Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What if Everything You Thought You Knew about the Promontory Point Saga was Wrong?

PART I in the Promontory Point Controversy Series

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Hyde Park Activist versus Progress

If you’re a faithful reader of this blog and its comments, you know that I’ve been making these two argument for months:

(1) the final plan for the Point that the City offered was genuinely good, but very few people have seen it (YOU probably haven't seen it, for instance, dear Reader),

(2) most people innocently believe the “Save the Point” group did a service for the community by putting the kibosh on the City's plan.

I now have anecdotal evidence of both (1) and (2), and his name is Alec Brandon. Alec is a student in the College who wrote an interesting online Maroon Op-Ed piece about how the activists in Hyde Park messed up by interfering with the Doctor’s Hospital deal.

But in that otherwise dead-on piece he dropped this one, disturbing line:
While the Point revetment was a fairly open-and-shut case -- the
city wanted to change public land for the worse -- tearing down the Doctors Hospital and putting in two hotels is far more complex.
So I wrote to Alec, and he admitted to me that he hadn’t researched the Point controversy carefully.

This is how most people understand the Point controversy:

(a) On January 17th, 2001 the City proposed a revetment like the one we now have between 51st and 54th Street, which is inappropriate for the Point and relatively unattractive, to boot,

(b) a community task force succeeded in stopping that bad design through “activism,” and (apparently) with overwhelming public support.

That’s not even half the story.

What’s missing you ask? Well, exactly 6 years of wrangling between multiple parties: the City, the Park District, the Army Corps of Engineers, a couple of historic agencies, an original Task Force that worked hard to secure multiple concessions from the City, and a second Task Force (the "Save the Point" group).

Here's what you really don't know:

All of this wrangling culminated in a great design that the "Save the Point" group stubbornly (and somewhat hysterically) rejected out of hand -- a design that very few people have actually seen.

Over the next couple of weeks I'll tell you more about the history of the Promontory Point controversy. The story is big and cumbersome and messy -- it's far from Alec's "open-and-shut" case -- so you’re going to have to slog through a lot of details and get your hands dirty.

But before I do that, you really ought to familiarize yourself with the Compromise Plan that your neighborhood “activists” threw away, supposedly on your behalf.

Go forth. Read it now. Skedaddle.

Come back when you think you can accurately describe the Compromise Plan to the next well-meaning but misguided person you see with a Save the Point bumper sticker.


Jennifer said...

Hello there, I'm one of those people. T-shirt, though, not bumper sticker. Been wearing the darn thing for years while wondering if the city's final plan was simply to let the whole Point fall right into the lake. (Problem solved!)

I never saw the so-called compromise plan until I ran into your post about it some weeks ago. (I believe I might have been wearing that t-shirt at the time, too.) I was under the (apparently mistaken) impression that the bickering these past few years was mostly about funding. The compromise plan must have come out during the time that I was living in the library in my (thankfully successful) attempt to graduate.

What can we do at this point (har har) besides blog and write letters to students to whom the original controversy is almost ancient history? I rarely ever see those bumper stickers anymore. The revetments have deteriorated so badly since I signed my own student petition back in the day that I honestly think that even the original butt-ugly plan would be an improvement. Has even basic maintenance been stalled ever since or something?

LPB said...


How is it that the Compromise Plan was kept under wraps so well -- smothered, so to speak?

I didn't live in this neighborhood when the STP camp ramped up marketing activities, so I'd love to hear how it went down.

Waiting with bated breath.

Elizabeth Fama said...


Well, this isn't AA, but I do appreciate people standing up and saying, "Hi, my name is Joe, and I have a SAVE THE POINT bumper sticker."

It's the first step toward recovery.

You're right that the Point has deteriorated substantially since the project was stalled. In fact, even the supposedly wind- and wave- protected south side (which the SAVE THE POINT folks claimed could be left "as is") has become significantly deteriorated .

In the next few Point posts I'll have a timeline of the events up until the present. But the short answers to your questions are: as far as I know funding was never the subject of bickering, other than the goofy SAVE THE POINT claim that their (un-engineered) alternative design would cost millions of dollars LESS than the City's plan (huh? We're going to frugally turn down federal funds?) No, as far as I can tell, the picketing has been a stalling tactic to make sure nothing gets done. (I can't explain it any other way, so if the activists would like to write in and explain why they turned down a perfectly good design, well, bring it on.)

