By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
You can see the enormous Ferris wheel at Navy Pier from a chunk of land that sits between the mouth of the Chicago River and the Ogden Slip in the city’s affluent Streeterville neighborhood. If you turn around, you’ll see the busy Lake Shore Drive in front of a forest of skyscrapers. Thirty years ago, Mayor Harold Washington—a graduate of DuSable High School—named the site DuSable Park after Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, a Haitian fur trader who today is recognized as the “Founder of Chicago.”
It was an inspiring moment for Black Chicago. Not only were residents of color proud to have the city’s first Black mayor, they were also excited to see Chicago recognize a Black man as the founder of a city that has a history of segregation.
Today, DuSable Park is empty. After decades of delays and dozens of failed proposals and unfulfilled promises, the park remains undeveloped and closed to the public amid the hustle and bustle of the Near North Side.
Believed to be located yards away from DuSable’s home and trading post, the park has become a sad afterthought in plan development projects from the city and private developers.
Since Mayor Washington announced plans for the park 30 years ago, the Park District has built Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park and completed a $2.8 million restoration of Buckingham Fountain. The Park District is also moving forward to merge the golf courses of Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center to create a $30 million championship course to be designed by Tiger Woods.
However, in years past, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and park officials haven’t been as vocal in developing DuSable Park on the same level as other public facilities. Now, the future of DuSable Park is in the hands of Related Midwest, the powerful developer that also owns and runs Parkway Gardens Homes in Woodlawn.
On May 15 in the ballroom of the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Streeterville, Related Midwest will unveil a new, $4.1 million plan for the DuSable Park, located at 401 N. Lake Shore Dr. The plans are a component of a long-awaited redevelopment plan for the failed Chicago Spire, a 2,000-ft. unicorn-shaped skyscraper that would have been the world’s tallest building had it been built in 2010. With nearly 1,200 residential units, it would have sat directly across from DuSable Park with Lake Shore separating the two properties. After several financial and legal problems, the developer, Shelbourne Development Group, lost the property. Its creditor, Related Midwest, took control of the property in 2018.
A massive gaping hole in the earth remains on the property. As part of an agreement Shelbourne had with the city, Related Midwest is required to make $4.2 million in improvements to DuSable. Related Midwest hasn’t released those plans, but one thing is clear: When it comes to priorities, DuSable Park takes a back seat to the former Spire property that could rake in millions for Related Midwest and boost its profile with a swank structure situated on prime real estate.
Whether DuSable Park will be treated like an orphan remains to be seen. History hasn’t been kind to DuSable Park. During his final year in office and on earth in 1987, Washington renamed the site DuSable Park.
The property is located near where DuSable established his prosperous farm and trading settlement in 1790. This included a house, two barns, a horse drawn mill, a bake house, a poultry house, a dairy, and a smokehouse. The house was a 22×40-ft. (6.7 m × 12.2 m) log cabin filled with fine furniture and paintings. DuSable sold bread, flour and pork and other items, according to a journal by Hugh Heward, an explorer who bought products from DuSable.
In 1880, DuSable sold the property to John Kenzie, another fur trader. DuSable moved to St. Charles, MO.
Today, the property is the plaza where the Chicago Tribune and the Apple store now stand on Michigan Avenue. Called Pioneer Court, the property is a national landmark as the Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable Home site. In 2009, a bust of DuSable was installed on the site.
Before it was the DuSable Park, the property was owned by Chicago Dock and Canal, which sold the land to Centex, the developers of Lake Point Tower, which was built in 1969.
The developers wanted to build another high-rise on the property, but Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration passed an ordinance that banned the construction of developments east of Lake Shore Drive, hoping it would preserve the city’s natural landscape along the shore for parks and recreation. One year after Washington named the property DuSable Park in 1987, the Chicago Park District took ownership of the property through a quit-claim deed.
The property still remains vacant.
Investigators discovered the soil contained radioactive material in 2000. The Lindsay Light and Chemical Co., which operated in Streeterville, was suspected of dumping thorium on the property. As part of a $6.8 million legal settlement, in 2014 successors to Lindsay Light agreed to pay the cleanup and remediation costs, which were allocated by the Environmental Protection Agency to the Chicago Park District.
Last year, the Chicago Park District board awarded a $1.4 million contract to Industrial & Environmental Services to clear, excavate and remove contaminated soil from DuSable Park.
While the cleanup continued, there have been at least 71 ideas or proposals to develop DuSable Park, but none have succeeded.
In 2000, the Chicago Park District drew public outcry after it announced plans to build a parking lot on the site. The plan was indefinitely postponed. In 2001, Laurie Palmer, a former Art Institute professor, drew 66 proposals as part of a project called, “3 Acres on the Lake.”
In 2006, several Chicago groups, including the DuSable Park Coalition and Friends of the DuSable, put together an $11.4 million plan that would have included a history wall with a panel, a lakefront boardwalk and outdoor classroom. Before it failed in 2008, the developers of the Chicago Spire wanted to build a temporary construction storage facility before it developed the park.
In 2016, Friends of the Park offered to settle a lawsuit blocking the Lucas Museum, with a plan to move the proposed museum to McCormick Place Lakeside Center and requiring it to develop DuSable Park.
The DuSable Heritage Association has an online petition urging residents to send a message to city and park leaders to step up efforts to develop DuSable Park.
“DuSable Park is a critical piece of Chicago’s lakefront park system,” the petition reads. “It provides additional green space while commemorating Chicago’s first non-native settler and creates an opportunity to educate the city’s citizens and visitors about Chicago’s history and origin.”
Today, DuSable Park remains a dream deferred.
Yet, a new $60 million bridge is being built for pedestrians and cyclists to connect them to Navy Pier. The project is in Phase Two, which involves building the structure over one area of DuSable Park. Though the project is running behind schedule, it’s still moving faster than plans for DuSable Park.
Related Midwest hopes to end the years of headaches. Whatever their plans are, DuSable Park won’t be ready by this summer or the next, or perhaps the next.