Political disputes in Chicago are, of course, always about who has power, money, and clout. But two of the biggest battles of the last few months erupted over questions about the appropriate use of public park space. I recently sat down with Erma Tranter, president of the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks, to get her take on the ongoing discussions about the Park District’s partnerships with the private sector, the system’s funding and infrastructural needs, and her organization’s own controversial proposals to create an uninterrupted public lakefront from the far north to the far south sides of the city. (Listen to the full interview: )

You’ve got a news clipping in front of you about the Lincoln Park-Latin School soccer field controversy. Critics are saying that, along with the Children’s Museum’s plan to move into Grant Park, it would have set a precedent for turning public land over to private entities.

On the Lincoln Park soccer field, Friends of the Parks opposed that proposal when it came before the community in 2003, when a different [Park District] administration talked about a soccer field at the same site, with a quarter-mile track around it. And there was opposition for a number of reasons, number one that this site is fairly small. It was a meadow and it was intended to be a meadow. In addition to that, this was not a public-private partnership that was in the best interest of the public. There are some partnerships that do benefit the public, such as when the Cubs or Sox build a new baseball field for kids, or when Nike sponsored soccer fields on the south side—they’ll pay for it but not use it themselves. In this case it was building and using taxpayer dollars for a private institution that should be looking to buy its own land.

So it died in 2003, and when it was resurrected without any community involvement in October of 2006 no one had a clue at first. I was really taken aback—I only saw it because we saw the agenda on a Tuesday for a Park District meeting on Wednesday.

It resulted in a new group being formed to litigate, and they got a judge who saw this as a public land deal that was bad for the public. So that’s a case that shows that the Park District has to really rethink this kind of public-private partnership where you give public land to benefit private institutions. It’s wrong, and it’s been declared wrong by the courts.

You do want the recreational fields—we have great need for them. Soccer, for example, is a growing sport. But you need a plan—how large a space will it need? What areas of the city really need it? Is there accessibility for people to get to the location?

The Children’s Museum is a little different. Museums historically are part of our park system. For Friends of the Parks—and it was different for a variety of groups—we were looking at legal precedents that govern Grant Park and say no above-ground buildings can be built. We wanted to protect those covenants.


The museum did agree to put more of the new building underground.

We saw three iterations of their design, and after every one of them we met with them and said, “It’s still a building.”


Why does the Park District need to rely on private partnerships? Is the money coming in just not enough?

We have an aging park system and they have a lot of capital demands in almost all neighborhoods. For example, they have like 500 children’s playgrounds. They were all rebuilt between ’88 and ’93, but the life expectancy for a children’s playground is 15 years, so hundreds of their playgrounds have exceeded their life expectancy—hundreds. And we have limited park space—7,000 acres for the whole city. So the parks we do have are overused.

It makes sense for the Park District to look for these partnerships, but to discern between those they should be working toward and those they shouldn’t even have a discussion about. I don’t see in their budget that they get a whole lot of private grants, and I think that’s something they could grow. [Superintendent] Tim Mitchell has been looking to find state support. And they are looking for aldermanic money—to say, “The park advisory council wants a new playground, and you, alderman, need to kick in for it [out of your menu budget].” And what we’ve been saying is that the district needs to push for its share of TIF money—they should be getting 7 percent of it.

Now there’s another issue with the public use of park land. The Park District recently approved two new schools being built in public parks. We need good schools, but the Board of Ed should be looking elsewhere—there’s a lot of vacant land in the city. This is an encroachment on limited green space.

The second trend that’s emerged in the last few months is that the city’s Department of Aging has capital dollars, and they apparently didn’t get land to build senior centers on so they’re negotiating with the Park District [to build] one at Wildwood, on the northwest side, and a second one at Warren Park up north. Why is parkland free land for them? We do really think the Park District is beginning to be considered the local land bank. We need our Park District to stand up right in the beginning—the commissioners should be our protectors.

We do think the park facilities themselves should have top-of-the-line senior programs right within our park buildings. We used to have them and lots have been cut back, but most of these buildings are vacant until kids come in around 2:30.


Is there anything the Park District has been doing well?

