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An Airport for the Birds

Attracting herons, terns, and ducks will require banishing two squawking species that already claim the island as their natural habitat: government workers and corporate hotshots.

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Now, from the mayor who wanted to plunk a huge airport down on top of stinky, half-dead Lake Calumet, comes another airport idea that's for the birds. This time in only the most positive way.

Mayor Daley has given his official nod to the idea of shutting down tiny Meigs Field in 1996. Daley the occasional ecomayor has let his circle know that he'd like to see migratory birds flitting among sand dunes, wetlands, and native grasses on the 73 lakefront acres the airport now takes up. But attracting herons, terns, and ducks to the area entails shoving out two species that already claim the land as their natural habitat: government workers and corporate hotshots sprouting cellular phones from their ears.

But neither of those groups is on anybody's endangered list, and so far they haven't done much to convince Daley and his ilk that they ought to be allowed to stay. All the top city administrators who have anything to say about the land are on the birds' side--or at least on the side of replacing Meigs with some kind of park, natural or otherwise. So are several civic environmental, planning, and architecture groups. They're all behind the idea of shutting the airport and they're pushing hard. You may hear a loud splash sometime in the next two years.

The only commercial scheduled flights through Meigs Field, which sits just south of the Adler Planetarium on a 70-yearold peninsula of lake fill that was originally parkland, go to Springfield or Lansing, Michigan. Most of the flights are unscheduled private or chartered ones. In the early 1960s Meigs boosters crowed that the single-runway strip was busier than any airport of any size on the European continent, but today Meigs is such a pip-squeak that during all the talk about another airport a while back few people remembered that a new facility would actually be the city's fourth airport.

The Chicago Park District owns the ground under Meigs, but has been leasing it to the city for 48 years. The lease is up in 1996, and Daley says he won't renew. With support from him and the city's parks, aviation, and environmental overlords, Meigs's yield looks like a sure thing. The biggest obstacle is a familiar one: money. Another is the airport's uncanny staying power; in the past few decades it has survived repeated attempts to shut it down.

Nobody can say just yet how the city would cover the cost of developing a major new slab of parkland. But with two years to go before the lease runs out Daley has his people talking to Washington and Springfield, and many of the ideas coming from the park pushers include tramways, museums, and other additions that might pay their own way. "I think it'll become a park, but what kind of park is the $64,000 question," says Chicago Parks Superintendent Forrest Claypool. "That is a product, to a great extent, of funding--whether state and federal dollars come in." But, he says, "if the mayor is committed to the natural look, there is a high likelihood that's the way it will go."

Daley has changed his mind in the past. (Did your street become a crime-free cul de sac?) But the park lovers around him are doing what they can to build so much momentum behind the dream that even a Daley turnaround couldn't slow it down.

"When 1996 comes, if we don't have a game plan ready, nothing will happen," says Eleanor Roemer, staff attorney for the Lake Michigan Federation, an organization dedicated to the health of the lake. "The idea is to get the public thinking about visions for that land. If anything, you need to start planning for the cost, so you need to start talking about it early." Last winter and earlier this spring Roemer's group and Friends of the Parks hosted a batch of discussion sessions and presentations by architects on replacing Meigs with a park. Then came a contest sponsored by the Chicago Architectural Club that asked for ideas from civilians. In the meantime Daley and his commissioner of the environment, Henry Henderson, have been hitting up state and federal parks agencies for possible help with funding.

There's no consensus on what kind of park ought to succeed Meigs if it goes. But the one thing that's certain is that the chance to return the land to its original use is an opportunity nobody involved wants to sleep through.

"This is the most important decision for the lakefront for our generation," says John McManus, the Park District's planning supervisor. "In Chicago it's always Burnham, Burnham, Burnham. Let's see if this generation can answer his call." In the now-holy Plan of Chicago he cowrote in 1909, Daniel Burnham specified that a series of natural looking recreation islands were to be built in the lake between downtown and Jackson Park. The only one that ever materialized, Northerly Island, was built in the early 1920s and later turned into the peninsula that is now the site of the Adler Planetarium, the Burnham Harbor Yacht Club, and Meigs Field. Of the three, the airport least matches Burnham's vision for Northerly Island.

Some park boosters see returning Meigs to parkland as a fulfillment of the even earlier charge of the three early planners of the infant city of Chicago who wrote on the lakefront section of a map in 1836 that the land there was public and must "remain forever open, clear and free." Meigs is a public facility, but it's actually quasiprivate; only people lucky enough to get to ride in a private plane or unlucky enough to have to visit Lansing, Michigan, or Springfield use it. "Redeveloping Northerly Island as a natural setting would be the next iteration of what we have all inherited," Henderson says. "It would be a huge step forward for what has been given to us by earlier generations of Chicagoans."

