Monday, December 1, 2008

A Conversation about Promontory Point with Horace Foxall

posted by Elizabeth Fama

An excavator adjusts drainage and installs stone toe at 57th Street Beach, 11/13/08.

It's frustrating that the only news we hear about Promontory Point is from the Hyde Park Herald, because the articles are often replete with inaccuracies, and the information in them is doled out to reporters almost exclusively by the "Save the Point" group.

So I sent an e-mail to Horace H. Foxall, Jr. -- the Seattle Army Corps architect who will be in charge of former-Senator Obama's "third-party review" -- to see what the real status of the Point is. I was surprised and delighted that he took the time to phone me on November 17 for a long conversation. From that talk, I can indeed confirm Don Lamb's impression (Herald, June 25, 2008) that Mr. Foxall seems to be a "super, super guy" -- a super guy with a worthy resume who is, for the moment, not as informed as I'd hoped about this project, its history, and what the Army Corps and community have already endured to create the perfectly satisfactory Compromise Plan. I'm sure Mr. Foxall will tool up, but in the meantime we'll waste gobs of time, gobs of money, and we'll risk the safety of anyone who spends time on the revetment -- all before one piece of heavy machinery is delivered to the site.

"Nothing much is happening on the third-party review."

Mr. Foxall said there is no authorization for him to proceed. He was asked by Obama's office to write up a "Scope of Project," describing how his team will come up with a design alternative, which he did. Obama's staff sent this through the proper government channels, where it's stalled, waiting for money. Here's the holdup: "continuing resolutions" have passed in D.C., but not the real budget. This means that only projects that were already funded and in place under the last budget receive money. Once the new budget is passed, Mr. Foxall guesses that the money for his third-party review will be appropriated in the Civil Works Budget, under the Rivers and Harbors Act.

"Figure out the players and get together in one room."

We've heard from the "Save the Point" group that Mr. Foxall plans to have an unusually inclusive charette (a collaborative design session), and he confirmed this. He intends to "invite all the players to roll up their sleeves, and ask each other what we're trying to achieve." He wants to divide the area into smaller square-foot sections and ask at each location, "What activities would we like to see there?" When I asked him to clarify whether he meant recreational activities or construction activities he said, "Both." Among the players he mentioned: the City, the Illinois Historic Agency, local historic agencies, preservationists, and community members." I said, "Can someone from our blog come?" and he said, "Everyone who has a stake in this can come."

"The Army Corps proposed an engineering design, not a cultural or historical one."

Mr. Foxall said he had walked the area of the Point and had taken pictures. He summed up the history of the Point's shoreline controversy this way: "The Army Corps proposed an engineering design without taking the space into account, the uses of the area, and the history. It was an engineering answer, not a cultural or historical one." He said the plan proposed by the Army Corps had "neglected Burnham's original intent." I thought he must have been mistakenly referring to the oldest design proposal of 2000 (i.e. the section built between 51st Street and 54th Street) because the Compromise Plan does take the existing recreation, scale, and materials into account, and it was approved by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. He seemed unfamiliar with the term "Compromise Plan," but said he had seen a plan from the City "as of two years ago." He went on to argue that his photos -- especially of the new construction along the 57th Street Beach (see image above), which, he said, "demonstrates the idea of concrete decorated with limestone"-- proved to him that Burnham's vision had been neglected. It seemed that he was allowing himself to be influenced by the two new sections north and south of the Point...neither of which was built with community input, and neither of which resembles the Compromise Plan.

"I'd like to make it a wonderful place to be."

Mr. Foxall's goal is to think of what activities the Point could have, and implement them in the design. For instance, he said that the beautiful views of downtown were inaccessible to handicapped people under the current design. I wanted to point out, but didn't, that the Compromise Plan does allow wheelchairs on the entire promenade level (although it's true that the entry ramp is on the south side). What I did say is that swimming access at the Point was not built into the 1930s revetment, and that by agreeing we want to arrange for all recreational uses and include handicapped access, we're already conceding that we have to give up some of Burnham's original design.

"Like putting Cadillac parts on a Ford."

