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Army Corps Aims to Settle 'Border War' Over Horner Park Trees

By Patty Wetli | September 13, 2013 11:30am
 Community members and local politicians led the Army Corps of Engineers on a walkthrough of Horner Park's riverbank.
Horner Park Walkthrough
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ALBANY PARK — With residents on the east and west banks of the Chicago River divided over a ecosystem restoration project in Horner Park, the Army Corps of Engineers is working toward a compromise officials hope will satisfy both sides.

Col. Frederic Drummond, commander of the Corps' Chicago District, met with approximately 100 protestors and supporters of the project for more than two hours Thursday night, including a walk-through of the park and the opposite shore.

At issue: The removal of vegetation on the west bank. The removal, according to the Corps, is needed to regrade the slope, increase access to the river, and introduce native species of trees and plants. The new plantings are needed to guard against erosion and to attract pollinators, insects and wildlife.

Residents west of the river generally approve of the plan, as do organizations such as Friends of the Park and Friends of the Chicago River.

"I think it's an amazing opportunity for our park. We're gaining park space," said Gretchen Helmreich, president of the Horner Park West Neighborhood Association.

Those on the east side, particularly homeowners who live directly along the bank opposite the park, have largely decried the "clear-cutting" of trees as well as the loss of a natural barrier between their homes and the noise, light and dust pollution that emanates from the park.

"It's almost as if it's some sort of border war," said Tom Gianni, who grew up on the east bank and still lives in the house his parents bought in 1948.

Looking south toward downtown from the Montrose Avenue bridge, Gianni recalled standing in the same spot as a four- or five-year-old and watching the Fourth of July fireworks from the old Riverview amusement park.

"It was always like this," he said, pointing to the overgrown bank. Like many of the protestors, Gianni objected to the description of the plan as a "restoration."

"It was never accessible," he said.

Cynthia Chernoff and her husband bought their house east of the river in May of 2012, immediately captivated by the bucolic setting.

"It sounds like we're complaining about our view. My primary concern is the blatant destruction of life," she said. "I agree that the bank could use some help. I think that there has to be a way to do it that doesn't have to take every tree."

To better demonstrate what the Army Corps has in mind for the west bank, members of the federal agency walked with residents along the east side of the river, where neighbors have been working diligently for years on a restoration project of their own — carving out trails and introducing native plants.

The Corps of Engineers project in Horner Park has much the same goal — albeit on a much faster track in order to retain funding.

"That was 20 years worth of Saturdays," Brook Herman, restoration ecologist with the Corps, said of the east bank work by the neighbors. "I don't have that luxury. I've got to go gung-ho."

Work could begin in January or February and should take about three weeks to remove vegetation from the bank.

Aside from a couple of buffer zones that will be left untouched in order to protect access points to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's Deep Tunnel system, the first year of the restoration would be "ugly" as the bank is cleared for regrading and new plantings, Herman conceded.

Lauren Umek, who lives on the west side of the river, is willing to put up with a little unsightliness for the greater good.

As a doctoral student in plant biology and conservation — "My job is hugging trees," she said — Umek is well aware that restoration isn't pretty.

"It's like awkward teenage years — voices cracking and acne. But it's worth the long-term investment," she said. "It kills me to see the riverbank in such a degraded state. If we do nothing, we're losing that whole bank."

Halting erosion and lessening the steepness of the riverbank remains the primary objective in Horner Park, but the Army Corps has made a few alterations in light of residents' complaints.

A walking path will be added closer to the water and the desired slope may be changed in some places to save trees.

"Disregard the orange dots," said Herman of markings on trees slated for removal in the original plan. Those markings no longer reflect the Corps' intentions, she said.

Initially more than 70 trees "upland" of the bank — on the accessible side of the park's fence — were tagged for uprooting. That number was reduced to fewer than 60 and is being revised further downward.

"I want to see an aerial map that shows every tree you plan to save, or that might be saved," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who lives along the east bank and was attending the meeting as a private citizen.

"We'll do that," Drummond promised.

"We're working solid until we get this thing right," said the colonel. "My goal here, one, is to salvage more trees."