Nature didn't give Chicago its glorious shoreline. Good planning did. But today, the city faces the future without a clear vision for the lakefront. In a six-part series, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin offers a view of the problems and promise of our greatest public space.
The lakefront is Chicago's undisputed crown jewel, a timeless treasure that brings dazzling images to mind: of fireworks and bandshells, sailboats dotting blue waters, museums rising like wedding cake from a sweeping expanse of green, skyscraper cliffs winking in the night sky. Our front yard, the lakeshore is, the face Chicago presents to the world.
A Flawed Jewel
But zoom in on the 30-mile stretch of beaches, harbors and parkland between Indiana and Evanston and troubling blemishes appear. What you see is a resource that is in serious imbalance, alternately overwhelmed and underachieving, a carelessly treated beauty that has lost much of its sheen.
The lakefront and its parks represent a legacy of incalculable value, a testament to visionaries such as Daniel Burnham, who, more than 100 years ago, recognized that public spaces made better democracies, better citizens and better lives. It is remarkable that what Burnham and others conceived so long ago still serves us in so many ways.
Yet, inexplicably, we have done little to build upon that legacy. The lakefront is at once a victim of our poverty of imagination and the crippling consequences of its own success.
As good as it is, the lakefront could be so much more. It could realize its vast potential if we just had a vision -- and the will -- to act on it.
Here is what new or revamped public space along Lake Michigan could do:
It could help bridge the racial chasm that has long split Chicago.
It could begin to lift entire neighborhoods out of oblivion.
It could heal us physically, especially as the population ages, and could be an ever-renewable source of peace and fulfillment.
It could be a democratizing influence, allowing people from diverse backgrounds to mix and come to appreciate one another.
It could celebrate not only dead presidents and generals, but also the so-called ordinary men and women who endured extraordinary hardships to build this nation.
All this, which would enrich our lives immeasurably, is within our grasp.
Yet we are missing our chance.
The lakefront, whose 3,000 acres of parkland, 29 beaches and 8 harbors attract an estimated 65 million visits a year, is off the public policy radar screen. The city has been lulled by a booming economy and the illusion that Mayor Richard M. Daley, well-known for beautifying the city, has everything in hand when, in reality, he doesn't.
"The people and the powers that be in Chicago came to take the lakefront for granted," says Lee Botts, former director of the Lake Michigan Federation, a not-for-profit group devoted to the lake. "They have continued to brag about it, tout its virtues and its values to the city while they continue to let it fall apart."
The lakefront needs more than the mayor's Martha Stewart-izing.
It deserves city planning as well as civic decorating.
It requires a forceful hand to bring together the Balkanized multitude of federal, state and local agencies that have split the people's shoreline into fiefdoms -- someone who can either coax or bully their leaders into pursuing a common vision.
Consider the state of the lakefront now, 25 years after the Oct. 24, 1973, passage of the city's Lakefront Protection Ordinance, a historic piece of legislation that stopped huge commercial projects such as McCormick Place from desecrating any more public land along Lake Michigan:
- If someone from a foreign land were to traverse the lakefront for the first time, that visitor would see two Chicagos. One north, the other south. One mostly affluent and white, the other largely poor and black.
The very park named for Burnham, which sits on the stretch of the south lakefront lined with high-rise public housing, is a monument to neglect and inequality, a rubble-strewn landscape that lacks the basic facilities, from restaurants to restrooms, that most parkgoers take for granted.
A few miles north, where luxury high-rises overlook Lake Shore Drive, Lincoln Park has everything one could ask for: a zoo, harbors, cafes and lagoons. Yet it is so overused and crowded that one sometimes risks life and limb by going there.
Next year's opening of the $30 million Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum at the already jammed intersection of Fullerton Parkway and Cannon Drive can only make things worse.
- Go to Grant Park and you find a lonely place with a world-famous fountain trapped behind a fence. When the city needs room for a million festival revelers, Grant Park fills the bill. But during the rest of the year, it is almost desolate because its spaces are not designed to a human scale.
- Go to the shoreline, where the revetments -- the blocks of stone that are supposed to guard the parks from the lake's pounding -- are partially in ruins. The great rocks also are intended to allow parkgoers to stroll or sit on their stairlike tiers. But in many spots they lie upended or splintered, recalling a landscape that has been bombed.
