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A LOOK BACK AT THE LOYOLA LAKEFILL By Christopher Hacker and Mary Norkol

For more than a hundred years, Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus has offered students a quarter mile of stunning Lake Michigan shoreline. But in the late 1980s, they had bigger plans.

The Lake Shore Campus was far different in 1987 from what it is today. Many prominent buildings — the Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons, the Damen Student Center and the St. Ignatius Community Plaza — wouldn’t be built for another 20 years. The school was smaller, with fewer than half the students enrolled in 2017.

Loyola's Lake Shore Campus was much different in the late 1980s than it is today.

But by 1987, Loyola was growing and quickly running out of room to expand. The proposed solution: fill 20 acres of water east of campus with soil to create a new expanded campus larger than 15 football fields. But it was never built.

The $6 million project would have begun on the south end of Loyola’s campus and extended east almost a thousand feet before sloping back to its northernmost point at Hartigan Beach on Albion Avenue, according to university archives reviewed by The Phoenix. Its edges would’ve been protected by an armor of stone and cement to prevent erosion, and it would include a public path shaded by trees and flanked by concrete benches along nearly half a mile of new shoreline.

The lakefill would have completely transformed Loyola's campus

The project was massive, and required the support of multiple government organizations to proceed. First, Loyola had to convince the Illinois Legislature to sell the university land held in “public trust,” an English common law doctrine that states the public has an inalienable right to use the oceans, or, in Chicago’s case, one of the Great Lakes.

After months of appeals to state officials, and promises that the path around the lakefill would remain open to the public, Loyola got its wish on July 29, 1988, when then-Governor James Thompson signed a bill to sell the university the land for only $10,000, which would be more than $20,000 today.

With the sale approved, Loyola still had to convince five other organizations to begin construction: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Chicago City Council, the Chicago Plan Commission, the Chicago Park District and the Illinois Department of Transportation, according to university records.

Community leaders wrote letters to city agencies urging them to support the project.

“The Rogers Park Community Council strongly recommends that the Chicago Plan Commission approve Loyola University’s lakefront landfill proposal,” read an endorsement to the Chicago Plan Commission signed by Robert G. Clarke, then-president of the Rogers Park Community Council. “The university has done an admirable job of keeping the community apprised of its plans — even to the extent of actively collecting community input.”

To convince the Army Corps of Engineers, Loyola argued the lakefill would protect its shoreline, which had flooded due to rising lake levels. High waters had forced harbors to close, and flooded much of Loyola’s campus in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Images of Loyola from the late 1970s show heavy flooding on the Lake Shore Campus.

Months of tests were conducted on the lakefill’s proposed construction at a lab in Canada, and concluded no long-term erosion would occur because of the seawall. With this finding in hand, the Army Corps of Engineers allowed Loyola to begin construction.

Environmental groups disagreed. They argued the Corps had allowed Loyola to begin the project with inadequate research. An independent review by the environmental consulting group Great Lakes Marine, Ltd., disputed Loyola’s design group’s finding, predicting much more long-term damage than the university initially reported.

In 1988, a lawyer named Jeff Smith, working pro-bono for an environmental group called the Lake Michigan Federation, sued the Army Corps of Engineers and Loyola. They alleged the Corps failed to issue an “environmental impact statement” that would have assessed the project’s potential damage, illegally issued a permit and entered into a contract without considering potential alternatives and adequately assessing the environmental impact.

The lawsuit also accused the Corps of violating the public trust doctrine, the law which bars the state from giving away Lake Michigan lakebed.

Smith recalled the lakefill project as a clear violation of the government’s responsibility to protect the waters of Lake Michigan.

“It goes to what the heart of what Americans believe government is supposed to do. You’ve got certain things like the air, the sky, the waters [and] the wildlife that are really not supposed to be privatized. They’re supposed to be held in common for everybody, and it’s [the] government’s role … to protect that common interest.” -Jeff Smith, Environmental Lawyer

It was that final count, the public trust doctrine, on which a federal judge based his decision on June 22, 1990 that Loyola couldn’t continue its lakefill project.

The public trust doctrine originated from Roman law and has been used throughout Western legal systems ever since, according to Loyola law professor Henry Rose, who published a paper on the principle in 2013.

In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in an 1890 case involving a Chicago railroad company that wanted to build a new rail line into Lake Michigan, that the public trust doctrine also protects large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes. That means the sale of publicly owned lakebottom to Loyola was illegal.

Loyola wasn’t the first university to try to expand its campus into the lake. In 1961, Northwestern University succeeded in growing its campus by 152 acres, setting what proponents of Loyola’s project hoped would be a precedent more than 20 years later. Northwestern’s lakefill wasn’t challenged in court, and there was an increase in environmental activism by the 1980s, which caused pushback to Loyola’s own proposal, according to Smith.

“What we have here is a transparent giveaway of public property to a private entity,” read the federal judge’s ruling in Loyola’s case. “The lakebed of Lake Michigan is held in trust for and belongs to the citizenry of the state. The conveyance of lakebed to a private party — no matter how reputable and highly motivated that party may be — violates the public trust doctrine.”

On July 11, 1990, almost three years after unveiling its lakefill proposal, Loyola announced it wouldn’t appeal the judge’s decision; the pilings that had already been installed were to be removed.

Almost 30 years later, the university continues to grow, with its largest freshman class ever enrolled in 2017. According to Jennifer Clark, who oversees the relationship between the community and the university, Loyola will continue to improve the way it works with its neighbors.

“[Future urban planning] would be a more open, inclusive, transparent process,” Clark said. “We would involve the neighbors, we would work with the Active Transportation Alliance, we would work with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, we would work with the academics right here in our own institution. We would just do it right.”

Unlike Loyola’s dispute with environmental groups during the lakefill project, the university is currently taking steps to reduce its environmental impact, according to Aaron Durnbaugh, director of sustainability at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability.

Durnbaugh said the Lake Shore Campus has been transformed, reflecting the changes in the university’s values and commitments since the 1980s. He said Loyola’s responsibility to remain sustainable is directly related to its mission as a Jesuit institution.

“It’s part of our mission, it’s part of our expectation for all of us who are part of Loyola: students, staff and faculty,” Durnbaugh said. “Sustainability helps address the problem that impacts the vulnerable people around the world and here in Chicago.”

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