Voters should have a chance to air opinions on Meigs
December 11, 2003
'A park for the people'' it's supposed to be. That's the justification for destroying Meigs Field with neither public notice nor public input.
''A park for the people.'' But what people? All of the polls -- both scientific and not -- over the years have shown that Chicagoans actually prefer the ''little airport that could.'' One scientific poll in June showed that fully 65 percent of the public felt that the closing was wrong, compared with a meager 24 percent who approved.
The merits of Meigs' future are debatable, of course. Not everyone agrees that it is the best use of our lakefront. But that is exactly the point. There has been no debate. There has been no opportunity for the people to have a say.
The result is that we are at risk of forever tainting the lakefront. A ''park for the people''? If the city/Park District steamroller continues at its current pace and direction, the park to replace Meigs Field will be nothing but a monument to bad government and ego.
The only public input in the last seven years into Meigs' fate has been Gov. George Ryan's hearings on airport capacity in 2001. Dozens spoke in favor of Meigs. Not one opposed. The result: An agreement and a mayoral promise to preserve Meigs until 2026.
Instead, less than a year and a half later, ''the people'' got surprise midnight destruction of the airport, and may have lost an enormous opportunity: the chance to have it all -- park, airport and better parks for everyone.
For decades, the Chicago Park District regularly discriminated against minorities and the poor in allocating resources. The effects linger today. In September, a special Chicago Tribune investigation found that teens in minority areas are still shortchanged in recreational programs.
The problem is compounded by the lack of parks in many poor neighborhoods. According to the 1996 City Space Plan, more than half of the city's neighborhoods have less than a basic minimum of 2 open acres per 1,000 residents.
At the same time, the Park District has a budget crisis. The district proposes to close a $30 million gap with the third property tax increase in four years, large fee increases and staff cuts.
On top of this, money that could be used in the neighborhoods will have to go to convert Meigs Field to a park.
So what's the opportunity? Reopen Meigs Field. By doing so (and transferring control to the city), the Park District would stand to receive $139 million or more in federal airport funds -- enough to close its gap and actually make a dent in the backlog of needs in the neighborhoods.
The best part is Meigs could still become an exciting park and attraction. By using only a portion of the funds, Meigs could be reopened and reconfigured as a combination park and airport.
One proposal by our organization would create the Bessie Coleman Skypark, adding more new lakefront parkland than any park added to the lakefront in more than 50 years, an air museum and many exciting features. There are probably other workable dual-use proposals as well.
The point is, under the current ''done deal'' approach, the public will never hear about the possibilities, much less have a say, leaving Northerly Island a colossal symbol of government abuse.
There are only two ways to avoid that fate.
One: Reverse course; put Meigs back the way it was agreed. Collect on the FAA's funds and work with all sides to create a place of wonder and excitement out of a working airport.
Two: Put it to the people to decide. Construct a fair and representative referendum question and put it on the ballot. Sure, the people might really decide they want a park and not an airport. Or maybe they would realize the wisdom of ''both/and'' instead of ''either/or.'' Certainly our neighborhood parks would be better off.
At the very least, everyone could say they had a fair shot, and the result really was ''by the people, and for the people.''
Steven Whitney is the chairman of Friends of Meigs Field (www.friendsofmeigs.org).
Letter to the editor, published 1/5/2004::
WAKE UP TO NEED FOR MEIGS FIELD
Your article MAKEOVER: DALEY’S DEMOLITON includes a major inaccuracy in stating,"Mayor Daley's demolition crews ripped giant x's in the lakefront airport's runway in the dark of night while opponents slept.”
At 12:15 a.m.on March 30, I received a phone call from a member of Chicago’s media asking if I knew if “something” was supposed to be going on at Meigs Field. The media had noticed police escorted caravans of demolition equipment entering the airport.
After making several phone calls that confirmed the removal of the fire department helicopters from the airport, I drove with two others to Meigs Field. I was met there by other Meigs supporters. By 12:45 a.m. Meigs supporters were at the Chicago Tribune. At about 1:30 a.m. we were interviewed on videotape near the airport. We spent the entire night at Meigs Field. And we have devoted the last year to efforts to reopen Meigs Field, a crucial piece of public infrastructure.
Meigs supporters weren’t asleep that night. But there were a lot of people asleep in Chicago that night who still prefer to stay asleep — those who know what Meigs means to the city and aren’t willing to wake up and be counted. Together they have deprived Chicago’s central business district of a facility that the emergency response community knows is crucial for preparedness against a catastrophe. (Meigs is the only facility in the central business district where multiple emergency helicopters and airplanes, including fully loaded transport planes like the C-130, could land and take-off in coordinated response procedures.) They have also helped Chicago’s rival, Las Vegas with a business friendly airport adjacent to its convention centers, to continue to take business from McCormick Place because of the Meigs’ closure.
But there is a win-win opportunity outlined in the Friends of Meigs Field plan, “ Parks and Planes: A Vision for Meigs Field and Northerly Island” available at friendsofmeigs.org. Implementing this plan could reopen the airport, create a lakefront public attraction called The Bessie Coleman Skypark and Chicago Aviation Museum and generate an additional $100 million in federal funds that could be used by the Chicago Park District for after school and gang intervention programs in needy, underserved neighborhoods.
Supporters of Meigs Field weren’t asleep on March 30 and we are not asleep today.
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