He said the concrete was the wrong color for the shoreline. "Nothing is gray on the shore, it's all natural browns. The concrete will turn black." He wants the colors of the materials used to match what's already at the Point, and to match "the building [the field house] that's there."

"Two or three alternative designs."

His process, after the money comes through, will be:

(1) arrange the charette

  • look into options for materials
  • look at uses for the space, keeping the historic and cultural qualities in place

(2) send the resulting list of desired design features to the Buffalo District Army Corps, where engineers will design "two or three alternative plans that also take into account the science -- the hydraulics, the wave action, the weather, etc."

(3) price the alternatives and choose one.

"A multi-disciplined team."

His team will include:

(1) him (he is an architect by training, with a strong historic preservation background)

(2) a landscape architect -- "to preserve the viewshed"

(3) an architectural historian

(4) a hydraulic engineer.

"45 to 60 days, depending on how fast the Buffalo team is."

I made him guess at a timetable from the moment the money comes through:

(1) one week for the charette and design list

(2) 30-45 days for Buffalo to come up with two or three "60-65%" design alternatives

(3) 2-3 days of meetings to choose between them

Total: 45-60 days.


I came away from the conversation with this overall impression: Mr. Foxall is a bright guy who is proud of his experience working with communities (e.g. New Orleans after Katrina), and self-assured about his role in this project. He sees his job as starting from scratch; that is, to push aside all previous plans and start over completely: to look at what recreational activities and viewsheds the space can offer, and design something "culturally and historically appropriate."

I also came away with this prediction: Mr. Foxall will create his wish list for the Point. The Buffalo engineers, constrained by a (possibly dwindling) shoreline budget and by structural considerations, won't be able to do any better than the Compromise Plan -- a concrete-and-steel base with limestone blocks as revetment steps and decoration. Nonetheless, the "Save the Point" group will heroically accept Mr. Foxall's plan as a "preservation" plan. It will get built, but a decade will have passed since the Compromise Plan was presented, and millions of dollars will have been poured down the usual Hyde Park Obstructionist Hole.

Let's just hope that no one is seriously hurt at the Point between now and then. If that happens, the cost of this heroic obstructionism by the "Save the Point" group will be immeasurable.


edj said...

Another excellent post, Elizabeth.

He sounds like a great guy, but I must say that I am not optimistic about anything getting done anytime soon within the probable budgetary constraints.

I hope he begins to recognize that there is increasing frustration with a few people who just want to stop anything from happening in Hyde Park.

I vote for it to be fixed along the lines of the compromise plan. If we have to add some color to the concrete so that it has the right tone, so be it.

People are getting tired of going through process after process on the same thing. The Point has been deteriorating for years now. By the time this thing gets done, an entire generation of kids will have grown up and moved on while we have these prolonged discussions about what we want the Point to be. I would rather be enjoying the Point than talking about what I would like to enjoy doing there.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I hope he begins to recognize that there is increasing frustration with a few people who just want to stop anything from happening in Hyde Park.

Foxall's not there yet, and may never be. From the language he used and his summary of the Point story, I gathered that he'd already had contact with those few people, and was not only influenced by them, but sympathetic. Remember that he's a preservationist, and he hasn't had to face the budget constraints yet.

There will probably be no opportunity for him to see the depth of the controversy, since Compromise Plan supporters won't invade the charette with picketing children.

Anonymous said...

If Foxall thinks he can do all this then more power to him. I'd like to see the point be as beautiful as possible. My concern is the same as Elizabeth's: he ill be VERY lucky to get everything he wants to do past the bean counters. If Obama is serious about his public works projects plan ala Roosevelt, then maybe MOST of it will get done.

Hyde Park Urbanist takes a pretty optimistic view of this. I'd love to believe that everything will be done by 2010, but I've lived here long enough to know that this is probably wishful thinking.

I did get a kick out of their note that the website seems to have been sold off to a Japanese advertising web portal.

Peter Rossi said...

I beg to differ.

Any new design idea must conform to engineering standards that basically preclude the use of limestone in any structural role.

