroying precious beaches and segments of the Lakefront Trail. A superstorm in January caused $25 million in damage to Chicago Park District land, including the lakefront, leading the city council to declare a climate emergency in February.

From a budget standpoint, sleepy Northerly Island will no doubt have trouble competing with the Lakefront Trail and beaches for improvement money.

“The long-term solutions will likely require federal, state, and local funding and is likely to be in the hundreds of millions,” wrote Lemons, the Park District spokesperson, in an email.

Northerly Island has a different type of erosion problem, too: Its acreage keeps getting gobbled up for commercial reasons. From Meigs Field to the ill-fated Hamilton exhibition, the city has treated Northerly Island as a money-making property. These days, the island’s center is a hodgepodge of chain link fences, event venues, and parking lots.

Huntington Bank Pavilion, the concert venue whose corporate-sponsored name has changed several times in its lifetime, is Exhibit A. In 2005, it began as a midsized 8,000-seat venue, which was meant to be temporary while the city figured out its longer-term plans for the park. The Park District signed a three-year contract with Live Nation, the concert promoter who operates the venue, with the option for two one-year extensions.

But in 2013, the city signed a $3 million deal to extend Live Nation’s residency through 2022 and nearly quadrupled the size of the venue to 30,000 seats. In return, Live Nation pays the city $300,000 annually, 50 percent of Huntington Bank’s naming rights fee, $1.25 for each ticket sold, and additional parking fees. (Los Angeles superagent Ari Emanuel, brother of then-mayor Rahm Emanuel, sits on Live Nation’s board.)

The touring giant’s presence on Northerly Island is supposed to be seasonal. Live Nation has 30 days before and after their summer concert series — which begins no later than June 1 — to assemble and tear down the outdoor amphitheater. In theory, that’s so the public can use the public parkland in the offseason.

But in reality, the land — blocked off by chainlink fences covered in green tarp — is all but unusable the rest of the year. Peer through the gaps in the fence and you’ll see an empty lot filled with hulking pieces of staging: the bones of the venue. And during the concert season, the park in its entirety is blocked off on event days.

“We think it’s an inappropriate use of land,” Irizarry, of Friends of the Parks, says. “It was supposed to be temporary and intended to generate revenue to help pay for the Northerly Island [Park plan] and then go away. The Park District has more recently changed its tune. It doesn’t seem they’re thinking about it as temporary anymore, even though it’s on public trust land.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing citizens and officials to reprioritize public spaces, Northerly Island is at another fateful crossroads. The question is whether the city has the resources — or the political will — to carry out another urban development project.

Irizarry thinks it’s time to come up with a contingency plan.

“In light of the lakefront erosion and COVID-19 realities, we’re calling for the reconsideration of [Northerly Island],” she says. “The questions will be, if we’re going to spend a lot of money retrofitting our lakeshore for long-term resilience, which spots are the biggest priority? I don’t think right now is the time to prognosticate, but public officials will need to lead with lots of community engagement.”

In the meantime, Northerly Island will wait, as it has for nearly a century.

The Daphne Garden, created by artist Dessa Kirk in 2004 and installed at Northerly Island two years later     Photo: Ryan Smith

Today, haunting statues stand near near where “X” once marked the spot on a Meigs runway. Inspired by the Greek myth of Daphne, a trio of women are depicted transforming into trees, their outstretched limbs like grotesque wings.

But in their current location, near the former site of Hamilton: The Exhibition, the statues appear to be dancing amid a massive concrete foundation and boarded-up trailers — remnants of the sparsely attended convention, which closed early after only three months.

Taken together, the scene raises a pertinent question for Northerly Island. If the peninsula can elude something as popular as Hamilton — and foil a century of Chicago mayors — will it, too, melt back into the arms of Mother Nature?

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