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.