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Turf War

A band of hard-charging Lincoln Park activists scuttled the Latin School’s deal for priority use of a new soccer field on public parkland. But, in the end, did anyone really win?

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In a controversial—and some say secretive—deal with the exclusive Latin School, the park district has been trying for two years to turn this patch of Lincoln Park into a state-of-the-art soccer field.

 

A number of things had changed, for the park district and the city, since 2002.

First, though the park district remained an independent government entity with its own authority to collect taxes and spend money, it had increasingly begun to move in lockstep with the priorities of the mayor. Those priorities—namely, promoting tourism, particularly the bid to host the 2016 Olympics, and developing amenities aimed at keeping middle- and upper-income families in the city—required big investments in new and improved facilities.

Seemingly simple projects, like adding baseball diamonds and playgrounds to existing parks, became more costly as standards evolved to keep pace with facilities in the affluent suburbs that could lure young families away from the city. Baseball diamonds got lights and seating and high-quality playing surfaces. Playgrounds got safety mats and creative climbing structures and water slides. The cost of installing a single new playground rose to around $600,000. New mini-stadium-style baseball fields, of which Mitchell hopes to build five or ten, cost more than $1 million, as do soccer fields with artificial turf and special drainage systems. And each new amenity seems to beget new spending, not only for maintenance but also because, although a grassy field can be used by kids for soccer one day and softball the next, a highly specialized site, like a turfed soccer field, tends to preclude other uses, requiring new sites and spaces for those pushed out.

With politics making property tax hikes untenable, Saldaña brought a new level of creative financing expertise to the park district board. As head of the city law department’s finance division, she had overseen the expansion of tax increment financing (TIF) and industrial development bonds, which linked public development priorities to private enterprise. During her tenure, high-profile initiatives, such as Millennium Park, were crafted as public/private partnerships, with private donors funding public amenities, in exchange for naming rights and other forms of recognition.

When Mitchell was named superintendent, he took it as his mission to expand the scope of these partnerships. Under his leadership, they have become a key component of the park district’s strategy, to the point where projects funded solely by the park district are now the exception, rather than the rule.

“Our model for playgrounds now,” he says, “is that a third should come from the park district, a third from other government sources [such as aldermanic ‘menu money’ or state funds], and a third from the community itself, through either ‘buy a brick’ programs or corporate sponsorships.”

Friends of the Parks and other advocacy groups have expressed some reservations about this model, which seems to privilege wealthier neighborhoods, where fundraising is easy and corporations are looking to advertise themselves as good citizens. “Asking the park advisory councils to be more entrepreneurial is appropriate,” Tranter says, “but you have to be very careful. If you only spend money when there are matching state funds or TIF funds or sponsors, you leave a lot of people out.”

Mitchell and his team have addressed this concern by being more aggressive in recruiting private and corporate donors to contribute to projects in struggling areas. There’s now a Nike-sponsored soccer field in Douglas Park and a Cubs-sponsored baseball stadium under way in Humboldt Park. Tranter isn’t crazy about the big swoosh on the Douglas Park field, deemed “fantastic” by Mayor Daley in 2004. But, she says, “at least there are no signs. And the money was given with no restrictions.”

Nike-clad athletes don’t get priority use of the field and the Cubs won’t be taking over the Humboldt Park stadium for batting practice. But, in other partnerships, private contributors, such as baseball leagues, seem to have been rewarded for their donations with special access and priority use, even when neighbors aren’t sure the contributions have been worth the trade.

In October 2007, park district bulldozers arrived at Kenwood Park, on the city’s South Side, to tear out existing grass and make room for a regulation-size baseball field. A private baseball league, Hyde Park Kenwood Legends, which had long used the park for games for its younger members, had requested the field so that its older members, from ages 13 to 15, could play hardball games there too. The park district agreed to the change, which had the effect of transforming the small park from a multiuse site—where baseball was played on some spring evenings, even as kids played other sports and games in other areas of the park—to an essentially baseball-only site, where soccer and other games now must be played on a field that permanently includes a baseball diamond–shaped clay patch.

When community members, who met regularly to discuss the use and management of the park, questioned whether the increased permitting revenue and free “sweat equity” maintenance were worth the tradeoff, they were informed by the park district that, having failed to file the proper paperwork to formally recertify themselves as an advisory council, they must accept that their meetings had no standing in the baseball diamond controversy.

When asked if the group was being punished for its opposition to the baseball diamond, the park district’s spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner replied, “The incidents are unrelated.”

For many park district watchers, the bulldozers that had visited Kenwood Park seemed entirely too reminiscent of another incident: the Daley-ordered middle-of-the-night destruction of Meigs Field in order to convert the area, now known as Northerly Island, into park space.

Superintendent Mitchell, for his part, doesn’t see a problem with the mayor’s approach to the former private airport. “If the mayor didn’t take the steps he did to take Northerly Island and make it into passive space, we’d still be in litigation over it,” he says. Mitchell, who is prone to Daleyesque fits of sputtering rage when angry, has little patience for those who would question the value of converting an open meadow into a soccer field or a grassy field into a baseball diamond.

“Those people who are advocates of passive green space,” he says, “they don’t sit in my chair. If they did, they would understand. You have to have active opportunities for children. . . . I have children running up and down a field, not sitting at home playing Nintendo, being part of the obesity epidemic; not getting into violence, not being part of crime.”

Larger baseball fields, with longer baselines and expanded facilities, keep kids motivated to play, he says. And artificial turf fields can be used longer, with less maintenance, than grassy ones. And, of course, there is also the fact that corporate and private benefactors tend to prefer to contribute to physical, visible structures rather than a lawn-mowing fund.

In this way, Mitchell sees himself as a kind of über-developer for the park district. “I think we have a unique opportunity in Chicago to bring in any number of partners,” he says. “Developers or architectural firms could help with field house restoration. Landscapers could work on our gardens. ComEd and I have been talking because they want to be seen as a green energy company. I’m partnering with them, with anybody. I’m all for these things that would be mutually beneficial.”

Critics argue that in aggressively pursuing private money, Mitchell has allowed the park district’s priorities to drift. “That’s the danger,” says Tranter. “You don’t want dollars driving what goes into a park. Just because someone wants to pay for it, doesn’t mean you should build it.”

Alarmingly, given the breathtaking pace of this kind of development, there is still no single, formal process for deciding which proposed contributions or partnerships are worth pursuing. “I don’t think we have the recipe figured out yet. We’re working it out,” says commissioner Laird Koldyke, the head of the park district’s capital improvements committee. “Our mandate is to make sure that whatever we build, it’s there for the people of Chicago. But wherever we can get private capital, I think it is incumbent on us to do so.”

Indeed, neither Mitchell nor Maxey-Faulkner could name a single proposed partnership plan that had ever been turned down.

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Photograph: Milbert O. Brown/Chicago Tribune

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