Residents Debate Best Use of Land Along Chicago's Lakefront

June 30, 2009

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Chicago's lakefront is having a birthday of sorts. On July 4, 1909, architect Daniel Burnham unveiled a plan for continuous park space up and down the city's shoreline. At the time, it was hailed as a bold move to democratize Chicago's most prized natural asset. Ironically there's a proposal today to complete Burnham's lakefront and people are using democracy to stop it.

Related: 
Burnham historian on promotion of the Plan of Chicago 
Resources on past and future plans for Chicago's Lakefront
Friends of the Park's plan for Chicago's lakefront

Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago laid out all kinds of city improvements – street widening, civic buildings, forest preserves – but it gives Chicago's lakefront pride of place.

In the plan, Burnham included sumptuous, color maps of a new lakefront.

SMITH: You see at the center of it a formally landscaped park between Jackson park and Grant Park...

That was for the South Side in 1909…

SMITH: Then another one on the north side up to Wilmette.

I'm with Dr. Carl Smith of Northwestern University. He's written a book about the Plan of Chicago. We're at the Chicago History Museum.

ambi: carts wheels squeaking

Staff wheel in documents while Smith and I chat about Burnham's vision.

He says Burnham's Plan was a top-down plan, commissioned by business elite. But surprisingly – the plan did not advocate a lakefront land-grab.

SMITH: There was democratic talk in the plan, about how the lake belongs by right to the people and they should have access to it. 

ambi: lakefront 

TRANTER: This land is the most democratic land that we have within the city.

Erma Tranter is president of the advocacy group, Friends of the Parks We're in a South Side park – the kind of space Burnham talked about.

There's lake, birds, and greenery and it's open – for a while.

TRANTER: To the north of us is a vast stretch of green space but is barricaded off by an 8-foot fence with razor-wire on it.

The Illinois Port District owns the lakefront north of here.

There's an abandoned steel plant north of that, and there're some private homes and condos, too.

Tranter's frustrated that a century after Burnham - 26 miles of Chicago's lakefront are open to the public, but four miles are still closed.

TRANTER: And yet we're in the City of Chicago that has a lakefront ordinance that says our lakefront is public and belongs to everyone and [it's] first policy is to complete the publicly owned lakefront park system.

Friends of the Parks wants to get things moving, so the group has proposed new lakefront park space that'd stretch from Indiana to Evanston.

It's likely the park district could get some of the land at the port district and former steel site.

But the private homes? Friends of the Parks proposes filling in some of the lake and creating parks and paths near or around them.

All of this could cost $450 million.
And not everyone's on board.

ALLEE: Hi there.
MICAN:...I was walking toward the door and there you were...
ALLEE: What a great home.
MICAN It's nice, we like it here, we've been here for quite some time, so...

I'm a little late to my interview with Robert Mican. His South Side neighborhood is off the main roads between 71st and 75th Streets.

Mican doesn't own lakefront property – but he uses his neighbor's private beach. He's got a photo.

MICAN: Have you ever seen anything like that in the city of Chicago?

It shows an immaculate beach with kayaks nestled in the sand.

MICAN: They have what they call a beach gate and they've given us all keys so that we can go through at any time.
ALLEE: What kind of community is this that one neighbor allows another neighbor to use their lakefront property for so many years?
MICAN: It's just been a small beach colony I guess, in that sense. This is what they're trying to destroy for us.

Just to be clear, no one would lose a home or condo because of Friends of the Park's proposal, but Mican's still stirred up.

Under one scenario, there'd be a new peninsula out in the water, and the beach would become more of a lagoon.

Friends of the Parks claims the water would stay healthy and clear, but Mican doesn't trust that.

MICAN: We rely on the wave action to keep our beaches clean and free of debris and algae. Any obstruction they would have on there, the water would become stagnant.

Apparently, most of Mican's neighbors agree with him.

Last spring, voters in the immediate area approved a non-binding referendum to keep their lakefront as is. North Side neighborhoods held non-binding referenda on lakefront expansion, too. To get a sense of how things went, I meet Philip Bernstein. Bernstein owns a lake-side condo in Edgewater.

BERSTEIN: Did you take a look at what I sent you?
ALLEE: I did ....

Bernstein's talking about election results he'd emailed to me.

Bernstein's ward, the 48th, voted on lakefront expansion last fall.

BERSTEIN: And the argument Tranter's used is that the only people who don't want the project are the people who live right on the lakefront. Fifty-four of 55 precincts voted against it and that includes precincts that aren't on the lake. That thoroughly rejected that claim.

A referendum in the 49th Ward got similar results.

Opponents also worried park expansion might include an extension of Lake Shore Drive, something Friends of the Parks says it does NOT support.

BERSTEIN: There's no democracy involved with this. This is just a small group of people trying to impose their views on everyone - no matter what the costs no matter what the negative impacts.

Ultimately, Chicago's government and federal regulators would have final say on lakefront park expansion.

These non-binding referenda? They're just isolated statements of opinion.

BERSTEIN: I would be willing to have a city-wide referendum on this issue. Common sense would tell you that if someone was living in the hinterland in as far removed from the lake as you could get and the question was posed to them - you know they're gonna vote against it.

ambi: street traffic up

Well, to get a very non-scientific sense of what could happen, I head to Garfield Park – it's about 5 miles west of the lake.

I find people lining up at a corner fruit stand.

About half of the people there felt like this guy, who goes by the name, "Willie."

WILLIE: I'm for the idea to make it all public.
ALLEE: Why is that?
WILLIE: Just to enjoy Chicago. Period. The beauty of it all, whether it be on the lakefront or in the inner city. We ought to be able to walk it and just enjoy it. Period.

For every person like Willie, I find another person who feels like Lantina.

Lantina says she'd feel bad if lake-side homeowners suddenly found new parks outside their windows.

LANTINA: You might be looking for a quiet day and you got all this noise, the people being loud, being rude, disrespectful. People don't want to be around that all the time, I mean, no.

For the record, Friends of the Parks says it'd welcome a non-binding referendum.

Tranter says an internal poll predicts they'd win, so they'll keep pitching lakefront park expansion regardless of the pushback.

TRANTER: We would not be the city we are today if people had that attitude, 'Why...did we not have enough? Did we have enough when we had six miles, did we have not have enough when we had 10 miles?' And the answer was always, NO, because the city grew great by having a public lakefront system.

I'm curious how Burnham would see today's democratic back-and-forth over his democratic lakefront.

Dr. Carl Smith say's he's not sure, but in Burnham's Plan, one thing's clear. 

SMITH: In the whole rhetoric of the plan there are only winners. Everybody wins. It is a top-down plan but planners really thought they had looked out for everybody in all of these things.

A century later, Daniel Burnham's vision might still inspire, but the rhetoric about there being no losers – that might be relic of his time – not ours.