They’re doing more natural areas—planting more native grasses and things so you have more habitat for small critters and certainly migratory birds, and they’re beautiful to see. They have some spectacular gardens in regional parks. I think their overall maintenance and beach cleanup is good. And the last several years the Park District’s summer activities—the movies in the park have been terrific, and there have been more concerts in the park.


Why does it seem that some of the facilities are so much better in some places? Lincoln Park is the obvious example—it’s strikingly different from Garfield Park or Washington Park just in the way it’s kept up.

Parks on the west side and south side are receiving capital dollars. In Washington Park they just did a huge playground initiative and they did the lagoons. They spent millions of dollars restoring the Garfield Park conservatory, in partnership with Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, an organization that we formed, and it’s because there’s a powerful community there. It takes a strong community to work with the Park District to really maximize the use and benefit and look of a park. Lincoln Park has all kinds of stewards, they’ve got volunteers, they’ve got two advocacy organizations—there are a lot of citizens involved. Washington Park does too—the Washington Park Advisory Council has started a conservancy, and there are capital dollars going down there.


But I’ve walked each of these places recently and the differences jump out at you.

It takes a lot of volunteers, I guess. I’m trying to think of some of the greatest parks—one is Wicker. It’s tiny, but my god, they have a garden club, they have an advisory council, they have a force of nature there named Doug Wood, and I can’t believe how much time he devotes to that park. Just this Sunday they had 2,000 people in this tiny park because they had a farmers’ market, they had garden walks, they had historic tours, they had a trio—a jazz band—and it was all community-based. There’s another one, Commercial Club Playground, further west off Chicago Avenue. They do yoga classes—they raise the money. They do art classes for kids, and no holiday passes without a party for the kids there. So I think it does take a strong community to work closely with the Park District. The Park District can’t just go into some place and say, “We’re going to restore this playground” without the community. You need the volunteers, you need citizens who care, you need citizens to be the voice and the advocate, and the Park District needs to recognize those people and facilitate their work.


Speaking of community voices, you heard quite a few of them in meetings the last couple of weeks where you presented your plans for the far north lakefront. And a Sun-Times columnist wasn’t particularly charitable about the exercise. What’s going on?

The Burnham Plan’s anniversary is coming up next year. Well, we have 30 miles of lakefront from the Indiana border to the Evanston border. Over time people have decided the lakefront is going to remain free for everyone—it’s not going to belong to the rich and it’s not going to belong to industry. It is public land. But in the beginning those parks weren’t there—they’re all lakefill. The lake came to Michigan Avenue here; it came to Clark Street up at North Avenue. You go west to Marine Drive at Foster—that’s all lakefill.

So we’ve done 26 miles and we’ve got four to go to complete the lakefront plan—two on the south side [starting at 71st Street] and two on the north side [starting at Ardmore]. Our goal is to show what the city would look like if we had the ability to accomplish this now or in 50 years or later. So starting in 2005 we went out to the community and had countless meetings. What we came up with is not a Friends of the Parks plan; it’s a community plan. And our architects, working pro bono, came up with something on the south side so that you could ride your bike south of 71st Street. And then on the north side, because you’ve got Edgewater with high rises and Rogers Park with low-rises, [we came up with a plan for] minimal connection of the beaches.

On the north side, the community in Rogers Park was the most vehement. Most people said, “We have these street-end beaches and we want to keep these street-end beaches.” The problem is that people from the west of Sheridan think of those beaches as private because they perceive the community as thinking of those as private. We heard from the community who wanted nothing—they like Rogers Park as it is. We also heard from people who weren’t intimidated by the shouting that “Yes indeed, we want it if it’s a minimal parkland that’s created—we certainly don’t want Lake Shore Drive [extended north of Hollywood], we want no marina, we want no commercial development.”


So you’re saying you’d like to see this open lakefront from border to border.

We want to produce a concept plan by 2009 for finishing the last four miles of the lakefront. We will have engineering studies done to support the feasibility of it. Ultimately, future generations are going to complete the lakefront, and we think this is an assist.


Have you heard from the city about this?

Before we started this, we met with the city’s planning department, the Park District, all the aldermen along the lakefront, and the U.S. congressmen. We talked about completing the lakefront being part of the Burnham Plan. They were supportive of us going ahead with it because we were going to the community with it.