Soccer for all? Or soccer for some more than others?
If you’ve ever walked across the south end of Lincoln Park, headed for North Avenue Beach, you’ve probably seen the battleground. Before the war, it was just a patch of grass, low and mostly flat, though those who remember it fondly now say it was a “meadow.” For months, it stood as a big, weed-covered mound of dirt, partially obscured by a windscreen fastened to a chainlink fence. A large sign on the fence declares it to be the “Chicago Park District South Lincoln Park Athletic Field,” but the smaller signs, hung all around it, tell more of the story: “Keep Out” they say. “If unauthorized individuals are seen on site, please call 911.”
This virtually inconspicuous four-acre expanse of scrub is the central front of the Great Soccer War of 2008. In it, the city became locked in a seemingly endless battle with a scrappy neighborhood group that had sued to block what it characterized as a sweetheart deal hatched in darkness between the general superintendent of the Chicago Park District, Tim Mitchell, and one of Chicago’s elite establishments, the Latin School. The deal to build a soccer field on the site, said its opponents, amounted to a land grab in which powerful government insiders took $2 million in exchange for giving priority use of the field to Latin and its soccer teams. The city defended the arrangement as a creative financing package that would have had rich people footing the bill for amenities everyone could enjoy.
The conflict underscores not only the scarcity of prime parkland but also the odd confluence of issues necessary to whip up Chicago citizens into a state of outrage. After all, had it been in any other neighborhood involving any other school, would anyone have cared? The controversy surrounding the soccer field has now dragged on for more than two years, and the whole mess has emerged as a kind of object lesson in how to win—and then lose—against city hall.
The war started, as these things so often do, with a man on a mission. Back in the late fall of 2007, Tom Tresser was still reeling from an unusually nasty city council election. The candidate for whom he worked as a volunteer campaign organizer, Michele Smith, had narrowly failed to oust the incumbent, Alderman Vi Daley. In Tresser’s view, Daley was a stooge for the mayor (no relation), having voted with him 90 percent of the time in the past five years, and to Tresser the argument against her was cut and dried: Either you had a problem with the corruption and mismanagement in city government, or you didn’t. Tresser had a hard time accepting that most people in his neighborhood, the city’s affluent 43rd Ward, just didn’t.
So he and a handful of other former Smith campaign workers formed the rather grandly titled Greater Lincoln Park Democracy for America, a citizens’ watchdog group. Tresser and his cohorts were eager to organize the community but quickly realized that they lacked a signature issue. Then Tresser got wind of the soccer field, a brewing conflict he was certain would galvanize the ward.
“Latin was a real magnet for anger in the community,” Tresser recalls. “They were not considered a good neighbor.” Latin was a longtime source of myriad daily irritations, car congestion chief among them, to the Gold Coast high-rise dwellers around it. Tresser figured that the residents would rise up to stop the school from getting what it wanted—in this case, more than its fair share of park access. In fact, the neighborhood already had, four years before.
Far back in its history, the use of this now much-disputed piece of land was straightforward. It was a cemetery. But by the late 1860s, the bodies were being removed and the field was gradually being filled in to take shape as a grassy meadow. Since then, various master plans for the park have described the area in different terms, but it remained largely undeveloped—and undiscussed—until 2002.
That year, the Chicago Park District, along with the city’s board of education and a single private institution, the Latin School, proposed building a sports venue, including a running track and soccer field, at the site. Though the shared financing arrangement, with each of the three entities contributing to the construction costs, was unusual, David Doig, the park district superintendent at the time, did not anticipate much controversy over the joint venture since the area was largely ignored except when used as staging area during the city’s annual Air and Water Show.
Still, in keeping with the park district’s practice of soliciting public comment on all proposals, a series of community meetings took place. Alderman Daley showed up at many of these gatherings, and even helped organize a handful of them, positioning herself as a sympathetic onlooker to the proceedings. Patricia Monahan, a resident of the Sandburg Village complex, a few blocks southwest of the site, remembers that “the public outcry was tremendous.” Monahan worked with the Committee to Keep Lincoln Park Public to formally protest the proposal. The group argued that the plan was little more than a public subsidy for the Latin School, which would get a large athletic facility in its backyard while paying only one-third of the cost of its construction, at the time estimated to be $2.2 million. Though the project plan indicated that Chicago Public Schools would also have use of the field and track, its location—so far from even the closest public school that students would have to be bused there—was seen as evidence that the wealthy private school was getting preferential treatment over the cash-strapped public schools.
The 2002 plan never came to fruition and Monahan and others believed it was “defeated by public outcry,” though the park district and Alderman Daley say that the proposal was scrapped simply because the board of education didn’t have enough money to pay its share of the costs.
Four years later, after Doig left the park district and was replaced by the current superintendent, Tim Mitchell, neighbors were surprised to hear about a strikingly similar deal: an artificial turf soccer field, with bleachers and lights, planned for the same site and funded largely by the Latin School, which would, in exchange for its financial support, have priority access to the field during certain peak times.
“I had signed one of the petitions in 2002,” says a nearby resident, Coleen Blake, “so I just thought this was ridiculous. I figured Friends of the Parks or someone would fight it. I mean, it had already been decided that the community didn’t want it.”
