In its most recent report, Preservation Chicago listed Chicago’s lakefront as part of its 2021 “Chicago 7 most endangered” list and called for the city to pursue a national park designation for all of Chicago’s lakefront.
Preservation Chicago, an advocacy organization started in 2001, is aimed at preserving historic buildings and structures. Ward Miller, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, said he believes a national park designation would help the city handle some of the costs of preserving landmarks, keep the lands open for all and bring additional revenue for the city.
“I think we need that additional help, and a national park would bring additional monies, additional tourism dollars, additional visitors and help with maintenance and encourage more park land,” Miller said.
Chicago’s lakefront comprises 26 miles of coastline, stretching from the Indiana border in the southeast to the city of Evanston in the north. This coastline touches 19 neighborhoods and includes 29 beaches, according to the City of Chicago’s website.
Miller said many buildings and other structures along Chicago’s lakefront are decaying and could use an uplift.
“We continuously see buildings and trails that are falling into disrepair,” Miller said. “There’s a Daniel Burnham-designed comfort station on South Lake Shore Drive, near 67th Street, which was recently hit by a car again. There’s another comfort station behind the Museum of Science and Industry that doesn’t even have a roof on it.”
Miller said a national park designation may help alleviate the financial burden of preserving these sites by having the federal government take on the cost of maintenance and security, freeing up funding for the city to focus on other areas.
Rogers Park is one area of the city that could potentially be affected by a national park as Lake Michigan runs the entirety of its eastern border. Rogers Park has nine public beaches along this coastline, according to the Chicago Park District.
While some Rogers Park residents welcome the preservation efforts, others worry about the potential economic impact and political interference from the federal government if national park status is granted.
Among them is President of the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce Bill Morton. Morton said he’s concerned about a lack of information regarding the recommendation and worried about the potential impacts it would have on the neighborhood. He said despite his role as a moderator on the Rogers Park News Facebook page and as president of the Chamber of Commerce, he really hadn’t heard about the proposal.
“If I haven’t heard about it, I would imagine the citizens of Rogers Park in the city of Chicago have not really heard about this and don’t quite understand the concept,” Morton said.
Morton said he’s concerned with what residents would have to give up for the national park to become a reality and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
“The amenities don’t matter at all if you’re going to be tearing down residences, or if we’re going to lose something significant in our community to gain this,” Morton said.
Similar concerns were echoed by Silvia Nebel, a Rogers Park Resident of 25 years who said she worries about rising water levels threatening local residences and buildings. She said she thinks barriers are needed along the lakefront in order to preserve it for future generations.
“I think that’s a really good idea to keep the open lakefront,” Nebel said. “Once it’s all built up, you’re never going to be able to get it back.”
As for how a potential national park would affect the local community, Nebel said she would have to see more details of the plan. She said she would worry about potential interference from the federal government, citing actions by former President Donald Trump.
“If the federal government is willing to invest in some of the things that I said, then it might be a good thing,” Nebel said. “But we saw when Donald Trump was president, that the president could make an executive order and basically do whatever he wanted to the national parks, which is a really bad thing.”
Nebel said she’s also worried about the potential economic impact from a national park designation. She said city, county and state revenues must be taken into consideration before a plan is finalized.
“My number one concern is to preserve the lakefront, but to not do it in a way that jeopardizes the lakefront down the line, or to cause fiscal problems for the city and state and county, because we have city, state and county revenues that might benefit from the lakefront,” Nebel said.
Miller said ideally the park would extend along the entirety of Chicago’s lakefront, but he understands there are private lands along the lakefront and areas where the city may wish to remain the sole proprietor.
“I think you’d have to consider whether that would be appropriate or not,” Miller said. “I think we have to have a robust conversation as a city and also to include all of the stakeholders and elected officials in that idea.”
City and state officials — including 49th Ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden, the office of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois State Representative Kelly Cassidy, Illinois State Senator Heather Stevens and U.S. Representative Janice Schakowsky — did not respond to requests for comment.