“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.
“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.
“…That 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.”
“Forgive us, then, 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)