They flocked together and prevailed.
Chicago’s bird enthusiasts helped scuttle a proposal to build a wave pool designed to simulate a surfing experience on a plot of land a few hundred yards north of a lakefront bird sanctuary near Montrose Beach.
For K.C. Hoos, a 37-year-old North Sider, the rejection could draw to a close his seven-year quest to find a friendly home for the project and his dream of introducing surfing to Chicago’s masses.
It was the third time he’d been turned down from leasing a North Side spot abutting a beach.
“It was the perfect location,” Hoos said, venting frustration with what he viewed as preferential treatment for bird enthusiasts.
Hoos wanted to renovate a historic but dilapidated stone concession stand and bathroom facility that, along with a newly constructed pool and tiered patio, would have become the hub of his operation.
“We are open to discussing alternate locations,” Chicago Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said. She confirmed Thursday that public feedback upended the proposed location, which is adjacent to the Uptown neighborhood.
The park district plans to renovate the bathroom and concession in 2017, according to Maxey-Faulkner.
Hoos planned to spend $2 million on construction, including a 30-by-60-foot wave pool that he said “is quieter than a hair dryer in an outdoor environment.” Surfing would cost about $40 an hour. Discounted rates would be offered to locals, he said.
His proposal initially gained traction with folks who voiced their approval to Ald. James Cappleman’s office. Cappleman’s chief of staff, Tressa Feher, told the Sun-Times in May that the alderman didn’t know how to surf “but he might be learning how soon.”
But the plan also touched a deep nerve with birders, who organized a campaign to shoot down the project by voicing displeasure to Cappleman and the park district, which has had a long relationship with the bird community.
“Every bit of green grass counts for the migratory birds that come through and need a spot to rest,” said Charlotte Newfeld, a longtime birder.
“I think it’s absolutely outrageous. Most of the people in Uptown do not own surf boards and most of them have never been anywhere near the ocean. You have to leave the lakefront free and clear,” she said.
“The habitat is very fragile,” Chicago Audubon Society President Dave Willard said in an email. “The surf-park would draw large numbers of people oblivious to the precious nature of this sanctuary.”
Hoos also acknowledged the potential headwinds he faced from Friends of the Parks, the same organization that scuttled famed filmmaker George Lucas’ effort to build a lakefront museum. He had been trying to schedule a time to present his proposal to the group.
“I realize that you can’t please everyone, and the ones who object — despite their numbers — tend to have the loudest voices,” Hoos said.
It was the second time he’d been stymied at Montrose Beach, Hoos said. In 2014, the park district scratched an agreement for the surf park near the beach. Hoos said birders soured the deal.
He’d spent about $100,000 on planning but didn’t raise a fuss in hopes the park district would help find another location, Hoos said. On Thursday, nearing the end of his rope, Hoos said he was considering litigation to help recover the money.
Long-time bird enthusiast Leslie Borns, who led the effort to fight Hoos’ latest push, was apparently informed by the park district several weeks ago that Hoos’ proposal had been rejected.
After hearing the news, she emailed supporters: “Before you start doing your happy dance, let’s reflect on the important lesson learned here – CONSTANT VIGILANCE AT ALL TIMES. We know there will be more Hooses, more Capplemans, and more blatant assaults on the free, open, public lands we have the extraordinary luck and privilege to enjoy in a huge urban area. So keep your eyes and ears open, and despite what anyone says, NEVER give up the fight.”
Borns declined to comment.
Hoos was perplexed as to why he learned Thursday about the rejection from a Sun-Times reporter, especially if the decision was made weeks ago.
Ellen Isaacson, president of the Lincoln Park Advisory Council, also lobbied against the project.
“The area is already hugely congested in the summer to the point that police close it down to additional traffic and we feel this would only exacerbate that issue,” Isaacson said. Maxey-Faulkner also cited congestion as a main concern the Park District heard from community members.
Josh Dugan, 37, who owns a duplex in Uptown, attended a lively community meeting on the project held last month at a park district field house in Uptown and said one speaker was more memorable than others.
A neighborhood teen wandered into the meeting after walking off a nearby basketball court and offered something that seemed to have gotten lost in the mix: a kid’s perspective. His message: Surfing sounds fun. I want to learn. When else would I ever be able to?
Dugan said arguments against the surf park didn’t sway him. “I don’t agree with people who say ‘It’s just one less thing that belongs at the beach.’ To me that’s not real compelling. We already have jet skis rentals and Navy Pier and concerts.”
Despite his frustration, Hoos was not ready to give up all hope. He recalled something Cappleman told him: if public support is there, projects follow.
“It’s clear to me there’s a majority who like it,” Hoos said.