For the Birds: Planners envision a new kind of landing site at Meigs

May 1, 2001

Credit Mike Cramer

It's courting season for nature lovers in Chicago as they wait for the "City in a Garden" to get over an infatuation with aviation at Meigs Field and commit to a new marriage of urban life and natural history.

Environmentalists are panting over the 90 acres of Northerly Island, where the airport now sits off Burnham Harbor.

For conventioneers, businesspeople, government travelers and Sunday fliers, the airfield is a threshold to the heart of the city. Fans also contend it helps relieve a traffic crunch that's sharpening the battle for a third airport or new runways at O'Hare.

But under a deal worked out between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and former Gov. Jim Edgar, who wanted to keep the tiny landing strip open, Meigs will close this coming February. During a spat in 1996, the city shut it down for about six months. It reopened the field under an agreement to call it quits after five years. Now, the mayor isn't budging on the exit date. 

"The park district owns it and it should be a park," he insists, and most people would bet their mortgages it will be. That plan already has the approval of the Chicago City Council, the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Plan Commission. During the temporary reconciliation, Daley took the long view. "We have learned that improvements on the lakefront sometimes take decades," he said in 1997. "We have to wait another five years to create a family and tourists' park ... but it will be worth the wait." Environmentalists share Daley's dream - at least the nature part - and are unfolding their own plans, some of them laid away in 1922, when construction began on Northerly Island. Landscape genius Daniel Burnham had envisioned five constructed islands to create more harbors and lakefront, but only Northerly was built. A causeway made it a peninsula in 1938. Meigs Field opened in 1948. Who will pay the $30 million-plus price to turn it into a park is unanswered so far, but preservationists are pushing for an ecological restoration to loosen the grip of steel and rock on Chicago's shoreline.

"It's time to talk about what the people want for their lakefront," says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation. 

Let's create "Sanctuary Point," says the federation. Such a park would be for native habitat what the museums next door - Adier Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History and Shedd Aquarium - are for stars, dinosaurs and fish. "People deserve the chance to see what their lakefront used to look like, even if it's in one small sliver," Davis says. "Fish and wildlife habitat shouldn't just be for the countryside." People in urban settings, he says, have just as much interest and the right to enjoy nature as anyone else. And nature would get a chance to be understood and to survive, even in the city.

"We want this place to be a nature laboratory of sorts" to match the world-class research and education offered in the museums. "There's this growing science called restoration ecology," he says. "We want to show people that nature can solve problems." For example, the federation proposes a wetland, draining runoff from parking lots west and north of Northerly Island. "Wetlands are increasingly being used to filter out pollutants, even sewage treatment," Davis says. "What we want to do is send the runoff from the parking lots through the wetland to filter the water."

A park also could mean a "fighting chance" for Lake Michigan's yellow perch, a species that is losing ground, if it includes a restored native habitat, Davis says. Small inlets would give the fish a place to hide and propagate.

Alien Skalecke runs a charter fleet of four boats and has been based at Burnham Harbor for 30 years. Everybody calls him "Captain Al." He says shore fishermen already use the area, pulling in smallmouth and largemouth bass, rock bass, perch. "I hear reports of crappie occasionally." 

Northerly Island could be good fishing. "I'd like to see more people there doing their thing."

Birders use the area even now. "They couldn't pick a better spot than Meigs for winter birding," says Ralph Herbst, who gives bird-watching tours. Meigs is known as a place to find the snowy owl. They eat the rabbits and rats that abound there.

Herbst cruises the museum complex for winter gulls and long-tailed ducks and checks out the 12th Street Beach House, at the north end of Meigs road, for ducks and geese.

One year, an ivory gull showed up. "It was really, really lost," he says. "It should have been eating whale and seal blubber in Greenland."

Birders hope a new park will help the three million birds that travel the Chicago flyway during spring and summer migrations. In fact, last year, Mayor Daley signed a treaty with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect birds, and the park district has adopted guidelines for creating better habitat for migrants' stopovers. In 1999, the Chicago Wilderness Biodiversity Recovery Plan was finished and the park district plays a part.

Doug Stotz, a conservation ecologist for the Field Museum, worked with the district on its guidelines for birds. "I think it would be great to have a park that attracted birds" at Meigs, he says.

Most appealing would be something less like the manicured Grant Park and more naturalistic like Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. The Bird Conservation Network sees a Meigs Field conversion as a new opportunity to landscape with birds in mind, including city birds. It wants a narrow band along the lakeshore kept as clear as possible of humans.

A park could be a place to plant milkweed and give migratory monarch butterflies a boost as well. 

The Chicago Maritime Museum is also eying a new park. That organization would like to set up shop at the emergency equipment building south of the Meigs terminal, a 10,000-square-foot space with large bays convenient for moving big pieces, and few windows to let in damaging sunlight. 

"Would it make sense to have a maritime museum there? Of course. It's on the water," says Thatcher Waller Jr., the museum's president. The private group has sent a brief proposal to Park Superintendent David Doig.

The park district has its own plan, developed in 1996. Back then, a snorkeling lagoon, a galaxy slide, an outdoor planetarium, an ice cave, overnight camping, a sound and wave playground, a laser light show, a lakeside promenade and wetlands "interpretations" were suggested. But the high-glitz features are out now, officials say.

Meanwhile, infrastructure work could begin next winter. Many issues, including what to do with underground fuel tanks, will have to be addressed before fishing lagoons or woodlands come to pass. "It won't be instant park," Doig says. 

Nancy Moffett is the museum reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.