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Will Obama Make Waves?

The fate of the Hyde Park lakefront is in the senator’s hands.

By Ben Joravsky
September 23, 2005

FOR FIVE YEARS the city's been battling Hyde Parkers over how to prevent erosion at Promontory Point, the peninsula at 55th Street. And now the make-or-break vote in the impasse has come down to Senator Barack Obama, a politician who apparently can't stand to take a stand.

The fight goes back to the mid-1990s, when the city proposed building a new revetment along the lakefront from Waveland Avenue to 57th Street. It seemed like a can't-lose deal for the city, since roughly 80 percent of the $310 million cost would be covered by the Army Corps of Engineers.

But in 2000, when the city unveiled the first leg of the project--replacing the rocky shoreline just north of Belmont Harbor with a wall of concrete--north-siders and environmentalists were outraged. Despite their pleas, Mayor Daley wouldn't budge from this design, and concrete has since been poured all along the lakefront.

The city met its match in Hyde Park. Designed by Alfred Caldwell over 85 years ago, the Point's shoreline consists of a series of big limestone slabs that make rough steps from the shore into the water. This is sacred ground for Hyde Parkers--the place where many learned to swim--and some have vowed to chain themselves to the rocks before they'll see the Point encased in concrete and steel.

Over the last five years the residents have fought the city at the state, local, and federal levels. They've formed the Promontory Point Community Task Force, packed public hearings, written letters to editors, and raised about $100,000 to fund their own studies and reports. For the most part they've cleared every obstacle the city has put in front of them. They even devised their own plan to stem erosion by installing new limestone--complete with wheelchair ramps for accessibility--so the Point would continue to look much as it does today.

In 2003 they agreed to settle their disagreement with the city through mediation. A private mediator decided in the Hyde Parkers' favor, ruling that the residents' preservation plan would cost less than the city's concrete wall and do as good a job of protecting the lakefront, but the city walked out of the mediation process just before the ruling, and needless to say hasn't abided by the mediator's ruling.

For a time, the residents had the backing of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, a division of state government that's generally reluctant to oppose the city. In 2003 the agency announced it would oppose state funding for the city's proposal. But after meeting this summer with Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell, agency officials endorsed the city's latest proposal, a "preservation plan" that erects a concrete wall along three-quarters of the Point. The limestone rocks would remain on the other quarter.

Residents say it's absurd to call the city's latest plan preservation. "They're destroying three-quarters of the Point--how can you call that preservation?" says Greg Lane, a task force member. "I suppose we should welcome the city's acknowledgment that at least a portion of the limestone rocks can remain. Before this, they were adamant in insisting that all the rocks had to go."

Despite the mediator's ruling, the city continues to insist that concrete will better resist erosion than the limestone. But early indications from the north side suggest that the concrete wall actually accentuates the very erosion it's supposed to guard against. As waves crash against the wall, the water shoots up high and onto the grass behind it. The force of the waves isn't buffered, as it was by the old rocks.

Last spring the Hyde Parkers got a break when their congressman, Jesse Jackson Jr., took their side. (Whether he was doing so to prepare for a mayoral run in 2007 or because he's an ardent preservationist is a subject for another debate.) Jackson offered an amendment to the federal Water Resources Development Act, which funds the project, to permit funding only for a preservation plan.

This was a stunning legislative move for a Chicago congressman. Most of our representatives avoid local fights. If Jackson's amendment becomes law, the city will have a choice: preserve the Point as it is or do nothing. Most Hyde Parkers predict the city would swallow its pride and adopt their preservation plan before it would give up about $20 million in federal funds (that's about how much the feds would pay to fortify the Point).

"You watch--if Congress closes the door on the city's plan, the city will move forward in a real preservation way or they won't get their money," says Jack Spicer, a member of the task force. "It's all about the money."

But Jackson's amendment is a long way from becoming law. The Senate has its own version of the Water Resources Development Act. As a congressional aide explains it to me, in the next few months the Senate and the House will meet to settle on one bill. If Obama endorses the amendment it will be included in the bill that gets passed. And if he doesn't? "The matter would go to a reconciliation process, and no one knows what would happen then," says the aide.

The senator's stance on the matter remains a mystery. An aide to Jackson tells me that several weeks ago Obama told Jackson he would study the matter.

Apparently he's still studying.

In a recent e-mail to Hyde Parkers who had pleaded for his support, Obama wrote that he is "closely examining the issues associated with the Point and listening carefully to various perspectives on the issue." He assured them: "You can be sure your views, along with those of the other concerned Chicago residents from whom I have heard, will be paramount in my consideration of how this debate should be resolved."

Does that mean he plans to support Jackson's amendment? His press aide, Julian Green, did not return calls for comment. And at a tumultuous hearing on September 15, at which over 400 Hyde Parkers angrily denounced the city's proposal, the senator sent an aide who read a statement every bit as noncommital as his e-mail.

It's not as though Obama is unfamiliar with the issue. He used to represent Hyde Park in the state senate. In fact, he still lives not far from the Point. The problem, City Hall sources tell me, is that Obama is in a jam he doesn't know how to get out of. If he backs the residents he upsets Daley. If he backs Daley he upsets his neighbors, some of whom have been his most loyal supporters. Either way someone is going to be angry.

The issue's not going away. Jackson remains committed to his amendment. "The Point is a unique lakefront treasure that is worthy of preservation," says Rick Bryant, a Jackson spokesman. "We believe preservation can be done effectively, so why not do it?"

"I think [Obama] wants to make everyone happy, but I don't know how he can make everyone happy here," says Spicer. "[Former Hyde Park alderman] Leon Despres says there are two parts to an elected official's job. Ninety percent is housekeeping and ten percent is leadership. Every now and then you have to take a stand."

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