THREATENED: The Chicago Lakefront A 2021 Chicago 7 Most Endangered


The Chicago Lakefront, 26 Miles of Scenic Lakefront Parks & Public Spaces, In Perpetuity Since 1836, by Olmsted & Vaux, Nelson, Simonds, Burnham, Atwood, Bennett & Others. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Chicago Lakefront: Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
North Lake Shore Drive: The Chicago Lakefront, 26 Miles of Scenic Lakefront Parks & Public Spaces, In Perpetuity Since 1836, by Olmsted & Vaux, Nelson, Simonds, Burnham, Atwood, Bennett & Others. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky
Promontory Point: The Chicago Lakefront, 26 Miles of Scenic Lakefront Parks & Public Spaces, In Perpetuity Since 1836, by Olmsted & Vaux, Nelson, Simonds, Burnham, Atwood, Bennett & Others. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Jackson Park: The Chicago Lakefront, 26 Miles of Scenic Lakefront Parks & Public Spaces, In Perpetuity Since 1836, by Olmsted & Vaux, Nelson, Simonds, Burnham, Atwood, Bennett & Others. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
South Shore Cultural Center and Grounds: The Chicago Lakefront, 26 Miles of Scenic Lakefront Parks & Public Spaces, In Perpetuity Since 1836, by Olmsted & Vaux, Nelson, Simonds, Burnham, Atwood, Bennett & Others. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
South Works: The Chicago Lakefront, 26 Miles of Scenic Lakefront Parks & Public Spaces. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, 1971, C.F. Murphy and architect Gene Summers in 1971. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky
Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, C.F. Murphy and designers Gene Summers and Helmut Jahn, 1971, 23rd Street and the Chicago Lakefront. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky
Lakeside Center at McCormick Place, C.F. Murphy and designers Gene Summers and Helmut Jahn, 1971, 23rd Street and the Chicago Lakefront. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

“Forever open, clear and free” aligns with the spirit of a core American ideal, and almost appears to reflect the words, expression and thoughts of the Founding Fathers of our Nation.

Yet this quote in its fullness “Public ground”—“A common, to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstructions,” was an early ideal and vision of our City’s earliest pioneers and legislators, to protect the Chicago Lakefront and to insure it was accessible to the public. Dating to a year before the City’s incorporation in 1836, this forward-thinking vision was adopted by our City and State, and land was set aside in Chicago for parkland, greenspace and open space near the early lakeshore to be enjoyed by all. In theory, this larger concept is a very democratic ideal.

However, after more than a century of additions and parkland improvements along the lakeshore, recent years have brought various changes and proposals to the Chicago Lakefront which have raised a new awareness of and genuine concerns for this most amazing resource. These extend from the Lakefront sites proposed for the 2016 Olympics which would have adversely impacted almost all of Chicago’s parks, and eliminating thousands of old-growth trees, while adding stadiums and other ancillary structures, to the additions to Soldier Field. Also extending these same adverse and harmful ideas to proposals such as the relocation of the Children’s Museum in Grant Park and the Lucas Museum in Burnham Park.

The proposed 20-acre Obama Presidential Center on the Lakefront in Jackson Park poses a special burden on this tenet of “forever open, clear and free.” We have a remarkable president whose roots are connected to Chicago, and we welcome a center named in his honor located in Chicago. However, the Jackson Park proposal for the Obama Presidential Center would result in a clearing of 20 acres of trees, parklands, recreational facilities and ball fields, many for children, to an expansion and widening of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue, and impacting more than 400 trees to be cut and discarded. There is the possibility for the loss of more trees, wildlife habitats and migratory flyways for this development, along with roadway expansions and incursions into Jackson Park at both the east and west perimeters of the park. In reality the roadway closures adversely impact other areas of the park, where closed roads are replaced with new asphalt surfaces, thereby widening other nearby streets and Lake Shore Drive.

While Preservation Chicago welcomes the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago and to the South Side, we are of the opinion that nearby private non-parklands would be a more appropriate site for these large structures and this new presidential complex. We also acknowledge that the Chicago parks have fallen into terrible disrepair, with many buildings needing extensive repairs, and in some cases even complete reconstruction to address long-deferred maintenance. It often appears that parkland giveaways have become a remedy for reinvestment in our neglected parks and portions of our Lakefront, which is really tragic, as these should be priorities to protect, maintain and steward in perpetuity.

Also alarming and of great concern on the Chicago Lakefront are proposed plans for revisioning and an overhaul of North Lake Shore Drive, one of Chicago’s most beautiful thoroughfares. The overhaul plans would rethink the lakefront from Navy Pier near Grand Avenue at the south to Hollywood Avenue at its northernmost border. The project is called “Redefine the Drive: North Lake Shore Drive,” with studies conducted by both the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Chicago Department of Transportation(CDOT), has the potential to destroy and ruin many of the unique characteristics of this world-class boulevard and drive.

The Lake Shore Drive redefining proposals have included such concepts as removing many of the historic overpasses and bridges, with their scenic vistas, undulating and rolling perspectives as they rise and fall over the dramatic panoramic views of the downtown buildings, the parks and Lakefront. This proposal also extends to the straightening of many of the gentile curves, while also adding vast areas of landfill and high berms, which will often obscure views of Lake Michigan for motorists. It also proposes widening the thoroughfare in certain locations and an underground tunneling of huge areas of the drive from Navy Pier to Oak Street Beach along with some areas to the north. The tunneling for automobile traffic is equivalent to a deep and wide dry riverbed set within a depression in the earth, and it is more akin to sections of Interstate I-90 and I-94–the Dan Ryan Expressway, and I-290–the Eisenhower Expressway than a boulevard fronting parklands and Lake Michigan.

Other sections of Lake Shore Drive will be expanded, with medians and their planted trees cut and removed, shrubbery and perennials lost, and parkland and greenspace incursions in Lincoln Park for new and expanded entry, exit and bus ramps. Preservation Chicago is of the opinion that everyone should have the experience of Chicago’s parklands — whether by walking, jogging, bicycling, or even driving in an automobile. These parklands and Lakefront lands are special to all of us no matter how they are enjoyed in many various ways and experiences.

Yet these public lands and spaces are often looked upon by some as vacant lands expendable for private development when indeed these are developed lands as public places and recreational environments. Some of these lands have been dedicated to the public for more than 150 years, and most all of them for over a century. These are sacred places that belong to us all as a place of refuge, reflection and recreation. These parklands and shoreline allow for a break from our daily lives, and to once again commune with nature — refreshing and energizing one’s spirits. Unfortunately, these same public and sacred grounds are also subject to political giveaways and gifts by elected officials for pet projects, sometimes to the highest bidder. Instead, we should be converting more private lands to public and using air rights over rail yards to expand these parks and lakefront lands, and if necessary, build new museums and facilities on newly created parkland sites.

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 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 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 amount 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!”

Read the full Chicago Lakefront article from the 2021 Chicago 7 Book including history, threats, and recommendations at


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