MUSEUM CAMPUS — Construction to turn the southern 40 acres of Northerly Island into a multi-ecosystem wildlife refuge and educational nature immersion experience is well underway.
The project is set to be completed in 2017, but engineers hope to open fenced-off portions of the island to the public as soon as late summer or early fall, according to Bob O'Neill, head of the Grant Park Conservancy Advisory Council.
After a recent sneak peek of the construction site, O'Neill called the project's impact on the area "transformative."
"It's just an amazing project," O'Neill said. "You don't even feel like you're in Chicago. You have this large pond, or lake, surrounded by hills. ... People aren't going to believe it when it's finished. It''s completely changed."
Lizzie chats about the renovations and when you can get a look on DNAinfo Radio:
The project will cost just over $7 million, mostly from federal grants, with a $2 million contribution from FirstMerit Bank Pavilion that the venue will contribute annually to improve and maintain the site.
O'Neill says that's a steal.
"It looks like a $40 million project," O'Neill said after the site visit, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is managing the project and will hand over the reins to the Park District upon completion in 2017.
"There are these amazing hills, and they didn't have to cart any soil in or out, which is really expensive, and not environmentally friendly," he said. "It's being done really efficiently. It'll be the best $7 million ever spent."
The pond on the island is connected to Lake Michigan at two points, allowing water and wildlife to easily travel between the two and hopefully breed in the reef being installed specifically for that purpose. An underwater camera with a live feed is one of many efforts to use the six-ecosystem island as an educational tool.
In addition to the pond, the area includes a prairie wetland, marsh and an oak savannah, all intended to attract indigenous wildlife. O'Neill said fish, crustaceans and birds are already settling in.
Bridges allow hikers to walk over the tributaries feeding the pond, and boardwalks will be installed throughout the park as well as clearly marked walking paths.
In groves at the base of several hills will be designated camping areas maintained by the Park District and used for educational nature adventures.
As for concerns that concert-goers from the 30,000-seat FirstMerit Bank Pavilion might avail themselves of the camping areas or cause damage akin to the sod-killing "mud swamp" that followed heavy rains and foot traffic last summer, O'Neill said the development team was optimistic that distance would keep the areas separate.
Compared to the island's former life as Meigs Field, O'Neill said it had come a long way.
"We've gone from a sterile, asphalt-and-grass airport, to what's really going to be an amazing nature area," he said. "It'll be internationally known, because you can just tell when you're out there it's something no other city has — and this is just the beginning of it. In a few years, when everything's all planted and established, it's going to be amazing."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: