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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?

(page 3 of 4)


Neighborhood protests blocked the partnership between the park district and the Latin School, but not the building of the field, which opened on November 1st.

 

By December of 2006, word of the Latin School’s role in building the Lincoln Park soccer field had begun to leak out, along with the details of the contract that gave the school 880 hours of exclusive use of the field each year for ten years, specifically granting private use on weekday afternoons and on weekends during spring and fall. The cost of the construction, to be paid by Latin, was estimated at around $900,000.

“At our December meeting,” says the Lincoln Park Advisory Council’s former president, Jill Niland, “we heard Latin was going to contribute some money to it. But we still didn’t know there was any kind of quid pro quo.”

Still, there was something noteworthy enough in the careful way the park district was handling information about the project that Niland and others started to grow suspicious. She thought back to the group’s September meeting, when several new people had attended, introducing themselves by first name only.

“Later, I found out [some of them] were Latin School parents,” she says.

(The Latin School declined to comment on this, or any other specific element of this story, instead issuing a statement, which reads, in part, “Latin will not be involved with the construction of the Lincoln Park field per the legal settlement; at the same time, the school continues to believe the field will bring benefits to athletes of all ages.”)

Meanwhile, Tranter passed a copy of the contract to the media and in May 2007 the Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz published a scathing piece about the project. “They don’t teach sheep shearing at the prestigious Latin School of Chicago,” he wrote. “But maybe they could add ewe studies to the curriculum, because, perhaps with a little help from its many connected friends, Latin is fleecing Superintendent Tim Mitchell’s Chicago Park District.”

For many residents of the neighborhood, Hinz’s piece was the first they’d heard of the new soccer field plan. Even Vi Daley, whom Hinz called for comment, said she had been unaware of the details of the agreement until he described it to her. Through the late summer and early fall of 2007, neighborhood opposition to the project grew: There were high-rise dwellers who didn’t want their view to include a soccer stadium, environmentalists who didn’t like the idea of artificial turf going in, and good-government types who hated the idea that a private school was somehow getting special access to a public amenity.

In November 2007, those varied constituencies managed to find one another and come together. On the evening of November 13th, Eurydice Chrones, a concerned resident, was hosting a small group at her house, near the 1700 block of North Sedgwick. They were discussing what they might do to protest the soccer field, but the conversation seemed to be going in circles; no one seemed quite able to make something happen. Chrones, who had worked in sales promotion, was sure that if their message—that a private school was buying priority use of a public field—got out, the public would be outraged and demand that the deal be scrapped.

Meanwhile, that same night, Tom Tresser was hosting a meeting at his house in the 1600 block of North Larrabee. Tresser was sure that if ward residents had known about the deal during the election, Daley would have lost her seat to Michele Smith. He smelled a conspiracy—and an opportunity to channel neighborhood resentment into something like a movement for reform. The privileged families who sent their kids to Latin getting yet another urban perk? By the next day, Tresser and Chrones were in contact and, within weeks, members from the two groups had come together to form the new Committee to Keep Lincoln Park Public. Three months later, the committee brought together nearly 200 people at the Lincoln Park branch library, nearly all of whom opposed the Latin School “land grab,” as it was being called.

Some of the heartiest cheers at the meeting were for a Manhattan lawyer named Norman Siegel, who had represented a coalition of public school parents and students, youth league teams, residents of East Harlem and the South Bronx, and parks advocates in a suit over an agreement that gave 20 private schools priority use of athletic fields on New York’s Randalls Island in exchange for $45 million. Addressing the meeting by speakerphone, Siegel told the crowd, “The fight is important to put people in power on notice that they can’t abuse our rights and that public property is for the public and can’t be given away even for large amounts of money.” The organizers gathered signatures for a petition and took checks.

