2012 saw the Des Plaines River near Riverside changed forever
The Des Plaines River murmurs as it bends its way past Barrypoint Road Bridge toward Riverside Township Hall. Standing on the bridge, looking west, the channel rises slightly and then narrows sharply before curving in an arc to the south toward Ogden Avenue before sweeping north along First Avenue.
Those sentences could not have been written a year ago.
A year ago today, if you stood on the Barrypoint bridge, you would have seen a much more familiar sight and heard the familiar sound — to many, soothing — of water rushing over the Hofmann Dam.
Tree trunks, caught on the lip of the dam until a flood might wash them downstream, were a regular sight, along with mounds of foam collecting below the dam. Above the dam, was a still lagoon. Regarded as beautiful and tranquil by many, it stretched about 200 feet from the bank in Riverside to the bank in Lyons before narrowing to a recognizable channel further west.
In the early 20th century, the lagoon was an open sewer, remedied only when a bypass structure was built on the Riverside side of the stream to allow the pollution trapped by George Hofmann’s dam — the key to a recreational destination, Niagara Park, the would-be resort developer created at the site, complete with boat slips and a huge medieval-looking tower (did no one think twice about boating so near a dam?) — to flow downstream.
The crest of the dam was lowered in the 1940s, creating periods of extreme low water. In 1950, the final dam was built, eliminating the low water events, but retaining a dam that, in reality, served no other purpose.
And out of nowhere, it seemed, here came the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They carried with them $7 million and a plan (actually, one that was years old and which everyone believed permanently stalled) to remove not just Hofmann Dam, but Fairbank Dam a few hundred yards downstream and Armitage Dam upstream in River Grove.
The plan also called for improvements to Swan Pond Park, to improve drainage, repair the WPA-era retaining wall and construct a walking path from Burling Road to the Barrypoint bridge.
Reaction was, as they say, mixed.
Fairbank Dam came out within a couple of days in January, setting the stage for the Hofmann Dam in spring. But work was delayed after neighbors along Maplewood Road in Riverside discovered that the Army Corps had conflicting sets of numbers related to estimated water levels after the dam was removed. What they saw was disturbing enough for the village to demand a complete reassessment of the data and a public accounting for the screw-up.
While the answers given at the subsequent town hall-style meeting on June 11 didn’t make the Maplewood Road residents any happier, village officials were satisfied.
A backhoe outfitted with a jackhammer rolled up to the face of the Hofmann Dam at 7:15 a.m. on June 20 and started hammering away.
The lagoon behind the dam quickly drained and a new, narrower channel began to form. For the next couple of months, it looked pretty crappy over near the dam as construction continued. The project was delayed again when crews found remnants of Hofmann’s old dam behind the 1950 dam. But that structure was soon cleared away, and the permanent channel behind the old dam began to take shape.
It’s still peaceful looking west from the bridge. But the change has been transformative. There had been a dam at that site since the 1827. There will never be one there again.
So long, St. Barbara School
The rumblings began in early 2011. In February of that year, there was a special meeting for school parents at St. Barbara Parish, and the subject of the meeting was school consolidation.
With enrollment dropping at several area Catholic schools, it was thought a regional Catholic school serving a large area instead of the narrow parochial model might be a way to put Catholic education within reach financially and physically for local families.
That idea never gained much traction and by fall of 2011, word was filtering around Brookfield that St. Barbara School’s days were numbered. Enrollment plummeted further. The school counted fewer than 80 students — 40 percent fewer students than in 2009.
The rumblings about the possible closing of St. Barbara’s surfaced in late January 2012, when the Chicago Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools appeared at a town hall meeting at the parish. There would be a last-ditch effort to save St. Barbara School.
Committees focused on marketing, curriculum and enrollment. A plan for multi-age classrooms was rolled out. The school’s website was redesigned.
In late March, parish and diocesan officials presided over another meeting. By May 1, the school had to hit specific goals for enrollment and fundraising or the diocese was going to cut the cord.
Enrollment and fundraising efforts both fell short on May 1. Later that month, St. Barbara’s pastor sent out a letter, making it official.
“After almost a century of learning, St. Barbara School in Brookfield will be unable to open its doors to students for the 2012-2013 academic year,” Rev. Robert Casey wrote.
On June 5, 2012, the bell rang for the final time.
Warehouse full of worry
In 2011, North Riverside, its sales tax revenues already hammered by the Great Recession, got the worst possible news when the Edward Don Company announced it was pulling up stakes and moving to Woodridge.
With that announcement, North Riverside was about to see its No. 1 sales tax producer leave town. It would be years, surely, before something would be able to replace it.
But in February, word filtered out that another warehouse might replace the one that would soon be leaving town. In March, it was confirmed, that warehouse just might be Costco.
For several months, village officials and developers negotiated a possible deal. In October it was official. By the fall of 2013, Costco would be open at 26th Street and Harlem Avenue.
Turns out it will cost North Riverside close to $7 million to cement the deal. And, of course, the deal is not official yet. It’ll be the end of February, when Costco buys the land and North Riverside forks over its share, before everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.
While the village will be without a sugar-daddy, sales-tax generator for about a year, it could have been a lot worse. You can bank your frozen property tax levy on that.
Ash borer lands, officially, in Riverside
It was just a matter of time before the pesky green insect known as the emerald ash borer started killing trees in Riverside. In January, the village’s forester, Michael Collins, announced the bad news.
