Sunday, January 6, 2008

Timeline of the Promontory Point Controversy: in 10 Painful Steps

PART II in the Promontory Point Controversy Series

posted by Elizabeth Fama

The tattered symbol, triumph?

I know this post looks long, but I've chiseled the timeline down as much as I can. It will bring you up to date on why the Point is actively deteriorating, more than 6 years after the City started rebuilding the rest of the shoreline:

1) January 17, 2001: At a community meeting, the City and Chicago Park District (CPD) presented an unacceptable plan for the Point revetment. The plan was along the lines of what you see between 51st and 54th Street. And even if you don't mind the way that stretch of new revetment looks (this means you, famac), the design (1) precludes water access (that's a deal-killer right there), (2) is arguably out of scale and over-engineered, and (3) does not reuse any limestone. So Alderman Leslie Hairston agreed to coordinate meetings between a community task force and the City and CPD officials, with the goal of modifying the design.

2) January, 2001 – May, 2001: The executive committee of the original community task force (Margie Borecki, Kay Clement, Bruce Johnstone, Tom Knight, Gerald Marsh, Lauren Moltz, Peter Rossi, and Jack Spicer) worked with the City to hammer out the “9-Point Plan,” which included nine design concessions from the City, including reducing the scale of the promenade and steps, lowering the top step to the height of the current revetment, and adding two, 300-foot limestone platform steps to provide swimming access on the north-side and south-side (to replace our current, horrible swimming access), along with sanctioned deep-water swimming. (Other than these limestone platform steps, and a limestone toe berm to visually hide the steel supports in the water, the structure was all concrete and steel.) Work would be carried out in phases, so that one half or the other of the Point would be open to recreation during construction. The plan also restored the original Caldwell landscaping.

3) May 1, 2001: All members of the executive committee of the community task force, including Jack Spicer and Bruce Johnstone, verbally agreed to a "Memorandum of Understanding" between Alderman Hairston, City officials, and the CPD, approving the 9-Point Plan.

4) May 1, 2001 – October, 2001: Apparently Jack Spicer and Bruce Johnstone decided that they didn’t support the 9-Point Plan after all. Behind the scenes they marshaled activists to attend the City’s October 1 presentation of the 9-Point Plan to the community, held in the auditorium of the Oriental Institute.

5) October 1, 2001: When the microphone was opened to the audience at the public meeting, Jack's and Bruce's troops unexpectedly shouted down the 9-Point Plan. Two Chicago Tribune writers, Rick Hepp and Liam Ford, reported the next day that "residents turned out in force" to "scoff at an updated plan," and to demand limestone. In the following weeks four members of the executive task force who still supported the 9-Point Plan resigned (Clement, Knight, Moltz, and Rossi), to allow Jack Spicer and others their chance to negotiate for more limestone.

6) Jack Spicer formed the new task force, which I’ll call the SAVE THE POINT group. He launched the successful blue bumper sticker campaign, raised money -- including a hefty check from Hans Morsbach and a grant from the Driehaus Foundation -- and got hundreds of petition signatures from uninformed but well-meaning people who believed the task force was fighting for the recreation of the old limestone Point over the City's plan to "pave it" with cement. Lots of my friends signed the petition and even gave money. But hey, we all want to save the Point, I understand their mistake.

7) March 12, 2003: The SAVE THE POINT group unveiled a -- I’m sorry, it has to be said -- kooky architectural rendering of their idea of preservation. It essentially tuckpointed the supposedly-protected south side, it merely replaced the piling in the water of the eastern tip (leaving the ugly 1960s concrete-coffin section intact), and it dismantled and rebuilt the north side, using a funky blend of limestone with a concrete “strip" down the promenade that the Army Corps studied and said was an engineering nightmare. (This plan is no longer being considered by any party, and an Illinois Historic Preservation officer stated in a private meeting that it did not meet preservation standards.)

8) July-August, 2003: The City released their new “Compromise Plan,” containing a further concession to the SAVE THE POINT group of more limestone.

