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Path looping around Northerly Island won’t be fully repaired, city says 3 years after it closed

Part of the trail at Northerly Island has been closed for years.
Sun-Times staff photo

A pathway at Northerly Island that once looped through the park — but was heavily damaged by Lake Michigan and had to be closed — won’t be fully restored, the Army Corps of Engineers said Friday.

A section of the path several hundred feet in length was closed months after the new trail opened in 2015 after powerful Lake Michigan waves brought by strong storms led to erosion beneath the walkway, eventually causing cracked and sunken panels that became a safety concern.

Next month, after the path languished in disrepair for years, repairs will finally begin, according to Patrick Bray, spokesman for the Army corps. The project is expected to cost $800,000 and be completed in the fall.

Instead of a loop, the broken section of the path will be removed and hauled away, leaving a “C-shaped path” that will feature “turn-around” points at both ends, leading hikers and bikers from the harbor side of the island to the lakeside, officials said.

Bray said the high water level of the lake in recent years contributed to further erosion of the path, which Bray said the corps believed would happen again if it was restored to how it was when the trail opened. Previous proposals, including a plan to install a reef in Lake Michigan that would absorb the brunt of the punishing waves, was determined to not be economically feasible.

“Given the high lake levels and major storm events we have experienced along the lake in recent years, eliminating the most eastern point of the trail presented the most feasible solution at this time,” the Chicago Park District said in a statement.

A section of broken path at Northerly Island.
Sun-Times staff

Northerly Island was created as a park from the ruins of the Meigs Field, a formerly private airport that was destroyed overnight in 2003 at the direction of Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The project to restore Northerly Island as a park and nature preserve was a joint project between the Army Cops and the Chicago Park District. The revamped park reopened in 2015 and now features a music venue and wide-open spaces filled with rolling hills and an inland lake — and one of the best views of the city’s skyline. The new pricetag, including the upcoming repairs, is now approaching $10.8 million, officials said.

The oasis of grass and native plants created through the project also serves as a resting and breeding ground for migrating birds and other wildlife, Bray said.

“The entire reconstruction project has been a quality of life improvement for the people of Chicago,” Bray said. “The habitat there looks like what it would have been before people inhabited the city.”

Of course, Northerly Island, which is actually a 120-acre peninsula, was never really natural.

Created with landfill in the 1920s, it was initially conceived as part of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago. Burnham’s plan called for a chain of islands be created, spanning from Jackson Park to the south and Grant Park to the north.

Northerly Island is the only one to have thus far been built.

The idea has been revisited in recent years, including a proposal by Studio Gang and SmithGroup and designed by architect Jeanne Gang that would have been inspired by Burnham’s original proposal.

The Northerly Island Framework Plan was a guide that was supposed to lead the city in the creation of a multi-faceted ecological preserve at the park. The plan suggests developing a chain of reefs to create a 50-acre lagoon for swimming and a fisheries habitat. Other sections of the park would have created woodland, prairie grassland and wetland habitats for native wildlife.

The “unique urban eco-park” would support a goal to make Chicago “the greenest city in the world,” according to the project’s website.

The park district said Friday it still hopes that more of that vision will come to fruition, but noted it “remains a long-term goal” for which funding “remains a challenge.”

A plan to build reefs around Northerly Island “remains a long-term goal” but funding remains a challenge, the Park District said.
Smith Group