Bears stadium proposal has us asking: Who’s in charge of Chicago’s lakefront?

Chicago’s Near South lakefront is one of the crown jewels of the city, with its parkland, lake access, harbor and three world-renowned museums, all within a few blocks of each other.

And it deserves better treatment. Consider this:

On the southern end near 23rd Street, McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center threatens to rot in place.

Then there is Northerly Island Park, with all of its potential wasted by a split-personality redevelopment that put a 30,000-seat live event pavilion on its north side, but a nature sanctuary on its south.

Now come the Chicago Bears with plans to shoehorn a giant domed stadium — and maybe even hotels and a sports museum — on the parking lots just south of their current Soldier Field playground.

This editorial board has expressed concerns about the current proposed Bears stadium (we don’t like it) and certainly will again as the team’s plans develop.

Still, in a way, you can’t (yet) fault the Bears for trying. They are a for-profit organization, looking for a stadium deal that makes them even more money.

But that the team can just diesel their way in — Bronko Nagurski-style — and attempt to set the agenda for a critical section of one of the most iconic water frontages in the world is more than a bit troubling.

It points to an even larger question: Who in government is truly minding the store when it comes to mapping the future of this critical area of Chicago’s lakefront?

It isn’t as if the tools aren’t there. Chiefly there is the 51-year-old Lakefront Protection ordinance that keeps private development off the city’s shores and can give the thumbs up or down to public development that violates the long-held and fought-for concept of the lakefront as a public trust.

And there’s the Chicago Park District, an independent governmental body — on paper, at least — which can set the agenda for the lakefront. Then there’s the mayor, through which all big things must (or should) pass.

Advocates such as Friends of the Parks are in the mix too, with the ability to sue to stop projects and policies that might negatively impact the lakefront.

Public land, free for development?

So what’s the problem? For too long, Chicago’s parks and lakefront have been looked at as easily developable land, rather than sacrosanct public places that act as respite from the hurly-burly of the big city.

Until that changes, lakefront and park space will always be under the threat of some sort of attack.

At least on the museum campus, the institutions themselves are doing their part to improve the area. For example, the Shedd Aquarium is pouring $500 million into creating new galleries and programs between now and 2027.

The Adler has spent millions in recent years restoring the dome on that marvelous Art Deco facility .

“I think the area at the museum campus is the most beautiful piece of property in the country,” Bears CEO Kevin Warren told The Athletic this week.

He is absolutely right.

But Warren is wrong when he says “We’ll be able to build a campus together with the museums, with the stadium, with the lake, with the downtown on the backdrop, and to be able to enjoy Chicago like we should be able to enjoy Chicago.”

One of these things doesn’t belong here, as they used to sing years ago on that public television children’s tv show. For the lakefront, that thing is another professional football stadium and all that would come with it.

While Soldier Field has been in Burnham Park since 1924, it was originally built as a properly-scaled lakefront public gathering space for big events: Boxing, major religious gatherings, sporting events, and the like.

The notion of a new domed stadium and hotels goes against all that, even if the Bears kept their promise of spending $2 billion to build the place, then gift it to the public.

Still, the museum campus, Soldier Field, Lakeside Center and Northerly Island need help and a vision for the future.

While we’re at it, we are intrigued by former Gov. Pat Quinn’s call this week for an advisory referendum on the November ballot asking voters to weigh in on whether the Bears or Sox should receive public subsidies to build new stadiums.

But a non-binding ballot question on this is pretty much a time-waster. What’s needed more than a referendum is clear-eyed leadership from the mayor, the governor and those elected to look out for the best interests of the public, rather than billion-dollar sports franchises.

Same for the Near South lakefront. The public and Burnham Park would be better served by the public, government and civic leadership working together to determine the area’s future.

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