February 6, 2001

Chicago Sun-Times

Meigs of a new millennium

February 6, 2001

BY GARY WISBY ENVIRONMENT REPORTER

Picture a fourth lakefront museum--an outdoor living nature museum.

With Meigs Field due to shut down a year from now, that is the vision of the Lake Michigan Federation for the 100-acre peninsula after the planes leave and the birds return.

Sanctuary Point--the federation's suggested new name for Northerly Island--would complement offerings of nearby cultural institutions. Visitors could:

* Compare live native birds to preserved exotic species at the Field Museum.

* Snorkel for a look at Lake Michigan fish after checking out their tropical cousins at the Shedd Aquarium.

* Stargaze for real in the shadow of the Adler Planetarium.

The federation presented its plan Monday to the Chicago Park District, which owns the land, and will give the museums a look at it soon. Cameron Davis, the group's executive director, said it builds on a 1996 Park District proposal. "It takes that excellent plan and puts an even greater focus on nature," Davis said.

Park District General Supt. David Doig said the plan is "consistent with" a plan the Park District offered in 1996 when Meigs Field was briefly closed. That plan called for Northerly Island, the site of Meigs Field, to become a "natural habitat theme park . . . that the public can enjoy," Doig said.

Doig said there is no timetable for the parks to make a new proposal. "We are committed to putting together an action plan to address issues leading up to next February," he said.

One aspect of the federation's plan--a bridge across Burnham Harbor--drew criticism from Doig, who said "it is not something we can support."

Davis said he sees Sanctuary Point as a snapshot of pre-settlement Chicago, with sand dunes, a wetland, woodland and prairie.

The peninsula would be a major place to nest and rest for the 3 million birds that use the Lake Michigan flyway every year. Great blue herons, yellow-headed blackbirds and the endangered sandhill crane are among likely visitors.

Threatened lake sturgeon, emerald shiners and walleye could spawn or feed in protected coves.

Human visitors would walk on paths through woods and boardwalks through wetlands. In a Lake Michigan Museum converted from Meigs' terminal, they would see exhibits on Great Lakes nature, weather and shipwrecks.

Researchers and students from museums and area universities would use the peninsula as a learning laboratory, enhancing its ecosystems with their projects and findings.

Federation officials think the estimate of $27 million for the Park District plan would cover their proposal. Some savings would be realized by using native plants, which essentially maintain themselves.

Possible funding sources include the city's hotel tax, a bond issue and federal shoreline protection money. The federal Conservation and Reinvestment Act will provide about $50 million for Illinois if it passes Congress this year, "and this would be a showcase project for that kind of funding," Davis said.

Although Meigs is scheduled to close on Feb. 10, 2002, aviators and some state legislators continue to argue the airport is needed to relieve pressure on O'Hare and Midway. So far they have failed to sway Mayor Daley.

Efforts to reach Friends of Meigs Field officials were unsuccessful. On the group's answering machine, its president, Steve Whitney, says, "The fight is not over. We have until the year 2002 to prove the value of Meigs to the citizens of Chicago."

Only about 200 people a day use Meigs Field, Davis said. But thousands a day could visit Sanctuary Point, he said--"people who will never set foot on Northerly Island as long as it's an airport."

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HISTORY OF NORTHERLY ISLAND

1909: Burnham Plan calls for five manmade islands to expand the lakefront and provide harbors. Construction on the first--and last--of these, Northerly Island, begins in 1922.

1930--Adler Planetarium built on island's north end.

1933--Flower gardens, shrubs, trees, pools and fountains added for World's Fair horticultural exposition. Five garden groups and 56,000 petitioners urge permanent horticultural center.

1935--Mayor Ed Kelly recommends airport and recreation center. Opposed are 550 groups and U.S. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes.

1938--Horticultural center established and 3,081 trees and 17,917 shrubs are planted. Center is short-lived; Army takes control and puts in obstacle course for trainees. Causeway built, changing island to peninsula.

1945--Kelly offers Northerly Island as tax-free site of United Nations headquarters.

1946--Construction of airport begins.

1948--Airport named after Merrill C. Meigs, pioneer Chicago pilot and former chairman of Chicago Aero Commission.

1961--Passenger terminal added.

1996--After years of declining use, Meigs Field closed by Chicago Park District and city's Aviation Department. Park District plan includes playgrounds, outdoor planetarium, snorkeling lagoon, learning center, overnight camping and wetland.

1997--Lawsuit by Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and Friends of Meigs Field fails. But negotiations between Mayor Daley and Gov. Jim Edgar produce agreement to allow airport to operate five more years. Meigs Field reopens.




[Chicago ATC News]