More than a third of Chicago's 30-mile shoreline -- 11 miles of beaches, breakwaters and revetments -- has been devastated by the lake and must be rebuilt by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $269 million.
Yet the job's planned timetable is so leisurely as to be absurd. It is not scheduled to be completed until 2010. As a result, temporary concrete barriers, already being put in place along South Lake Shore Drive, are needed to stop winter storms from flooding the vital traffic artery.
Meanwhile, two beaches listed on the supposedly definitive Rand-McNally map of Chicago, beaches that the mapmaker says are available for sunbathing at 49th and 67th Streets, simply do not exist. They were allowed to vanish beneath the waters long ago. At 49th Street, there is even the bizarre sight of a beach house but no beach. To go swimming, adventurous teenagers must climb down a series of slippery, jagged rocks.
- Go down to 87th Street and peer behind a chain-link fence where an enormous chunk of land, bigger than the Loop, lies fallow. Once it was home to a huge U.S. Steel mill, the celebrated South Works, which forged the metal that undergirds Sears Tower and other Loop skyscrapers. Here, the potential to make a public space that preserves the history of working people and their contributions to the nation is as yet unrealized.
- Go to any part of the lakefront and you will run into a concrete curtain -- consisting of highways, ramps, the largest convention center in the U.S., and mall-sized parking lots -- that makes getting to the shoreline on foot either difficult or next to impossible. An egregious example: the sea of nearly 5,000 parking spaces, operated by the Chicago Park District, that surrounds Soldier Field.
"Is the Park District in the parking business or the parks business?" asks Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks, a not-for-profit civic group.
Lincoln Park's crammed bicycle path, where cyclists, joggers, strollers, Rollerbladers and even mothers with baby strollers jostle for space on a strip of asphalt just eight feet wide, is a classic example of how changing trends in recreation have caught the Chicago Park District flat-footed.
As recently as the 1930s, bicycles weren't even allowed in Chicago's parks. When the lakefront bike path opened in 1963, no one foresaw the explosion of biking, running and in-line skating that has rendered the path more crowded -- and dangerous -- than many city streets.
New trends threaten to make the lakefront equally out of sync with the people using it.
- With the first of the Baby Boomers due to hit 60 in 2006, the lakefront will soon undergo a huge influx of elderly people. What sort of activities, tailored to their needs, will be available for them at shoreline parks?
- By 2010, Chicago is expected to have fewer whites and more Hispanics, Asians and blacks. That trend matters because, surveys show, different ethnic groups use park land differently. Whites typically come alone or in small groups while those from other cultures tend to arrive in larger contingents and prefer communal activities such as picnicking. How do we accommodate everyone?
- When Chicago was a city of tightly knit neighborhoods, and the pendulum of people's activities often swung between the local church and saloon, a trip to a major park was a special event. People dressed up and took stately promenades. Grant Park, which was modeled on the formal gardens of Versailles, was designed for such a society. But it is ill-suited to the casual, fitness-oriented, Frisbee-throwing lifestyle.
Treated creatively, such challenges represent a chance to make a better lakefront. Yet the city lacks the vision and tools to respond to them.
While the city, the Park District and the Cook County Forest Preserve District this year unveiled a citywide open space plan covering everything from the Chicago River to neighborhood parks, its chapter on the lakefront is a laundry list of vaguely worded policy goals.
One of them calls for "coordinating all lakefront planning and development," but doesn't say who will do the coordinating. Nor have any meaningful steps been taken in the 10 months since the plan was published.
In fact, control over the lakefront is fragmented among a Byzantine collection of agencies that jealously guard their turf. Worse, they often work at cross purposes:
- Lake Shore Drive comes under the purview of the Illinois Department of Transportation, whose top priorities are moving vehicles safely and speedily. But the expresswaylike character of the drive frustrates Park District planners, who want to make it easier for people to walk from the city to the lake.
- The giant McCormick Place convention center and popular Navy Pier are the province of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, a quasi-public, city-state agency that seeks to maximize attendance at both facilities. Yet the convention center and pier, which are poorly served by public transit, cause huge traffic jams on the Drive.
- The revetments are the province of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the primary construction agency of the federal government, which is charged with controlling flooding at the least possible cost to American taxpayers. Yet that mission sometimes puts the Corps at odds with the Park District, as when the Corps proposed replacing the shattered revetments with mounds of stone -- a configuration that would prevent parkgoers from walking or sitting on them.