He had found ash borer larvae inside a dying ash tree near the intersection of Southcote and Repton roads near Ames School. That tree and six other ash trees nearby were cut down in response to the find.
The ash borer had arrived, and it wasn’t going away.
By summer, there were more signs of the insect in the village. In August, Collins found the ash borer inside two other trees — one on South Delaplaine Road near Harrington Park and one in Swan Pond Park. Collins noted that there were other ash trees that showed signs of being infested as well.
“It’s a hard insect to detect until you see a lot of symptoms,” Collins said back in August. “We’re seeing a lot of die-back on ash trees, which is leading me to believe it’s throughout the entire town.
“It’s definitely moving more quickly than I initially thought.”
By August, 24 ash trees had been removed throughout the village. By mid-December, crews had removed 56 more. According to Collins, crews were going to complete one final round of ash removals before the end of 2012.
The village of Riverside set aside $62,500 in its 2013 budget for the removal of ash trees infested or threatened by the ash borer. Prior to the infestation, Riverside counted about 1,100 ash trees on public land throughout the village.
Brookfield Library board’s big plans
Say what you will about the Brookfield Public Library’s latest plan to build a new campus, including a 38,500-square-foot building at Grand Boulevard and Park Avenue, you have to give the library’s board of trustees points for tenacity.
The library board has been trying to get a new library built somewhere in the village since 2007. That year, the board bought a house in the 3500 block of Arden Avenue and lined up several other homes near the southeast corner of Arden and Washington before the plan collapsed.
The library board was left holding a rental home, for which it had paid top dollar at the height of the real estate bubble, and egg on its face.
Undeterred, the board saw an opportunity for another shot at a new library when the Brookfield United Methodist Church, across Lincoln Avenue from the library, closed its doors.
In March 2012, the library board met with church officials and put together a letter of understanding that they would buy the church property as part of an ambitious campus plan that included a parking lot and a village commons-style area by closing off Lincoln Avenue.
Neighbors and village officials concerned about traffic issues related to the proposed plan caused the library board to amend their plan somewhat. But on Dec. 10, the village board gave the library preliminary approval for its planned development. The library board bought the church property for a little less than $600,000 and is now mulling its options for moving forward.
There’s a long way to go before the library board realizes its dream of a new building. But they’ve been at this for five years already, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll abandon that plan.
Voters may be the only ones who can derail the proposal, and that could be years down the road.
A fresh start for the Arcade
The year 2012 will be known as the year the Arcade Building in Riverside finally returned to town.
After an almost two-year exterior restoration project, Riverside’s first commercial structure was transformed from a stucco-coated redevelopment disaster into the historic local landmark it was built to be.
In May, the final touches were placed on the building when copper finials were placed on the roof and a copper central tower hoisted into place atop the building. The tower has weathered somewhat into a deep brown, giving it a patina that fits with the 19th-century character of the building.
A couple of businesses opened on the first floor of the building, giving it at least a hint of life.
Of course, there’s a long way to go. Most of the ground-floor commercial space remains unoccupied, unless you count building materials and excess furniture as tenants. While the view through the large picture windows could be more appealing, that should improve in time.
In the meantime, the shell of the 142-year-old building is ready to embrace the next century and a half of life in Riverside. It’s as close to a fresh start as a building that old is going to get.
Musical chairs in Brookfield
In between presidential elections in Brookfield, things get pretty quiet, politically speaking.
But get within six months of an election and all hell starts breaking loose.
On April 9, Brookfield voters (of course, it’ll happen, too, in Riverside and North Riverside, but Brookfield just has a je ne sais quoi when it comes to elections) will head to the polls again after what ought to be a spirited, probably entertaining, campaign.
There won’t be the familiar VIP vs. PEP showdown as has been the case since 2001. Nope, in 2012 VIP gave up the ghost and Bill Russ struck out on his own again to seek political fortune. He’ll be running as an independent for president against not one, but two PEP opponents.
Of course, only one of the PEP opponents will be the actual PEP opponent. Brookfield’s lone remaining political party is running Kit Ketchmark — once mortal foe of PEP and a leader of the VIP revolution in 2001 — for president.
Opposing Ketchmark and Russ will be one-time PEP stalwart Michael Towner, who broke with the party that nurtured his political career after PEP snubbed him in favor or Ketchmark.
Could the presence of two PEP-centric candidates leave the door open for Russ to reclaim the center chair at the council table? Tune in next April.
Awesome March, then the Sahara
In 2011, the Landmark coverage area, like the rest of northern Illinois, was socked by violent storms, including a Feb. 1 blizzard that dumped a near-record 21 inches of snow on the populace.
Later that year, storms flattened trees, knocked down power poles and caused floods. It was quite the spectacle.
So when 2012 arrived with one of the mildest winters on record — March was the warmest on record; heck, it hit 80 degrees — people weren’t complaining.
The complaining started in mid-June, when temperatures hit the 90-degree mark and stayed there. There was no rain, no break in the heat wave.
On July 4, attendance at local Independence Day parades was down and those who showed up scrambled for what shade there was along the parade route. It would be the first of three straight 100-degree days, just the third time that had happened since weather records have been kept, and the first time since 1947.
The drought and heat continued through July and August, abating only in the Chicago area in September. But that mild weather everybody saw last winter is still evident through the end of 2012. The area has already gone through a record snowless period — almost an entire year.
What weather calamity awaits in 2013? We’ll find out soon enough.