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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

With ‘Unpredictable’ Lake Michigan, South Shore Residents Say Breakwaters Are Needed To Protect Neighborhood

Neighbors have proposed installing breakwaters, repairing 73rd Street and reinforcing the street and shoreline. The $5 million proposal offers a "cost-effective" solution to flooding and erosion in South Shore, Rep. Curtis Tarver II said.

A Streets and Sanitation truck drives down a flooded South Shore Drive near 73rd Street in January 2020, after high winds pushed record-high Lake Michigan water levels into the neighborhood.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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SOUTH SHORE — South Shore residents are calling on government officials to back their proposal for shoreline improvements near 73rd Street, part of an effort to protect their homes and infrastructure from an unpredictable Lake Michigan.

Neighbors have proposed installing breakwaters, repairing 73rd Street and reinforcing the street and shoreline. The project, located from 7300-7337 South along the lakefront, would cost an estimated $5 million.

“This area is extremely vulnerable,” said Juliet Dervin, a founding member of the South Side Lakefront Erosion Task Force. “In the short term, let’s get that sorted out so we can buy time. There may be a long-term solution, but for certain, we need to take care of business now.”

The task force aims to see the breakwaters completed within the next year, “so we don’t see any more storm seasons pass [without] protection,” Dervin said.

The improvements would build upon recent stabilization projects on the south lakefront, including at Jackson Park Harbor, La Rabida Children’s Hospital, the South Shore Cultural Center and Arthur Ashe Beach Park.

Residents have spent nearly two years advocating for improvements through the task force, and they privately funded a breakwater from 71st Street to 72nd Place that was completed this year. They’ve invested in engineering studies, water pumps and barriers to preserve their homes.

Neighbors are doing their part to protect the lakefront, Dervin said.

“Now we need to get some help from the state to take care of the rest,” she said. “The area between 71st and 75th Street has been mitigated, except for 73rd Street and 73rd Place. The task force proposal aims to resolve that gap.”

The task force wants the state to allocate some of its fiscal year 2023 budget toward the proposal. Its members have also asked officials to consider using some of the $17 billion Illinois will receive from the federal infrastructure bill passed last month.

The 73rd Street improvements represent not only a potential solution to flooding and erosion, but one that’s “cost-effective,” said Rep. Curtis Tarver II, a Democrat representing the area.

Tarver has heard from engineers that the task force’s proposal would benefit the neighborhood, he said. He’s “in favor of it unless I hear from an engineer … saying there’s a better approach.”

Credit: South Side Lakefront Erosion Task Force
State Rep. Curtis Tarver II (D-25th) chats with a group including state Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) and Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) on a Sept. 29 tour of South Shore’s lakefront.

Tarver, Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th), Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) and Illinois Transportation Secretary Omer Osman toured the neighborhood with the task force in September, following a similar tour with officials last summer.

“At this point, there’s been enough outreach that everybody understands this is an issue,” Tarver said. “Now we’re at the stage of, how do we execute a plan to resolve it?”

The proposal would protect private property, including the historical Windsor Beach Apartments and Lake Terrace Condominiums at 7321 and 7337 S. South Shore Drive.

But the use of public money toward shoreline protection wouldn’t solely benefit residents with lakefront views, Peters said.

Storms can cause flooding that impacts South Shore Drive — a federal highway — and other public roads, Powell Paideia Academy and the city bus turnaround at the east end of 75th Street, he said.

“If erosion keeps hitting the shoreline, it’s going to have an impact on the public good,” Peters said.

Credit: South Side Lakefront Erosion Task Force
Lake water floods the east end of 73rd Street during a storm Oct. 25.

The 73rd Street proposal marks “the first step in a larger strategy” for South Shore and the south lakefront, Dervin said.

In the longer term, the task force identified a need for a study of South Shore Drive — which carries U.S. Route 41 — to “find [the] root cause of issues and repair potholes, sinkage, utility damage, and flooding from the lake.”

Task force members are also “super thrilled” as the city and the Army Corps of Engineers embark on a shoreline study, which is scheduled to take three years to complete.

The study will take a closer look at flooding between 67th and 73rd streets, as well as a design for Promontory Point reinforcements and protections for the Eugene Sawyer Water Purification Plant, 3300 E. Cheltenham Place.

Construction on projects identified by the study won’t begin until at least 2028, an Army Corps project manager told Chicago Magazine.

As the study takes place and its results are implemented, “we really want to see this area [addressed in the 73rd Street proposal] reinforced and protected,” Dervin said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the [upcoming] years while they do this study and determine next steps.”

Lake Michigan’s water levels have fallen this year from 2020’s record highs.

The forecasted level for Nov. 26 was 18 inches lower than Nov. 26, 2020, though it was still 13 inches higher than average.

The unpredictability of climate change makes it difficult to predict long-term trends in lake levels, Peters said. Just seven years before hitting record highs, Lake Michigan’s water level reached a record low.

That uncertainty — and the clear effects of flooding and erosion, seen as recently as October — require policymakers to invest now in protecting the lakefront, even if levels are lower than last year, Dervin said.

“The lake is an ever-changing organism that we need to know how to live with,” Dervin said. “Certainly, we like it when lake levels are down a little bit, but weather changes are happening with much more frequency and velocity. We have to make sure we don’t lose sight of our goal: Protecting our neighbors, ourselves and our infrastructure from further destruction.”

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