This is when the activism degenerated into madness.

It was a damned good plan that reused all of the existing limestone by fashioning the top two steps of the revetment out of limestone, installing two 150-foot limestone platform steps into the water (note: the steps were previously 300 feet long in the 9-Point Plan, but we all know that when a teacher regrades your test you run the risk of losing points as well as gaining them). Finally, the two bottom steps that were made of concrete would be textured to resemble limestone.

Again, the SAVE THE POINT group denounced this genuinely sensible plan, misleadingly labeling it "anti-preservation," a "demolition plan," and "an all-concrete" plan. The four members of the task force who had resigned (and I) began to campaign for the Compromise Plan, which was almost impossible due to slanted articles, editorials, and letters in the Hyde Park Herald.

8.5) OK, I’m skipping all the 2004 Jamie Kalven stuff, because it just doesn’t add to the story other than to make me feel hopeless about “mediation.”

9) July 25, 2005: The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency certified that the City’s new Compromise Plan met historic preservation standards, paving the way for a public meeting to present the plan to the community. The meeting was held on September 15, 2005, at the South Shore Cultural Center. The SAVE THE POINT group once again stacked the audience and shouted down the proposal. I'm not exaggerating when I say the meeting made Hyde Parkers appear to be lunatics.

10) 2005 – now: The shoreline construction project is in its end stages. When the rest of the shoreline project is finished, I have no idea what will happen to the funds originally slated for the Point. During this period, the SAVE THE POINT group persuaded Jesse Jackson Jr. to insert language into the Water Resources Development Act 381-40 requiring that the Point be rebuilt according to (undefined) preservation standards. The activists also pressed Barack Obama to become involved, and in October, 2005 he requested a third-party review of the engineering plans, with the goal of resolving the conflict in six months.

Meanwhile, although members of the SAVE THE POINT group have abandoned their architectural plan, they have not stipulated an alternative that would be acceptable. Some of their members say the Point is not collapsing, in spite of the fact that it’s as plain as the nose on your face and some of them want it to be re-built all in limestone, which the Army Corps has said outright it will not do. Some seem to have lost interest; others have shifted their activist energies to other projects and obstructionist causes.


LPB said...

God save us from open-mike night in Hyde Park.

chicago pop said...

A few things strike me about this whole sorry episode:

1) It seems to have been a local political version of "the perfect storm," because it played right into old-timer activist paradigms of outsiders coming in and screwing them over with freeways, landgrabs,
etc. That lingering political framework was so powerful that facts seem not to have mattered. Community activists learned in the 70s that they could have a lot of success stopping things. They have a much less impressive track record of accomplishing anything.

2) Lack of effective leadership. The 5th Ward Alderman bears heavy responsibility for letting this happen. It's her territory. Letting it get kicked into some Washington committee is a cop-out. Engineers and bureaucrats are not known for winning people over with awesome Powerpoints and charismatic speakers. If the bureaucrats were left to themselves to win people over in the 2005 meeting, I'm not surprised it went the way it did.

3)Who decided who was to serve on any of these "task forces"? There seems to be a degree of arbitrariness that was built into the process from the beginning; if there are no firm rules about how to form a "task force" in the first place, then is it surprising if a couple of guys decide they don't like the first task force, and go off and form their own?

Did the first or second task force represent any objective constituency in the neighborhood? Or was it composed of well-meaning volunteers? If the latter, it gets to the heart of how things work in neighborhood politics, which is that there's no way to tell what the majority of people really support by using an open mike or going on who shows up. This is no substitute for real representation, real opinion sampling, real voting, and real dissemination of the issues. Sounds like none of that happened.

Peter Rossi said...

For those who have a morbid curiosity, the story of Jamie Kalven is quite interesting.

