Northerly Island revamp kicking off

Park district, Army Corps of Engineers collaborating for first step of ambitious master plan

08/01/2012 2:00 PM


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This fall, the Chicago Park District and the Army Corps of Engineers are kicking off Northerly Island's rehab from a flat former airfield to a topographically varied nature preserve. The first phase of the project will tackle the south half of the existing park.

Above, a rendering shows what the park could look like when all phases of the renovation at Northerly Island are finished someday.

Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago Park District

Click here to see what'll be built in the first phase of the project.

Northerly Island, the lakefront park in the South Loop formerly known as Meigs Field, is getting a big makeover that could begin as soon as this fall.

The Chicago Park District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working together to kick off renovation of the park, transforming a former airport with a flat layer of grass and prairie plants into a varied nature preserve that’ll offer six different ecosystems.

To build it, they’ll follow the Northerly Island Framework Plan, an ambitious road map developed in 2010 by MacArthur Genius Grant-winning architect Jeanne Gang and landscape architecture firm JJR.

This first batch of work will be on the southern half of the island, and is expected to last about five years from start to end — one to two years of construction, followed by about three years for the new plants and habitats to take hold.

Different areas of the island will open as they’re ready, according to the Army Corps’ project manager for Northerly Island, Kirston Buczak.

“We’re working with park district to minimize the amount of time the park will be closed,” she said. “As soon as we can, after the grading’s done and we plant, we’ll be opening the site up and fencing off the areas where the public can’t walk until the plants are established.”

The basics of the renovation will be completed essentially by picking up the earth that currently comprises the south part of Northerly Island and moving it around, turning the very flat former runway into a nature preserve with varied topography.

The six different levels will be landscaped into different ecosystems that’ll change as they move from high to low, each level harboring different plant and wildlife.

The highest level will be an oak savannah, below which will be a dry-mesic prairie. Below that will be a wet prairie and then emergent marsh, surrounding a 4.1-acre pond in the center of the island. The pond would be four feet deep and connect to Lake Michigan through a narrow channel, but a fence would attempt to block invasive species like Asian carp from entering.

No work would be done to Northerly Island’s eastern coast, facing Lake Michigan, but on its west coast facing Burnham Harbor, a new underwater habitat would be built for species that rely on rocks and underwater vegetation to spawn — two things that are scarce in this part of Lake Michigan.

“It would be typical of what you would see in Chicago over a much larger physical footprint,” Buczak said.

The project’s total budget is $6.65 million. Funding will come from two federal grants and $1.5 million from the park district’s coffers.

Buczak said the park district reached out to the Army Corps to work on the project when they realized it might be a good fit for one of the Army Corps’ grants, the Great Lakes Fisheries Ecosystem Restoration program.

“We work with park district on some other projects, and through discussions, you know we’re always seeking out good ways to be involved in projects and they’re always seeking out good funding sources,” she said. “Since we work together, there’s always opportunities to find out what kind of projects the park district is working on.”

Right now, the Army Corps and the park district are finishing up the planning process, and they expect to start seeking a construction company in September, to be picked by October.

When construction begins will be up to the contractor, Buczak said. Depending on the weather, construction could start this fall, but it should be under way by spring of next year at the latest.

This is only one piece of the Northerly Island Framework Plan, and a small one by comparison. The plan also calls for a substantial amount of work to be done on the island’s east coast, including a small chain of islands that would protect a reef and lagoon.

The price tag on that part of the project could be 10 times what the first phase will cost, Buczak said.

“The corps is undertaking a study to look at the coastal islands, and that’s a much larger dollar amount that goes through a different process,” she said. “Because it’s such a large project, that could need $50 to $100 million, and we would need congressional authorization in order to participate.”

The first phase of Northerly Island renovations, above, will shuffle the park’s now-flat soil to create five different ecosystems at different elevations, as well as a new underwater habitat off the shore.
Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago Park District

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By George from Lincolnwood
Posted: 09/28/2012 1:32 AM

Concert venue someone mentioned? Yes, it has one of those. To notice this, it would help to look at more than rendering of the plan. Put a Casino? Yes, cut and paste what every other successful city is doing and then you\'ll get something like Cleveland, the lands in which they are cutting and pasting what every famous city is doing and now actually creating something. Jeanne Gang is actually following up on Daniel Burnham\'s 1909 plan, so it will be even a little part of history.

By chicagojo from West Loop
Posted: 08/07/2012 4:28 PM

I like it how it is now, too. The most peaceful spot in the city! This plan could be good, if well-executed. However, I don't think the park needs it. Put the millions of dollars to build new parks elsewhere. Or- better yet- repave and widen the crumbling lakefront path.

