Friday, May 15, 2009

Chicago Park District set to add 2 new high-profit harbors

Park District prepares to boost capacity by more than 1,100 boats

By Jaime Adame Special to the Chicago Tribune
May 15, 2009

Barring unforeseen problems with needed approvals, construction could begin next spring on two city harbors that would expand the number of mooring spaces for recreational boaters by about 20 percent and bring in more tourism dollars,
Chicago Park District officials say.

The Chicago Gateway Harbor project involves a reinforcement of dilapidated Dime Pier, located about 480 feet south of Navy Pier and 400 feet north of Chicago Harbor Lock, and creation of nightly as well as hourly boating slips. The harbor could open in 2011, parks officials say.

"Gateway will be the only Park District harbor intended primarily for visiting boaters," said Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner. A lack of such docking opportunities "represents a loss in revenue and related economic impact potential," according to the Chicago Lakefront Harbor Framework Plan.

The second and larger of the projects, at 31st Street, was a proposed Olympic sailing venue, though bid officials now say Burnham Harbor would be used for sailing.

If Chicago is awarded the 2016 Olympics, displaced boaters could look to the new harbors for mooring spaces, park officials say.

Parks officials conducted an economic feasibility study that suggested both harbor projects will be profitable, Maxey-Faulkner said. Existing harbors cannot meet the demand for slips, with more than 700 boaters on a waiting list, added Rob Rejman, director of capital construction for the Park District.

Yet, the number of slips at Gateway and their proximity to tour boats tied up at Navy Pier raised safety concerns. The project ended up with 265slips, a decrease of 38 percent.

Of the five tour boat operators who dock on the South Side of Navy Pier, some say the harbor design still is problematic because larger ships and smaller boats would navigate the heavily trafficked Navy Pier fairway.

"It just seems like they're trying to squeeze too much into a small area," said Anthony Difiglio, general manager for Anita Dee Yacht Charters. "It's not really a question of if you'll have an accident, it's a question of when," he said.

Yet Coast Guard Cmdr. Paul Mehler III called the project "a balancing act between profit and safety."

"It is my belief that we can do it safely, but steps are going to have to be put in place to manage that many recreational boaters," said Mehler, in charge of the marine safety unit in Chicago.

The 31st Street Harbor would add about 850 slips. Parks officials say it may take until 2012 to finish that project, which includes an underground parking garage, a community building and a breakwater that curls into Lake Michigan.

In a May 1 letter to the Park District, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said it was ready to recommend the 31st Street Harbor project proceed. The agency was awaiting a response from the city to six letters received during the comment period about the Gateway project.

The projects must be authorized by state lawmakers, and also await approval from the Chicago Plan Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Nine marinas already dot Chicago's shoreline, but the more than 5,000 moorings aren't enough, said Gary Hooper, civic chairman for the Chicago Yachting Association.

"We feel the city is needing the slips throughout the system, especially if we get the Olympics," he said.The harbors would be the first built since DuSable Harbor opened with 420 slips in 2000. Before that downtown project, no Chicago marina had been built in 65 years.

Plans for both projects were announced in 2007, when park officials estimated the cost of the 31st Street project at about $42 million and the Gateway project at $24 million. They now estimate the 31st Street project will cost $75 million, and the Gateway project about $35 million.

Last month, park officials agreed to pay up to $3.7 million to
URS Corp. to manage construction. Bidding on the construction contracts is expected this winter. Rejman said the Park District won $3.1 million in federal grant money earmarked for projects that benefit short-stay boaters.

Revenue bonds will finance construction, with mooring fees expected to cover ongoing costs, parks officials say.

Fees vary by harbor and Gateway "will be among the higher priced of our harbors," Rejman said. "We think this harbor's going to do really well."Hooper said he recently paid more than $10,500 for a 60-foot slip with some amenities in DuSable Harbor.

The new harbors will be needed to handle the 1,600 boaters who may be displaced from other harbors by the Olympics, he said.

But the harbor projects were "cued up really before we heard anything about the Olympics," Rejman said. A third proposed harbor at the site of the former USX steel mill is on the back burner, he added.

Revisions to the Gateway harbor design -- widening the fairway near the western end of the pier by 40 feet to 190 feet as well as reducing the number of slips -- won support from some tour boat operations. "We feel it's very workable," said Dan Russell, vice president and general manager of Entertainment Cruises Chicago. His company's boats will dock on new finger pier structures to be added to the east end of Navy Pier, he said. The Coast Guard's Mehler said that although harbor officials addressed many of the safety concerns, more recommendations have been made to the state Department of Natural Resources.

He wants a harbor master to help control traffic, something the Park District said in a mid-April letter will happen. He also seeks additional widening of the fairway, expressing concern that the finger docks extending from Navy Pier could cause more congestion. And he called for safety courses for boaters.

"Our challenge is to educate them and make them aware of the challenges specific to the downtown Chicago waterfront, but people have the right to enjoy the water. It is one of the beautiful attributes Chicago has to offer, and it is our challenge to have them do it safely," Mehler said.

Freelance reporter Mike Helfgot contributed to this report

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