The SECC paid Jamie Kalven more than $20,000 to act as a mediator between the save the pointers and the city agencies. He was also supposed to create a web site to chart the process of mediation. This web site was eventually constructed but the entries were typically at least several months late and, where I could check, bore little resemblence to what actually transpired in the meeting. For example, Kalven failed to report that the SAVE THE POINT executive committee once stated that they would accept a design with a concrete core and then reversed themselves. He failed to report that the all parties to the mediation agreed that Kalven was to be the conduit for communication to the general public. After the first meeting, Mr. Spicer conducted an interview for the Herald in violation of this agreement.

In fact, Kalven did not act as a mediator but acted as an advocate for the view that the City agencies and the Army Corps were intentionally misleading the public.

He took the money and began a campaign to prove that the cost of construction estimates and maintenance estimates by the City/CPD consultants were wrong.

So in fact, Kalven entered his own "plan" for the Point revetment rehab without any expertise or research on his part.

He made many errors in his calculations but the most damning was that he assumed that the Point Revetment was about 1/4 shorter (in shoreline length) than it actually is. This allowed him to claim that his proposal was actually cheaper than the Compromise Plan.

He contacted me before he presented his proposal and I explained to him why all of his calculations were wrong. He went ahead anyway, telling me that "I only want to stir up things a bit." I asked him if he cared that he was making incorrect calculations and he refused to answer.

I concluded that the only thing Kalven cared about was his short stint in the limelight and his $20,000.

Who suggested to the SECC (with a straight face) that they hire Kalven? Our good friend Jack Spicer, of course.

Peter Rossi said...

one more. Basically, what Jack and Bruce did was agree to marry and then, after taking a look a the bride on the way to the altar, decided that they might be able to "do better."

Kay Clement, Tom Knight, Jerry Marsh, Lauren Moltz and myself resigned from the task force executive committee to give the Spicer faction a fair chance to pursue their dream of more limestone after warning them that this was very risky.

After we resigned and the Compromise Plan was produced (about two years after we resigned), we got back into the controversey as advocates for this Plan. At this Point, we were the subject of a number of attacks including:

1. articles in the Herald alleging that we had tricked people into supporting the Compromise Plan.

2. Letters were sent to the President of U of C and the Dean of the Business School suggesting that I was involving the University inappropriately and that I should be fired.

3. Hans Moresbach circulated a flyer in the community claiming that we had "lobbied the IHPA" to "revoke the Point's historical landmark status" -- of course, this is total poppycock and the IHPA approved the Compromise Plan as adhering to Secretary of the Interior guidelines for historic preservation. Moresbach also is a bit weak on the facts -- the Point has never had landmark status.

4. Spoof emails were sent with my email address by Jack Spicer's cousin purporting to say that I preferred concrete over limestone.

5. All 5 of us were misquoted in the Herald on a regular basis.

6. Our letters to the Editor at the Herald were rejected or edited to remove the long list of supporters who signed the letter so as to create the impression that our position had no broad support (in fact, over 300 community residents signed a letter to Alderman Hairston endorsing the Compromise Plan). Letters to the editor from Save the Pointers were not edited and included lists of supporters that were padded with the names of children under the age of 5!

Peter Rossi said...

one of the most important points that Beth makes is that the SAVE THE POINTERS are only AGAINST the Compromise Plan. They refuse to stipulate what would be acceptable to them. They say they want "preservation" but can't tell you what that means.

Sometime "spokesman" Greg Lane once told me that he really doesn't care about the Point at all but that all he cares about is the "process" of community "activism."

How can people walk away and not be held accountable?

Swad said...

Thanks for the recap. As someone new to Hyde Park, your blog has been amazing. Keep up the great work.

chicago pop said...

I still want to know how the members of the original task force were selected.

Hallie said...

Can someone post how to access Kalven's site, notes, or report?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Please note that I've made a couple of corrections in the body of the post due to one of Peter's comments above: the four original task force members resigned without acrimony (but with some skepticism) sometime after the Oriental Institute meeting. In the following years, the Herald squashed their attempts (or rather, our attempts, since by that time I was on board) to champion the Compromise Plan when it was clear that the SAVE THE POINT group had gone off the deep end.

