Emergency lakefront erosion work is imminent at Promontory Point
The passage of the latest infrastructure bill funds the US Army Corps of Engineers’ emergency erosion work under the General Reevaluation Report (GRR). The GRR will complete the unconstructed work at Promontory Point under the 1996 Water Resources Development Act. For Promontory Point’s limestone revetment, a design engineering study will commence as soon as 1 March 2022. Construction at Promontory Point will begin as soon as the work at Morgan Shoal is completed, in about two years. In November 2020, the City issued a general obligation bond to raise capital for this share of the construction at Morgan Shoal and the design and construction at Promontory Point.
But there’s no emergency erosion crisis at Promontory Point
Despite high lake water levels and lakefront erosion in 2017-2020, there was no emergency erosion or flooding threat to Lake Shore Drive, private property or human life from wave action at Promontory Point. The 83-year old limestone revetment still functions and just needs repair and rehabilitation. Because of its past history and its inventive construction, the rock perimeter at the Point is still resisting storms without collapse. Conditions at the rock perimeter are gradually deteriorating, some block movement has occurred and overtopping by storm waves has eroded the grass on the immediate landslide of the revetment on the north and northeast sections. Rock and gravel used by the Chicago Park District for fill have been thrown up on parkland adjacent to the revetment on the north and northeast sides. The only imminent danger is the local failure of the concrete platform, the coffins, on the northeast section which is where the Park District poured concrete into gaps two years ago. Now that lake levels are dropping rapidly due to drought, there is even less danger at Promontory Point. The US ACE and City are using a crisis at Morgan Shoal and South Shore to falsify emergency conditions at the Point. These emergency conditions, they believe, allow them to demolish the limestone revetment and to construct concrete and steel, and ignore a feasible preservation approach for the historic revetment.
The City’s locally preferred plan is demolition of the historic limestone revetment and new construction of concrete and steel
The core of the dispute with the City and the Chicago Park District is whether this new construction, or rehabilitation and repair of the historic limestone revetment is the best way to preserve Promontory Point. The City of Chicago (CDOT)’s Shoreline Protection Project identifies the new construction from 53rd Street to 57th Street along Lake Shore Drive: “The preferred design of the revetment is vertical steel sheet piles to replace the damaged wood piles, and concrete steps and promenade to replace the existing stones. This design maintains safe access to the shoreline while preserving its historic and aesthetic value.” We don’t think this makes sense and is necessary, and we don’t think it’s preservation.
Why does the City and the Chicago Park District want to demolish the limestone revetment and replace it with new construction? The City knows how to do the concrete and steel construction seen along the rest of the Chicago lakefront and has contracts and relationships with trucking, demolition and concrete companies: it’s their locally preferred plan. In 1996-2002, they removed the original WPA limestone revetment along the entire City lakefront except at Promontory Point where the community stopped demolition in 2002. The concrete revetment north of the Point is already showing factoring and chipping; when concrete deteriorates the whole thing unravels. Concrete with a lifespan of 35 years is a bureaucrat’s expedient, IBGYBG solution.
It’s also possible that the City misunderstands a preservation approach and wrongly thinks it means removing all the limestone, building a new steel and concrete seawall and repositioning the limestone on top of it. In fact, the limestone just needs some new steel underpinning and much of the limestone can be reset and repaired in place. (This is a big reason preservation is less or no more expensive than the City’s demolition and new construction.)
Isn't preservation of the limestone revetment at Promontory Point required by law?
Yes, repairing and rehabilitating the limestone revetment is legally mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 because, on January 19, 2018, the Point was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique historic features including the limestone, step-stone revetment. In addition, the 1993 Memorandum of Agreement, 2002 SHPO letter of adverse effects and 2006 Obama Scope of Work are all still standing and legally require restoring the limestone revetment. This means that its limestone revetment is legally protected from demolition and requires a preservation approach: rehabilitation and repair. The City and USACE are using emergency erosion as an alibi to destroy the unique historic features the community loves and values so well at the Point.
Isn’t this deja vu all over again?
Yes, the community as Save the Point fought to protect the limestone revetment from demolition and the concrete and steel you see along the rest of the Chicago lakefront. Save the Point started as the Community Task Force for Promontory Point in 2000 and became Promontory Point Conservancy in 2004. We’ve been fighting for the Point from the beginning. Now, winter storms and high lake levels in 2017-2020 raise emergency erosion claims for the City to destroy the Point again. Hence, Save the Point Again! If you’re not on our mailing list for updates, sign up at promontorypoint.org.
