Meigs Field: Still a pyrrhic sacrifice to ‘good intentions’

With last month’s passing of Maggie Daley, Chicago’s former first lady, from power, political blogger Greg Hinz reflected on stillborn plans to turn Meigs Field, the city’s former lakefront GA airport, into a major city park. Years later: Nothing – a typical fate for big government plans and ever more so now under today’s tight budgets and changing political fortunes.

Crain’s Chicago Business was the platform for “Greg Hinz On Politics” to note that, “As Chicago says goodbye to Maggie Daley, a key piece of her legacy is waiting to be reborn.” Mayor Daley had charged his wife with heading redevelopment of Northerly Island, the valuable lakefront landfill specifically created for an airport so many decades ago. The mayor had preempted Meigs’ future with a midnight bulldozing of the runway in March 2003.

Mayor Daley bulldozed Meigs Fields' runway in the middle of the night. AOPA Photo by Mark Schaible

Hinz notes that Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelley says remaking the island into a park will cost $100 million, the city doesn’t have it and getting it “will not be in this (new) mayor’s first term.” Recently elected Rahm Emanuel has two other, higher park priorities before him prior to the 2015 elections. And both, Hinz says, will require “heavy private fundraising.” He notes that “even the mayor can do only so much when it comes to raising private cash for city projects.”

Great! So the Meigs property is a ghost town except for occasional city-run rock concerts. And just as seasonally, the public gets to experience a “naturalized prairie” planted on part of the site — apparently to (literally) expose urban Chicagoans to their Midwestern roots. Hinz says is that “except on warm summer days … (it’s) all but empty.”

Big park and recreation plans for the site are stalled. Similarly, hoped-for uses related to a 2016 Olympics were dashed with that failed bid. One can’t find fault with today’s civic leaders for being conservative in current fiscal circumstances, but….One CAN draw the generalization that many big ideas don’t come to fruition, at least not in timely fashion, when government and politicians are involved. The re-use of the World Trade Center site, for instance, has taken a decade of squabbling, horse trading and financial accommodation among many government and business interests. It wasn’t pretty.

For another example, I hope to get over to Atlantic City, New Jersey, before moving south. I’d like to photograph for you the wonderful uses to which the city has put our former Bader Field since forcing its closure five years ago. Last time I saw Bader, there was an ice rink, a small stadium built for a now-defunct minor league baseball team, lots of ugly unused land and some municipal storage. Tellingly, an April 2011, developer proposal for a new hotel/shopping complex there (do they need another one?) is contingent on 75% abatement of taxes for 20 years and “adequate” city-provided sewer and water facilities. And they say airports cost taxpayers money!

I wish these municipal “big thinkers” would leave well enough alone, at least until their big ideas are ready for prime time. OK, OK, so Chicago lakefront weather isn’t always so good and VFR ops at Meigs could often be suspended. And yes, in this Great Recession, fewer planes would be using Meigs today – a situation typical of most GA fields right now.

But boy, it would be nice if our municipal “bold men of action” wouldn’t destroy sensible infrastructure merely in hopes of big things to come. Or is it just civic officials’ personal power and hubris? Surely, the world-beating legacy of good urban design and strong civic pride that is Chicago should have spared that useful little airport, at least until dreamed-of “higher and better uses” were truly at hand.

“At least when it was… an airport, Northerly Island served a need,” said Hinz. “Right now, it’s close to a wasteland.”

Congratulations, Chicago. (You too, Atlantic City.)

© 2011 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.


  1. Charles Spence says

    Good piece on Meigs Field.  That airport was named for “Babe” Meigs.  He was an executive on the Hearst Newspaper in Chicago and flew a Bonanza.  I knew Babe when I was with Hearst.  When there was talk of closing it I talked with Bill Hearst Jr, one of my many bosses during the time I was with that fine publishing organization.  By that time the Chicago Herald=American had closed but Bill still said he would see what he could to save Meigs.  No luck. So with power like that going to bat there was no way to save it.  cs

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