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Emanuel shows off nature park at former site of Meigs Field

Mayor Rahm Emanuel other Officials tour Northerly Islspeak about lakefront investments. Tuesday June 17 2014 | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other Officials tour Northerly Island and speak about lakefront investments. Tuesday, June 17, 2014 | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

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Updated: July 19, 2014 6:22AM

A shallow wetlands pond with two connections to Lake Michigan and its own wildlife habitat. Man-made rolling hills with savannah, prairie and wooded landscape. Boardwalks, piers, bicycle paths and camping spots.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s dream of turning Northerly Island into a nature park is taking shape, thanks to a $5 million federal environmental grant and $2.5 million from the Chicago Park District.

On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed off the transformation of the lakefront airport that Daley famously demolished in 2003 under cloak of darkness.

Emanuel trudged through the rolling hills that fill what was once the Meigs Field runway dressed in jeans, gym shoes and an open-collar white dress shirt.

The mayor’s entourage on the windy, dusty walk included U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, whose 2009 framework plan for Northerly Island is the roadmap for the park.

Daley, who suffered a stroke earlier this year, did not attend. But he was there in spirit.

“We’re building on something he set out — but actually now with a creative way of doing it,” Emanuel said. “There’s obviously some different parts to it. But it’s taking his first act and now starting to put it to use and making kids part of that process.”

Maggie Daley was a driving force behind the controversial decision to turn Meigs into a nature park. In 1996, when Richard M. Daley first raised the idea and long before Meigs became a political football in a bitter battle with then-Gov. Jim Edgar, Daley had chosen his wife to co-chair a committee charged with presiding over the airport’s conversion to a park.

Asked Tuesday why he was able to accomplish what his predecessor couldn’t, Emanuel said, “I don’t want to do the comparison. Let me just say this: The good news is, he took an airport and now, it’s gonna be part of nature.”

Emanuel sounded a lot like Daley when he took to the podium to talk about the transformation.

“This thing used to be a runway. It used to serve a lot of corporate interests. A lot of people taking private planes making their way down to Springfield or other parts of the state or country. It’s now gonna serve our kids and our families,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., gushed about the 20,000 trees and shrubs and 100,000 plantings that will be added to Northerly Island.

“Nature is a big part of life. It’s not just a goodie-goodie, nice little thing. It’s really a big thing. When this is done, there is no museum park in the nation — even some national ones — that will compare to the museum campus that we have here in the city of Chicago.”

Gang said the “re-invention” of Meigs Field will become an “outpost” of Chicago’s lakefront museums that will allow those institutions to “extend their programming” to the great outdoors.

“We’ve paid careful attention to creating a topography that is reminiscent of the way this land was originally, even though this is a man-made island. It’s designed to provide very exceptional habitat with a lot of biodiversity. Instead of just seeing squirrels run across a green lawn, you’ll see dozens of different species of birds and animals and be able to connect with them in much closer proximity,” she said.

Two years ago, Emanuel said 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.

“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 then.

“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 . . .”

It was 11 years ago when 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.


Twitter: @fspielman

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