For 43 years, Tom Heineman has lived on Eastlake Terrace in Rogers Park, a three-block-long street that runs past three beaches: Juneway, Rogers, and Howard. Every summer, he walked out the front door of his building, crossed the street to Rogers Beach Park, and dipped into the water.
Then came the winter of 2019–20. The lake rose to near record high levels. Violent waves coursed up the sand and overran the breakwalls. To save the parks — and the street — the Chicago Department of Transportation spent $1 million to cover Eastlake Terrace’s beaches with tons of white riprap — loose stone intended to prevent erosion. Now the beaches are gone, and so is Eastlake Terrace’s intimate relationship with Lake Michigan.
“We used to have lifeguards, we used to have sand,” Heineman said. “In the morning, people would come out of the woodwork to swim and do paddleboarding. My grandkids used to come over and visit, and they’d go to the beach. Now they go to Loyola.”
Down at the other end of the lakefront, in South Shore, the lake destroyed the private beach behind Jera Slaughter’s building at 7321 S. South Shore Drive.
“The waves shot up to the top of our 12-story building,” Slaughter said. “Water came into the building and uprooted our trees and our patio. We’re still structurally sound, but we no longer have a beach. We have Jersey barriers, bricks, and concrete blocks.”
Earlier this year, to protect Arthur Ashe Beach Park, the city piled riprap at the foot of 74th Street, cutting off access to the water. In Rogers Park and South Shore, the riprap is “temporary emergency work,” according to a CDOT spokesman. Residents in both neighborhoods are hoping for permanent protection from rising lake levels that scientists say are the result of climate change. Slaughter, a member of the South Side Lake Front Erosion Task Force, wants a breakwall between 71st and 75th Streets.
“We do not expect them to repair our property,” she said. “We expect them to slow the force of the water to protect our property.”
It could be a long wait. Next year, the Army Corps of Engineers is slated to receive $500,000 in funding for the Chicago Shoreline General Reevaluation Report, a three-year study that will identify stretches of the lakefront damaged by the high waters of the last few years.
The length of the study, plus the need to obtain funding for its recommendations, means that new work won’t begin until 2028, said David Bucaro, chief of project management for the Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District.
The corps’s last such study, which was completed in 1994, resulted in the Chicago Shoreline Protection Project, two dozen improvements between Montrose Pier and the South Water Purification Plant, at a total cost of $536 million. One of the still-unrepaired sections is Morgan Shoal, between 47th and 51st Streets, where the breakwall is cracked and battered; black trapezoidal sandbags have been installed to protect the lakefront path. CDOT hopes to begin design this fall on a $71 million repair.
“There are many other reaches of the shoreline that were not included, and it’s been 25 years,” Bucaro said. “In that time, the shoreline has further degraded, and conditions have changed.”
The new study will take a close look at six areas the city has identified as priorities for lakefront improvements: Juneway Terrace to Osterman Beach; Montrose Hook Pier; North Avenue Beach to Oak Street Beach; LaRabida Children’s Hospital; 71st Street to 75th Street; and Rainbow Beach to the South Water Purification Plant.
Joel Brammeier, CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, hopes the solution isn’t simply pouring concrete to wall off the city from the lake. He’s a fan of the Friends of the Parks’ Last Four Miles Plan, which proposes building out the beaches both north and south of DuSable Lake Shore Drive, fulfilling Daniel Burnham’s plan to achieve the long-standing goal of a “forever open, clear, and free” lakefront.
“Riprap and giant sandbags are short-term fixes,” Brammeier said. “They don’t make the shoreline more resilient. The most resilient form of shoreline is things like beaches.”
In the past, the Last Four Miles Plan has been opposed by lakefront homeowners who didn’t want to lose their private beaches. However, Ald. Maria Hadden says she’s been hearing less opposition recently in her 49th Ward, which encompasses Rogers Park, since buildings have suffered expensive damage from attacking waves.
“It would be really nice to have a continuous connection to Evanston and the rest of the city,” Hadden said. “The general idea sounds excellent to me.”
Downtown, 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins has proposed using landfill to expand Oak Street Beach and add 70 acres of parkland east of DuSable Lake Shore Drive to protect the highway.
Expanding beaches is “a measure we would evaluate,” the Corps of Engineers’ Bucaro said.
In the meantime, lakefront dwellers are literally battening down the hatches to defend their buildings from the lake. Todd Rosenthal, who lives on the shoreline side of Eastlake, installed a rolling metal gate over his glass patio door after “the waves were hitting my window.”
“We want experts to not just manage us in a crisis, but come up with a comprehensive plan,” Hadden said.
That plan is coming, but will it come soon enough for the lakefront’s most threatened beaches and buildings?