Alderman Daley was taking the position that the contract did seem to unfairly favor Latin, blocking out almost all the time slots when other groups, such as Lincoln Park High School’s team and the North Side’s numerous private leagues, would want to use the field. But the deal was done, Daley argued, so the best that could be hoped for was compromise. She held meetings to broker some concessions, including more hours available to the public and an additional water fountain. The opposition wasn’t biting.

“We attended some of the meetings organized by Vi Daley,” says Tranter. “But since our position was that this was a totally illegal deal, we didn’t really want to participate in some kind of negotiated settlement.”

Daley takes credit for gaining some concessions from both parties. The park district agreed to replace a water fountain that was being lost in the original design and the Latin School agreed to reserve fewer weekend hours and provide more landscaping around the site.

“We were all told that this was a binding agreement and there was nothing we could do,” says Daley. “But at least we were getting something back, so we felt fairly comfortable.”

The Committee to Keep Lincoln Park Public was not satisfied, though. If the argument was that this was a legal deal and, therefore, couldn’t be undone casually, they reasoned, they would have to take legal action to get the deal scrapped.

“We went to every big firm in the city that does pro bono work,” says Herb Caplan, a retired first assistant Illinois attorney general. “None of them would even talk to us because they all did work for the park district.”

Eventually, Caplan and Blake worked together to draft the original complaint, which became the basis for the committee’s suit against the Latin School, the park district, and the city. They said the contract, which had not been formally presented to the city’s plan commission, was a clear violation of the rules regulating park district decision making. The committee then hired an attorney, Tom Ramsdell, to take the case to court, where he faced a legal team that, at times, swelled to more than a dozen lawyers.

Chrones, who describes herself as “just a mom who got mad,” was overwhelmed, but, in the end, the defendants’ response to the suit was more galvanizing than intimidating.

“When we filed suit [in April 2008],” recalls Blake, “that’s when the donations really started coming in. Before that, nobody thought we could really do anything. Once we got into court, it looked like a real fight.”

By then, though, the field was already more than half completed. Cook County Circuit Court judge Dorothy Kirie Kinnaird ruled that the committee, which had incorporated itself as “Protect Our Parks,” was likely to win the case, but declined to issue an injunction to halt construction. An Illinois appellate court panel overturned that portion of the decision and Kinnaird issued the stop work order on May 2nd. On May 14th, the Chicago Park District canceled its contract with the Latin School and agreed to repay the school for its construction costs.

With the proposed Latin School partnership effectively scrapped, Mitchell might have cut his losses and, after paying for the excavation and drainage work that had already been done on the site, taken down the fence that had surrounded the site for more than a year. Instead, he vowed to complete the original plan, turf and all. The soccer field was, for Mitchell and the park district, a matter of principle, a fight over their right to decide how the city’s parkland gets used. As the city anticipates the possibility of building multiple athletic venues for the 2016 Olympics, some of which are sure to raise the ire of neighbors, it is a principle it seems deeply committed to defending.

The drama culminated in August when the Chicago Plan Commission listened to an hour’s worth of elaborately choreographed testimony and unanimously approved the park district’s application to complete the field. While aldermen typically send their comments about proposals in their ward to the board in writing, Vi Daley showed up in person to support the soccer field. Making no mention of the courtroom battles and public protests, she favored the plan because, she said, “thousands of people play soccer.”

So, while Tresser and Protect Our Parks had emerged from the initial legal scuffle apparently victorious, their goal of seeing the site returned to its original state as a grassy meadow has, to say the least, eluded them. All that has happened so far is that the $2 million of private funds that came from the Latin School to excavate the site—which had long had drainage problems—and build the field, now must be replaced with $2 million in public funds.

“That’s two million dollars that now I’m going to have to pay and find other partners so I don’t have to put something else off in another neighborhood that can’t afford to pay,” says Mitchell, whose responses to the controversy have been generally more heated and less politic than those of Gery Chico, who replaced Saldaña as the president of the park district’s board of commissioners. “It’s upsetting to me.”

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Photograph: Milbert O. Brown/Chicago Tribune

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