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877 trees to clear way for work on underground garage at Grant Park

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:26AM

It isn’t just the leaves off the trees this time of year that’s left the north end of Grant Park looking a little bald.

It’s that 877 trees were taken down in recent weeks to clear the way for repair work on the roof of an underground garage there, officials said.

There had been some talk before the project got off the ground that perhaps the trees could be taken out and relocated, but that proved to be too costly, Chicago Park District Supt. Michael P. Kelly said.

“It’s too costly to relocate the trees — it’s $10,000 per tree and there’s no guarantee a tree will survive” the move, he said, referring to expert opinion. “The bottom line: it’s a lot of money for a lot of risk.”

He says 160 trees will be recycled for use as park “furniture” including benches and even in the playgrounds.

It’s a good news-bad news scenario, says Bob O’Neill of the Grant Park Conservancy. While 877 trees are coming down, the park district issued a press release this fall saying more than 1,000 trees will be planted there once the water-proofing rubber membrane to the garage roof is installed and, above ground, a new park is complete in late 2014 or early 2015.

The change is dramatic, particularly for motorists on Lake Shore Drive, those exercising along the nearby lakefront path and even boaters in the warm weather.

For Cherya Jenkins, who works in one of the high-rise office buildings overlooking the park, the near clear-cutting was a bit heartbreaking.

“It’s a huge amount of trees,” she said. “I thought some were going to be cut down but not that many. It’s just flat — it’s just dirt now,” she said. “If you’re high up, you can really see it. On the ground, you may not see around all the fencing that’s been put up.”

Told that the trees would be replaced, she said: “It’s ironic, you take away [almost] 1,000 and you bring back in 1,000. I don’t understand why the [existing trees] couldn’t have been relocated.”

Beyond the high costs of relocation, O’Neill, of the conservancy, said many of those trees — including honeylocusts, elm and maples — were in bad shape and some could fall victim to disease.

“The important point no one really realizes is it’s very close to a monoculture in the park. You only have a few types of trees out there so if you get some kind of disease like Emerald Ash borer, it could wipe out an entire grove,” he said, noting that some of the trees that came down were white ash. “Right now, a canker is killing some of the honeylocusts out there.”

He said a greater variety of trees will be planted next time around and even grow a bit faster, thanks to a new irrigation system.

Some of those trees that came down were 30 and 40 years old, O’Neill says, and Kelly acknowledges it will take time, once the section of park reopens, for it to resemble the sketches of the new park, which feature families frolicking under and around big leafy trees.

The 20-acre stretch of Grant Park, an area generally known as Daley Bicentennial Plaza, also is home to plenty of wildlife. While some took up residence in and around the remaining 40 trees at nearby Peanut Park, some rabbits and squirrels had to be relocated and were done so by wildlife experts, Kelly said.

With the parking garage fix a must, park planners figured it was a good time to re-imagine the site — connected to Millennium Park by a Frank Gehry-designed bridge.

While crews are in the demolition phase right now, the first signs of the new park should spring up next year, including those gently rolling hills that will provide new vistas to peer out onto Lake Michigan. Beyond green space, the park will include a wintertime ice skating ribbon that will circle around climbing areas. A skateboard park will sit in one pocket while a neighboring scooter plaza will be available to younger children.

Part of the project, including the design, will be funded with $35 million the park district received in a city deal to lease the underground garage to a private firm.

When it reopens in two years, it will be christened Maggie Daley Park in honor of the late former first lady of Chicago.

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