By Jon Hilkevitch and Kim Geiger, Chicago Tribune reporters
8:29 AM EDT, March 31, 2013
Ten years ago as Mayor Richard M. Daley worked through political channels to accelerate federal approval to build new runways at the airport his father had dearly called "O'Hara," the mayor also issued an infamous order to destroy Chicago's little lakefront airport.
Starting late on March 30 and ending in the very early hours of March 31, 2003, bulldozers escorted by Chicago police rumbled onto Meigs Field, gouged X-shaped trenches in the north-south runway and cut access to taxiways. The only objective witnesses to what some critics labeled a crime were some sleepy sea gulls among 16 planes stranded on the field.
To prevent the secret operation from being recorded, a city firetruck trained a spotlight at the lens of an Internet camera positioned at the nearby Adler Planetarium. Unusual radio chatter so early in the morning alerted the news media that something was up, but they were kept away.
Al Capone. The Stockyards. Pan-style pizza. And the Daley dynasty that could pull off the "Meigs Massacre." They are all among the icons depicting what Chicago looks and smells like to the rest of the world.
The aesthetics are slowly changing on Northerly Island, a 4,500-foot-long peninsula that was constructed in the 1920s and originally was supposed to be the northernmost in a string of islands envisioned by architect and city planner Daniel H. Burnham in his Plan of Chicago of 1909. But the rest of the atoll was never built.
Merrill C. Meigs Field opened there in December 1948, named for the publisher of the Chicago Herald and Examiner. By 1955, it became the busiest single-runway airport in the U.S.
Though Daley had long wanted to close Meigs and turn Northerly Island into a park, he gave a different reason for the runway destruction at the time, saying he was trying to reduce any airborne threat against downtown buildings "in these very uncertain times" — only a year and a half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
After Meigs was closed, park enthusiasts set out to realize Daley's vision, and the Chicago Park District took initial steps to transform the empty peninsula. The area was landscaped with about 400 trees and more than 30 acres of prairie grass. The old airport terminal building was converted into a visitor center, which houses the park's nature center and bird hospital.
In 2005, the Live Nation entertainment company built Charter One Pavilion, a temporary concert venue, which has hosted Stevie Wonder, the Beastie Boys and many others in the years since.
But today's Northerly Island looks nothing like the recreational and ecological haven that Daley had proposed. The 91-acre man-made peninsula, which was the site of the 1933 Century of Progress world's fair, is still being slowly redeveloped, in stages that will take years and tens of millions of dollars to complete.
Gia Biagi, chief of staff at the Park District, said a number of factors have slowed long-term plans for the land, especially tight finances and Chicago's failed bid to host the 2016 Olympics, which offered Northerly as a site for beach volleyball, kayaking and sailing.
Capacity is being expanded this year at the concert pavilion. More ambitious projects might be commissioned, ranging from constructing a pedestrian-bicycle bridge across Burnham Harbor to creating a nature habitat that could include an artificial snorkeling reef.
As it is, though, people are wondering whether the land was put to proper use.
Daniel Nott, 42, told his teenage son about the midnight raid as they walked along the site's nature path last week. Nott said he thought Daley was "insane" at the time, but he still had high hopes for the peninsula after learning about Daley's plan for the space.
"They obviously didn't do any of it," Nott said, pointing out at the acres of brown grass. "I love the fact that there's so much green space, but I'm a little surprised, 10 years later, that they haven't done more to improve the area. It's just a lot of grass."
Adrian Danzig, 48, recalled the mayor's Meigs maneuver as political payback and said he hadn't taken the plans for renovating the site very seriously. According to Danzig's theory, Daley shut the airport because it was used by "Republicans coming in from Springfield" on state business.
"If I think about it, I'm sure there are better uses" for the site, rather than the vast emptiness that covers it today, Danzig said. "If there was sky-diving, that would be good."
To many people, the 10 years since Meigs closed have flown by. On the anniversary this weekend, the former mayor was traveling in Asia on business, his spokeswoman said. He did not respond to questions emailed to him.
When Daley sent demolition crews into Meigs, some critics said the mayor acted illegally and should have been criminally prosecuted. But even the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national group that represents the interests of private pilots and for several years waged court fights to reopen Meigs, acknowledged that Chicago owned the airport, which the city had bought from the Park District.
"I still have members come up to us and ask, 'Why did you let Meigs Field close?'" said Bill Dunn, the pilot group's vice president for airport advocacy. "I would argue that what Daley did wasn't ethical, doing it at 1 or 2 in the morning to make sure no one would interfere. And he violated FAA regulations by diverting revenue from O'Hare to pay for the demolition of Meigs. But it was property owned by Chicago."
Still, Dunn said the closing of a publicly owned airport close to the central business district is rare.
"Most cities, take Cleveland and New Orleans, for instance, understand that an airport is actually much like the interstate highway system — it is the community's entrance and exit ramp to a national transportation system," Dunn said. "If you lay down a mile of roadway, it takes you one mile. A mile of runway will take you anywhere in the world."
Even after all these years, the loss of Meigs remains difficult to reconcile for pilots like Steve Whitney, who grew up in Chicago's suburbs, earned his pilot's license while in high school and vividly remembers his excitement each time he spotted the airfield from Lake Shore Drive, before the road was reconfigured.
"Meigs to me was an inspiration. It represented travel and freedom and independence. I would like people to recognize that something big, a landmark, was lost," said Whitney, getting a little choked up.
