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Dome idea: the rise and fall of the inflatable lakefront driving range



A half year later, city and Park District officials are still struggling to adequately explain how an illegal seven-story golf driving range was allowed to be constructed in the parking lot at Wilson Avenue just east of Lake Shore Drive.

"It was an administrative error," says Shawnelle Richie, press spokesman for the Park District; "a mistake," says Dan Weil, commissioner of the city's Building Department; "an administrative goof," says Reuben Hedlund, chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, the mayor-appointed group that maintains Chicago's architectural, neighborhood, and lakefront integrity.

The fact is that one day late last August it was there--a 210-foot fiberglass-fabric inflatable dome--much to the consternation of passing joggers, cyclists, soccer players, frisbee throwers, kite fliers, dog walkers, stargazers, and park activists.

"The Lakefront Protection Ordinance specifically says that you can't build on the lakefront without the Plan Commission's approval," says Erma Tranter, executive director of the Friends of the Parks, a not-for-profit watchdog group. "The Park District knew that because we had told them; my God, you'd think they would have known it anyway. Yet they put the dome up without Plan Commission approval."

After Tranter brought the matter to public attention in September, Park District officials--looking a little foolish--deflated the dome and then officially asked for Plan Commission permission to reinflate it. But on March 14 the commission ruled against them, thus ending the district's well-intended plans to offer winter golfing (or at least winter golf driving) on the lake.

The decision left Laurence Coleman and Greg Evans, who own the dome and had hoped to operate the driving range, a little dejected. The project, they told the Plan Commission, depleted their life savings, about $750,000. Now they might have to spend even more money carting the dome (now a large piece of canvas stretched across the parking lot) away. (Despite repeated phone calls, Coleman and Evans could not be reached for comment.)

"It's either an example of arrogance--of Park District officials thinking they can do whatever they want with their parks--or incompetence," says Tranter. "Either way it looks bad, and it shows how careless Park District officials are about one of our most valued resources: the lake."

The brouhaha goes back to 1988. Coleman and Evans--a banker and a businessman--devised a plan to take advantage of the public's growing love affair with golf, and went to the Park District with an offer. In return for a piece of the revenues, they would erect and operate from November to April an inflatable golf driving range somewhere on Park District property.

Park District officials loved the idea. It would attract residents to the park during the winter, as well as raise money and help affirmative-action efforts (Coleman and Evans are black). After looking at other sites, they settled on the Wilson Avenue parking lot (at least a quarter mile from the nearest residence) as an ideal location.

"It was a win, win, win situation from word go," Robert Nelson, the Park District's superintendent of special services, told the Plan Commission at the March 14 meeting. "The Wilson Avenue parking lot holds over 600 cars; it's a vast broken-down parking lot that's only used in the summertime. We would be increasing access to the park."

In addition, he argued, the golf dome would discourage drug dealers, car thieves, and other hoodlums from congregating in that section of Lincoln Park. "If you establish a presence in a high-crime area, you can eliminate crime," Nelson said.

To win public approval, Nelson and former Park District general superintendent Jesse Madison encouraged Coleman and Evans to meet with nearby residents and concerned citizens. That's how Tranter first heard of the proposal.

"A subcommittee of our board met with Coleman and Evans in late 1988 and we liked much of what they had to say, though we had our concerns," says Tranter. "We wanted the dome to be operated for no more than one year at first, because we didn't know what it would look like. We also wanted them to offer golf lessons for underprivileged kids in the area. Looking back, our big mistake was not asking them for the dome's dimensions--we had no idea what it would look like."

A few weeks later Tranter got an idea, when she drove by an inflatable golf driving dome in Detroit. "I couldn't believe how enormous it was," says Tranter. "I had thought, 'Well, they'll cover the dome by planting trees around it.' But once I saw this other dome on the side of the highway, I knew that there was no way you could cover something so huge."

Back in Chicago, Tranter asked for the dome's dimensions and learned that it would be roughly the size of a seven-story building. "It would be like putting a big ugly blimp right on the lakefront," says Tranter.

Coleman and Park District officials reminded Tranter that the dome would be at a good distance from the actual lakefront, that it would be situated on a parking lot where it wouldn't destroy a single blade of grass, and that it would be carted away each year come May.

