Party on 1/29 at Lagunitas Will Help Fund the Next Stage of Big Marsh’s Development

Big Marsh's bike park. Photo: Steven Vance
Big Marsh's bike park. Photo: Steven Vance

Supporters of Big Marsh, the 278-acre nature sanctuary on the Southeast Side, featuring Big Marsh Bike Park, are kicking off the next phase of the development of this recreation amenity with a fundraising party next Tuesday, January 29. Friends of Big Marsh is hosting the event, called “Leaving the Nest, Taking Flight,” from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Lagunitas Tap Room, 2607 W. 17th Street. Tickets are $40, which includes food, with the proceeds going to Big Marsh. [We previously reported that the tickets include beer, which is actually extra — sorry for the mix-up.]

Big Marsh is located at 11599 South Stony Island Ave, just east of Lake Calumet, in a space that’s almost the size of Grant Park. The 44-acre bike park, which opened in November 2016, featuring areas designed for BMX riding, cyclocross, mountain biking and casual trail riding, is the centerpiece of Big Marsh.

It’s still a relatively challenging place to reach without a car, since it’s not directly served by the CTA, and nearby roads have heavy truck traffic. However, the city recently built a new bike lane nearby on Cottage Grove Avenue, and longer range proposals include building a bike-ped bridge across Lake Calumet to provide a shortcut from neighborhoods to the west such as Pullman.

Proposed bike access for Big Marsh. Image: Active Transportation Alliance
Proposed bike access for Big Marsh. Image: Active Transportation Alliance

The fundraising campaign seeks to build Big Marsh into a fully accessible 300-acre park with a perimeter trail, expanded singletrack, nine trails on the space’s upcoming “Big Hill” man-made hill, and a nature play space. The upcoming projects “will tie the park together, involve the surrounding communities, and increase access,” according to Paul Fitzgerald, the new executive director of Friends of Big Marsh.

Some of the infrastructure improvements that are planned for this year:

  • Ford Calumet Environmental Center to open by the end of 2019.
  • Multi-use trail with boardwalk.
  • Building out rest of the single track in bike park and adjacent to “east loop” multiuse trail. Four shipping containers, already on the premises will be used to create elevation at key points.
  • The nature play space, which will natural objects for features.
  • “Big Hill” construction, including grading and seeding, as well as a design charrette to involve members of the community, will begin this year.

“Big Marsh is a part of the city that a lot of people are not familiar with unless they’ve worked in the area, or they live in one of the surrounding neighborhoods of Pullman, Hegewisch, Riverdale,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of people are only aware of this corridor if they’ve had a car towed on the South Side.”

Fitzegerald, who formerly managed Working Bikes Cooperative, a nonprofit bike recycler in Little Village, said that when he attended the ribbon-cutting more than two years ago, it was clear that the nature park, in a former steel mill area, still needed plenty of environmental remediation. “A lot of the land had slag, which is a by-product of steel production that had been dumped on it,” he said. “There are landfills that (have been) inactive for 15-20 years at this point. We’re starting to get to the last stage of those being officially closed and fully remediated.”

The poster for the party.
The poster for the party.

Fitzgerald added that the property currently includes a trailer used for office space, a single-track bike trail, and two outhouses. “We are in the middle of five populated neighborhoods, but we’re a mile from the closest residence,” he explained. “There isn’t an active sewer system.” However, there is the potential to set up a septic tank system in the future.

Big Marsh also has plenty of wildlife not usually associated with the big city. “We have a lot of birds of prey,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a ton of deer, we have a ton of beavers, pretty much any mammal that is native to the Calumet region or the entire Midwest.” The area currently gives the public the opportunity to view the native species in a non-invasive way, with bike paths paved over the more degraded areas. “Right now the main constituents who enjoy the park are bicyclists and bird watchers. We’re really within a year of this feeling like a full-fledged Chicago park with an emphasis on nature and cycling.”

While the Chicago Park District, which owns the land, has been instrumental in developing Big Marsh with support from charitable foundations, corporations, and individuals, Fitzgerald stressed that the park was created with South Side residents in mind. “We want to honor their support, but also we need to honor the communities that should benefit most from them.” He added that it’s important that “the majority of park users come from within five miles, and at least 50 percent of the park users are female. To that end, we’re starting a lot of programming this summer, to make sure that we build at every level of the project. I’m excited to really bring folks from the neighborhood to the planning and organizing level.”

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