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Rahm says destroying Meigs Field ‘right to do,’ made way for nature

March 31st 2003 file phoshowing torn up runway Meigs Field. Bulldozers dug out portions runway overnight putting large yellow X's

March 31st, 2003 file photo showing the torn up runway at Meigs Field. Bulldozers dug out portions of the runway overnight, putting large yellow X's on the end on the runway alerting pilots that the airport is closed. Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

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Updated: September 18, 2012 6:16AM

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley was right to order the midnight destruction of Meigs Field because it paved the way for Northerly Island to become a nature preserve and urban campsite for inner-city kids, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday.

Emanuel weighed in on one of his predecessor’s most criticized decisions as he formally announced plans to get rolling on the ambitious plan to reshape Northerly Island unveiled by the Chicago Park District two years ago.

“It is right, yes, [on] this level this way: Meigs Field is no longer here. Northerly Island will be a part of the city in a way that everybody can experience. The plan developed for this was the right thing to do and now, we’re realizing that plan,” Emanuel said.

“I’ll leave it to others to make that judgment [of whether the end justified the means]. I think it was the right thing to do . . .”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this week that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to develop the southern 40 acres of Northerly Island, thanks to a $2.8 million federal grant and $1.5 million in Park District revenues generated by the concert venue at Northerly Island. That will pave the way for a dramatic increase in camping and other outdoor activities for “at-risk,” inner-city kids, complete with educational programs provided by the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.

At a news conference Thursday at the Field Museum, Emanuel said he is constantly running into kids who’ve never been downtown, let alone to the lakefront or on a camping trip.

“This is a great opportunity to bring all the wealth of our city — all the intellectual knowledge of our city … to our kids and our families who otherwise would not get it. This is what a great city does. And this is how it stays great,” the mayor said.

“The goal now is not only to make sure Northerly Island is returned to its natural habitat, which is what the Army Corps is doing, but then using our Park District to come up with programs with a focus to bring kids to … experience a part of the city they may never see.”

It was nearly a decade ago that Daley sent in the bulldozers under cover of darkness to carve giant X’s into Meigs Field’s only runway.

The midnight raid ultimately forced Chicago to pay a $33,000 fine and repay $1 million in federal airport development grants to settle claims stemming from the demolition.

The city used $1.5 million in federal grants and airline ticket taxes to demolish Meigs. The Federal Aviation Administration could have imposed penalties of up to $4.5 million — three times the amount improperly diverted.

In 2010, the Chicago Park District unveiled plans for a dramatic and costly makeover of Northerly Island that would expand the nature sanctuary to Lake Michigan with a series of offshore reefs — complete with a sunken ship — that would create a water playground for swimmers, divers and kayakers.

The plan called for the old Meigs terminal building to be transformed into an outdoor shelter for hikers. The Charter One Pavilion, an outdoor arena used only in summer months, would be replaced.

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