By Naomi Nix
6:57 AM CDT, September 11, 2013
After searching for years, Michael Heltzer was overjoyed when he found a location for his company tucked away on Rockwell Street with a view of the Chicago River and the wildlife that frolics in the surrounding woodlands.
So last week, Heltzer and some of his neighbors were angered when they heard the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Chicago was planning to cut down dozens of trees along the west bank of the Chicago River in Horner Park.
"It's like a sanctuary back here," he said. "It's almost inconceivable that anyone would want to disrupt this."
The Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with the Chicago Park District, plans to take down vegetation along 12 acres of land bordering the river as part of a nearly $6.5 million restoration project.
When the project is complete, engineers say, the bank of the river will be returned to its natural state, leaving a more suitable environment for animals and plant life.
"The goal of the project is to establish a habitat in that area that is more natural," said Linda Sorn, the Corps of Engineers' acting deputy for project management.
But the project is facing opposition from local residents, particularly those who live on the east side of the river and say the trees not only are an integral part of the natural environment but also help block light and dust in the park.
"I personally think the end objective of the plan is excellent. I just think there must be a way to do it that doesn't sacrifice every tree on the bank," said Cynthia Chernoff, who lives on the east side, about 150 yards from the river. "They've been there for decades."
The Corps of Engineers is moving forward with a plan, first developed in 2003, that calls for clearing the land bordering the Chicago River, from Montrose Avenue to Irving Park Road, and replacing it with natural habitat.
The Park District will pay for about 35 percent of the project, with the Corps covering the rest.
Under the plan, the engineers will clear the 12 acres bordering the bank, including dozens of trees. Then restoration workers will regrade parts of the bank that have become very steep because of erosion, according to the Park District.
The engineers will plant vegetation that is native to the area, including oak trees, grasses and wildflowers, according to the Park District.
Neither the Corps of Engineers nor the Park District could provide an estimate for how many trees would be taken down.
Within five years, the new trees should be 5 to 10 feet high, and within 25 years they could reach as high as 50 feet, the Corps estimates.
But that might not come soon enough for people like Chernoff, who says she and her 2-year-old son like to take walks along the east side of the river.
"Personally, it breaks my heart that my son will have moved out of the house before there are full-grown trees," Chernoff said.
Residents across the river say that fewer trees on the bank will mean bright lights in the park will shine into their homes and dust from the baseball field could blow onto their properties.
"We understand the project needs to happen," said Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, who said he has heard complaints from his constituents. "Let's tweak the plan so we don't clear-cut the west side of the bank."
The Corps of Engineers said it will host a walk-through of the site Thursday with stakeholders to discuss potential changes to the plan.
The Corps still expects to award a contract for the restoration by the end of the month. It likely will take about a year to complete and four more to monitor.
Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie said she is hopeful about the long-term success of the project.
"The park belongs to all of us, and the river belongs to all of us," Frisbie said. "This is an opportunity to open it up."
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