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When Betsy Otto went to work for Openlands Project in 1990, one of the first things she was asked to do was testify at a Chicago City Council meeting about a dispute over the building of high rises along the lakefront. Protecting the Lake Michigan shoreline is routine stuff for urban conservation organizations like Openlands, but for Otto the arguments and the forum were new. Her coworkers helped her prepare testimony about the number of people who benefit from an open lakefront and its historical importance to the economic development of Chicago. She recalls that when it came her turn, she read the document word for word, then headed with relief to her seat.

"Just a minute," said one of the aldermen, motioning her back to the microphone. "Do you think Lake Point Towers is ugly?"

Otto wasn't sure what to say, but she recognized a setup when she heard one. The Mies van der Rohe building had nothing to do with the issue at hand or her testimony. "No, it's not ugly," she began to say.

The alderman cut her off. "See? Buildings can be built along the lakefront that aren't ugly."

Advocates for open land believe that in a world brimming with things created by human beings--office buildings, houses, cars--we need some empty places. It's that simple. But explaining why emptiness is important requires a willingness to defend the value of blank space, of nothingness. This isn't exactly the best way to win support from elected officials: becoming the Big Kahuna of Nothingness won't win votes. So environmentalists couch their arguments in easily understood numbers. "This is how many species of wildlife live there. This is how many people can be expected to use the land if it's protected as a park." Though pragmatic, this approach does little to advance the essential point: that the open space in an urban area is not always an emptiness waiting to be filled. People need empty land where they can be alone and reconnect with nature.

The reluctance of environmentalists to emphasize this concept in the face of their opponents' facts, figures, and profit motives results in conversations like the one between Otto and the alderman. Instead of understanding her testimony as a defense of open space, the alderman heard it as opposition to a specific proposal. Apparently he thought that if he persuaded her high rises on the lakefront could be attractively designed, she would agree that it was OK to build more of them. For Otto, even if the building were a masterpiece its simple presence would eliminate the nothingness she wanted to maintain.

A similar problem now exists on Chicago's northwest side. A developer wants to build on a 16-acre tract of open land near Foster and Pulaski, one of only a few remaining pieces of natural floodplain left unprotected on the Chicago River. Gompers Park is on the tract's southern edge, LaBagh Woods to the west, joining it to 25 miles of forest preserves along the North Branch. North Park Village and the abundance of cemetery land also contribute to the strong open character of this section of town. The neighborhood has a wealth of nothingness.

Norwood Builders plans to buy the 16 acres from Saint Lucas Cemetery and erect 20 single-family homes and five buildings with 260 condominiums. The nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River learned of the proposal a few months ago and immediately objected. They want to see the still open edges of the river remain that way. The local North Mayfair Improvement Association also objected. They believe there are enough buildings in the area already. They chose to live there because of the open land surrounding them.

In 1991 and '92 the association battled the building of a Jewel store adjacent to the 16-acre tract. They lost. Today you can see immediately why they fought it. The enormous store is way out of balance with the landscape. And with it came a Burger King, a BoRics, and a Blockbuster Video, which form an L around a huge blacktop parking lot. As if to rub in the defeat, the builder took the name of the community; a big sign calls the despised complex "North Mayfair Commons," as though the parking lot were the town green. If the housing development goes in, Norwood Builders plans to call it River's Edge.

After the Friends of the Chicago River and local residents objected to the proposed development, Norwood Builders modified its plan to address some of their concerns. The concessions were appreciated, but they weren't enough to win over the opponents. In November they testified again at a meeting of the Chicago Plan Commission.

The odd thing was that they focused on points that had little to do with what they regard in their hearts as the central issue. They didn't argue that the land is more valuable in its current open state than with buildings on it. They didn't focus on whether the development should be built, but on how it was planned. They questioned whether the wall that supports the bank of the river could support the weight of the fill that would be added to build a road. They pointed out that the flood-control plans hadn't taken into consideration the fact that the downstream bridge is supported by two pillars that frequently clog during storms.

Yet these technical questions were sufficient to delay the development. The commission postponed a decision on whether to allow it to proceed until Norwood presents formal answers.

This delay allowed the Forest Preserve District to consider buying the property from Saint Lucas Cemetery. Here we come to another instance of having to rely on numbers and empirical data to determine an aesthetic and philosophical issue. The district has a rating system for property it's considering, with numbers assigned according to the land's ecological quality, its importance to existing preserves, and so forth. It's a practical method, intended to prove to taxpayers that their money is well spent. But it also impedes the district's ability to make a quick decision when a piece of land people know in their guts is important is in jeopardy.

If the district decides it wants the land, Norwood Builders will drop its plans. If the district decides it doesn't, the Chicago Plan Commission will hear Norwood's answers to the technical questions, then rule on whether the development can proceed. By January 13 these decisions will have been announced.

It is possible the commission will decide the developer's answers aren't good enough and nix the project. But this seems unlikely. Norwood has the money to invest in hydrologists who can come up with solutions.

The Friends have a volunteer hydrologist willing to examine Norwood's answers. Yet protesting more about engineering details may be a little bit like a kid at bedtime saying he's thirsty, then hungry, then needs a certain toy, when what he really wants is not to go to bed at all. This doesn't mean the Friends' objections are spurious, just that they don't address the real issue.

Things aren't set up to allow a fair fight to settle the fate of vacant land. Plan commissions, zoning boards, building inspectors--the whole system is geared to approve development, not to evaluate the balance of open space and the built environment.

If an endangered species or something spectacular lived on the land at Saint Lucas Cemetery, other considerations would kick in. But ecologically the land isn't all that hot. It's not old-growth forest with endangered spotted owls. It doesn't hold the largest oak in the midwest. There are no last-of, biggest-ever, most-special reasons to save it. All of which makes it an interesting test of the value our culture puts on open space for its own sake.

This is not to say there aren't practical reasons why it's a good idea to have buffers of protected open space along rivers. Natural floodplain gives storm water a place to go where it won't damage property, helps filter pollutants before they reach the river, and provides corridors of habitat for wildlife. But it's a shame the environmentalists and local residents can't simply say they want the river corridor protected because it is right for it to stay open.

It was drizzling snow as I hiked through Saint Lucas Cemetery the other day, past the graves to the wild land at the back by the river. The place is pleasing in the way open land typically is in Chicago. It has a few big oaks, including some swamp white oaks, which seem particularly fond of the far northwest side of the city. I don't know why, but I don't see them much elsewhere. The understory is a jungle of common plants like teasel, Queen Anne's lace, and tall goldenrod. A lot of deer droppings lay in the path.

None of this is remarkable. But in one of the places where Norwood Builders would like to put a house, there's a small wet area. It's too big to call a puddle and too small for a pond. It was frozen when I was there. Encased in the ice below my feet were white oak leaves. Some were set deep into the black ice. Some were barely covered, their tips curling through the surface of the ice. They were part of an ordinary northeastern Illinois woodlot. But they were part of something that shouldn't be wiped out without sound reason and clear intention.

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