"There is a line in the Plan of Chicago," he said. "It talks about one of the reasons to develop the lakefront was the romance of watching boats on the lake. I get the same feeling from airplanes, getting an iconic view of this big beautiful city from the air," he said.
Whitney is president of the Friends of Meigs Field and said its membership is about 6,800 today. On Sunday, a flyover is planned — complete with the missing man formation — to commemorate the city's destruction of Meigs, said Rachel Goodstein, a former president of Friends of Meigs Field.
Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and 44th Ward alderman from 1971-79, said he views the Meigs affair as an example of the autocratic misuse of mayoral power over city government.
"It will be remembered as one of the negative aspects of the Daley regime, along with a rubber-stamp City Council, failures to get the big projects (done) like a third airport" and Daley's inability to revitalize the southeast section of Chicago, said Simpson, who introduced resolutions to close Meigs in the 1970s. He was thwarted by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who insisted on keeping the airstrip open for the business community because of Meigs' nearness to downtown.
The senior Daley's son, on the other hand, with the blessing if not the insistence of his wife, Maggie, started plans to turn Meigs into a park shortly after he became mayor in 1989.
The mayor closed Meigs, for the first of two times, in 1996. The shutdown and plans for a park were not received well in Springfield however. Meigs reopened in 1997.
In 2001, Daley struck a new deal with Gov. George Ryan to keep Meigs open until at least 2006, in return for Ryan supporting Daley's plan to expand and modernize O'Hare International Airport. The two men later informally agreed that Meigs would stay open until 2026, but Daley reneged, sending in the bulldozers.
Paul Green, a political scientist and commentator, thinks Daley's Meigs caper won't amount to more than a blip on the political radar.
"Ask Chicagoans, would they rather have the Meigs airport for a few people or to go see Jimmy Buffett?" said Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University.
"It's over," Green said, dismissing any suggestions that the decision had tarnished Daley. "(Daley) certainly knows how to end a debate."
Ten years have passed, and presumably the pilots and businesspeople who used Meigs have dispersed to other airports, he said.
No definitive studies have been conducted to show where the traffic went, according to the pilot group, or whether significant numbers of Chicago visitors who previously landed at Meigs have boycotted the city, as some Meigs' supporters warned would happen.
"It's a new city. Old grudges die when you have new voters," Green said.
Indeed, with Rahm Emanuel now mayor, his administration said its plans for Northerly Island definitely do not involve an airport.
"Northerly Island has tremendous potential as an open space that all Chicagoans can enjoy, and we are focused on pursuing its development as a world-class place for Chicagoans and tourists to gather," said Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton.
The Park District's long-term plan for Northerly Island calls for dividing the peninsula into an active northern end with a permanent concert venue and other activities for visitors; and a nature-focused habitat on the southern end, which would serve as a haven for migratory birds and native species.
Charter One Pavilion would be replaced by a permanent amphitheater with as many as 14,000 seats nestled into the landscape. Cars would be hidden in an underground parking garage, and a pedestrian bridge at Burnham Harbor would offer an entry for people on foot and on bicycles.
The old Meigs Field terminal building would be stripped down to its architectural pillars and used as an open-air pavilion, while a separate structure would be built nearby to house the nature center and bird hospital. A harbor walk along the site's western edge would offer a landing place for visitors to buy food, rent equipment and use facilities.
The southern end would be transformed into a series of interconnected ecosystems: wetland, prairie, savanna and woodland. A pond would be constructed and equipped with underwater cameras to monitor the growth of a mudpuppy habitat.
An artificial reef along the eastern edge would shield the shoreline from rough waves. And sunken ships would offer attractions along an underwater trail.
Completing the plan will likely take many years and cost tens of millions of dollars. The Park District doesn't even have a ballpark estimate of the total cost, Biagi said.
But the Army Corps of Engineers will break ground on the wilderness portion of the project in the coming weeks, officials said.
"This is a plan that inherits 100 years worth of thinking, and we're actually building it this year," Biagi said. "It's amazing, as a civic achievement, in a town where we do care about planning."
The corps will pay $5 million of the $7.7 million cost of building the ecosystems on the southern portion of the site. The Park District will provide the rest from funds saved from concert proceeds.
Construction is expected to take about a year, and the corps will maintain the nature preserve for five years, Biagi said.
Also under way is a renovation of Charter One Pavilion. The lakefront concert venue will expand from nearly 5 acres to nearly 7 acres, with an additional 6 acres of lawn area, officials said. An additional 600 fixed seats will be added to the existing 8,000, and 22,000 lawn seats will bring the venue's total capacity to more than 30,000, officials said. Live Nation, the entertainment company that puts on the concerts, will pay the $3 million cost of the renovation. The new setup will be used for shows this summer.
Park advocates said that while the process has been slow, the peninsula is poised to become a leading example of urban green space design.
"I think that we're lucky we're doing it now," said Bob O'Neill, president of the Grant Park Conservancy. "If you look back, people just used to throw in some grass and a park bench and a few trees. It's all much more sophisticated now, so it's a better time to be doing this."
Old resentments about the way the airport was closed have withered as time has passed, O'Neill said.
"It used to be I'd talk about it and people would talk about the way it was closed," O'Neill said. "Now, they don't even bring that up. Time can really heal, and that's what's happened. Now there's far more support going forward."
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