Henderson also believes uprooting the concrete and returning Northerly Island to its intended use--recreation--would be an important symbolic act. It would generate public support for more natural spaces in Chicago's parks and remind everybody that Grant Park is a park, not a highway median--a fact that seems to have been lost in the noise of traffic racing along Lake Shore Drive, especially since the old double turn at the north end of the park was eliminated in the mid-1980s. "Straightening the S-curve emphasized the use of Lake Shore Drive as a high-speed highway," Henderson says. "This would be, in counterdistinction to that, a commitment to our open-space inheritance."

Henderson is Daley's legman on the Meigs conversion. Like others in the city administration, he's not yet ready to assume Northerly Island will get a park, but he's willing to be confident. One key reason is that there's very little public opposition. Governor Edgar said last September he wasn't convinced Meigs should go, but he hasn't said much about it since. Paul Beitler, a major downtown developer, said on John Callaway's Chicago Tonight show that he likes Meigs. But so far no organized opposition has materialized to battle the half dozen groups--among them the Openlands Project, the Sierra Club, and the Near South Planning Board--hoping to clear the park-conversion plan for takeoff. "I haven't heard any loud voices in support of Meigs, other than politicians who don't want to be inconvenienced by flying into Midway from Springfield," Claypool says. "And nobody has any sympathy for politicians."

A Chicago lobbyist who uses Meigs two or three times a week when the state legislature is in session and who asked not to be identified says the lack of opposition comes from disbelief. "I can't imagine Meigs would disappear without some kind of fight, but the reality of the change hasn't set in yet. Nobody has grasped yet the reality that it might close. Do we really need our 4,350th park in Chicago? Meigs is a very accessible, very useful airport. We feel like we're on the wrong side saying we want to maintain it as an airport. It's hard to fight the greenies--they're on the side of God."

Not to mention the mayor; the parks chief and his boss, Park Board president John Rogers; and even the city's top airport guy, aviation commissioner David Mosena. "Some aviation people don't want to give up any concrete, but we've never heard a compelling case for continuing to keep Meigs open," Mosena says, effectively closing the buffalo ring of city administrators surrounding Northerly Island. Mosena and his deputy commissioner, David Suomi, both believe the traffic load at Meigs can be easily shifted to Midway, O'Hare, and the region's little airports, in places like Gary and Aurora.

Mosena says that compared to the two larger airports in town "Meigs is a blip on the screen." In 1993 30 million flyers left O'Hare on commercial flights, and another 4 million kissed their families good-bye at Midway. That same year commercial flights out of Meigs carried about 26,000 passengers; another 7,000 flew on a nine-passenger state-run shuttle for top state employees. Small private corporate and charter planes made 46,750 takeoffs and landings. There's no tally of how many people were on those flights, though the planes generally seat fewer than two dozen people. This small number of flights makes Meigs look like a squished bug on O'Hare's windshield.

The people who use Meigs do so because the airport is so convenient. Phil Keener, treasurer of the Manitowoc Company, a Wisconsin-based maker of ice-cube machines and other big equipment, rode the company's plane into Meigs three times in 1993. His company will ferry five to ten people a day to a big restaurant trade show at McCormick Place, a four-minute cab ride from Meigs (if you don't count the 15 minutes or more it sometimes takes for a cab to show up at the stand). "It's so convenient to fly into Meigs," Keener says. "If we had to fly all those people into O'Hare or Midway, you're talking another hour each way. That's inconvenient, so we wouldn't bring all those people in for the show."

State transportation secretary Kirk Brown said last year that closing Meigs would siphon off potential business for McCormick Place, which is in the process of being plumped up. But Mosena doesn't expect the city's convention business to take a big hit. "For big trade shows there is an uptick in the number of incoming flights, but it's not our belief that we'll lose trade shows without Meigs. The volume of flights lost would not put a damper on the convention business."

The unidentified lobbyist says, "Meigs is right downtown--you can hop over there from your office in the Loop in no time and catch a flight. If it goes, I'll have to fly out of Midway. I can't imagine doing that very often." Sadly, the halls of the state capitol would be short one glad-hander.

Meigs doesn't make any money either. The city spends $760,000 to operate the airport each year and gets about $395,000 back. The $365,000 deficit is covered by revenues from the other airports and by taxes. Yet Mosena says the city's financial loss isn't a major issue. "The mayor's vision of parkland on that site is what's driving the decision."

Daley's dream of watching birds and kids splash around where his father used to go fishing is a pretty one, but it isn't the only idea for how to use Northerly Island if Meigs closes. Several big-name architecture firms rolled out their own ideas this spring at the urging of Friends of the Parks and the Lake Michigan Federation. They range from romantic to weird to extremely weird, but none of them advocates putting casinos or a permanent Taste of Chicago there. Daley has repeatedly said he won't put casino boats on the lake, and a Taste place wouldn't work because there's only one narrow road onto the peninsula. "I don't think anybody would take the idea of putting a festival ground out there seriously," Claypool says. "There's an increasing movement to recognize the natural habitat in urban areas. People want to see more of it, and on a unique piece of land like that you ought to do something exotic."