Any "third party" review must establish two criteria:

1. some sort of aesthetic criterion (what is acceptable?)
2. engineering criteria

there is nothing about this third party process that establishes any criteria so that we might decide on what is acceptable and what is not.

It is very disturbing that Foxall can't tell Beth what he is looking for -- explain why the compromise design does not work.

Otherwise, this is all about unrealistic "pie in my eye" views. I think we should do this even though I don't have any aesthetic or engineering criteria that I can articulate.

ridiculous and doomed to failure and endless delay from the start

Elizabeth Fama said...

Peter, Mr. Foxall was very clear about the fact that he can't begin to work on this until the funding for his review comes through. So that explains why he wasn't prepared to tell me what he's looking for, or what he may think is wrong with the Compromise Plan. He has simply walked the site, taken photos, and talked with a few people.

The real worry isn't his skill or earnestness, which I think are both there, but that we're going to have to sit and wait while he and the Buffalo Corps re-invent the wheel. That's a lot of unnecessary money and time -- and I have no idea how the lakeshore construction funding is holding up. Plus, the Point is an astounding safety hazard (no matter what Jack Spicer tells the Herald [9/3/08]), and as edj mentioned, young families and many older residents have been shut out for years.

Greg, 2010 is not even in the ballpark. It took me a year just to remodel my basement. After the plans were finished.

Peter Rossi said...


sorry, but I think there is a very common theme here.

These folks can't specify a criterion or even principles by which one judges a design. That way, nothing ever gets done.

I think the first thing any group like this does is to (after establishing ground rules) try to settle on criteria by which designs or ideas can be judged.

He needs to explain in detail what is wrong with the compromise plan. My guess is that he can't. Just because someone is afable doesn't mean they have thought at all about this problem. I have and I can't see anyway to make progress over the Compromise Plan. Some one needs to explain how you can use limestone block in a structural role if you want to get away from a concrete core.

You can't put limestone veneer on the core either. Unless Mr. Foxall knows something that the engineers don't.

So fundamentally this is a bad move - the third party review unless the reviewers have an open mind and could conclude -- well, this is about as good as it gets (the CP that is).

this is just a complete waste of time that has no hope of coming up with anything remotely usable.

Peter Rossi said...


In your post, you quote extensively from Foxall as stating stuff about why the Compromise Plan is not appropriate. If you are right and he hasn't yet undertaken an evaluation, why is he willing to these statements?

The fact that he doesn't even know that Burnham did have anything to do with the design of the Point doesn't instill a lot of confidence either. The Point is in Burnham park which was named to honor Burnham but was not designed by him. In fact, the Point revetment is a simple engineering design done by a CPD engineer.

But, you are right, the basic problem is not whether or not Foxall is competent or well-intentioned. It's that this process either leads to nothing or the Compromise Plan. I fear the former!

Richard Gill said...

Within whatever budget is established in the appropriation, the Corps will ensure that structural and hydraulic engineering criteria are incorporated, that accessibility laws are satisfied, and that safety considerations are met. Those have to be non-negotiable, no matter what the Save-the-Point screamers have to say. For the screamers to say otherwise is for them to advocate breaking the law and/or willfully disregarding public safety.

That leaves the aesthetics for the public input meetings. Yes, this will be the most contentious—and possibly impassable—issue. This means that the Third Party Review process must be THE ONLY process, that it is clearly delineated, and that it takes into consideration whatever legitimate ideas are brought to it. (“Take into consideration” means just that; it does not mean acceptance, nor does it mean interminable analysis). There can be no allowance for additional outside studies or reviews by various factions (which by definition are biased), for those will just lead to what their sponsors want: delay followed by No-Build, just as they did previously. No side meetings with the agencies or politicians, no back-dooring. Anybody disregarding common civility gets thrown out. The Corps, the Park District, the Alderman, everybody, must have the strength and political will to enforce this process. All of this has to be done within a fixed, reasonable timetable.

Does all this seem battle-ready? You betcha. It’s meant to give Save-the-Pointers, and anyone else, their say, but to prevent them from running roughshod over others, and to result in construction. Doctrinaire Save-the-Pointers have demonstrated an almost fanatical and religious devotion to limestone, limestone and nothing but limestone, and a firm belief that nobody else matters. There is no evidence that they have changed.

