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New Lake Shore Drive Extension Gives Drivers a Shortcut, Neighbors a Park

By Mark Konkol | October 23, 2013 6:22am
 Park No. 523 at 87th Street and Lake Michigan is set to open to the public on Saturday.
Park No. 523 at 87th Street and Lake Michigan is set to open to the public on Saturday.
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THE BUSH — For 13 years, Karen "The Goat" Roothaan has pushed and prodded to get someone to take down the chain-link fence blocking her neighbors in The Bush from the Lake Michigan shore.

Roothaan, who once likened herself to a billy goat leaning against a gate to get at a garden, earned her nickname with that kind of stubborn tenacity.

She started an organization, "Trees R Beautiful," just to get access to the property by planting and tending to trees on the 600-acre former U.S. Steel South Works site — prime lakefront property the size of a tiny suburb.

That's how she discovered the natural wonderland that sprouted amid the steel mill ruins:

Wild clover fields alive with butterflies.

Giant limestone walls that shelter urban coyotes.

And a secret natural beach that formed on the back of the Calumet Harbor breakwater.

She's always wanted her neighbors to see those wonders or, at the very least, take a short walk to take in Lake Michigan's beautiful blue hue as the sun breaks the horizon.

On Saturday, she'll get her wish.

The fence, at least some of it, will come down when the city finally opens the $64 million southern extension of Lake Shore Drive that stretches 2 miles from 79th Street, through the former steel mill site to Ewing and the Calumet River.

The new-four lane road — complete with sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes — will be the ultimate shortcut from South Chicago to South Shore.

"The new alignment will be one continuous stretch that allows people to cut through the neighborhood without all the traffic and congestion and having to make five different turns," said John Sadler, assistant chief highway engineer on the project.

Really, the LSD extension is more than just a road. It foreshadows the rebirth of what some people — including Mayor Rahm Emanuel — hope will be Chicago's newest neighborhood.

The so-called "Lakeside" development is about 600 acres nestled between the Calumet River and Rainbow Beach along Lake Michigan.

Plans approved by the city in 2010 call for 13,500 new homes, a high school and retail shops — plus 125 acres of parks and a 1,500-slip marina. One day, Lakeside could be home to 150,000 people.

"Rich people," Roothaan says. "And their boats."

You'll have to forgive Roothaan, a tree-loving urban gardener, if she isn't excited that it's going to take a giant real estate development just to be allowed to take a short walk with her dogs Buster and Lucky to the lake.

It's not easy living in The Bush neighborhood, a forgotten part of town at the foot of what once was a main entrance to the steel mill that the Encyclopedia of Chicago described as "bathed in the soot of the steel furnaces … notorious throughout Chicago for its poor environmental and economic conditions."

And some of her neighbors figure developers hope the new Lakeside will swallow up the Bush.

"Oh, I don't care if someone wants to live in a lakefront high-rise. And if making a bunch of money off the lake is priority, OK. That's the public consensus," Roothaan said.

"But in the meantime I'm watching my neighborhood turn into a ghost town. … Many people firmly believe they're trying to run us out. I don't see proof of that, but I don't see proof against it, either."

Roothaan, a retired City Colleges adjunct professor, would much rather see the old mill site become a giant lakefront preserve that shows year by year how Mother Nature can reclaim even the most polluted of industrial sites if we'd let it.

"I'm not excited, but I'm not upset either. Part of the vision is a big marina and all the big-money people renting out marina space. That kind of shuts out those of us who don't own big boats," she said.

"We're the only lakefront community that doesn't have access to the lake. My tax bill says I pay $55 every six months to the Park District. There's a park, but I don't really have a park I can access. I've been paying for years, and I'd just really like to get at it."

To start with, she's talking about Park No. 523, a sliver of lakefront that stretches from about 87th Street south to near the breakwater at the mouth of the Calumet River.

"Even if it's not a beach, we should be able to get to the water, at least," she says. "I've heard rumors, but I don't know if that's going to happen."

Well, as it turns out, Park No. 523 down at the end of 87th Street — a stretch that hasn't been used for much more than a scene in the "Dark Knight" Batman movie — will open to the public on Saturday along with the LSD extension.

There's no playground or ballfield.

No kayak launch. No picnic shelter.

"It's a passive park with native plantings, trees, walkways, benches and great views of the lake," Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said.

That sounds just fine to Roothaan.

"Lucky and Buster are looking forward to finally getting out there," she said. "They don't understand all the politics that kept them out. They just want to go for a run by the lake."

But the place definitely needs a better name — Park No. 523 just won't do.

I have a suggestion: maybe, Goat Park.