ALBANY PARK — More than 100 neighbors packed the Horner Park field house Monday night to protest the clear-cutting of trees along the park's riverbank as part of a $6 million Army Corps of Engineers aquatic ecosystem restoration project.
"The idea of going down there and seeing every tree wiped out is more than we can stomach," said Pete Leki, a field ecology teacher at Waters Elementary who lives on the river's east bank, opposite Horner Park.
"It's a horrifying holocaust on the trees," he said.
Although residents along the east bank complained they were just notified of the restoration project — encompassing 12 acres and 2,600 feet of shoreline — it's actually been in the works since 2001, awaiting funding.
The Horner Park Advisory Council, in conjunction with Friends of the Chicago River, developed the plan to stabilize the bank, enhance the quality of wildlife along the shore, and improve water retention.
"The Horner Park riverbank is eroding, it's crumbling," said Cynthia Fox, director of operations for Friends of the Chicago River.
Trees are being removed along the bank to allow for regrading — the current slope approaches a steep 90-degree drop in some areas. Many of the trees are considered invasive species and will give way to native plants. An additional 50 to 60 trees adjacent to the river bank — either damaged or non-native — also have been slated for removal to create an oak savannah habitat.
Twenty-five years from now, newly planted trees will have reached 20 to 50 feet in height, according to Bob Foster, project manager for the Chicago Park District.
Foster's comment drew jeers from the crowd, many stating they'd never live to see it.
"This is a long-term project," Foster said. "It may not be for us. A lot of times it's for our children and our children's children."
East bank neighbors, who made up the vast majority of meeting attendees, weren't placated. Comments grew as heated as the sweltering field house and have continued to spill over to social media.
Martha Cameron said she was particularly disturbed by the project's goal of increasing access to the river. The chainlink fence at the river bank will be removed once the slope is regraded, and a walking path will be added along the water.
"This is a hugely risky situation" in a park "incredibly packed with small children at all times," she said. "Children are going to die because of this. We are going to be dragging the river for toddlers."
Colleen Zinck, mother of a toddler and east bank resident, countered: "Keep an eye on your kid."
"I feel it's more dangerous the way it is. I've been waiting for these improvements," said Zinck, who said she's lived in the area for 28 years and called the overgrown river bank "dark and super creepy."
But dark is precisely what some east bank neighbors want.
Their primary complaint: Without the trees, their homes will be exposed to lights from Horner Park's ball fields — lights these same people fought against years ago and were told the trees would block.
"It's an assault," one neighbor said. "Nobody signed up to live next to Wrigley Field."
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose home is along the east bank attended the meeting as a private citizen. She asked Army Corps representatives to delay putting the project out to bid until Army engineers, Park District personnel and community members can walk the bank and identify trees that could be saved.
Lt. Col. Kevin Lovell of the Army Corps responded, "Here's what I am saying: I will walk the ground, I will take your input. We will attempt to modify this plan somewhat."
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who represents east bank neighbors, called on the Army Corps and Park District to engage the community.
"The ideal that you want, and the ideal everyone here wants, they're far apart. You need to get closer," he said.
Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), whose ward includes Horner Park, threw her support behind the restoration.
"I generally am for this project and would like to see it go forward," she said. "I know it's hard to let go of what we see every day. I think it's for the greater good."
As the two-hour forum came to a close, a truce of sorts appeared to have been reached.
"We are committing to finding a balance," said Cathy Breitenbach, head of the Park District's Green Initiative Office. "We are going to try to do our best to respond."