Wasn’t there a 2002 compromise plan?
Only in a clever use of language. The City’s 2002 compromise plan was a steel and concrete revetment with 3 extra ladders into the water and some decorative limestone blocks along the parkland. The compromise plan is not a preservation plan to repair and rehabilitate the historic limestone revetment: it is new construction of concrete and steel.
Why a new design study? We already have a design concept for the Point: the construction of the Point itself
It’s self-evident if you walk the Point. The Point’s revetments was designed to protect parkland behind it from the impacts of wave energy and associated erosion. And this revetment has done an outstanding job for its 83-year life and still functions with little care and maintenance in its lifespan.
Without much maintenance over its long history, however, it is slowly eroding and needs repair and rehabilitation. The northeast section with the concrete coffins, modifications made in the early 1960s, is deteriorating more rapidly where wave action eroded a small portion of the landfill and the CPD poured concrete filler, and overtopping waves have eroded grass on the immediate landslide of the revetment on the northeast and north sections.
This ingenious design can be repaired and rehabilitated with a preservation approach. From 2002-2004, the Conservancy funded multiple engineering studies to show preservation is doable and illustrate different creative approaches to repair-in-place and adaptation for ADA compliance. New steel sheet piling with stepped toe stones, resetting of some stones and substrate repairs for others can all be completed as repair-in-place work.
But the community’s preferred design plan is preservation. Isn't anyone listening?
Preservation is legally required at Promontory Point. The community for over twenty years has supported a preservation plan that repairs and rehabilitates the limestone revetment. Why does the US Army Corps need to start all over again when we’ve already done all this work? Why can’t we just resume where we left off in 2006?
Why prefer demolition? Preservation is doable, cheaper, more durable, faster and better looking than demolition and new construction
In 2002-2004, the community funded its own design engineering studies (2002 Galvin Report, 2003 Shabica-Tjaden-Heiztman Preservation Plan and Cost Estimate, 2004 Kalven Mediator’s Report with Bruxnell) that repeatedly showed that a preservation approach with adaptation for ADA compliance was entirely feasible, notably:
Can we add for easy access and ADA compliance?
Yes, preservation standards allow for adaptation for ADA compliance. This offers creative possibilities to the City and Park District to work with the Conservancy and its engineers to find aesthetically viable ways for people to get to the revetment and the water, and into the water. The Conservancy hears from folks in wheelchairs and their families that they want smoother parkland pathways, better entrances to restrooms and easy access to the promenade and the water. A preservation approach promises these solutions. Preservation with creative ADA adaptation is good for the community.
Isn't preservation just a white thing?
Preservation actually came about to protect communities of color, their cultures and social structures from the Interstate Highway system that divided communities and destroyed their viability. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was enacted as a response to the nationwide destruction brought about by federally initiated programs like the National Highway Ace and Urban Renewal. During the 1950s and 1960s, people saw the negative changes in their cities and developed a concern for their "quality of life that reflected their identity.”
Point lovers are a diverse group and come from all over the City. They find the Point safe, serene and fun. The Point is one of the few places where everyone can get to and into the water. (Did you know that there are four distinct types of swimmers at the Point?)
What about environmentally sound solutions that also contribute to park economic equity?
Demolition and concrete use excessive amounts of energy, generate air and sound pollution, take much longer, and are expensive. The community of Point lovers represented by Promontory Point Conservancy has been committed to preserving the historic limestone, step-stone revetment at Promontory Point for more than twenty years. We continue to stand for preservation, rehabilitation, and repair as we prepare for work at the Point. We believe that preservation of the historic limestone revetment is legally required, and environmentally and aesthetically far superior to demolition and new construction with steel and concrete. We also believe preservation would be quicker, with much less time for the Point to be closed for construction.
And preservation, rehabilitation, repair, and maintenance would probably be cheaper than demolition and new construction. But even if preservation should cost more — which we have good evidence to doubt—it would still be worth the investment in a historic and unique public park on the South Side.
Debra Hammond is currently an officer of Promontory Point Conservancy. She has always been tall for her age