Working with the Lake
A reprise of sorts of the much longer, and better, report on the problems caused by rising Lake Michigan water levels that I did for the Reader, which appears HERE
If you can't beat the lake, bury it.
That, in short, is the prevailing advice from the leading geological experts who have studied the rising tide. Charles Collinson is principal geologist for the state's Geological Survey. "Any overall plan," he says, "will have to look at landfill to push the lake back."
It would be nothing new. Real-estate development has always had a literal meaning in Chicago. Natural forces have continually swept pieces of bluffs and beaches from areas up north down to the city's shoreline. This example inspired Chicago's human builders from the start. Most of the city's 29-mile shore is manmade, including Lincoln, Grant, Burnham, and Jackson parks and Northerly Island. Grant Park was born in the 1870s when lake water began licking at the foundations of the then mayor's house on Michigan Avenue.
Fending off the lake along most of the city shore would be a fairly simple process. One need only pile on another layer or two of sandbags at the shoreline. Earthen berms would give extra protection to the existing shore, with the berms in turn protected by fortifications of riprap or terraced stone. The effect would not always be elegant. Neither would it be cheap: Early estimates put the cost of minimum repairs to existing revetments along the Chicago Park District's shore alone at $200 million to $230 million, with more permanent improvements costing perhaps a billion dollars.
But for certain other parts of the shore—the two miles along Sheridan Road, and another two miles on the South Side, between 31st and 47th streets—even more elaborate restructuring will be needed. The scope of what might be necessary was contained in an ambitious plan for the South Side announced by park district president Walter Netsch last fall. Among other things, he called for a rerouting of Lake Shore Drive and a quarter-mile breakwater that would be built offshore to protect a restored beachfront.
All of that seems a mere bag of shells compared with the needs of the northern lakefront along Sheridan Road. The conditions there call for nothing less than a massive landfill that would extend north from Lincoln Park to the city line. Such a project would not pose much of a challenge to engineers: The lake is a scam 25 feet deep or less and sits atop a hardpan bottom that could support new terra firma. As for the land to be used foi the fill: Clean, low-cost material is available in considerable—even inconvenient—amounts in and around Chicago. Millions of cubic yards of mostly limestone spoil still litter the banks of the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Calumet Sag Channel. More rocl is being unearthed by Deep Tunnel excavators from such places as the 28-mile section beneath La Grange.
But while fill for the project may be plentiful, public funds are not. The cost of even a minimally protective landfill along Sheridan Road has been estimated at $500 million. Netsch—for certain tactical reasons, one suspects—didn't put any sort of price tag on his South Side project.
If, indeed, government is ready to come up with the sort of multibillion-dollar bill necessary to do the job, the project must pull some double duty. Says Charles Shabica, a coastal geologist at Northeastern Illinois University, a member of the mayor's Shoreline Protection Commission, and head of the independent Lakefront Task Force, "Lakefront construction must be more than functional." Shabica envisions a project that will leave the lakefront "not only protected, but enhanced."
Those enhancements could be lagoons, and additional parks and marinas—all of which would add significantly to the quality of life in the city and to the value of the once-threatened lakefront property. Chicago planning commissionei Elizabeth Hollander has described the high-water threat as an "opportunity" to rethink some basic questions about the city's use of the lake. Indeed, having seen one lakefront built and then botched by the addition of convention halls and high-rises and expressways, the lake may be generously offering Chicago a second chance to do it right.