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Long-awaited lakefront park honoring DuSable makes strides

A City Council committee has OK’d $5 million, and a cleanup radioactive material has been finished.

DuSable Park, near Navy Pier. Completion of the park has been slow — it was designated as a park site in 1987.
DuSable Park, near Navy Pier. Completion of the park has been slow — it was designated as a park site in 1987.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A decades-long effort to take a premiere patch of the lakefront and build a park to honor Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the Black man who founded the city of Chicago, inched closer to the finish line this week.

On Thursday, a City Council committee OK’d $5 million for the planning and design of DuSable Park, with a full Council vote as early as next month.

The land, at the mouth of the Chicago River near Navy Pier, was designated for use as a park in 1987 by Mayor Harold Washington, but the project has run into a number of problems over the years, not the least of which was polluted soil.

In July, the city finished an environmental cleanup of the 3.25-acre plot.

It had been contaminated with thorium, a radioactive material used by a Streeterville gas lamp company nearly 100 years ago to ensure a brighter glow.

This summer, the site has been made level and seeded, further fueling the curiosity of innumerable Lakefront Trail users who for years have glanced east and wondered: Why the heck isn’t that land put to use?

One reason: The park’s fate is tied to the fate of another building project not far away, on the other side of Lakeshore Drive, where plans for the once-heralded 2,000-foot-tall Chicago Spire famously fell apart, leaving a giant hole, 76 feet deep, in the ground.

Since 2014, the Spire site has been in the hands of Related Midwest, a New York-based development firm that plans to build two smaller apartment towers there. Related Midwest also has pledged $10 million to build the park.

Related Midwest plans to break ground in 2021; the first tower is slated for completion in 2024 or 2025 , according to a company spokeswoman.

The city is requiring construction on DuSable Park be completed before any residents would be allowed to move into the building.

“It finally feels real, to be honest,” said Heather Gleason, director of planning and construction for the Chicago Park District. “I think the most exciting part is honoring DuSable’s history and his contributions to the city.”

City officials expect a wide range of input on how to best honor DuSable at the park.

“There’s never been a question that there shouldn’t be a park or memorials to him. I think this is something that I’m hoping we can all rally around. I think if anything, we might debate on what the proper representation is,” Gleason said.

There are no plans to include a playground at the park. It’s envisioned as more of a passive park space with benches, lighting and pathways.

Later this year or early next year, the park district plans to begin seeking community feedback on the design, Gleason said.