Right now Barack Obama is charged with forming a committee to study the subject and design a third plan (which will theoretically be unrelated to the Compromise Plan, even though millions of dollars have gone into its design and millions more into alterations because of negotiations with the original task force; and even though, I'll say it again, it's a great design).

Needless to say, my opinion is that we should be gunning for the Compromise Plan, now, with no more ridiculous "studying," pronto, thank you. If Barack Obama and Leslie Hairston knew their constituents wanted it -- in the same way that it turns out the silent majority wanted the Co-Op to give way to progress...maybe they'd give it the green light.

Elizabeth Fama said...


Oh, gosh, it's all so messy.

There were two Task Forces, you know. The first secured most of the changes to the plan (9 important compromise points). At the last minute in negotiations there was effectively a coup of the Task Force by All-Limestone Fundamentalists (what later became the second Task Force, but I prefer their colloquial name, the SAVE THE POINT group). As a result of the SAVE THE POINT group's further negotiations, the City made one final concession: the top two steps of the revetment would be limestone blocks rather than concrete. With this final change the design became the Compromise Plan.

The City presented the Compromise Plan at the South Shore Cultural Center, to an audience stacked with a shrill SAVE THE POINT crowd, which loudly rejected the plan "on behalf of the community." It was unpleasant and unproductive, to put it very mildly. The City, Park District, and Army Corps representatives had a clear look in their eye that they were going to wash their hands of the mess as soon as they could beat it out of the room. After that meeting, Leslie Hairston backed down from her endorsement of the Compromise Plan (which she had made through a memorandum of agreement signed between her, the Army Corps, the City, the Park District, and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency). She didn't know what we all know now from the Co-Op fiasco: the loudest voices aren't necessarily the majority.

Still, the City didn't do itself any favors in the PR department. They made a lot of substantial concessions and had an appealing design, yet never got that message out to the general public (relying only on this public meeting to get the word out). The meeting was reported in the Herald -- so you know what the slant was there -- and by a horrified Tribune reporter (a non-Hyde Parker whose view of us was formed at that screaming match, and who was left with the conclusion that the community was clearly opposed to the plan).

Since then, the Compromise Plan hasn't surfaced because no one (but Hyde Park Progress) is promoting it. The SAVE THE POINT people are our "representatives," whether we want them or not, and they won't endorse anything.

Jennifer said...

"a horrified Tribune reporter"

Was that the feature in the Chicago Tribune Magazine where they compared the feisty, trouble-making south-siders with the more well behaved but wistful north-siders, and quoted somebody on the difference being like that between Venus and Mars? The one that profiled some guy and his dog? I wonder if I remembered to save it...

LPB said...


Thank you for the background. I think my confusion stemmed from the fact that there were TWO groups that claimed the same "community task force" title. So, folks in support of the Compromise Plan were the first CTF. Then, the "Save The Point" people executed a coup d'etat and assumed the mantle of the CTF.

As with the long-gone Co-Op board that made the ill-advised decision to expand (and ultimately greased the skids for the Co-Op's slide into financial distress, are the STP leaders still in the neighborhood? Have any of them apologized or been held accountable for derailing the compromise plan that would have saved the Point from its current state of dismal deterioration? Any thoughts at all from what had previously been a very vocal group about the Point's current state? Or, just underwhelming and telling silence?

I don't know about you, but I'm thoroughly sick of self-appointed individuals who claim to speak for the community and then can't be held accountable when their decisions lead to undesirable outcomes.

Alec Brandon said...

Both Elizabeth and Peter set me straight on this one.

I was wrong on this one.

I didn't do much research because it wasn't the main point of the column and it was hard for me to realize how far HP residents had gone even on the issue of the Point.

EdJ said...

I am amazed at how a small group of people can keep a stranglehold on the neighborhood.

Whether it's the Co-op, the Point, or 53rd Street, people are always talking about their attachment to and fond memories of these institutions in Hyde Park. They try to stop change in order to protect these memories. I have lived in Hyde Par, but I can say that I do not have any fond memories of any of these things. I can't take my five and two year olds to the Point becaue it's dangerous even for adults. I don't see the point of trying to maintain someone else's memories at the expense of building my own with my family.

Anyway, say what you will about the NIMBYs. At least they have a great theme song:

(From Horse Feathers)

I don't know what they have to say,
it makes no difference anyway -
whatever it is, I'm against it!
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I'm against it!

