HYDE PARK — Nearly 20 years after organizing against the city’s push to replace the decades-old limestone steps at Promontory Point with concrete, Hyde Parkers concerned about the latest plans for the park are ready to do it all over again if necessary.
Members of the Promontory Point Conservancy, a nonprofit that grew from the Save the Point campaign of the early 2000s, are raising awareness about developments in a decades-long effort to reconstruct Chicago’s lakefront barrier walls.
Promontory Point, which runs from 54th to 56th streets on the lakefront and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, is one of two locations still unfinished under the Shoreline Protection Project. The project aims to better protect the lakefront against storms, flooding and erosion from Montrose Avenue to 79th Street.
Conservancy members are wary of the city’s bid last fall for federal funding toward the unfinished lakefront projects — which they take as a sign the city may be planning to remodel the Point against the community’s wishes.
Documents obtained by the conservancy show the city saying its “preservation-based approach” to renovating the Point would be similar to work completed at Diversey Harbor and other stretches where old limestone barriers were removed.
The Belmont to Diversey revetment project replaced 1,700 feet of limestone with concrete barriers. Some limestone steps remain visible at the harbor.
The North Side renovations were in line with the “preferred design” for new lakefront barriers across the city: replacing the original stone and wood with concrete and steel.
In the documents, officials also highlighted their construction of concrete barriers from 51st to 54th streets and along other stretches near the Point.
“We have reasons to believe they have a serious plan to replace the limestone revetment with concrete and steel,” conservancy President Jack Spicer said. “We want people to know … it’s not necessary and it’s not desirable.”
Though city officials said the funding application went nowhere, the documents signal a need for the preservationists to further investigate officials’ plans for the Point’s future, Spicer said.
He wants residents to be clued in before officials secure funding, organize “some last-minute public meeting” to announce their plans and “call that community participation.”
The Chicago Department of Transportation, the Park District and the Army Corps of Engineers are partners on the Shoreline Protection Project. All “are committed to a preservation-based approach” at the Point, CDOT spokesperson Michael Claffey said.
Officials intend “to save and reuse as much of the existing limestone as feasible as part of an engineered solution that will protect the Point for decades to come,” Claffey said.
Army Corps project manager Michael Padilla denied his agency and the city have committed to replacing the limestone steps with concrete and steel. Shoreline protections at the Point will comply with federal and state requirements for preservation, he said.
The Park District did not respond to Block Club’s requests for comment.
What Are The City And Feds Planning?
Construction at Promontory Point won’t begin until a project at Morgan Shoal from 45th to 51st streets is completed, according to the city’s capital plan. That could be years from now, as the agencies won’t even seek construction bids for the shoal project until late 2022.
Morgan Shoal and Promontory Point remain the only unfinished sections of the Shoreline Protection Project, which Congress first funded 25 years ago.
As a result, the city spends an “exorbitant amount of funds” on temporary measures like concrete jersey barriers in Kenwood and Hyde Park, officials said in their federal funding application.
CDOT asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $4 million toward the Morgan Shoal project and $2.5 million for the Point. The feds didn’t act on the application, Claffey said.
The Army Corps will begin a $3 million study of the lakefront from Wilmette to the Indiana border to be funded in fiscal year 2022, Padilla said. The study is expected to take up to three years and will include public input.
As part of the study, engineers will take a closer look at Promontory Point, flooding between 67th and 73rd streets and the South Water Purification Plant, Padilla said. Agency historians and the state’s office of historic preservation will participate in the study.
The study should result in a new plan for protecting the Point that reduces storm damage, controls erosion and “will be acceptable to the general public and other stakeholders,” Padilla said.
‘One Of The Best Things’ Along The Lakefront
There’s a looming sense of deja vu for Promontory Point Conservancy members and their supporters, who have seen the city push to replace lakefront limestone with concrete since the ’90s.
The city’s recent assertion that its Diversey Harbor work preserved the limestone is a “disturbing” sign for the Point’s future, Hyde Park resident Michael Scott said. When Hyde Parkers first organized to keep the Point’s limestone steps intact, the city made similar statements, he said.