Whatever goes there, the park pushers agree, it has to be distinctly different from the rest of Grant Park and Burnham Park because the ground is so different. "There's no reason to make it an extension of the existing parks, because it is physically already set apart from the rest of the city and the lakefront," says Edward Windhorst, an architect with DeStefano and Partners. "It's unlike any other piece of the lakefront in Illinois, so it comes with the potential to be completely unique in the urban area."

Randy Deutsch of Lohan Associates adds, "No matter what you do there, you're doing it by getting rid of the airport--so you have to justify that by doing something that isn't already on the lakefront. Not another golf course or more lawns."

Among the schemes that have been suggested:

A nutty one by Walter Netsch that takes advantage of the much-discussed rerouting of Lake Shore Drive. He suggests, among other things, roofing over Soldier Field to create a massive waterfall and creating wetlands on Northerly Island. Using William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis as his guide, he would also create a new museum that focuses on Chicago's natural history.

A plan by the Park District's McManus that would also take advantage of the hypothetical rerouting of Lake Shore Drive to create a campus setting for the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium--which would allow the museums to create new open-air exhibits.

An idea the DeStefano and Lohan teams came up with separately that could placate aviation fans and keep costs down: turn the airport into an aviation museum. Admission charges would cover some of the conversion cost--and keeping the runway would slash the price of eliminating Meigs. (The rubbery pizza slices sold in the Meigs terminal taste more like museum exhibits than food anyway.)

A Lohan idea that would divide most of the peninsula into 77 one-acre plots, one for each of the neighborhoods in Chicago. People from each neighborhood would design and maintain their acre--but they would have to fund it too. "One of the problems is going to be that the park has to be easily implemented," says Lohan architect Terry Wendt. "Don't make the city go running after funding. This plan would rely on a lot of funding sources." It also smacks of passing the buck: if the city can't afford to build a park, let a bunch of pieces of the city do it instead.

Unless somebody devises a sneakier way to shift the financial burden, the cost of developing a park is likely to become the touchiest issue. Park District estimates show that "minimum park development"--which would include digging up the runways and planting new grass, but not one tree--would cost about $8.2 million. Fullscale park development could run as much as $48 million. Nobody's saying yet where that money would come from, but Henderson and Daley have started flirting with the National Parks Service, hoping the feds will split the bill.

Money questions aside, the park forces are poised to snatch the land out from under Meigs Field. It's actually nothing new. For 60 years somebody or other has been trying to grab it.

Shortly after the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition ended its two year run on the near-south lakefront and Northerly Island, Mayor Ed Kelly announced a $15 million plan to create a permanent Chicago fair on the island and, 1,600 feet east of it in Lake Michigan, a big new island with a city airport. The press went bananas, because Aaron Montgomery Ward's decades-long fight to keep the lakefront from going commercial was still recent history. The Daily News dubbed the idea "Mayor Kelly's sand-sucker project" and "the Island Airport Tumor."

Singing a Depression-era refrain that has echoes today, Kelly promised the plan would create more than 1,300 jobs during 21 months of construction. Even so, he couldn't convince the federal Public Works Administration, headed by Chicagoan, lakefront fan, and secretary of the interior Harold Ickes, to cut a check for the project. Ten years later, in August 1946, Kelly finally landed a smaller version of his plan. It had no new island and no Chicago fair, but a new airport would go on the old island. It was called Merrill C. Meigs Field, after a pioneer Chicago pilot and aviation executive, though a more appropriate name might have been Rodney Danger Field, considering how little respect it has gotten for the past 40 years.

In 1958 a major city planning report said Meigs would become obsolete when a transportation center complete with a helicopter port was completed west of the Loop. Mayor Daley pere unveiled the present terminal building in 1961, but just two years later he stalled a $1 million expansion and later openly endorsed the idea of closing the airport altogether. Parks people started calling for shutting it down as soon as the Stevenson Expressway was finished, on the theory that driving to Midway would now be fast enough for most travelers.

Calls to get rid of Meigs surfaced every two or three years throughout the 60s and 70s. One time the argument would be that closing Meigs would revive the ailing Midway. Another time it would be that parkland had to be added to replace the big chunk that had been plowed under for the construction of McCormick Place. It was suggested as a site for the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. In 1973 closing it was going to fill a hole in the city budget. Aldermen made careers out of moping about Meigs Field, but nobody ever quite managed to dislodge it.

Several times the anti-Meigs forces appeared to be sprinting for the finish line when suddenly, almost imperceptibly, the wind changed. No matter who lined up against it, the airport managed to outlast the competition. So don't plan a birdwatching expedition to the Richard M. Daley Migratory Waterfowl Sanctuary just yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.

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