Northerly Island Plans Revealed

by D. Bradford Hunt

On our inaugural Sustainability Studies Bike Tour tomorrow (Friday, September 7, 4-6pm), we’ll be visiting Northerly Island, the peninsula (it’s not technically an island) that juts off from Chicago’s lakefront near the Field Museum. It has a curious history and an exciting potential future.

View from the southern end of Northerly Island, Oct. 2011 (photo by M. Bryson)

First, the History: Northerly Island was completed in 1925 as the first in what was supposed be a string of landfill “islands” as part of the 1909 Plan of Chicago, written by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett (and known as the “Burnham Plan,” slighting Mr. Bennett). Soon after, it because the site of the 1933-34 Century of Progress International Exhibition, and then in 1948 it became a small airport, Meigs Field.

In 1996, the Chicago Park District hoped to restore Northerly Island to its original intention as a public open space park. A decade of political wrangling followed, culminating in an infamous midnight takeover by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who ordered bulldozers to dig giant “Xs” in the runway to make the airport inoperable. The park district planted over the runway and allowed the construction of a semi-permanent music pavilion, but it lacked a plan for Northerly Island until 2010.

Second, the Plan: In late 2010, the Park District released the “Northerly Island Framework Plan,” a dramatic document authored by the landscape architecture firm JJR and the architecture firm Studio Gang. (Download the 30MB plan here, lots of cool images). Its principal, Jeanne Gang, has won numerous awards and has recently won accolades for the building Aqua.

The former terminal building of Meigs Field, now the Northerly Island field house of the Chicago Park District (photo by M. Bryson)

The Framework Plan is intended to guide development for the next 20-25 years, and it proposes a wide range of uses for the peninsula. A new, more sensitive pavilion would be placed at the northern end (a must, says the Park District, to help pay for operating Northerly Island), and the Meigs Field Terminal, placed on an “endangered” list by architecture preservationists, would be whittled down to its columns and serve as a smaller, contemplative pavilion.

But the really impressive work is throughout the southern two-thirds of Northerly Island, where the Plan proposes a range of natural environments, including a wetland, a prairie, and a woodland area — the full spectrum of Illinois natural environments in one space. Jeanne Gang called the Framework Plan as a proposal for “a Millennium Park of Nature” at Northerly Island — by which she means a space filled with engaging nature and activities. Kayaks, floating platforms, camping, even scuba-diving would be possible, in her vision. Contemplative spaces and walking paths would also be major elements.

As the Plan puts it: “Imagine canoeing through calm lake water to quiet off-shore islands, hiking an island oasis under shade provided by a thriving woodland canopy, or discovering a remote rocky beach with breathtaking views. Imagine all of this within walking distance of Chicago’s bustling urban center.”

Whether the city can find the funds for this bold new nature space is uncertain. The Army Corps of Engineers agreed last week to pay for the pond in the middle of Northerly Island as envisioned by the Framework Plan, but the Corps cannot spend money on “recreation” space, so the islands will have to wait for future funding. Let’s hope much of the Framework Plan becomes a reality, especially the engaging work on creating a unique natural experience for visitors.

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