By Want More on Plan from Wicker Park
Posted: 08/06/2012 3:19 PM

From someone in Wicker Park, I'd love to see NI fixed up - it seems a waste of prime park space right now. I'd like to know more about this plan, though. There must be a reason for all the different ecosystems beyond adding topography - wildlife habitat? are the existing invasive? are they creating good fishing opportunities? And, yes, a casino here is a horrendous idea.

By RRLedford from Pilsen
Posted: 08/05/2012 2:26 PM

Why must we turn what is already a peaceful and elegant space to retreat to from the hustle-bustle of the city, into a Disneyland of artificial mini-ecosystems. What is wrong with a single ecosystem that is just the way it is now? These landscape artists just want to pack 20 pounds of crap in a five pound island. I say keep is simple. Will there be glass bottom boat rides on the lagoon, so we can see all the cool stuff underwater? - NOT? IMO, a huge wast of $ that will trash what is good now

By Larry
Posted: 08/03/2012 10:17 PM

I think this place is a natural fit for the Children\'s Museum and it should be moved here by the rest of the museums. Leave Navy Pier for the tourists.

By sandeman from south shore
Posted: 08/03/2012 4:57 PM

This is exactly what Chicago needs and I look forward to bringing my children there. The present state of NI is nice but there is so much more potential. I feel we are doing the right thing by enhancing the island. Jeanne Gang, a Chicagoan, has the vision to make this an incredible place. Being a consistent visitor of 12th St Beach, walking through Northerly Island is a great escape, no doubt... but it can be so much more. Watching NI grow over the decades will be so exciting!

By Westlooprealist from West Loop
Posted: 08/03/2012 2:56 PM

I know we cannot say anything negative about Emanuel becuse the media and this paper especially is in love with him, but the only people who will make out here are those contractors who donate to Emanuel. If you think anything else, you are stupid. This city is for Emanuel and his cronies only--if you disagree with him--you get destroyed. He isan arrogant hypocrit like Obama and hopefully he will be a one termer.

By BR from Loop
Posted: 08/03/2012 9:31 AM

Each individual is entitled to his or her opinion but I find the comments regarding a casino/hotel to be gut reactions and short sighted. As Chicago continues to develop its natural features into attractive destinations, such as treating its river water so that the Chicago River is seen as a recreational magnet and not a sewer, I see this as a natural progression and enhancement of another of Chicago's natural features.

Posted: 08/02/2012 12:28 PM

I find all the artificial nature to be, quite frankly, silly and a waste of time. Make it look like a manicured, man-made, elegant urban park or leave it as is.

By Chicagoan from Wicker Park
Posted: 08/02/2012 12:23 PM

Fellow Commentors: What are you smoking? The vision for Chicago is a lakefront of protected park space. This is one of the things that makes this city unique and remarkable. A casino would be terrible there. Why would you put something like that so far away from people? Put it next to McCormick place in motor row along with a hotel or three. The music venue is not only remaining, it is getting upgraded. Read the plan. An airstrip is just dumb. Huge security risk.

By Robert from Portage Park
Posted: 08/02/2012 12:09 PM

ANOTHER damn park?? We already have Billionenium Park up about something that will pay a world-class casino/hotel?

By Keelin from New Eastside
Posted: 08/02/2012 11:26 AM

This looks to me like a solution in search of a problem. It's a nice prarie bike/walking path on the lakefront. It need be no more than that---especially for 6.5 mildo!

By Scott Stribrny from Homer Glen
Posted: 08/02/2012 9:54 AM

Also see "Parks and Planes: A Vision for Meigs Field and Northerly Island. "

By EHF from South Loop
Posted: 08/01/2012 8:59 PM

It appears that the people who plan these things have no idea what residents like. We love the outdoor music venue and sitting on the lawn, Ravinia style, listening to music with the city as a backdrop. The place is beautiful, leave it alone. Pay teachers and police and leave the park as is. If you really need to spend the money, put in a politician petting zoo. For $5.00 you can pet Alderman Fioretti's hair.

By Dick johnson from River west
Posted: 08/01/2012 5:46 PM

Forget the marsh, let's put a Casino on that Island. ......

By ralph c. frese from northwest side
Posted: 08/01/2012 4:28 PM

Chicago needs a world class maritime museum to showcase our history from discovery in 1673 to the present. Seated astride the continental divide, we have a river history, a Great Lakes history, and bridging the two, our canal history. In the 1880's we were the busiest seaport in the US. None of our present museums can dedicate much space to thie wonderful story and Northerly Island located on the harbor, in the middle of the museum campus, is the ideal site. Wake up, Chicago!

By CMunoz from Wicker Park
Posted: 08/01/2012 3:22 PM

Without this project how will the City of Chicago be able to extract tax payer dollars to pass out to all their contractor friends!

By M from SLoop
Posted: 08/01/2012 2:41 PM

Screw that! I like it as it is now: a beautiful, wild-flower filled flatland that's ideal for fast biking.