Your proposition may be good,
but let's have one thing understood -
whatever it is, I'm against it!
And even when you've changed it or condensed it,
I'm against it!

I'm opposed to it.
On general principles I'm opposed to it.

For months before my son was born,
I used to yell from night to morn -
"Whatever it is, I'm against it!"
And I've kept yelling since I first commenced it,
"I'm against it!"

chicago pop said...

Edj writes an almost poetic line: I don't see the point of trying to maintain someone else's memories at the expense of building my own with my family.

No one has better voiced my own particular motivations for starting this blog.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Alec, I'm sorry that I dragged you into this. But I'm grateful to you for that one mistep you took in public because it allowed me shape my thoughts about just what has happened to the public's perception of the Point developments over time.

Jennifer, the Trib story after the South Shore Cultural Center meeting was just a 450 word news article in Metro, entitled "Promontory Point Plan Battered by Boos." (I vaguely remember a magazine article, too, and I suspect it was Ted Erikson - and his dog, Umbra.)

EdJ said...

Kudos to Alec Brandon for commenting on this blog. I read the Maroon for clear and concise reporting on events in Hyde Park and the university. He and the rest of the staff at the Maroon have high journalistic standards and I look forward to picking up the paper whenever it comes out. I encourage everyone to read Alec's November 27 column, "Development key to safer Hyde Park" (, where he rights about the connection between a more active neighborhood with more people on the streets, leading to greater safety as criminals are less likely to commit crimes when there are more people around. It's a really good piece.

Peter Rossi said...


I am a huge fan of that Horse Feather's song (sung by Groucho to the assembled faculty of Huxley College). You are so right!!!

Famac said...

I like the new revetment north of the Point, and I think plenty others do as well. Sure, it should be built properly - but from the perspective of its looks -- I think its great.

If they had the technology to pour concrete in an area like the Point back when it was constructed - I believe that's what we would be looking at right now. Put a block of limestone next to a block of weathered concrete tell me the difference. I bet they used limestone because it was the cheapest material available at the time.

"We don't negotiate with terrorists" would be my approach if I was the Mayor. Show up in the middle of the night, close the entrances to the Point, and do the revetment. Problem solved. These knuckle heads arn't going to vote for Mayor Daley anyway.

Any any of you thinking about voting for Obama should really think about his approach to this issue and its ramifications for dealing with real problems.

Peter Rossi said...

more on what beth said about the "charge" of the Obama commmittee.

Obama started this process by declaring that we should start with the Compromise Plan and then modify it (if possible). By March 2006, this got changed by his staff to we have to start from scratch.

This is basically impossible because any plan has to adhere to engineering standards for a 50 year life and ADA accessibility. This means that you need a concrete core (for durability) and a concrete promenade (for accessibility). So we are just arguing about how many steps can be out of limestone. The Compromise Plan has 2 out of 4 in limestone and the rest textured to look at LOT like stone (check out the sample at 31st street).

So what this means is that we are talking about possibly adding one step of limestone if the money can be found for the additional material cost (where I don't know).

Is all of this worth it? Is this about saving the point or saving the reputations of a few folks who think they speak for the users of the Point but can never actually be found at the Point?

Richard Gill said...

Following up on Peter Rossi's comment: Sen. Obama would have done well to stay out of the Point controversy. All he did was set back the clock. As a US Senator, didn't he have anything more global to worry about?

Come to think of it:

Thought #1: If Obama has any clout with the Department of Defense, he could ask them to communicate an ultimatum-- reach a legally viable agreement on the Point quickly, or they'll put back the missile site.

Thought #2: Hyde Park could take a lesson from the Iowa Caucuses. They have one evening to reach binding consensus.

Thought #3: I should think of something other than Thoughts #1 and #2.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Speaking of "legally binding" Richard, it's not clear to me in this whole controversy that we couldn't just plow ahead with the Compromise Plan if we wanted to, because it has been OK'd by the only parties who need to OK it, (according to the Memorandum of Agreement of June, 1993): the City, the Park District, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the agent of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Peter Rossi, am I right about this? Or does the current interference by Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson, Jr. put some sort of legal "hold" on the project?

Perhaps it's unfair, but I fault Leslie Hairston for not just standing up and doing the right thing all these years: requesting (on behalf of her constituents) that the project proceed according to the Compromise Plan -- a plan that included her negotiating efforts as much as anybody's. I can only think she's afraid of a vocal political power she perceives the SAVE THE POINT group to have. But I also suspect that a nice, educated referendum vote (like the Co-Op had) might put those fears to rest.

