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
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