I also amended my discussion of the people who signed SAVE THE POINT petitions, to describe more accurately how I believe they were misled.

Peter Rossi said...

to Chicago Pop:

at the meeting on January 17, 2001, there was a call for volunteers to meet and discuss this further.

About 30 or so people signed a sign-up sheet. There was a publically announced meeting with those 30. An "exec committee" was elected from those 30.

The idea was that the exec committee was to negotiate with the City and rebut their plans and then report back to the larger groups at public meetings (which did happen).

Raymond said...

When I first read about the Compromise Plan in the Herald, I remember thinking, "Hey, that sounds pretty good." But, based on the coverage in the paper, thinking, "there must be something wrong." Thanks for educating me. Now, I wonder if anything will ever happen, which the activists you mention probably feel is a victory, though I'm not sure why.

Also, one more thing in the "perfect storm" chicago pop cites, is the midnight demolition of Meigs Field. I'm sure that just made the Hyde Park glitterati even more paranoid.

Elizabeth Fama said...


The Kalven report used to be on the web site of The Invisible Institute, but the project link for the Point doesn't seem to work anymore. It looks like the HPK-CC web site reproduces some of the final report here.


Elizabeth Fama said...

In response to part (2) of Chicago Pop's first comment:

I always thought that a bit of Alderman Hairston's reluctance to simply override noisy constituents and "get things done" came from her experience defeating the incumbant alderman, Barbara Holt, in 1999. Holt lost a lot of campus votes because she installed the fountain in front of Bixler with "insufficient community input." There was a huge outcry about how she didn't consult the residents, particularly the ones who lived directly across from it. (She consulted a Ray School committee in depth, I believe. And now of course, the fountain is a gathering spot.) I don't remember much else about her tenure, but she did work to get the Midway skating rink, which is at least one feather in her cap.

Anyway, unless I'm reading too much into it (which is possible because the campus residents are a small portion of her constituency), it always seemed to me that Leslie saw the Holt backlash that helped propel her into office, and maybe she worries it could happen to her.

chicago pop said...

it always seemed to me that Leslie saw the Holt backlash that helped propel her into office, and maybe she worries it could happen to her.

Well, the outcome of this minimalist approach to political leadership is, unfortunately, not getting things done, and allowing for continued mobocratic nonsense. (But keeping your job.) Maybe not getting things done = keeping your job in the 5th Ward, which is good for the alderman, but not for anyone else.

The irony is, if Hairston gets enough not done, she may have to deal with exactly the opposite backlash from the one that brought her into office -- from people who wish she had done more.

Jennifer said...

"The activists also pressed Barack Obama to become involved, and in October, 2005 he requested a third-party review of the engineering plans, with the goal of resolving the conflict in six months."

Uh, hasn't he been kinda busy lately? Are they honestly still waiting for him to do this?

chicago pop said...

Hey, I'm sure George W. Bush would appreciate the current status of The Point:

It's a catastrophic success. Mission accomplished!

architect said...

Here are my points why I am glad this proposed plan was defeated:

1. Among the construction materials concrete has the highest CO2 emission (looking forward to see the relevant numbers)
2. Surely, the durability of the concrete depends on its constituents, construction process and the climate (during construction and after), however, based on the “Chicago experiences” and examples, the limestone seems a more appropriate solution
3. Stone provides a different touch and thermal comfort then concrete (please feel free to compare it over a hot summer day by walking from the “segment project” to the old part)
4. Frankly, I have no idea what is this obsession with paving down everything (no matter whether it is asphalt, concrete, stone or something else…) The above plan was full of superfluous, “wannabe designer” gestures. I believe than when one goes to the lake, he or she is going there because one does not want to be on the street. The covered/paved strip round the lake seems to be at least 50 ft width from the images, that is a size of a decent street with two lanes and two wider sidewalks. For what really?

