Trees cut down at Legion on Jan. 8. Crews knocked down the trees Monday. Credit: alex v. hernandez/block club chicago

NORTH PARK — Neighbors of Legion Park near Bryn Mawr and the North Branch of the Chicago River were stunned this week to see crews chop down hundreds of trees along the riverbank.

Even the local alderman, Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), said he didn’t know the trees were coming down.

But the Army Corps of Engineers said the work was part of a long-planned, and previously announced, riverbank erosion and restoration project. Native trees will be planted to replace the ones felled this week, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said.

The trees on the eastern riverbank at Legion Park, located at 3100 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. just south of the bridge over the bridge at Bryn Mawr, were cut down as part of the ongoing North Branch Chicago River Habitat Restoration Project

Vasquez, who was elected alderman last year, said he didn’t get a warning that the work was beginning.

“We didn’t get a heads up and, more importantly, the neighbors didn’t get a heads up either about this,” Vasquez said.

Neighbors who live in the 5500 block of North Virginia Avenue were upset when crews began taking down the trees.

“There was absolutely no communication about this. And many of us here are longterm residents of this neighborhood,” said Julianne Migely, who lives on the block. “They just showed up and were bulldozing the trees.”

After the outcry from neighbors and pressure from the alderman, the Army Corps of Engineers sent out a press release explaining the trees cut down were part of its ongoing restoration efforts.

Migely said she appreciates the restoration efforts, but wishes the neighborhood had been notified about why the trees were being cut down and given a timeline on what the restoration at Legion Park will be. Initially, she and other neighbors had no idea what was going on or if the trees would be replaced.

Legion Park facing west on Jan. 8 after the trees on the shore were all cut down. Neighbors say these trees gave their homes privacy and blocked their view of Northside College Preparatory and the bridge the crosses the river at Bryn Mawr Avenue. Credit: alex v. hernandez/block club chicago

Migley said the trees provided privacy and blocked their view of traffic on the bridge at Bryn Mawr Avenue and from the Northside College Preparatory High School at 5501 N. Kedzie Ave.. They are now unhappy that they are gone.

“We love the magnet school that’s there but it’s a big honking building,” Migely said. “So besides the lack of communication, now all of us on this street have to deal with the view of this big school. If they’re going to replace those trees, they need to do it in a timely manner.”

The tree line at Legion Park in June 2019 facing west. Neighbors say these trees gave their homes privacy and blocked their view of Northside College Preparatory and the bridge the crosses the river at Bryn Mawr Avenue. Credit: google

Crews have been working to restore the Chicago River habitat near Ronan Park, 3000 W. Argyle St., River Park, 5100 N. Francisco Ave., and Legion Park since at least 2015.

Vanessa Villarreal, an Army Corps spokesperson, said now that the trees are down, the riverbank will be leveled to help with erosion.

“We’ll be planting 267 trees and shrubs as part of our plan for this site. We’ll also be installing approximately 56 pounds of native plant seed per acre in the bank habitats where trees have been removed, as well as approximately 700 live plant plugs per acre in this area,” Villarreal told Block Club.

These plantings will include about 50 different types of native species of trees, grass and wildflowers. The river restoration at Legion Park is expected to completed by fall 2022.

When Vasquez called Army Corps officials to ask why there wasn’t any notice about project to neighbors, he was told the community had been notified about in 2017, he said.

“I think the restoration plan itself is a good idea. But the communication breakdown was such that no one had any context other than these trees were being cut down and people were worried they wouldn’t be replaced,” Vasquez said. 

Vince Ehrenberg, who also lives in the 5500 block of North Virginia Avenue, was also surprised about the trees being cut down so abruptly. When told Wednesday of the plan for the shoreline, he thought it was a good idea, but still would have appreciated a heads up about it.

“I don’t know if I got a notice about this project three years ago and I didn’t get anything about what they’re doing right now,” Ehrenberg said. “But as long as they’re replacing the trees and making a nice riverwalk, I think it’s a good thing. I actually had to plant native species on the river up in my place in Wisconsin for the same reason. As long as they do everything properly with more notice next time, that would be great.”  

The Army Corps of Engineers removed a dam at Rivers Park in 2017 and restored the banks. Federal and local funds paid for the $15 million dam removal project. The new shoreline at River Park is an example of what the shoreline at Legion Park could look like once restoration work is complete. 

The Chicago River’s North Branch (left) and the North Shore Channel meet at River Park, 5100 N. Francisco Ave. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

Vasquez said he is working to organize a community meeting where neighbors will get an update on the project’s timeline. Villarreal confirmed the Army Corps is coordinating with Vasquez.

“Going forward I want more accountability in this process,” Vasquez said.

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, said the work being done is much needed and long overdue.

“Friends of the Chicago River is in full support of the restoration efforts taking place at Legion Park which is healing the wounds of more than a century of degradation that devastated our local ecosystems including the Chicago River,” Frisbie said. 

Frisbie said the swap to native species will improve animal habitat and water quality, and make it more aesthetically pleasing for park users. Birds, butterflies, fish and other wildlife will benefit directly from this work, she said.

The native plants absorb 86 percent of stormwater as opposed to 28 percent for non-natives, she said.

“While the initial phase of removing unwanted invasive plant species and trees understandably can seem terrible, it is helpful to think of the work as an operation that will heal the ecology of this reach of the river and connect to the broader restoration efforts up and down stream,” she said. 

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