The plan eventually was dropped, but endless delays in the rebuilding have frustrated Daley, who sent senior aides to lobby Vice President Al Gore to speed things up. City officials are now negotiating with the Corps to shift the target date from its original 2010 to 2005.
The list of agencies that control a piece of the lakefront goes on and on. There is the Chicago Transit Authority, which transports people to and from the shoreline. The Chicago Police Department, which patrols the lakefront. The Chicago Department of Transportation, which controls key lakefront roads. The Chicago Plan Commission, which monitors the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. The Chicago Department of Planning and Development, which is supposed to sketch out the future of big lakefront sites such as the former U.S. Steel mill. The Mayor's Office of Special Events, which choreographs city festivals. Commuter railroads, such as Metra, whose trains slice through the lakefront. Even the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the airspace around Meigs Field.
Granted, cooperation among some of these entities is possible, as shown by the $90 million rerouting of Lake Shore Drive's northbound lanes and the creation of the Museum Campus, the new cultural complex south of Grant Park. The project was chiefly funded by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and carried out by both the city and the state.
But such efforts are the exception rather than the rule. And that has major implications for the shoreline.
During the next 12 years, more than $500 million in public and private funds will be spent on the lakefront, mostly to repair what is already there. Without a coordinated vision that pulls together the disparate efforts of the various players, the lakefront will continue to fall far short of its enormous potential.
Some changes could be made that would cost virtually nothing, such as moving the Chicago Air and Water Show from North Avenue Beach to 31st Street Beach. It would ease congestion in overcrowded Lincoln Park and add vitality to moribund Burnham Park. Granted, the boon would last just one weekend, but the germ of the idea could, to cite a noted planner, let a thousand flowers bloom if other attractions now in Lincoln Park are shifted to the south lakefront.
Other changes can be made by looking holistically at now-isolated projects, such as the $150 million Lakefront Millennium Park at the northwest corner of Grant Park. While the new park will cover an ugly railyard, it will do little to address one of the main reasons Grant Park is underused: giant roads, such as Columbus Drive, with eight lanes that slice through the park, frightening anyone on foot.
The fate of the lakefront transcends Chicago; this is a time when public space is under attack in America as never before.
You see it at sporting events, where the wealthy and powerful sit apart from everyone else in their skyboxes, or in the new gated subdivisions. Terrorist attacks at home and abroad, meanwhile, have turned federal buildings into fortresses rather than symbols of government's openness to the people.
But the lakefront is common ground, a ribbon of green that beckons to a rainbow of humanity -- black, white, red, yellow and brown.
It is what architects call an "edge," a dramatic meeting of two very different things, in this case the fluidity of the water and the solidity of the city.
We are lured to this "edge" for the same reasons that human beings have always beaten a path to oceans, rivers and lakes: At the shoreline, we drink in some of the best of life.
The lakefront is where we enact our secular rituals -- the social rites of summer festivals, tailgating at Bears games, smelt fishing and toasting Bulls championships. Yet for all that it brings us together, it is also a place where we go in search of solitude. As Herman Melville, the author of "Moby Dick," wrote: "Meditation and water are wedded forever."
The Chicago lakefront's importance to the region will only grow because there will be few chances in coming years to add large chunks of waterfront open to all -- even though by 2020 the population of the six-county area is expected to rise to 9.1 million from the current 7.6 million.
For example, at the former U.S. Army base of Ft. Sheridan, surrounded by the North Shore towns of Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest, just one mile of publicly accessible beachfront will be created as the base is transformed into housing.
In contrast to the North Shore suburbs, which have privatized their lakefronts, or other American cities, which have industrialized their waterfronts, Chicago has set aside 24 of 30 miles along Lake Michigan as public land.
In other words, Chicago has taken to heart Burnham's ringing declaration: "The lakefront by right belongs to the people."
While the lakefront looks utterly natural, as if a divine hand had reached down and drawn the softly undulating curves that provide a respite from the city's ramrod-straight street grid, the vast majority of the shoreline is, in fact, manmade.
Nearly all the parks along Lake Michigan were hewn from landfill dumped into the lake, beginning with debris from the Great Fire of 1871 and continuing through the creation of the northernmost extension of Lincoln Park in 1957 at Hollywood Avenue.