If the process, the budget, the access and safety studies, the architecture and the engineering result in a whole lot of limestone, that’s ok with me. If they lead to less, or no, limestone that’s ok too. If this fails, then the whole thing is beyond redemption; cordon off the Point, set up time-lapse cameras, and document how the lake takes its course.

edj said...

I want to be Richard Gill when I grow up.

Of course, enforcing the process is going to be the hardest part of all of this. As we've seen, individuals like to circumvent processes around here (i.e. Doctors Hospital and the Dry Precinct vote), so we have to be wary.

Did Horace promise to read some of the comments on this blog?

WoodLawn Jack said...

I'm all for starting a "pave the point" movement. I am not suggesting that we just bring in tons of concrete and only concrete, but that we actually get a move on on pouring the concrete that will be needed.

If it ends up being the compromise plan with no modifications I think that is good. If it is the compromise plan++ that may be better, if it ends up being the compromise plan-- it is still better than what is there. If it is Jack Spicer demanding we have what he wants or he'll vote the lake dry then the point will continue to erode.

I'm sure Jack "Moe" Spicer can show up with protesters but if there are counter protesters I'm not sure Jack's head won't explode.

chicago pop said...

Exploding heads. Wow. My kind of party. I hope Mr. Foxall knows what he's in for.

Vote the lake dry. LOL

Elizabeth Fama said...

Sounds to me like Woodlawn Jack needs a free "Fix the Point" bumper sticker. Anyone else? Send me an email with your snail mail address:

edj said...

I will volunteer my two children, Bart and Lisa, to take part in any organized protests/chants. In fact, I think they would be good at the next charrette at planning the Point using legos. Of course, legos were never part of the Burnham Plan, so that might not work.

I will start them practicing to say, "Please Mr. Spicer. We don't want to fall into the holes in the Point."

Richard Gill said...

EDJ - I am touched by the sentiment...your wanting to be me. All I can say is, be careful what you wish for. I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up.

WOODLAWN JACK - If Spicer votes the lake dry, he may encounter a Catch 22. How could he hope to vote the lake dry, and preserve it at the same time?

Footnote: Thanks for your reference to exploding heads. Brings back motion picture images. See the 1981 movie Scanners, which according to the on-line summary, is about "mind-reading phonemes who can cause people's heads to explode."

Anonymous said...

In a previous posting, someone asked me why, after G. Lane and the Save The Pointers (plus child conscripts bearing placards) hijacked the Compromise Plan meeting, we didn't show up at a later meeting (with Chicago Pop leading us into battle wearing his Darth Vader helmet). Humor aside, this was actually a good point. Is anyone else here willing to join in attending these meetings (or protests) as a group to promote the "counterreveolution"? :-) Organized resistance is the best kind.

Richard Gill said...

In my opinion, showing up at a meeting with placards (with or without child conscripts) is a tactic of disruption and constitutes disregard of common civility. Out they go (the placards and the placard bearers). If off-duty cops are required for the ejection, so be it.

Say, on the general subject of Jack Spicer and exploding heads, would a person's head detonate, just from the extreme pressure of being the self-appointed Supreme Conserver and Preserver?

edj said...

One thing that nagged at me about the Foxall comments was his nce to Burnham's plan. The one thing about the new revetments along the lkefront is how acessible they are to the publi. Back when I lived on the north side in the last century, I remember how nice it was to walk along the shoreline and to see how quickly people adapted to the changed landscape.

With all of the hubub that has been thrust upon Hyde Park, I will be that people will adapt to whatever goes in place. Heck, by the time it's done, the turnover in Hyde Park will hve been pretty high, so the links to the Point will have been slowly eroded - much like the Point itself.

Richard Gill said...

EDJ - Yes, the neighborhood turnover will be substantial by the time the Point project is completed. But the project can't be completed until after it's started (is that brilliant or what?). And given the engineering, access, safety, and constructibility limitations that exclude an all-limestone solution, the old Hyde Park Establishment may do almost anything, trying to keep the project from starting. They might opt for scorched earth rather than compromise, just as they did regarding the hotel.

