No plan for Point as deliberations continue

By Eliot Marcus

More than four years since the controversy over renovations of Promontory Point began, uncertainty remains regarding what exactly will be done with the limestone-block border that protects the park from erosion by the lake.

The project now stands on deliberations between the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), whose approval is required for any construction work, and the Chicago Park District, which must produce plans that meet the agency’s requirements.

The dispute is over the shape of the Point’s waterfront border (revetment). The city had originally planned to replace the current limestone with the large, concrete-step design that can be seen elsewhere on the lakeshore. Those plans were halted when the IHPA challenged the city’s evaluation that “there was nothing historic down there, and that it was just rubble,” according to Anne Haaker, deputy state historic preservation officer at the IHPA.

In the meantime, members of the community reacted strongly and created the Promontory Point Community Task Force, which has fought to retain a similar all-limestone design. According to Jack Spicer, a member of the Task Force’s Executive Committee, the Park District and the Army Corps were intentionally “keeping [the IHPA] out of the planning process” and had made a “veiled threat” to withdraw funding. “No one is surprised that their level of sincerity is not stunning,” Spicer said.

“We would never prevent the involvement of the IHPA,” said Rob Rejman, spokesman for the Park District. “We’ve gotten signoff for every project we’ve done.”

Haaker said that the Park District did report that the limestone was not structurally sound and could not be saved. “They called it rubble and I think they believed that,” she said, “but I see stepstone that held up to that water for 80 years.”

Haaker is now reviewing what she called the city’s “sketch plan” for the Point with the agency’s chief architect, Mike Jackson. The city is to revise its plans according to Haaker and Jackson’s commentary until the IHPA’s standards are met.

This process began last July in a series of closed meetings called by Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston between city agencies and the Community Task Force, where it was decided that the authority to approve or deny any plan lay with the IHPA. The city is apparently bound by a 1993 Memorandum of Agreement that requires that changes to the lakefront “shall match the existing in accord with the Department of Interior’s Standards for Preservation” wherever possible.

Haaker called the ongoing discussion with the city, now over a year in process, “a confusing situation.” Last summer, she said, the agency requested more detailed plans for evaluations, but the Park District responded that completing plans prior to IHPA approval would be “too expensive.” It was only a month ago, she added, that her agency received new copies of plans from the Park District—which turned out to be merely an enlarged version of plans that had been previously sketched out.

Haaker said of the plans, “frankly there’s not much detail here.” Nonetheless, she added, “We won’t do final approval until we see final plans.”

The Task Force collected over $60,000 to produce an all-limestone alternative plan, which it presented in July 2003 along with claims that its plan would be cheaper to execute than the city’s. The Park District released a new plan in response. This design included two steps of limestone atop the concrete, which would be textured. Haaker said that “there could be concrete,” but “at this point I don’t see us accepting the city’s plan wholly.”

Spicer warned that there was “at least a possibility that the city would use its influence with the governor to push the IHPA around,” saying that there have been instances in the past in which the city has leaned on the agency.

The Hyde Park Herald has claimed that Hairston’s public praise for the IHPA this past February was designed to shield it from such pressure. Hairston denies these claims. “I was writing a letter to say they need to make a decision,” she said, not to build political support. In her March “Alderman’s Report” for the Herald, however, she wrote, “I have asked state Representative Barbara Flynn-Currie and state Senator Kwame Raoul to support the independence of the IHPA in deciding this issue.”

U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. has also thrown his weight behind the agency, announcing this February that he will attempt to block federal funding for lakewall renewal this fall unless the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is to carry out the project, follows preservation guidelines.

Haaker denied any such interference. “I’ve never felt any political pressure on our decision-making process whatsoever on this issue,” she said, though she agreed that there is “a history of Chicago doing exactly what Chicago wants to do.”

She further said that the IHPA has always had a “wonderful working relationship with the Park District,” but when asked about the Point debate in particular, she was hesitant. “I’m not sure, in this situation, about the decision-making process,” she said.

Haaker underlined the importance of the Point and of the limestone. She praised the “intimate relationship” between the people of Chicago and the lake, and pointed out that the Point is one of the last places on the lakefront that people still come to swim. “You look at what they’ve done with the concrete in other places on the lake,” she said, “and you can see that that intimate relationship with the lake is just gone.”