Friday, November 20, 2009

Audience Mostly Underwhelmed by Northerly Island Plans

Last week a meeting was held in the Loop at the Spertus Institute (610 South Michigan Avenue) to talk about the future of Northerly Island.  As community meetings go, this one was unusually heavily promoted, even receiving publicity on the local radio and television stations.  WBBM-TV sent a photographer.  About 400 local people also showed up and what they saw they didn't seem happy with.

What they saw is termed the "Northerly Island Framework Plan" -- a joint project of the Chicago Park District, JJR, Studio Gang, AES, AREA, Fish Transportation Group and Studio V. The audience listened as the Park District's Gia Biagi, Second ward alderman Bob Fioretti, and others talked about Northerly Island's past and present.

The history of Northerly Island and the midnight raid on the old Meigs airport are well documented.  Since then, the Chicago Park District has been busy.

  • The runway has been removed
  • 400 new trees have been planted
  • 35 acres of prairie have been planted
  • 35 acres of open lawn have been planted
  • 9,000 linear feet of new pathways have been built
  • The old terminal building has been turned into a field house

And of course, there are the concerts at Charter One Pavilion.  Those net the Park District $1 million a year.

There have been a number of ideas for Northerly Island collected from the public over the years.  Boxes and boxes of them, according to the presenters.  Those suggestions have been filtered down into five basic themes:

  • Change the lake-facing shoreline 
  • Change the harbor-facing shoreline
  • Hack the island into several smaller islands, or add more small islands
  • Add ponds to the island
  • Replace the bridge from the World's Fair that once connected the middle of the island to the mainland.

Of course, with any modern park there are environmental concerns.  But more importantly, what was heard loud and clear is that people don't want another Millennium Park -- Disneyfied and overrun by tourists.  What the people who live in the area clamored for is an oasis of peace and calm in the city, but one that also has activities year round.

Four plans were presented at the event, each shaped by concerns like creating natural habitat, maximizing views, and utilizing existing infrastructure (transportation, utilities, etc…).  of the four, only one got much chatter -- the one called "Chicago."

In this plan, the word "Chicago" in all lower case script is carved into the shoreline, visible from the air and presumably passengers in jets leaving O'Hare headed east.  It is the most interesting plan of the four, though all four seemed to be just variations on a single theme.

The Chicago plan envisions using beaches, dunes, grass, and even an extra picnic island to spell out the letters along the shoreline.  There would also be a lift bridge connecting the island to the mainland, a fishing point, a simulated river estuary, a duck pond, tidal pools, a fish cove, a deep water swimming area, an art island, a nature center, a kayak venue, and even a power plant converting biomass into energy.

Yes, it's gimmicky, but by comparison the other ideas were so banal and predictable that this seems like genius by comparison.  It certainly would create a landmark that would garner worldwide attention, though a few saw that as a bad thing.  They said it seemed "tacky" and inspired by the Palm development in Dubai, rather than an original Chicago idea.

Another proposal is called "Clocks."  It also features fish ponds, a pebble beach, a rugged coast, a harbor walk, canoe and kayak center, and a pier bridge.  The idea is that the island would be constructed and planted so that different parts of it would be "activated" at different times of the year.  You could tell what time of the year it is based on where the activity was happening and what the plants were doing.

There is also a "Reef" proposal.  It features five different aquatic experiences.  Essentially, Northerly Island would be broken into a series of smaller islands with coves, marshes, duck ponds, a river habitat, and the kayak center that popped up in every one of the plans.

The final one is called "Viewfinder" and was intended to maximize views of the Chicago skyline.  Its natural elements include a rubble beach, a few pocket beaches, wetlands, and a lazy river loop.  There wold also be a Great Lakes educational center, a fishing pier, and elevated portions to really encourage people to look back upon Chicago's proud skyline.

Now, all these proposals are only that -- proposals.  The audience was told that these are only starting points, and much more input would be gathered from them and others before a final vision is settled upon.  In fact, after the presentations the audience was broken into color-coded groups and sent to work at tables placing green and red stickers on things they liked and disliked.  They were expected to sit at the tables and work on these projects and then move to the tables as a group until they managed to circle the room.

Because the people in attendance were adults and not children about half of them headed to the elevators instead.  I really didn't want to criticize the organization of this meeting, but it was really poorly done.  From the very beginning, people who arrived more than ten minutes ahead of the announced starting time had to wait in the lobby of the building because the high-tech elevators weren't programmed to go to the meeting room floors after hours.  It was a bad sign.  Once people were finally allowed upstairs it wasn't much better.  Four hundred people were asked to sign in at two tables, write their names on name tags (I used a fake name), and then jostle for position viewing a series of posters that were arranged around the room in no apparent order, with no context given to each other displays, and in some cases displays that were on the floor.

The name tags should have been the second indication that something was wrong, and it only got worse as newly minted starchitect Jeanne Gang failed to show up and appeared only via low-quality heavily-edited video.

You cannot call an event where half the audience leaves in the middle a success.  But at least it served its main purpose -- to give people an idea of where Northerly Island stands and where it is  going.  The proposals have made people think more about the future of the lakefront and hopefully those thoughts will be translated into action.

How representative the feedback the organizers got can be debated.  To only just begin the feedback process at 8:30pm on a weeknight and to try to gather it in a fashion reminiscent of a summer camp arts and crafts class is going to limit who you're going to hear from.  To be blunt, the best and brightest have other things to do and headed for the doors.  Perhaps if the event started on time a question and answer session would have keep them around.  Or perhaps they could have been given an e-mail address where they could submit their ideas after they've had a few hours or days to mull things over.

Organizational problems aside, it's good to see something happening with Northerly Island.  It is one of the most valuable raw resources the city has and what becomes of it affects all of us.  Hopefully the feedback provided by those who did stay will help move things in a more focused direction, and we won't have to wait 20 years for results.  Northerly Island shouldn't become "Block 37 By The Sea."


  1. I have to agree with the citizens, none of these plans are very inspiring, and several are just poorly designed. The bridge might be nice though, it's a long island and it would be nice to get back to the other side of the harbor another way.

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  3. Much in opposition to everything else in this ersatz critique, I found most of the plans exciting, inspiring, auspicious, and indeed powerful just for the possibilities they envision. The one with "chicago" carved into the shoreline was plain hokum, but the reef proposal verged on palpable genius, and the other two, by comparison, were of mixed merit but offering good ideas regardless. It's true that many people in attendance couldn't see any of this (like the author of the critique), but that had to be their shortcoming--none so blind as those who will not see.

    This is what will happen: Northerly Island will exemplify the environment like Millenium Park exemplifies the arts--and on a far larger scale. It's a shame that the poor souls who couldn't see this in the proposals will have to wait years to realized what the missed.

  4. @sqartz, Your meta-critique was pretty lame. Criticism 101: Address the message, not the messenger.

    You admit that the people in attendance didn't like what they saw. Thank God you were there to recognize palpable genius when the unwashed masses couldn't. They're so ersatz.

    I recommend getting your sanctimonious ass off of your high horse and trying to wrap your brain around the fact that not everyone thinks the same way as you. The world is better off for it.

    I'm fairly confident that the people who came up with the "chicago" plan don't give a crap if you think it's hokum.

    And, "Hokum?" Seriously? Who are you, the ghost of Paul Harvey? The 1800's telegraphed. It wants its Prairie Schoolhouse Reader back.


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