Restoration of Promontory Point, Lake Michigan shoreline gets big boost in U.S. defense bill

The bill requires the Army Corps of Engineers to use a locally preferred plan to repair, restore historic Promontory Point, near 55th Street and DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

SHARE Restoration of Promontory Point, Lake Michigan shoreline gets big boost in U.S. defense bill
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The limestone seawall at Promontory Point, Thursday, May 26, 2022. Preservationists are trying to restore the limestone seawall and prevent a concrete seawall from taking its place.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — The National Defense Authorization Act for 2023, which the Senate passed Thursday night, includes a provision by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that bolsters Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline and clears the way for local players — not the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to determine the future restoration of the historic Promontory Point near 55th Street and DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

The measure, which goes to President Joe Biden for his signature, contains non-defense legislation, including items that are part of the Water Development Act — which is why Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline is part of a defense bill.

Promontory Point, a limestone peninsula jutting into the lake, was built with landfill in the 1930s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. It was created by landscape architect Alfred Caldwell and architect Emanuel Buchsbaum. At one time, the “point” was the site of a Cold War-era Army Nike missile radar installation used to protect the city in the event of an attack, with the military turning the land back to civilian use in the 1970s.

In March, Promontory Point was on Preservation Chicago’s annual “most endangered” list because of the ongoing debate between preservationists, the city and the Chicago Park District over replacing the limestone with concrete slabs, “destroying not only the historic stepstone revetment, but also the naturalistic aesthetic of this Alfred Caldwell-designed park,” Preservation Chicago said in its report.

The Durbin provision mandates that the Corps of Engineers pay 65% of the cost of the shoreline work at Promontory Point and the nearby Morgan Shoal for the “locally preferred plan.”

Those three words in the bill — locally preferred plan — essentially takes the Corps — which may have preferred a steel and concrete restoration — out of the planning equation while still footing a big chunk of the bill.

Durbin said in a statement, “One of the most important changes made in WRDA 2022 will help ensure the completion of the remaining elements of the Chicago Shoreline project. Authorized in 1996, I helped secure $185 million over two decades to reconstruct nine miles of the shoreline. But until now, the last two elements of that project, Morgan Shoal and Promontory Point, have been held up because of local concerns with the Corps plans. WRDA 2022 will help change that, though.

“The bill requires the Corps to use a locally preferred plan, ensuring local input in these remaining elements and saving Chicago an estimated $82 million. As the shoreline continues to face environmental threats from extreme weather and erosion, it’s more important than ever that we take real steps toward protecting it,” Durbin said.

The next steps are for the city, park district and preservation groups to hammer out the local plan.

Jack Spicer and Debra Hammond, who lead the Promontory Point Conservancy group, asked to react to this latest development told the Sun-Times their organization supports a plan that “allows for the repair, restoration and rehabilitation of the historic limestone revetment as due a National Register-listed property. The limestone, step-stone revetment still functions at 85 years old but does need fixing.”

Whether all parties align in a shared vision of a locally preferred plan remains to be seen.

A City Hall spokesperson said in a statement, “Mayor Lightfoot, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the Chicago Park District are committed to saving and reusing as much of the existing limestone as possible, as part of a rehabilitation effort that is consistent with the Secretary of Interior Standards for Historic Preservation to protect Promontory Point for decades to come.”

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