The Lakefill helped make Northwestern into the institution it is today. It doubled the size of campus so the University could add a bunch of new buildings, and even included a nice aesthetically pleasing lake in the middle of it all. In short, it was a pretty good deal, and something that could never be done now, right? After all, dumping a bunch of sand into Lake Michigan isn’t the most environmentally conscious thing.

But interestingly, Northwestern actually still owns a lakefill-sized portion of underwater land off the shores of the existing lakefill. It’s part of what was sold to the University by the Illinois State Legislature in the 1950s during the Lakefill’s construction. With that in mind, could the Lakefill ever be expanded?

Architectural plans for the Lakefill. The dotted white box is the underwater land the university ended up purchasing. / Northwestern University Archives

“The simple answer is no,” Aaron Packman, Northwestern civil engineering professor and director of the university’s Center for Water Research, said. “Northwestern would not be allowed to expand further into the lake and nominal ownership or fifty-year-old authorizations to do things in that part of the lake do not matter, because this would require modern permitting.”

Packman says that’s because the Great Lakes are covered by an interlocking system of interstate and international treaties – and thus are subject to specific legal protections. Doing something in that part of the lake would require permits and review at multiple levels.

“Frankly, I don’t see any chance in hell that it would happen,” he said. “Many, many people would stand up and come in with pitchforks against that. Many regulators would just straight up say no.”

There’s even some precedent – Loyola tried to do the same thing in the 1980s, and it didn’t go so well.

“Because they’re also a lakeside campus, they’re also highly constrained on what they can do,” Packman said. “And they were denied a permit to expand into the lake.”

According to a 2017 story in the Loyola Phoenix, the university was able to convince the state of Illinois to sell them the underwater land for ten thousand dollars via a special bill in the legislature, but the project ended up dying after an environmental lawsuit.

Howard Learner, the Executive Director and founder of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, says the regulations governing the Great Lakes are so complex that it would take hours just for a basic overview. But the main legal issue surrounding landfilling is something called the public trust doctrine.

“The Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan and the lakebed at the bottom, are held in the public trust,” Learner said. “And therefore, it has to be used for the public and for public purpose – not for private purpose.”

The public trust doctrine is over 100 years old, and Learner says the precedent in the Loyola case means that it would legally be pretty hard to expand our lakefill.

“Loyola University in that case is a wonderful university, but it’s a private university.” Learner said. “Northwestern University is a wonderful university, but it’s a private university. So, for example, if Northwestern were to seek to further take lakebed that’s held in the public trust and try to convert that into a private purpose for university use, that would be open to court challenge.”

But from an environmental perspective, Packman says adding more lakefill wouldn’t actually be that big of a disruption to the current environment. Why?

“As far as I know, there is no scrap of remaining natural lakeshore in the Chicago metro area,” Packman said. “From Illinois state beach park all the way around to the Indiana Dunes, everything is artificial.”

Instead, Chicago’s lakefront is all concrete and artificially placed and trapped sand – naturally, the whole area was mostly a low-lying swamp.

“Say Northwestern were to re-naturalize the lakeshore, let it go back to a natural system, that really wouldn’t have a significant impact because it’s a tiny little parcel,” Packman said. “Although Northwestern’s big, in a Great Lakes perspective it’s tiny. That doesn’t have any effect on an ecosystem when everything else surrounding it is modified.”

So, adding more lakefill – although it’s likely legally impossible – wouldn’t really change how the lakefront already is, at least from an environmental perspective. The natural lakefront has already been gone for a long time.

“The issue is regional environmental degradation,” Packman said. “So, it’s not just Northwestern – it’s Northwestern and everybody else along the lakeshore starting from about 1860 to about 1960.”

The Lakefill under construction in the early 1960s. / Northwestern University Archives

For more on the history of how and why the lakefill was created, check out part one of this series.