Chicago Lakefront National Park Coalition
Preservation Chicago supports a commitment to the Chicago Lakefront and its many parks, realizing that this is a very special feature of Chicago and a gift to its citizens which is to last in perpetuity. We continue to be grateful for these amazing parks and the great asset of Lake Michigan, its shoreline mostly “forever open, clear and free for all.”
In the future, the laws protecting the parklands with the “forever open, clear and free to all, without obstruction” regulations in downtown Chicago, specifically Grant Park and elsewhere, should be extended to include protections in perpetuity to the entire Lakefront and Lakefront parks system.
We realize the challenges in managing the vast Lakefront lands, and we want to encourage partnerships realizing the costs associated with this massive endeavor. To that end, we want to encourage the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to pursue a national park designation for the entire Chicago Lakefront. Chicago can partner with the National Park Services to continue the legacy of protecting this precious resource for the enjoyment of all. Such an idea could lift and share the burden of maintenance of these sacred grounds, providing much-needed repairs to many of the park buildings and structures.
Some structures in Jackson Park, like the Daniel Burnham-designed Comfort Station on South Lake Shore Drive near 67th Street, are in a state of near total collapse. The Comfort Station’s roof is buckling and partially collapsed, with its concrete columns delaminating. Another Comfort Station, to the immediate south of the Museum of Science and Industry, is without a roof. Its massive fieldstone walls have been covered in blue tarps for more than two years. This is a sign of a lack of funding and resources to the parks, the long-term impacts of Tax Increment Financing projects and their unintended consequences to both our schools and our public lands and Lakefront.
The idea of a national park partnership and shared responsibilities for these vast Lakefront parklands would allow for improved maintenance, less privatization of recreational lands and facilities, and access to more funds for new parklands in communities across Chicago. This concept would also free up funds for park programming and services for people of all ages.
The concept of a national park designation within the city limits of Chicago could be a huge asset, much like the Pullman National Monument on the City’s South Side potentially drawing additional tourism dollars to our city, which in turn supports both small and large businesses alike. National parks have a tremendous volume of visitors each year to different sites across the nation. The Pullman National Monument–a planned industrial development and community important for its links to architecture, planning, labor history, African American history and Civil Rights, along with railroad history–is expected to draw 300,000 annual visitors when the former Administration and Clock Tower Building opens as a Visitor Center in the coming year. It would be a tremendous resource for Chicago to have two national parks within its borders, recognizing the significance of these public lands fronting one of the world’s largest freshwater resources, Lake Michigan.
Recently, the Indiana Dunes State Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore became one of our most recent national parks. After years of talk and discussion by numerous politicians and scholars, — including United States Senator Paul Douglas, United States Senator Paul Simon, University of Chicago botanist Henry Cowles, and local resident Dorothy R. Buell of the Indiana Dunes Preservation Council — the Indiana Dunes National Park was realized. This national park stretches along 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan and includes 15,000 acres of beaches, lakefront, dunes and forested area, just 25 miles from Downtown Chicago.
Such ideas should be embraced for the Chicago Lakefront National Park. This could also encourage the former South Works-United States Steel Sites, now a vacant brownfield site, to be transformed into an extension of Chicago’s legendary Lakefront parks. It would fulfill a great obligation and long-term vision with the National Park Service and the Federal Government to assist in the clean-up of this former steel mill and industrial site. It would return these now-toxic land into a public amenity for the people of Chicago and its visitors.
Similarly, another toxic site exists near the mouth of the Chicago River, where it meets Lake Michigan, located close to Navy Pier in Downtown Chicago. This area of land has been promised to be developed into parkland for many years, and named in honor of Chicago’s first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste DuSable whose home was once located nearby. Recently, developers of several large high-rise building projects, near this site have been tasked with making this toxic brownfield a public park. However, to date those plans have not materialized. However, a U.S. National Park designation may provide the funds required to realize this vision honoring DuSable.
Preservation Chicago embraces the idea of converting, rather than demolishing, the Lakeside Center at McCormick Place into a Mid-South Side Fieldhouse and Cultural Center. Such a concept would engage this little-used convention center into an indoor extension of the Chicago Lakefront recreational areas and part of the Lakefront Trail. The large glass-walled halls could serve a variety of recreational programs, from indoor running tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and include both indoor and outdoor cafés and restaurant service.
As an alternative option, the large glass-walled convention halls with views of the Lakefront and Chicago skyline could also be used for large cultural exhibits, much like the aviation museums of a similar scale in Europe. The lower-level convention halls of the base plinth structure of the Lakeside Center could be repurposed for aquatics, perhaps containing Olympic-sized swimming pools, that could overlook Lake Michigan. Adding windows in the brick walls could transform spaces into additional training facilities, gymnasiums, and community rooms.