Actually, the neighborhood turnover is already substantial, and the Hyde Park Establishment is on the run. Ultimately they will lose the Point battle. Meanwhile, beware the cornered beast.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I just want to correct one comment Richard has made. "All-limestone" is no longer the message of the "Save the Point" group, although they'll allow that concept to float around the neighborhood without correcting it because it's advantageous to their marketing (uninformed people will think it's all about limestone versus concrete, which is a simpler message, "limestone good, concrete bad," or its equivalently vague cousin, "we want what we have now"). Even the architectural rendering of the "Save the Point" plan (which they seem to have abandoned when the Army Corps rejected it) included lots of concrete.

As far as I can tell the "Save the Point" group as a whole doesn't really have a unified message, or a unified goal -- other than lobbying to "represent the community's interest" by being intimately involved with any future planning.

Richard Gill said...

Ok, I stand corrected, Elizabeth - Save the Pointers may not now be insisting on all-limestone. But I still don't trust them. They have falsely claimed to "represent the community." Their very slogan "Save the Point" is misleading; it dishonestly suggests that someone is trying to eliminate the entire park at Promontory Point. They have broken up meetings by intimidation and disruption.

Like the rest of the Hyde Park Establishment, they pretend to be endowed with more of what I will call "Hyde Parkness" (whatever that is) than everyone else.

That's why I am so insistent that there be one process, that it be a fair and rigorously enforced process, and that nobody's voice is "more equal" than anyone else's.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Richard but how realistic is it to expect that the City, Park District, Alderman, etc. will (or can) do this? We saw what happened at the Compromise Plan meeting... Leslie tried to bring order back to it after people began shouting and Lane marched up to the podium out of process. THEN she allowed G. Lane and the Save the Pointers to line up and read prepared statements basically condemning the compromise plan without even listening to the Park District reps. (I do NOT think Toni Preckwinkle would have empowered them like that but that's neither here nor there).

At that meeting I thought the young Park District spokesman seemed a bit arrogant, but looking back I can understand his attitude. The look on his face then was the same look on the faces of the two Park District guys in a photo in the paper a few months back (maybe it was posted here as well, can't recall). Basically, a look of "ok, you don't like anything we suggest so we'll just do nothing and watch your precious Point reclaimed by the lake".

I think Leslie is trying to project an image of "listening to her constituents", which I can understand to a degree, but even she has to come to the realization that she's being manipulated on some levels by J. Spicer and crowd. And all you have to know about Spicer's motives is to read Peter's last entry.

I wish we had a tougher Alderman willing to support actions that may appear unpopular on the surface but are THE RIGHT THING TO DO. We elect representatives to make correct decisions, not to spend 10+ years refereeing an anti-University/anti-City grudge match and then go along with the loudest yeller.

LPB said...


In your conversation with Mr. Foxall, did you get any sense that another stalemate might be one potential outcome of the process he's laid out? Or, is doing nothing off the table?


Elizabeth Fama said...


Mr. Foxall was an effusively optimistic guy -- so much so that it didn't even occur to me to ask him, "What if you get opposition from the community?" or, "What if the budget constrains you to something you don't like?"

I got the sense, although he didn't say it outright, that he believes he has the final word -- that this is the last step toward achieving an end. I also think he'll shut the door on "inclusiveness" at some point and just work on the Buffalo proposals alone, thank you.

In response to the construction timeline issue raised above by Greg, I want to remind everyone about how long it took Orisha Wall to come down. On April 24, 2008 I got word that its demise was official: the legal research had been completed on whether it could be removed, the parties had all signed off on its removal, CDOT had provided its estimate for removal (18.6K), and the aldermen had each agreed to provide 9K in funds. (In other words, all the difficult legwork was done.) When did the sculpture come down? October 25, 2008. Exactly six months later.

That "legwork" (pre-construction plans, negotiating, meetings, and forms) for the Point is easily a thousand times more complex, as are the equipment, materials and men that need to be mobilized in order to begin. And we haven't even discussed how the money gets appropriated.

(So maybe that's a better example than my basement remodeling.)