In a grand illusion, the fill was planted with trees, grass and shrubs, then armored with rocks against the fury of the lake.
Yet precisely because the lakefront is not a work of nature, we should not hesitate to reshape it to serve our needs, physical, emotional and social. The question is how.
Granted, the Lakefront Protection Ordinance has delivered the shoreline from further incursions of the kind represented by Outer Drive East, the T-shaped apartment complex built east of the old Lake Shore Drive S-curve in 1962 and Lake Point Tower, the undulating glass high rise constructed east of the Drive in 1968. But the ordinance's companion document, the 1972 Lakefront Plan, is as outdated as granny glasses and love beads.
Though not without merit, especially in the way it sought to curb pollution of the lake, the plan mostly remains trapped in the assumptions of its time, when Americans still believed traffic engineers held the keys to progress.
"It was a status quo plan, not a visionary plan," says Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th), chairman of the City Council's committee on parks and recreation.
Without a map of the future, we're lost, as shown by the potential mishandling of two huge projects that offer a chance to dramatically remake the southern half of our front yard.
No master plan has been drafted to coordinate, in a larger context, the $122 million rebuilding of the revetments from 25th Street to 56th Street and the renovation of South Lake Shore Drive between 25th Street and 67th Street -- a job expected to cost about $50 million.
Such projects offer an extraordinary opportunity. The city could use the occasion of the revetment work to bulk up, with landfill, what is now a pencil-thin Burnham Park, making room for a host of new attractions.
The roadwork, meanwhile, could be combined with construction of a series of underpasses and overpasses that would allow safer, easier pedestrian access to the newly enlarged park.
A practical side benefit: a bigger Burnham Park would enhance flood control, sopping up the waters of the lake before they reach Lake Shore Drive.
But this chance to correct the historic imbalance between the north and south lakefronts will pass, perhaps forever, unless the powers that be come up with a detailed plan to coordinate the two projects.
The prospect of such planning gaffes and the overwhelming success of the Museum Campus -- which happened because public agencies worked together -- argue for the creation of a permanent lakefront commission, much like the now-dissolved entity that brought the campus into being.
Appointed by the mayor, the commission could be headed by a powerful civic figure, capable of pulling the levers of power in Chicago, Springfield and Washington -- someone on the order of former Gov. James Thompson, who has a keen interest in architecture and urban planning. Its leader would be charged with getting all the key players in the same room and on the same page.
Such a commission could supervise as well the rewriting of the outdated 1972 Lakefront Plan, drafting a new version for the entire lakefront while overseeing the creation of subplans for key areas such as the south lakefront.
The commission might even raise funds from the business community to underwrite those plans, a role the Commercial Club of Chicago played in the Burnham Plan. At the same time, it could lobby state and national legislators to provide financial support for what is no longer merely a regional attraction, but an international one.
Clearly, the costs of reinventing the lakefront will be huge.
The tab for projects in the works alone exceeds $500 million -- in addition to the $260 million rebuilding of the revetments, the $150 million Lakefront Millennium Park and the $50 million reconstruction of South Lake Shore Drive -- when projects such as a $30 million dedicated bus lane in Grant Park, the $30 million Nature Museum, a $7.5 million parking garage in Lincoln Park, $6 million in federal funds to improve roads leading to the U.S. Steel plant and Daley's $27 million proposal to turn Meigs Field into a park are toted up.
Dollars and cents aside, though, the coin of the realm is vision.
We need a new way of looking at the water's edge, one that represents a maturing of the emerging ecological consciousness that colored the 1972 lakefront plan. Just as in an ecosystem, the fate of one part of the lakefront cannot be separated from that of another.
Both the parts and the whole of Chicago's manmade shoreline must be designed to serve different users at different times of day and in different seasons. Based on that idea, the lakefront can grow out of the needs of our time, adapting to new expressions of our most enduring impulses.
"Our bodies and spirits need the fresh breezes that flow from the water," the architecture critic Wolf Von Eckhardt once said. "We need both its calm and its stimulus. We need the sense of community, the opportunities for festivity, for artistic expression, recreation and commercial bustle that urban waterfront offers. . . . In these often desperate times of anxiety and confusion, we need all this desperately."