Officials assured residents 20 years ago they would “reuse blocks as appropriate to maintain the limestone character” as they built the concrete barriers, Scott said — “blah blah blah, it was total nonsense.”
The city’s vague statements allow officials “to remind you there used to be limestone here once” — by saving a few stones for aesthetic purposes — and “call that preserving of the limestone,” he said.
Scott urged the city to instead adopt “what we agreed upon 15 years ago:” a third-party review to determine the feasibility of restoring the limestone.
The National Register of Historic Places listing is perhaps the Save the Point campaign’s most high-profile victory. But in the mid-2000s, supporters also secured plans — backed by then-Sen. Barack Obama — to prepare an alternative to the city’s concrete proposal.
That alternative was to maximize the use of limestone, minimize concrete and ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, conservancy members said. It has yet to be funded 15 years later.
A community-funded engineering study in 2004 found rehabilitating the limestone would be cheaper than demolishing it and replacing it with concrete, said Debra Hammond, a conservancy board member and Spicer’s wife.
“The Point is almost 100 years old, and it’s going to take a lot more than [recent storms] to wear that limestone down” to where it needs to be removed entirely, Hammond said.
After massive storms and record-high water levels led to severe flooding and erosion along the lakefront last year, lake levels have declined so far in 2021, Claffey said.
As of July 15, the lake level was still a foot above the long-term average for July, but it was 1.7 feet lower than the all-time high at the same time last year.
The Army Corps can’t predict how water levels will trend by the time the Morgan Shoal and Promontory Point projects are finished, since there are no estimated completion dates, Padilla said.
Some residents criticized the agencies’ decision to closely associate Morgan Shoal and Promontory Point as they seek funding.
While Promontory Point is eroding, threats there aren’t as imminent as those to Lake Shore Drive and the Lakefront Trail along Morgan Shoal, or to private properties in South Shore, Spicer said.
“It is an emergency [at Morgan Shoal], because of the wave action that comes up on Lake Shore Drive because it’s so narrow there,” Spicer said. “But there’s no emergency at Promontory Point, so we’re afraid they’re going to lump them together.”
It’s concerning that officials treated the unfinished stretch through Kenwood and Hyde Park as “one elongated project” in applying for funding last fall, said Heather Dalmage, a Hyde Park resident who regularly runs along the Lakefront Trail.
About 1.25 miles separates 45th Street, the northernmost reach of the Morgan Shoal project, from Promontory Point’s southern face near 55th Street.
A 1.25-mile stretch of lakefront on the North Side, from the Theater on the Lake at Fullerton to Belmont Harbor, saw six distinct shoreline protection projects completed.
Five projects were completed on the south lakefront from 31st Street Beach to 41st Street, which is about the same distance.
“The amount of differentiation [elsewhere in the city] is shocking, in light of them talking about Morgan Shoal and the Point as if they’re almost the same project,” Dalmage said.
Promontory Point is a unique spot, drawing visitors “from all over the South Side and all over the city because it has this gorgeous, limestone, community-building aura,” Scott said.
“If somebody wants to know the difference between what it’s like to be at the Point and what it’s like to be on the concrete alternative … go out there on any day and count how many people are voting with their feet, versus the stuff north of it,” he said.
The Point “is why I live in Hyde Park,” Scott said. “This is one of the best things about the Chicago lakefront.”
Morgan Shoal Plan ‘Fabulous,’ Locals Say
Despite their concerns with the city’s plans for Promontory Point, interviewees largely praised the Morgan Shoal project proposal.
The city intends to spend $71.7 million on design and construction at Morgan Shoal over the next five years, as first reported by the Hyde Park Herald. Work will be based on a master plan to address erosion at Morgan Shoal completed in 2015.
The project is set to add 7 acres of parkland as a buffer between the lake and the adjacent community.
Plans for the shoal were developed in collaboration with residents, and reflect “what the community wants,” Dalmage said — though she’s troubled construction won’t begin until at least seven years after plans were finalized.
As they work to preserve Promontory Point’s historic nature, conservancy members and residents will monitor progress at Morgan Shoal and hold officials to the 2015 plan, they said.
“I think it’s a fabulous plan that was worked out beautifully by the Park District with the community,” Spicer said.
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