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Riverbank Restoration Funded for Horner Park, But What About the Dogs?

 The Army Corps of Engineers announced that a long-awaited riverbank restoration project has been put on the fast track.
Horner Park Riverbank Restoration
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ALBANY PARK — Horner Park's advisory council finally received the news the group has been waiting to hear for more than a decade: funding has been secured for a much-anticipated riverfront restoration project.

Yet the announcement, delivered by members of the Army Corps of Engineers at Monday night's gathering of the advisory council, was met with muted reaction.

The 14-acre project — out of Horner's 55 total acreage — is largely concentrated on the park's 2,600 feet of riverbank, stretching from Montrose Avenue to Irving Park Road. But it also includes a chunk of land along Horner's south end, the very same space the advisory council has been eyeballing for a dog-friendly area.

"Is this a done deal?" asked neighbor Erica Beutler, head of the dog-friendly initiative.

"I don't want to continue to work on something that's not going to happen. I also don't want to give up on something that the community wants," Beutler said.

Nicole Roach, project manager for the Army Corps, noted that the restoration's design was on a "fast track" — the goal is to have the project out to bid by the end of September — but that there is still time for "small adjustments" to be made.

"I still really think we need it," Beutler said of the proposed 1.8-acre dog area.

Among other adjustments the council would like to see: the inclusion of components that were part of the group's original design, which dates back to the late 1990s.

While the Army Corps is focused solely on ecosystem restoration, the council looked at the project "holistically," said the group's president, Peter Schlossman.

Picnic areas, a mini-amphitheater and an overlook for fishing were among the ideas presented by the council.

"There's only a small percentage [of funding] we can spend on recreational amenities," said Cathy Breitenbach, head of the Chicago Park District's Green Initiative Office. "This is primarily a restoration project with the Army Corps."

If the Army Corps and Park District project falls short in terms of the council's wish list, the group would explore alternative funding sources, said Schlossman.

"We need to make sure we work through all the different aspects," he said.

Roach tentatively agreed to a follow-up meeting in June and encouraged council members to forward to her their feedback in the weeks ahead.

As it currently stands, the $6.4 million restoration project — 65 percent funded by the Army Corps, 35 percent by the Park District — addresses a number of issues along the part of the Chicago River bank that runs through Horner Park.

Invasive plant species will be removed and the area will be closely restored to its native habitat, with the intent of increasing soil conservation and attracting more wildlife to the area.

"It's never going to be perfect, like it was never touched," said Mitch Murdock, natural areas manager for the Park District. "You do the best you can."

The riverbank will also be regraded. Nearly vertical in some places, the steepness of the slope sparked much of the original push for the restoration project.

"What we have now is a fenced-off river," said Schlossman.

If the wall of chain-link fencing serves to protect park users from the hazardous bank, it also encourages the dumping of trash, homeless squatters and undesirable activity, he said.

The advisory council hopes that improved access to the river will not only put a halt to the aforementioned incidents but create an environment that encourages people to interact with the river.

It's a concept that's worked on the opposite shore, where private homes line the river.

Riverbank Neighbors, faced with the same challenges of overgrown brush, litter and unwanted "guests," took a do-it-yourself approach to restoration, crafting twig fencing and rudimentary stairways to create a bucolic pathway along the water.

The Horner Park council envisioned a larger, more formalized version of Riverbank Neighbors' volunteer effort, according to the group's vice president, Larry Brown.

Now that the Army Corps and Park District are prepared to move forward, the advisory council's mission is to ensure park patrons and their pets are given as much consideration as Mother Nature.

"We've got to think about these different competing users and making them work together," said Schlossman.