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New 31st Street harbor — with boat slips, public playground — officially open


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Updated: June 7, 2012 9:42PM

Chicago’s newest harbor officially opens Thursday at 31st Street and the lakefront — weeks after boats started docking there and kids and parents began enjoying a sparkling new playground that’s part of the $100 million project.

The new harbor has 1,000 slips to dock boats, and a new single-story building houses a 222-space covered parking garage. Boaters get first dibs on those spots, as well as spots at an adjacent lot on the harbor, with the cost covered in the slip fee.

In the winter, the covered garage will be used for boat storage, and boaters will have exclusive use of brand new toilet and shower facilities there. The public using the beach, however, still only have access to limited bathroom facilities — with no indoor showers or changing areas — at the beach house next door.

The building also houses a snack and boating supply shop and community room, both open to the public though a rental fee and reservation is required to use the room.

The building’s “green roof” offers areas to stroll or picnic in the grass with some breath-taking views of the lake as well as the skyline to the north — and even Indiana’s industrial belt to the south on a clear day. Nearby is a fenced-in, state-of-the-art soft-surface playground replacing the old one, which was popular but was torn down to make way for the complex.

But it’s the three large sails — looming from the roof — that will serve as both beacon and landmark for those on the water, cruising by on the newly configured bike and walking path or driving on Lake Shore Drive. Made of sail material, the sails serve as sun screens over several picnic tables in the area.

Planners were careful to make sure the complex eased boater demand for spots to park their watercrafts along the city’s shoreline while providing something for the landsharks among us.

“In most places marinas are part of commercial operations and this is a marina built in a park, and the public spaces around it are very important here,” Scott Stevenson, vice president of Westrec Marinas, told the Sun-Times this spring, while offering a sneak-peak of the harbor. The company manages the Chicago Park District-owned harbors.

Plans to expand the city’s harbor system were tied to then-Mayor Richard Daley’s dream of bringing the summer Olympics to Chicago in 2016. When that shattered — the games went to Rio de Janeiro — city officials went ahead with a scaled down version of the 31st Street Harbor plan. A community center and restaurant were shelved, though a seasonal restaurant — similar to the one at Oak Street Beach — is slated to open on the harbor promenade.

The 31st Street Beach opening brings to 6,000 the number of spots for boats at the 10 lakefront harbors — with 5,000 of them rented out. But while 1,000 spots remain open, waitlists are common, as boaters seek spots closer to home or those that can accommodate larger watercraft.

At 31st Street, just 300 of the 1,000 slips will be filled this season, but officials expect it to fill up in three to four years.

While rates vary by harbor, the basic slip rental at 31st Street is $108/foot, so for a 40-foot boat, that’s $4,320 — before taxes — for May 1 to Oct. 31.

The harbors serve as one of the park district’s biggest revenue generators, expected to bring in $25.2 million this year. After $10 million in operational costs and more than $9 million in debt service, the harbors are expected to yield $6 million.

Fourth Ward Ald. Will Burns told the Sun-Times in March that he and his neighbors welcome the new harbor and, hopefully, more visitors to the area. “We’re going to have a new playground, so that’s good for the community. But it [also] brings people who may not have come to the South Side — to the South Side,” Burns said. “They can see what a beautiful part of the city this really is.”

While the Cottage Grove bus might prove to be the most economical way to get to the harbor complex, parking lots are available. Athough boaters get first dibs on the indoor parking, any remaining spots would be open to the public. Public parking rates depend on length of stay, but begin at $6 for up to two hours on weekdays, and $8 for a similar duration on weekends. There are two nearby pay-and-display lots — one west of Lake Shore Drive and another just north of 31st Street — that generally run $1/hour.

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