Pet projects won’t restore the Great Lakes


Gary Wilson


One thing you know when you live in Chicago, the city tends to get what it wants, protocol and prudence be damned.

That was evidenced last week in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that Chicago’s Northerly Island would undergo an “ecological restoration … as the park becomes a new urban camping hub for families, children and at-risk youth.”

Some background before we dissect.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley (the son) had long wanted to convert Chicago’s lakefront airport on a spit of land called Northerly Island to a nature area. (It’s actually a man-made peninsula.)

Of course there were hearings and the semblance of a process but in 2003 Daley was tired of process. As was his style, the runways were bulldozed in the middle of the night and the airport was no more. The stage was set for Daley’s nature in the city concept and it happened.

The result:  A 2009 Chicago Park District video says that Northerly Island has “unparalleled access to nature…. a huge prairie… and is home to thousands of migrating birds.” The video highlights nature programs for kids, touts the bike paths and says Northerly is a “peaceful place.”

Midnight raids aside, Northerly’s conversion to a natural state made sense.

A questionable city airport is converted to a natural area with an emphasis on introducing urban kids to nature – a great outcome. The former mayor gets to buff up his conservation legacy and his vision is realized.

End of story, right? Not quite, this is Chicago.

Chicago wanted more and an upgrade of already restored Northerly comes with a price tag of $4.3 million. Interdependent ecosystems will be added and longer-terms plans call for underwater observation cameras and a sunken ship for divers.

High-profile architect Jeanne Gang will do the long-term design work and she told the Chicago Tribune “.. it’s like a picture of what the city was like before the city was built.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is leading the project and will do the construction. Makes sense, the Corps likes to build things. But how to pay for it and that’s where it gets interesting.

Washington has money

Chicago faces a huge budget deficit and has been crying poor to its unions during contract negotiations. How could it justify a multi-million dollar expenditure for Northerly during a budget crunch, especially since it said the island already provides “unparalleled access to nature?”

Why not look to Washington and the federal government which happens to be where Mayor Emanuel worked before becoming mayor.

Result: the feds will provide $2.8 million for the project.

The city will kick in $1.5 million with the money coming from revenue from the already existing corporate-sponsored rock concert venue on Northerly.

Sorry, I neglected to mention the 8,000 seat Charter Bank Pavilion billed as “Chicago’s greatest live music venue” in this promotional video with “VIP parking steps from the door.”

Why rock concerts in a nature-centric “peaceful area” where kids will camp you may ask? I can’t explain it as the city has plenty of concert venues. It has to be about the money.

That $2.8 million will come from the Great Lakes Fisheries Ecosystem Restoration via the Army Corps of Engineers. A check of the Corps’ presentation on Northerly Island says Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money will be used which is administered by the USEPA under an interagency agreement. The Great Lakes Commission’s tracking of restoration funding lists $2.35 million for Northerly.

Got that labyrinth of a money trail?

I found it hard to believe that Great Lakes restoration money would be used for Northerly Island.

The city already said the site has a huge prairie and is full of migrating birds. It’s not abandoned brown fields. Isn’t restoration money supposed to be for sites that actually need to be restored? Not ones in good shape like Northerly Island?

I asked the USEPA Great Lakes office in Chicago for the basis to use restoration money. The press office referred me to the Army Corps.

The Corps’ project manager Kirston Buczak did not address my statement that Northerly is already in a restored state and after the initial work its primary use will be for camping. That’s a worthy cause but not Great Lakes restoration.

Instead she responded that “the Northerly Island project is a premier project because it will restore 40 acres in the heart of Chicago with close proximity to the museum campus and Navy Pier which are popular tourist attractions.”

She also said the “project will create six habitat types that existed before the Chicago metropolitan area was developed.”

That’s interesting because restoration is not designed to return an area to pre-settlement conditions, according to the USEPA’s action plan.

Buczak confirmed the use of restoration money but didn’t address specifics except to emphasize that it wasn’t a grant and required some local funding.

Chicago Park District spokeswoman Zvezdana Kubat did not respond to specific questions about the justification for spending federal funds on Northerly or if other funding sources were pursued. She referred me back to the Army Corps and indicated that it’s their project.

Chicago isn’t poor

Chicago may have a budget problem but it isn’t poor and it is creative. Its successful Millenium Park has corporate sponsors like Chase bank which sponsored a three block promenade called, yep, Chase Promenade.

Mayor Emanuel prides himself on developing public-private partnerships and that’s part of his plan to fund Chicago’s infrastructure needs. Surely his corporate buddies could come up with a few million dollars to help at risk kids experience nature.

Chicago is also the city that until this year required the mega-festival Lollapalozza to pay no taxes as chronicled by Chicago Public Media’s Jim DeRogatis.

Yet it’s tapping federal coffers for $2.8 million to have the Army Corps enhance an already existing nature area.

For perspective, compare Northerly Island to Detroit’s 982 acre Belle Isle in the Detroit River.

First, Belle Isle a real island a stone’s throw from our Great Lakes neighbor, Canada. It has a heritage dating back to the French in the early 1700’s and is ten times the size of Chicago’s Northerly. It has approximately 400 acres of natural environment.

In other words, it has gravitas, a sense of place with a history. It needed restoration help. These are all things that Northerly Island lacks.

Yet it received only $1.9 million in Great Lakes restoration money versus the $2.8 million funneled to Chicago.

None of the principle parties I contacted — USEPA, the Army Corps of Engineers or the city of Chicago —  tried to justify the Northerly project based on necessity.

That says it’s someone’s pet project and that’s not Great Lakes restoration.




6 thoughts on “Pet projects won’t restore the Great Lakes

  1. Pingback: Northerly Island | Speaking Fails

  2. Yes Gary, it is a mystery, but then, bureaucracies do have a way of putting roadblocks in the way of investigations and diverting investigators down dead ends. Just be glad it isn’t a bridge to nowhere.

  3. Good article Gary, thanks for bringing this to light. Sounds like a great point with regards to Belle Isle as a comparison. It seems like these funds are kinda use em’ or lose em’ right? For that reason I feel that sometimes projects are taken on that might not otherwise see the light of day or make sense. In that Chicago has so much going for it as a city, it seems like a positive feedback loop – get more going, get more money, find more ways to spend money – all while Detroit seems to experience a negative feedback loop in the same way. I do however like the idea of restoring native ecosystems that exissted pre-Chicago expansion, and this to me does sound like “restoration.”

  4. Defining ‘restore’ is in the eyes of the political beholder. This is not the first time definitions have been stretched to divert Federal funds. For example, the GLRI funding was supposed to be for ‘restoration’ initiatives, but is being raided big time for the Asian carp issues before the carp even get to the Great Lakes. The carp money should have come from other sources. Thus, this is just Chicago politics as usual for the Northernly Island project.

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