But at Friends of the Parks, the advocacy group formed in 1975 to oppose political patronage in the management of the park district, the organization’s president, Erma Tranter, was having a hard time gearing up any sort of fight against the new proposal. Tranter, whose group has evolved into a kind of loyal opposition to the park district administration, receives advance copies of the agendas for park district board of commissioners meetings. She had seen an item on an agenda in October 2006 listing the approval of a contract with the Latin School to build a soccer field, and wondered why something so similar to the 2002 plan was being revived. But the same agenda included discussion of the highly controversial plans to lease the Grant Park parking garages to a private firm and to close Grant Park to the public during the Lollapalooza music festival.
“I made a bunch of phone calls,” Tranter says, “trying to get more information from the park district, the advisory council, and the conservancy, but I didn’t really get anywhere. I knew they hadn’t informed us about the deal with the Latin School, but I was thinking maybe they had at least gone to the advisory council.”
Community-based advisory councils had been established for many of the city’s parks in wake of a consent decree that settled a suit against the park district for discrimination in funding more than a decade ago. These groups, formally chartered with the park district, were supposed to serve as an important check on the administration’s decision-making process, ensuring that money was being spent and programs established in keeping with residents’ priorities. But the groups’ authority and influence had waned since Mitchell, formerly a top aide to Mayor Daley and close confidant of city hall, had taken over the district in 2004.
The Lincoln Park Advisory Council had been told about the soccer field plan but details were vague and, in retrospect, seem to have been scrubbed clean of any mention of Latin’s involvement. Jill Niland, the president of LPAC at the time, recalls that the park district managers described the field as one of several new soccer venues being created throughout the city. “They said they wanted to put in these artificial turf fields because there’s a great demand for them. . . . They didn’t say a word about the Latin School,” Niland says. “In fact, they said this all would be paid for from increased fees.”
Based on this presentation at a September 2006 advisory council meeting, Niland says, “we had agreed to the idea of putting a field there. We said, ‘Soccer field? OK.’”
So, when Tranter started asking questions about the plan in October, she was told it had been approved by the advisory council. With less than 24 hours before the meeting, and two other big agenda items to consider, Tranter moved on.
On October 25, 2006, the park district’s board of commissioners, led by its president, Maria Saldaña, voted unanimously to approve a contract with the Latin School, giving the school priority use of the new soccer field in exchange for the school’s covering most of the cost of constructing it. One commissioner, Laird Koldyke, recused himself from discussion of the matter and abstained from voting; his son attended the Latin School.
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Photograph: Barry Austin Photography
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
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
THE HIGH COST OF FUN
The Chicago Park District argues that public-private partnership deals are increasingly necessary because of rising costs. Here, the average price tags for a range of common park district projects—in 2008 dollars, including design services, materials, labor, and construction services
Field house with gymnasium
Artificial turf field
New park development
Drinking fountain with plumbing
Lighting (one light with pole)
Stadium lighting with utilities
Source: Chicago Park District
When the 2008 school year—and soccer season—commenced, the Web site for the Latin School’s boys’ soccer team listed the location of their games as “the Lincoln Park fields just north of the school beyond the LaSalle underpass, south of Cannon Drive,” which are the fields adjacent to the construction site where Latin has practiced for years.
Now that the new field is complete, the school will have to apply for permits to use it, just as any other users will, and just as it always did before. Though Latin can no longer claim “priority” use, it’s unclear how many other schools or clubs will want to use the field, given its location so far east from the center of the city. Latin might very well end up with exactly the access they had hoped for, without paying for it as they had planned to. This is, in essence, the protesters’ worst nightmare.
“The Chicago Plan Commission voted 11-0 (with the park superintendent, Tim Mitchell, abstaining—he is a commissioner on this body) to approve the continued construction of the artificial turf soccer facility that was started as a result of a secret and illegal deal with the Latin School of Chicago,” Tresser wrote in an e-mail sent at 4:30 one Sunday morning. “. . . Our one inch thick binder containing our objections sat unread on their desks. What a joke. WE ARE NOT DONE FIGHTING. WE EXPECT TO RETURN TO COURT.” In late September, Protect Our Parks filed a lawsuit to stop payment to Latin for a deal that, in their words, “amounts to an illegal no-bid contract.” In October, the group sued to halt the installation of the artificial turf, saying that the chemicals contained in it posed a health hazard to young children.
So at the beginning of this year’s season, with the field still under construction and the legal skirmishes ongoing, the Latin School boys’ soccer team was back to playing on Lincoln Park’s other artificial turf field, off of Lake Shore Drive at Montrose. On a crisp fall afternoon, they had the field to themselves: Their scheduled opponents, Guerin Prep, of River Grove, had gone to the other field—the one everybody now thinks of as the Latin School soccer field—and, after looking around for the Latin players for about 45 minutes, gave up and went home. Up at Montrose, on a patch of synthetic grass that almost blends in with the park’s regular grass, the team ended up playing a scrimmage match among themselves, a move that somehow evoked Latin’s position throughout the whole soccer war: They just couldn’t lose.