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Chicago’s Greatest Asset—Its Lakefront Parks—Now In Political Play

Chicago’s greatest asset—its coveted Lake Michigan parkland—is in political play along Lake Shore Drive from Evanston south to the Indiana border.

Desperate to end a legal battle between the city of Chicago and the Friends of the Parks over the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art being built on a lakefront parking lot near Soldier Field, insiders say Mayor Rahm Emanuel is offering a $1-billion bribe.

Apparently, Mayor Emanuel is willing to support development of 525 acres of new in-fill lakefront parkland and extend public access to four miles of new green space along Lake Michigan from Hollywood to Howard Street on the Far North Side to 71st to 95th streets on the Far South Side.

All the Friends of the Parks have to do is drop its lawsuit regarding the Lucas Museum, and the public-interest group would win a tempting victory that could possibly bring the ambitious 1909 Burnham Plan of Chicago to completion.

Foremost under Daniel Burnham’s original goals was reclaiming the lakefront for the public. “The Lakefront by right belongs to the people,” Burnham wrote. “Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”

The plan recommended expanding the parks along Lake Michigan’s shore line with landfill and much of that was done in the early 20th Century, and after the Chicago Fire, to create Grant Park.

Of the city’s 29 miles of lakefront, all but four miles are public parkland today. The plan also called for creation of manmade islands, such as Northerly Island, along with lagoons, beaches, harbors, meadows and playfields.

By “creating new acreage from landfill, excavated material and general wastage from the city,” the Burnham Plan envisioned lakefront improvements stretching from Chicago’s northern suburbs south to the edge of Indiana.

Historians say Lake Shore Drive started as a carriage path along the downtown area, with horses limited to a six mile per hour speed limit. In 1933, LSD was extended from Belmont Avenue (3200 north) to Foster Avenue (5200 north). In the 1950s, it was extended to Bryn Mawr Avenue (5600 north) and then in 1957 to Hollywood (5700 north).

The 1950s LSD extension utilized landfill, rubble and debris from the destruction of homes raised for construction of the Congress Expressway (now called the Eisenhower Expressway).

In 2004, the Chicago Park District considered a feasibility study to extend Lake Shore Drive about 2.5 miles north through Rogers Park and into Evanston. Activists say the plans for the expansion were actually drawn.

However, residents protested that this proposed expansion would cut off Rogers Park and Edgewater residents from the lake. A November, 2004, referendum rejected the proposal.

In 2005, the Chicago Park District spent $350,000 on plans for new marinas along LSD, including one at Devon and Granville. At that time federal funding of $800,000 to $1 million was obtained for a study to extend the Chicago North Lakefront Path.

And, in 2008, the Friends of the Parks proposed extending the lakefront park system north, possibly through off-shore manmade islands linked by bike paths. This proposal also met with resident opposition.

In 2009, the Friends of the Parks marked the 100th anniversary of the Burnham Plan by unveiling a visionary sequel—adding 525 acres of new lakefront parkland at a cost of $450 million. This land would be created by adding landfill, stone and concrete seawalls to create a continuous chain of parks, islands, beaches, lagoons, and bike trails on the North and South sides.

In 1909, Daniel Burnham said: “Make no small plans.” Today, the cost of creating 525 acres of lakefront parkland might approach $1 billion, experts say.

Maybe now—107 years later—is the time for Mayor Emanuel to utilize his connections in Washington, D.C. to obtain the necessary federal funding for a noble goal of creating more lakefront parkland.

The job may take 20 years to complete, in stages. Why not start now by first extending North Lake Shore Drive to north suburban Evanston while expanding park land, beaches and bike paths. The city likely has landfill public works projects, excavated earth from caissons of dozens of downtown high-rise apartment towers and from razed abandoned homes on the South Side to start the job.

It is time for Far North Side lakefront residents to realize that a major expansion of parks, beaches, lagoons, islands and North Lake Shore Drive up to Howard Street (7600 north) would boost both property values and the quality of life along Lake Michigan’s northern shore.

If private land controlled by a handful of condominium associations on the north lakefront is not for sale, let the city acquire it by eminent domain.

Here’s a final word on the proposed Lucas Museum, which architectural critics say is designed to look like a pile of rock salt. Why not build it on a landscaped, elevated concrete platform on the west side of the Outer Drive over Illinois Central railroad air rights?

Just about every Chicagoan this writer polled believes erecting this private museum on 17 acres of leased lakefront property is a bad idea.

Imagine the blob-like Lucas Museum floating between the remoddled Soldier Field and aging McCormick Place East?

A former landmark that originally resembled the Greek Parthenon, Soldier Field was removed from the National Register of Historic Places after it was “renovated” to look like a flying saucer crashed on it. And, the darkly foreboding McCormick Place East was designed in the image of a World War II aircraft carrier.

Lined up across Chicago’s beautiful lakefront, those three stooge-like properties could be renamed “Curly,” “Larry” and “Moe.”

For more housing news, visit Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit

“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”


Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014

By Don DeBat

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