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image: Campus NewsHyde Park residents no longer afraid of missing the Point

When the Chicago Park District announced in January its plans for retooling Promontory Point-the landscaped peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan just north of the Museum of Science and Industry-local residents were outraged. Chicago newspapers ran ominous headlines like "Storm Brewing Over Point" and "Residents Threaten 'War' Over Park Site."

The $22 million project-part of a $35 million effort by the Park District and the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild eight miles of Chicago's lakefront -provoked the community's anger for a number of reasons focused around two central themes. First, the community's input over the previous year of planning had been all but ignored. Second, the project to replace the deteriorating revetments that hold back Lake Michigan was, they felt, over-engineered, incorporating larger and more industrial-looking structures than were necessary.

The Park District had proposed closing the Point for two years to replace the deteriorating limestone blocks that descend like steps into Lake Michigan with a concrete revetment significantly higher than the average water level-making entering and exiting the water difficult-and constructing two soccer-field-sized drainage gaps, one on either side of the peninsula, to handle water overflow.

All of these steps were necessary, insisted Park District representative Bridget Gainer Kirby, citing low water levels during the past 30 years as the culprit, damaging the wood pilings that hold the limestone boulders in place and keep the shoreline from eroding. Without the proposed concrete revetment, Kirby said, the Point would be swallowed by the lake.

But residents did not want their beloved landmark to become what Hyde Park Historical Society President Alice Schlessinger called "an ugly construction that looks like an industrial harbor or a military installation." After the January meeting, a community task force was formed to examine the Park District's plans, to suggest changes to the project, and if its complaints went unanswered, to find other ways of stopping the construction.

"There will be a storm of protests here," warned de facto spokesman Peter Rossi after the task force was formed. "We will try to block the construction by any means necessary. It will be impossible for [the city] to build this thing without making concessions."

In March, Rossi, MBA'80, PhD'84, the Joseph T. Lewis professor of marketing and statistics in the Graduate School of Business, created a comprehensive Web page (gsb-www.uchicago.edu/ fac/peter.rossi/more/Community_Point.htm) outlining the Park District's proposal as well as the task force's suggested changes. "The Park District is taking the same design they use everywhere and wrapping it around the Point and providing no water access whatsoever," said Rossi in mid-April while the city was reviewing the task force's suggestions. "Our view is that that would irreparably destroy the Point as a recreational place and as a thing of beauty."

The controversy brought Chicago students and local residents together in a battle over common ground. Annika Weckerle, a third-year economics concentrator, visits the Point at least once a week to run, study, or hang out with friends. "If you go there late at night after it closes, people spring up like mold," she says. "It is not limited to U of C students. It's a place for the whole community."

The Point is a familiar feature to any Hyde Parker who's ever walked through the 55th Street pedestrian underpass and emerged on the other side to find a Prairie School-style field house resting on a meadow of lush green grass. Part of Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan of Chicago, the Point was developed in the 1920s and landscaped in 1937 by Alfred Caldwell, a noted architect and professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. What makes the Point special, say the residents who frequent it, is its continuous edge of stratified limestone, allowing them to walk right down into the lake. Although swimming isn't officially allowed, the rule is often ignored, and summer days are witness to swimmers, kayakers, windsurfers, and people who sit on the edge and dangle their feet in the waves.

Access to the water was one of the central concerns of the task force-"a dealbreaker," as Rossi put it. Residents also requested that the new steps be made of or clad in limestone to preserve the current aesthetics, and that the revetment be lowered or the bike path that runs through the Point raised to maintain the current view of the lake. With the help of Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, the task force gained concessions from the Park District over the course of discussions in March and April-such as an agreement to keep as much of the Point as possible open during construction-but was still adamant about issues such as water access and aesthetics.

After months of uncertainty, almost 200 Hyde Parkers gathered May 2 at the Oriental Institute to hear Park District Superintendent David Doig and City Environmental Commissioner Bill Abolt put forth a revised proposal that incorporated many of the residents' suggestions.

The Point's revetment will now be rebuilt in two phases: the north half will be closed for construction starting this fall through 2002 and then reopened when the south half undergoes construction in 2003. The original limestone will be reused to build two 300-foot stretches of steps leading into the water, much like the current steps, while the rest of the revetment will be constructed in textured concrete to give it the appearance of natural stone. The remaining limestone will be used to construct "toe berms"-steps that rest just below the water's surface-all the way around the peninsula so residents can more easily climb into the lake from any point along the revetment.
In response to concerns that the project had been over-engineered, the Park District lowered the revetment wall and reduced the size of the drainage gaps by as much as 75 percent. The revised plans also call for raising the bike path to ensure an unhampered view of the lake.

One change that was not asked for was the setting aside of a designated swimming area along the peninsula's southern edge. The area will be marked by a line of buoys extending 150 feet into the lake from the 57th Street beach to the east end of the Point. Lifeguards will be posted along the south shore during the summer to monitor the designated area. Although lifeguards have been posted along the Point before to respond to emergencies, this is the first time the Park District will officially allow swimming there.

For the most part the task force is satisfied with the concessions, even though the unavoidable use of concrete will make the Point look less natural than it does now. Rossi is cautiously optimistic: "We got what we asked for, and we got it in writing," he says. "But now we have to turn to implementation. This will not be over until the construction is finished."-C.S.

 

 


 JUNE 2001

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