Elizabeth Fama said...

P.S. By "educated" referendum, I mean people would vote after they've seen the Compromise Plan and its alternative (er, stagnation in a senate committee?) -- since most people don't know the issues.

By the way, in my perfect voting world, the SAVE THE POINT people would not be allowed to imply (as they did in the past) that we could successfully hold out for an all-limestone design, since we can't (see Peter Rossi's comment above).

EdJ said...

Can't we get bumper stickers printed up that say something like: "SAVE THE POINT FROM FALLING INTO THE LAKE" or "SAVE THE POINT. FIX IT"?

Jennifer said...


Elizabeth Fama said...

I like that -- FIX THE POINT sounds optimistic, and not too antagonistic. Several years ago as a PR stunt I printed up "PAVE THE POINT" bumper stickers (mainly to mail them to our political representatives), but that just got people mad.

I'd be happy to print up some FIX THE POINT bumper stickers for you all, in honor of the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the Point saga -- which is January 17th (you'll see that date as part of the Point Controversy Timeline post early next week).

But how many would I order, and how would I get them to you if you prefer to remain anonymous onthe blog? Any ideas?

(I'm thinking the same lettering as the SAVE THE POINT stickers, but on a green ["green means go"] background.)

Famac said...

I already have "Save The Herald" stickers at the printer, so everyone can stay seated.

Peter Rossi said...

FIX THE POINT is great.

I need at least 50. I'll pay for them.

and, Beth, YES you are right. The Compromise Plan has been okayed by all parties to the Memorandum of Agreement of 1993 -- IHPA, City Department of Environment, Park District and Army Corps of Engineers. At one point, our wishy-washy Alderman even supported it.

Peter Rossi said...

While I respect famac's views about the 51-54th revetment, I think we have learned that folks don't want this wrapped around the Point.

BUT, the Compromise Plan is NOT this. It is mostly limestone.

I think the worst feature of the 51-54 revetment is not the concrete but the ugly steel pilings which are now rather visible at our near record low lake level.

The Compromise Plan HIDES these with limestone block.

I do notice this-- people actually walk and sit on the new 51-54 revetment because it has a level promenade. NO ONE strolls on the Point revetment because it is the nearest thing to "bouldering" east of the Rockies!

One more thing: the SAVE THE POINTERS screamed about how "blindingly white" the 51-54th Street revetment was after is was built. Our patient servants at the CPD explained that this was just a curing compound that would soon wear off. LIAR!!! shouted the SAVE the POINTERs.

Who is the liar now? The 51-54 is now a dull grey.

This is what is so awful about the SAVE THE POINT Executive Committee -- you claimed to represent the community and you did not and then you walked away leaving our treasure in ruins! Step up Jack Spicer, Greg Lane, Connie Spreen, Fred Bluhm, Bruce Johnstone, Hans Moresbach and be held accountable for the unnecessary danger you have exposed this beautiful place to!

Peter Rossi said...

Before people hang me, in the previous comment when I say "the Compromise Plan is mostly limestone" I mean that the dominant visual impression is limestone not that it is mostly limestone by volume!

The one thing those of us who support the Compromise Plan do not do is misprepresent the facts. We leave that to our SAVE THE POINT brethren.

Peter Rossi said...

Before we get down on Senator Obama too much, I think he (like so many others) didn't know what sort of bedfellows he was acquiring when dealing with the SAVE THE POINT executive committee.

Like so many others, he got burned by them.

Fortunately, Obama has bigger fish to fry and I look foward to seeing him give the religious right a run for their money.

Unfortunately,I am forced to agree with Beth that the elected official who needs to step up on this issue is Alderman Hairston. She has gotten burned by the STPers before, but, heck, that is her job. Given that she was relected by a 75% majority without any significant opposition. I see little risk in helping moving us forward on this issue.

SR said...

I notice the domain name is not taken. Maybe there could a website that collects all of Elizabeth Fama's Point postings when she's done with them, and has a pdf of the complete Compromise plan so people can see and judge for themselves? And an online petition to sign, that can be presented to Hairston once there are a hefty number of signatures?

In that case, you'd want the bumper stickers to say Then people who saw them and didn't know what they were about, or who mistook the slogan for just another iteration of SAVE THE POINT, would have somewhere to find information. There could also be letters to the Maroon & Herald about the safety issues + virtues of the Compromise plan + impossibility of the all-limestone plan + address of the website to drive some traffic to the petition.

