Chicago is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis. One-off solutions to resolve the municipal debt such as selling off assets or pursuing economically risky endeavors like the Olympics are short sighted, only serving to delay dealing with the fundamentals of the problem at hand. The city is in need of a sustainable revenue stream, not a one-time revenue shot.
While Chicago has continued to try to reinvent itself, jockeying for global economic position and emulating “world city” projects pursued elsewhere, it has ignored its most compelling asset—the lakefront. Although popularly considered “forever open, clear and free,” in reality, Chicago’s lakefront has been in a constant state of transformation over the last 150 years, resulting the creation of more than 1,000 acres of new land and the construction of dozens of buildings, not to mention continuing to be dominated by the changing configurations of Lake Shore Drive (LSD). As a result, significant portions of the lakefront remain under activated and often obstructed.
Since development is prohibited east of LSD, the city has foreclosed on the possibility of leveraging this asset for its social, civic, and economic potential. In turn, the political and financial capital necessary to enhance the lakefront—producing a generous, productive, and socially compelling public space—is absent. This is a missed opportunity.
The Big Shift imagines a scenario wherein Chicago embraces the lakefront’s latent potential by proposing a dramatic, yet conceptually simple infrastructural transformation. By shifting the 1.5 mile stretch of LSD running along Grant Park eastward, the city could create upwards of 225 acres of new lakefront real estate—importantly, west of LSD—that would generate an enormous, long-term revenue stream through land leases and property taxes, despite the significant upfront infrastructural costs of the endeavor. The “shift” would allow for the reconfiguration of LSD—changing its alignment and partially sinking or bridging portions of it in order to reduce its adverse impact on pedestrian and bike access to the lakefront, as well as its auditory and emission impacts on the city.
More significantly, the project would enhance two of Chicago’s most beloved public spaces. A fourth street wall would frame the east side of Grant Park, creating a kind of Central Park condition, while stately, tree-lined boulevards would connect from the west side of Grant Park across the new development area and LSD to a new 145-acre public waterfront. This newly configured waterfront would include softly rolling topography, beaches, spaces of prospect and refuge, as well as generous planting, pedestrian circulation, and furnishing. The proposal would more than triple the size of the current lakefront adjacent to Grant Park, providing the recreational amenities now missing from the area, but which animate other areas of Chicago’s iconic lakefront.
Simply put, the Big Shift imagines a scenario where a public infrastructural renovation is leveraged to create urgently needed municipal revenue sources while enhancing and expanding Chicago’s most important public spaces and civic assets.