Possibly it is only my humble opinion, but I still prefer our crumbling, old point then this fancy-pants, wannabe design. Its serves its purpose.

Jennifer said...

"... however, based on the “Chicago experiences” and examples, the limestone seems a more appropriate solution"


Elizabeth Fama said...

Architect, are you advocating that we (1) leave the Point as it is, or (2) re-build it in all-limestone as it was? In other words, rather than say what you don't want, can you say what plan you would support?

Like Jennifer, I'm confused about some of your points...except the last one, and to that I ask (incredulously): do you really believe the "crumbling Point serves its purpose?"

If so, I can't imagine that you swim there, that you walk regularly with young children or older parents on the promenade, or that you've seen how much of the earth has eroded out from under it on the grassy (meadow) side. I just can't!

I agree with my brother (who now lives in California) when he says the deteriorating limestone blocks have a "harsh beauty" to them. The Point looks fascinating and complex from a distance. When it gets fixed, it will lose some of that "wild" beauty, in favor of what my brother might think was an orderly prettiness. But in exchange we'll be able to actually use the place recreationally, instead of just looking at it from the bike path (or Lake Shore Drive).

Hey, here's a fun project for all the readers of the blog: go for a walk around the Point (ON THE PROMENADE, NOT ON THE BIKE PATH) this weekend, all the way from the 57th beach to the new revetment at 54th. Look at the revetment closely as you do. Peek over the edge at the wood pilings and steel supports. Look into the caves. Imagine how you might climb into the water if you were over 70 or under 10 years old. Keep a close watch if you bring your toddler.

Jennifer said...

Okay, perhaps I should have been the one to elaborate. I apologize for being unclear the first time.

What I meant is that I agree with Architect that the durability of concrete depends on many things, and I'm sure we've all seen examples of really bad concrete jobs. And I'm reasonably sure that the last thing anyone wants to see is a sloppy concrete job done at Promontory Point.

What I think Architect is suggesting is that limestone is, in general, a more durable material than concrete, especially concrete of poor quality or that might have been poured in the midst of nonideal weather conditions. While I don't doubt this is generally true, I do question whether limestone is really the most appropriate material for the job at hand.

For example, is limestone just as easy to repair as concrete? (Remember that what gets built will eventually need to be repaired. I'm referring to small stuff here, like cracks and small surface holes.) Parts of the limestone revetment have been slathered with concrete, seemingly to no avail, so I would guess not. For another example, is limestone less susceptible than concrete to temperature extremes? Sidewalks made with limestone seem to crack and shatter more easily than regular concrete sidewalks as a result of freeze-thaw cycles in winter, so I would guess not.

Now, Architect claimed that "limestone seems a more appropriate solution" based on unspecified examples and "Chicago experiences." But my own examples and experiences (incidentally, also in Chicago) suggest that limestone--while certainly more beautiful and in some respects stronger--is not an appropriate solution for the problem at hand, namely, the crumbling revetment at the Point.

So I asked Architect to elaborate, in case I'm missing something. I'm no architect, nor do I pretend to be one, but if there are valid architectural reasons beyond pure aesthetics why limestone would indeed be the best material for the Point, then I really do want to hear them. Because if that's the case, then maybe it all really does boil down to a funding problem. But if we're only debating aesthetics, then what's wrong with a plan that keeps all of the original limestone as decoration? What's wrong with a plan that lets you touch, walk on, sit on, and even scramble over the old limestone blocks same as ever, but has the added benefit of not falling into the lake?

And really, what's wrong with a plan that lets us take a stroll down by the water without risking a broken ankle? I resent the idea that a walk along the waterfront is exactly like a walk down the street if there's no chance of serious injury. I can't speak for everyone, but when I go to the lakefront, it's because I want to be close to the lake. (I'll add that parts of the Point in its current state actually hinder this.) On the other hand, if I really wanted to scramble up and down a bunch of limestone outcroppings, then I'd go to Mississippi Palisades State Park. What does being or not being on the street have to do with anything? I don't understand why Architect brought this up.

Peter Rossi said...

as to the durability of concrete vs limestone, here are the facts:

limestone as a material is actually very similar to concrete in terms of durability. Well poured concrete lasts more than 100 years (ask the Romans about this). Some limestone crumbles have quarrying other (like the the point blocks) will last hundreds of years.

BUT, a structure constructed from limestone blocks (i.e. the orginal Point revetment) doesn't stand a chance against the environment at the Point. Whereas a structure whose core is reinforced concrete will last much longer.

What is my proof, you ask?

1. The original Point revetment was completed by 1938. By 1960, the revetment at the tip of the Point had failed completely. (this is less than 30 years)

2. A repair was made by 1964 which consisted of pouring concrete 3 ft thick on the promenade (this makes up what we call the "coffins" today). More than 40 years later there are few if any cracks in this concrete (go our there yourself and see).

it's all a matter of engineering. No one has figured out how to make a structure of 100% limestone block that will work. It will take a concrete core and limestone trim

Peter Rossi said...

Finally, "architect" has fallen prey to the misprepresentation of the "save the pointers."

No one is proposing to "pave over" the point. Quite the contrary, the Compromise plan REUSES 100% of all limestone. The most visible portions of the new revetment will be limestone.

Concrete will be used as the core and to allow a real promenade that people can actually walk on.

"pave the point" is a fiction in the head of a few folks who want to halt genuine progress in our community.

SR said...

I've been looking over old news reports about the Point controversy, and came across this report from Harold Henderson on the genesis of Senator Obama's involvement in the Point issue. I was surprised to read Henderson describe the Compromise Plan as "a 'preservation plan' that erects a concrete wall along three-quarters of the Point. The limestone rocks would remain on the other quarter." Is this an accurate description of the Compromise Plan? I don't see any plain concrete walls in the photos of the plan Elizabeth Fama posted in her earlier post on the virtues of the Compromise Plan.

SR said...

Whoopsy, that article is by Ben Joravsky, not Harold Henderson. (I always get those two guys confused.)

Elizabeth Fama said...

What Mr. Joravsky was referring to was this: in an attempt to appease the SAVE THE POINT folks, the City appended an idea to the Compromise Plan to shore up and leave intact an 800-foot stretch of the south side of the Point, sort of as a monument to how the old Point was. It was a silly, silly bone to toss, in my opinion. It will break up the continuity of the revetment, and in the intervening years, the south side has deteriorated to a level where I believe any 800-foot section would have to be dismantled and rebuilt if they wanted to "keep" it.

I should have included it in the description of the Compromise Plan, for the sake of accuracy. It's presumptuous of me to assume it will come off the table (but I do).

I don't know what the concrete wall refers to, but I'm guessing it's the structural demarcation between the preserved, "old" stretch, and the new revetment. In other words, it will be a sort of "bulkhead" (which I assume would be flush with the promenade) so that the two structures are physically separate entities in an engineering sense.

I don't think Peter Rossi would mind me revealing that he intends to dub that 800-foot section "Spicer's Folly" if it comes to pass.

SR said...

I don't know what the concrete wall refers to, but I'm guessing it's the structural demarcation between the preserved, "old" stretch, and the new revetment.

The other possibility is that it's a colorful way of referring to the concrete-topped-with-limestone structure proposed for the steps in the Compromise Plan, that Joravsky mistakenly took literally. I've found that it's pretty common for the Save the Point people to refer to this as just "concrete" in their own documents, and for the Herald to refer to it as the "two-step" plan (referring to two steps concrete, two steps limestone), but I'd never come across it referred to as a "concrete wall" before, so I don't know ...

Or maybe it IS a reference to the bulkhead, which Joravsky mistakenly thought referred to the entire section of the plan that the Save the Point people consider non-preservation. It wouldn't be too surprising for a journalist to garble a technical detail like that.