I think getting the basic information out is really, really important. Before I found this blog, I assumed that the ONLY reason the city wouldn't go with the SAVE THE POINT plan was that the Mayor has lots of "friends" in the concrete business, but none at all in the rebuilding with existing limestone business. (And since I've found this blog, I'd been assuming I didn't know the facts because I hadn't been paying attention much, but having followed the Herald's coverage of the Coop closing, I wonder if it EVER reported that the Army Corps of Engineers had rejected the all-limestone plan outright. I'd certainly never heard that before reading about it here.)

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'm so sorry not to have responded to SR's thoughtful comment above. It's loaded with great ideas that scared me. That is, with four kids, a basement under construction, and a supposed career as a writer, I'm already stretched. I panicked at the thought of starting a new web site.

But upon reflection, I realize that Chicago Pop and I were planning all along that this series would become the "go-to" repository of Promontory Point history and news. There's a SAVE THE POINT link on the blog roll so that all of the posts with that label will pop up if you click on it. It's not as neat and tidy as SR's idea, but unless someone else is willing to be web master of, it'll have to do.

On the subject of bumper stickers, they're already on their way to my door with the logo FIX THE POINT. I'll happily make a new batch with SR's suggested URL if someone starts that web site.

Your hopelessly harried servant,

SR said...

Hi Elizabeth, yeah, after I posted I thought, I'm so good at thinking of stuff other people should do! I don't know jack about web design, but I do know a lot of techies who used to live in HP. I'll see if I can find anyone who is interested in putting it together and would be willing to do basic maintenance on it. (I don't think it has to be anything fancy, and probably shouldn't be anyway, given the apparent fear and loathing inspired by the "slick" "glossy" Hungry4Change materials during the Coop thing.) I'll ask around.

I have to say your latest posting (on the timeline of what happened with the Point committee(s)) might just be irritating enough to any sane person with fond memories of the Point to serve as motivation whether they still live here or not. Anyhoo, I'll ask around ...

SR said...

Okay, I’ve secured the domain and recruited a web guy (a U of C alum). He says it’ll take about a week to set up the “back end management system.” (I’m just pretending I know what that means, but presumably that’s how long I’ve got to come up with some content. I’ll probably be in touch about photos etc.)

I don’t think I’d noticed the “Save the Point” button on the sidebar before; on reflection I think the STP posts are pretty happy collected together where they are, plus the comments tend to be pretty interesting. I think the simplest approach might be to have a summary of the issue on the front page of the separate site liberally sprinkled with links to supporting posts over here, plus links individually and to the whole collection in a sidebar (along with links to other info). Sending people back to this blog might supply some needed context for understanding how the process could have possibly gone so awry in the first place, what with such tireless defenders of our community in charge of it, and mustn’t we be leaving something out? (The answers being, because that’s how just about everything goes around here, and yes we are but not how you think.) The point was really just to figure out how to connect people who might see the bumper stickers and find the site with information about what’s happening with the Point, so I think links will do that just as well.

I feel pretty comfortable doing that much on my own; if there’s any interest in starting a petition, then I think I’d want to meet with other people to come up with the exact nature and wording of it. This implies some kind of committee, I think, and meetings. Maybe I’ll post a comment to your next Point post to gauge interest?

Don’t throw those bumper stickers out, btw; if I get this set up right, the Fix the Point site will pop up for anyone who Googles to find out what’s happening with the issue, so it’s not that crucial for them to have the web address, I don’t think.

chicago pop said...

Kudos to jennifer for the winning slogan "fix the point," and kudos to long-time reader SR for putting up (sometime soon) a "fix the point" website. Both great ideas. Now if we could just get some action figures, we'd be really ready to go...(maybe bobbleheads? I hear it's $400 to get a die cast)

Elizabeth Fama said...

Holy smokes! Chicago Pop was right that SR is a dynamo (although he may have said that privately to me).

The action figures will be 7.5"-high SAVE THE POINT principals, with tiny little chains and blocks of limestone, right?

SR said...

Heh, being called a "dynamo" inspired me to finally take down my Christmas tree last night (well, okay, just the ornaments and lights, but the tree tonight for sure).

Oh just try to keep up with me, world!

Benoit said...

If you get then IE and firefox will redirect there when you type in 'fixthepoint' in the address bar.