All of this could be coupled with a reactivated Arie Crown Theater—the City’s largest theater space—to join the building together as a “Mid-South Bronzeville Cultural Center.” The rooftop of the Lakeside Center, measuring the size of three football fields, could contain a running track, outdoor recreational facilities, a green roof and perhaps a solar-cell network to provide power for the facility. The same could also hold true for the plinth and outdoor platform area, adjacent to the large glass-walled convention rooms, and hold cafes and restaurants, health and wellness classes and be considered an extension of the Lakefront parks. Such ideas would foresee this building as perhaps the world’s largest fieldhouse and cultural center, all under one roof, in a building of great architectural significance.
Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, when constructed, was comparable in both its architectural and engineering achievements to the City’s tallest superstructures like the Sears Tower and John Hancock Building. It was designed by the seminal firm of C. F. Murphy, notable for many large buildings including the Chicago Landmark Richard J. Daley Center and Plaza, and under the direction of architect Gene Sommers and Helmut Jahn.
It is a remarkable structure, which has the possibility to be one of Chicago’s greatest Lakefront assets and turning what was a building on the Lakefront for conventions into a year-round fieldhouse and cultural facility—an extension of the Lakefront parks under roof. Such ideas would be revolutionary for the Mid-South/Bronzeville/Douglas Community and perhaps even more popular than Millennium Park. It would be in the vein of the famous Daniel Burnham quote: “Make no little plans!”
By The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
Mar 12, 2021
“Among the stern pandemic tutorials of 2020: Without full access to Lake Michigan’s wonderful waterfront, Chicago is a more cramped, less enticing place. Like Tennessee without the Great Smoky Mountains, or Wyoming without Yellowstone.
The abrupt shutdown of the lakefront during the coronavirus contagion was sure to be temporary. Only certain stretches remained blocked until recently. But losing part of this city’s soul should mean more than missed bike rides. Beyond the barricades and police cruisers lay a menacing peek at a Chicago with its front yard a deserted fringe.
“Think of it as a valuable preview: If over time Chicagoans let buildings and projects that sound beneficial limit broad public access to the lakefront, the still life of 2020 gradually could return. A more restricted shoreline would be a damning memorial to modern generations that, incursion by incursion and restriction by restriction, allowed people with money and clout to say Keep Away.
“Fortunately a new and respected voice is rising to warn about threats to the Lake Michigan waterfront. In its latest annual list of the city’s most endangered buildings, the advocacy group Preservation Chicago placed the lakefront — obviously not a building — right at the top.
“‘(The lakefront) frames our downtown,’ says Ward Miller, the group’s executive director. ‘It gives us breathable space. It protects us from those rough days on Lake Michigan, and it’s really a spectacular attribute to Chicago that makes our city special. But we continuously see issues with giveaways of parklands, privatization of parklands. We really think this is not a good place to be.’
“Preservation Chicago’s recommended solution should be a conversation starter: Turn the entire lakefront into a national park. That designation, says the group, would protect the lakefront from further development, attract federal dollars for upkeep and — a factor that caught our eye — reduce local politicians’ role in decisions about lakefront land use.
“We would want to know much more the implications of the national park notion before endorsing it. But we applaud Preservation Chicago for pointing up the threats to what’s arguably this city’s most valuable natural resource.
“If Chicago squanders this gift … highlights the recurring problem with each generation’s bright ideas for developing the lakefront: Many proposed projects do have broad appeal. And, yes, each generation of Chicagoans — including each generation of local politicians — likes to leave its bold imprint.
“But always remember that the only reason today’s citizens can debate the lakefront’s future is that for almost 200 years, this city has generally stuck to principles that would defend the lakefront for future centuries of Chicagoans. That defense has meant repeatedly denying the grand dreams of well-intentioned civic leaders. Every proposal has some glossy allure; we’ve noted before that no one ever will propose a sheep slaughterhouse for Grant Park.
“Remember, too, that no other U.S. metropolis features an oceanlike waterfront buffered from a towering cityscape by such a necklace of open spaces. Special protections have stopped influential people and civic groups from overwhelming that lakefront expanse with their worthy-sounding pet projects.
“The pols often cave to the sales pitch that ‘just this one more exception’ won’t harm the lakefront. But to look at all the construction already permitted there is to realize an unpleasant truth: Obstructions accumulate. The presence of structures such as the Field Museum makes the open space that remains all the more vulnerable to ‘just this one more exception.’
The lakefront is an irreplaceable gift. If Chicago squanders it, that diabolical phrase — ‘just one more exception’ — will be its epitaph.
“Forgive us if we don’t salute when the Park District frets that converting the lakefront to national parkland would diminish local control. That’s the point: If City Hall were a reliable steward, ready to fight each proposed encroachment and to create more public access, the lakefront’s future wouldn’t be in doubt.
“So we’re glad Preservation Chicago has started a conversation about permanently protecting some of the most rare and valuable urban real estate on earth. We hope Chicagoans will defend it for centuries to come.” (Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, 3/12/21)