Pity the casual visitor to Chicago who spots DuSable Park on a map and decides to check out the parcel of land prominently situated on the city’s waterfront just south of the Navy Pier and directly east of North Lake Shore Drive. Because when they arrive, they won’t find a park at all but a publicly inaccessible and wholly undeveloped 3.44-acre plot at the confluence of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.
Since its dedication in 1987 by former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, DuSable Park has functioned as a park in name only. As for that name, it honors Haiti-born trader and trapper Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, who arrived in the area circa 1775 as the first non-Indigenous settler of what is now Chicago.
Formerly a late 19th-century industrial site-slash-dumping ground created from fill that the Chicago Dock and Canal Trust deeded to the Chicago Park District in 1988 (it subsequently underwent EPA-funded environment remediation work in 2012 with further work to remove radioactive soil concluding in 2020), DuSable Park’s decades-in-the-making transformation into a fully realized public green space has not been an easy one. As noted by the Park District, the site has experienced “several advancements and some setbacks” over the years. But as revealed by the Park District earlier this week, substantial progress is finally being made with the announcement that the DuSable Park Design Alliance (DPDA) has been awarded a $1.5 million design contract to create an actual park at DuSable Park.
The DPDA is a joint venture between Brook Architecture and Ross Barney Architects. Both Chicago-based firms are women-owned—by RaMona Westbrook and Carol Ross Barney, respectively. Both firms also have extensive experience designing for the public realm; Ross Barney Architects’ key role in the Chicago Riverwalk has garnered the firm local and national acclaim while Brook Architecture’s lauded work at 31st Street Harbor similarly helped to breathe new life into another underutilized stretch of Chicago waterfront. As noted by the DPDA, DuSable Park is “positioned as both a critical piece of Chicago’s public lakefront and a cap to Chicago’s Riverwalk.”
“We are excited and honored to help elevate DuSable’s legacy,” said Carol Ross Barney, founder and design principal of Ross Barney Architects, in a statement shared by the firm. “As designers, Brook Architecture and Ross Barney Architects have consciously sought ‘noble projects,’ ones that reflect our social and cultural aspirations. The Chicago Park District’s DuSable Park is exactly that type of project.”
“As a native Chicagoan, I have always known that DuSable was a significant figure in Chicago’s history,” added Brook Architecture president RaMona Westbrook. “As an African American, I also know that he likely had to overcome oppressive obstacles due to the color of his skin. I believe this project is an opportunity to not only celebrate the founding of Chicago and bring his story to the forefront; but also, right the wrongs done to him and acknowledge the magnitude of his greatness.”
As detailed in a news release announcing DPDA’s winning of the contract, the venture has assembled a majority minority-and women-owned consulting firms to collaborate on the project. The larger team includes: Dr. Christopher Reed (historian and DuSable scholar), Sylvain Studios (art curator), MBDB (community engagement), Coleman Design (graphics and wayfinding), Dynasty Group (surveying), David Mason (civil and structural engineering), Wang Engineering (engineering), Alfred Benesch (marine engineering), Delta Engineering (electrical engineering), Hugh Associates (lighting design), and Concord Group (cost estimation).
The DPDA will build upon the DuSable Park Framework Plan created in 2006 with the goal to honor and celebrate Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable while also recognizing the “unique confluence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan by creating a passive, visible and accessible park.” The Park District noted that:
“The Framework Plan lays out a vision for the park including interpretive and recreation elements such as a Founder’s Plaza, an observatory, a promenade, a lakefront boardwalk, an outdoor classroom, a boat drop-off, and educational and art components. Unfortunately, implementation of these plans stalled as a result the economic recession of 2008. Despite this stall, and the fact that some updates to the plan will be required based on current existing conditions, the Framework Plan remains relevant and supported by community stakeholders to this day. The Park District intends that the Framework Plan will serve as a strong foundation for the new park development.”
As for the delays that have slowed DuSable Park, they are, as mentioned by the Park Department, largely tied to the economic crisis of 2008. Specifically, the project hit a roadblock when the already-underway Santiago Calatrava-designed Chicago Spire project, located directly across North Lake Shore Drive from the park site, was nixed. As detailed in a recent article by Chicago public media outlet WTTW, developer Related Midwest had pledged $10 million to transform the adjacent DuSable Park into a functional park as part of the Chicago Spire development. Related Midwest is now building a pair of slender, SOM-designed residential towers at the former Spire site and, per WTTW, will use the city-owned park site as a staging site as was the case with the Chicago Spire. And like with the Chicago Spire, Related Midwest will help to fund the $40 million DuSable Park project as part of the new development scheme.
In addition to funds provided by Related Midwest, the new park is also being funded with $5 million in Open Space Impact Fees according to WTTW.
With the design contract now awarded to the DPDA, the next major step will be the design and community engagement stages, which are slated to kick off this summer and last through the spring of 2024. As for the project’s completion, the Park District anticipates that DuSable Park will finally be able to live up to its name beginning in the summer of 2025.