"That's not the point," says Tranter. "It would be so unsightly. Whether Park District officials realize it or not, this is a heavily used section of the park. It's one of the few stretches of green in Uptown. Once the weather gets warm you have hundreds and hundreds of soccer players--most of them Hispanic--coming out to play on the soccer fields near Wilson. They should not have to look at this dome."

Despite opposition from Friends of the Parks, the Park District board voted in April 1989 to install the dome. "I told them right then and there that they would need Plan Commission approval, and that we would oppose them," says Tranter. "I wasn't ready to give up the fight."

Yet more than a year passed, and the matter was never brought before the commission. "I put it out of my mind," says Tranter. "I thought Coleman and Evans couldn't get their financing to build the dome."

Then one day last August, Tranter's office was flooded with complaints. "We started getting phone calls from people all over the city who wanted to know why a dome surrounded by a ten-foot fence was going up at Wilson Avenue," says Tranter. "I called Nelson and said, 'What's going on?' He said, 'They're going ahead with the dome.' I said, 'You have to go to the Plan Commission.' He said, 'It's not my job to send it to the Plan Commission; it's [another Park District official's] job to send it there.'"

After a little investigation, Tranter discovered that the Park District had gone so far as to obtain a building permit that allowed the dome to be erected and underground heating and water pipes installed.

"It is my understanding that we didn't know we had to get Plan Commission approval," says a Park District official who asked not to be identified. "It's a law, but it's seldom followed. Beyond that, the whole thing was complicated by the fact that the city of Chicago issued a building permit. If anything, the mistake was over there."

Building commissioner Weil disagrees. "The Lakefront Protection Ordinance does not fall under our department's jurisdiction," Weil says. "We approve building plans. If we grant a permit, that does not mean that applicant can automatically build. He still needs the approval from other appropriate entities--which, in this case, would be the Plan Commission.

"As I understand it, someone from the zoning administrator's office personally walked the applicant in this case to the Planning Department, where they were told that the dome needs Chicago Plan Commission approval. Why after that they still didn't go to the Plan Commission, I can't tell you. They might have thought that because it was Park District property they were exempt. I just don't know."

When the story of the snafu broke, Nelson and other Park District officials immediately reassured Plan Commission members that the oversight was unintentional.

"I have no idea why they didn't come to us in the first place; they didn't volunteer the information and I didn't ask," says Reuben Hedlund of the Plan Commission. "I've never seen this kind of lack of intergovernmental cooperation before, but this sort of thing is bound to happen from time to time when there are so many commissions and agencies to deal with. I am satisfied that there was no intent to circumvent the Plan Commission."

A hearing was scheduled for November, but Nelson asked for a delay. The matter was finally heard in March.

The first speaker was Planning Department official Richard Wendy, who opposed the project on the grounds that it would "substantially diminish openness in the area." Next up was Nelson, who said, "One thing I won't discuss is how we got into this permitting mess. I don't think it's appropriate."

Instead he talked about his concern for the plight of "Joe Sixpack," or the common man--"This was an idea that would satisfy the growing need for winter golf recreation, so the average Joe can get out there and whack some balls"--as well as the proposed dome's intrinsic beauty: "This is a dome, and domes are beautiful; [they have] a feeling, an ambience, that is enticing, even pleasing to the eye," Nelson said.

Then Coleman spoke. "We used all of our resources on this project," he said. "Three hundred thousand golfers want to see it happen."

After thanking Coleman and Nelson for their comments, the commissioners voted five to one against the proposal. "This would have a negative impact on park ambience," says Hedlund. "I have sympathy for the investors, but we have to think about the impact on the lakefront." Park District officials say they may work with Coleman and Evans to find another site for the dome. But it won't be at Wilson and the lake.

"This whole episode underscores the fact that many Park District officials still don't realize the importance of the lakefront," says Tranter. "Chicago is Chicago and not Kansas City because we have a lakefront that is forever open and free. Every time a proposal comes along to build something on the lakefront the proponents say, 'Come on, it's only one little proposal.' But all the little proposals add up, and if we give in, one day we might discover that all those little proposals have destroyed the very thing that we most want to preserve."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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