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Nature Preserve Planned for North Side

It's been something of a dead zone for decades, but now the City of Chicago has plans to resurrect part of a North Side cemetery.  We'll tell you about the proposed West Ridge Nature Preserve. View a conceptual plan for the West Ridge Nature Preserve in the PDF below.

Looking east from Western Avenue, the view is menacing. Looking west from inside Rosehill Cemetery, it's no less ominous. This is nature left to its own devices for decades. But the 20 acres of land that border one of the busiest intersections in Chicago is on its way to getting a long overdue makeover.

“What we want to do is just provide a little ‘tlc’ to the land, take out the invasive species and some of the undesired undergrowth,” said Chicago Park District Director of Planning and Construction, Rob Rejman. “We'd like to bring some pathways, access to the pond, fishing areas, and turn it into a real nature preserve for the community.”

The City of Chicago is calling it the West Ridge Nature Preserve and it's been a long time in the making. Two years ago, the city bought the 20 acre plot from Rosehill cemetery for $7.7 million. It was one of the biggest and most expensive land purchases the city has made in decades with the intent of keeping it a natural setting. But over the years the land came close to becoming commercial property.

Proposed Fishing Station; image by Hitchcock Design Group

“When I first got elected the big controversy was that my predecessor was contemplating letting a Jewel to go in. Over the years we’ve had Home Depot that was interested; we’ve had people that are very interested in development,” said 40th Ward Alderman Patrick O’Connor.

“And the actual ownership of the cemetery has gone through several hands over the years. But the current owners are a Texas based corporation that owns cemeteries across the country – in fact throughout the world – and have a history of selling off portions for developments, so it wasn’t a stretch to think that we could end up seeing them try to do that in this cemetery as well,” O’Connor said.

At times, the cemetery used the plot as a landfill for sand and dirt and as a receptacle for water run off. Some nature lovers would also fish in the large pond that takes up a sizeable area of the land.  But with virtually no tending for years, the 20 acres have become a twisted jungle of undergrowth, invasive plant and animal species and dead wood.  In the city's hands, the proposal is to turn this wilderness into a cultivated landscape where humans and nature can mingle.

“People have been coming to the area for a while. Just walking and using it as sort of a park like setting. Now we want to turn it into an actual natural area that promotes access and provides a safe environment to come and actually bring kids out, and teach kids about nature, and actually use the area,” Rejman said.

“That pond gets restored; it actually gets dredged and deepened to help promote wildlife and, actually, fish populations in the pond. And then that water continues to be used by the cemetery. They can draw from that pond for irrigation and other purposes.”

Proposed Overlook/Wildlife Viewing Station; image by Hitchcock Design Group

Preliminary concepts designed by a Chicago landscape architecture firm Hitchcock Design Group include nature trails, canoeing and kayaking launches, observation points and educational signage.  The Chicago Park District – which is overseeing the development – likens it to a mini Morton Arboretum.

But the park district says the West Ridge plans will be similar to the already existing nature sanctuary near 71st Street and the Lakefront where bird watching and footpaths allow nature lovers a quiet escape from the urban noise.  The proposed preserve will not, says Alderman O'Connor, be a city park.

“You’re not looking at ball fields and lit up portions, you’re looking at pathways that would meander around a beautiful lake, and lesser pathways that would be through the forest,” O’Connor said.

Residents also expressed concerns about a number of healthy trees that were recently cut down around the proposed nature preserve. But the city says those trees were on cemetery property not on the land now owned by the city.  But the rehab will involve some deforestation.

“The trees that do need to come down are mostly invasive trees and under story weed trees. What we want to do is replace them with more desirable trees, like Oaks, or other trees that wed like to promote in this preserve,” Rejman said.

“Well leave what’s good for habit, woodpeckers and other things. In terms of undergrowth, we’ll leave insensitive areas, and in other areas we’re going to clear out for pathways and provide better trees.”

Proposed Primary Pedestrian Path; image by Hitchcock Design Group

The preserve will be enclosed by a fence that separates the park from the cemetery but that's also raised concerns about accessibility. Right now, there will only be two entrances and might involve crossing busy Western Avenue.

“We’ll be working with C-DOT to improve the cross walks, and if signalized intersections are needed, we can take a look at that,” Rejman said.

The redevelopment will cost about $3.5 million, the bulk of it coming from federal grant money but $700,000 coming from TIF funds.  In the end, the city says it will be worth it, and a much better alternative to a big box store.

The Park District, meanwhile, hopes to start work on the project in the spring of next year with a target opening date of autumn, 2014.


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