Don’t Ask, Won’t Tell

The Park District apparently has a perfectly good reason for tearing out the trees in the Harold Washington Playlot. Too bad its bureaucrats have prevented folks in Rogers Park from hearing it.

“They certainly have a funny way of establishing their case,” says Mike Luckenbach, a Rogers Park resident who lives next to the playlot.

The dispute centers on a plot of land at 7710 N. Paulina, just north of Howard Street. In 1984, residents convinced Rescorp Realty, a real estate development firm, to convert the lot into a playlot. “The neighborhood doesn’t have a lot of public land,” says Luckenbach. “We decided it would be a good idea for folks, especially kids, to have a little green in the community.” The playlot features swings, a slide, a couple of tables and benches, a mural along a wall to the north, and eight trees–six hawthorns and two ashes. “Rescorp didn’t just throw the playlot out there,” says Luckenbach. “Their landscape architect designed and oversaw its construction. He gave it some thought. Those trees were placed where they could provide shade for the playlot.”

After a decade or so Rescorp went out of business and the lot was passed on to Peoples Housing, a not-for-profit community development group. After they went out of business too, residents formed their own group to oversee the park. Several neighbors, including Sister Cecilia Fandel, cut the grass and trimmed weeds. The trees prospered; both ashes are over 50 feet tall. “These are beautiful trees,” says Sister Cecilia. “They provide shade for the kids and homes for the birds.”

In 1996, Luckenbach proposed buying the lot from Peoples Housing, “to make sure it was never developed,” he says. But 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore asked him to hold off. “Joe said, ‘I will see to it that the Park District will take it over,'” says Luckenbach. “I thought that was a great idea. So I killed my deal.”

Eight years passed. “You know how these things go–there’s always some other delay,” says Moore. “But by this year it looked like the project was a go.” Chicago Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell signed on. The Friends of the Parks, a nonprofit advisory group, solicited $60,000 from Allstate Insurance to help renovate the playlot.

There was just one little problem. “The Park District told us they wanted to make sure that the land wasn’t contaminated by anything poisonous,” says Sister Cecilia. If the land was contaminated, the trees might have to go. “You can’t have the public playing in a park that’s not clean and free of pesticides, metals, or other inorganic compounds,” says LeeAnn Tomas, a Park District environmental project manager. At a meeting on March 16, Anne Miller, a Park District project manager, told residents they “would have to do some borings and sample the soil,” says Sister Cecilia. “But they thought that most of the vegetation could be saved.”

By the end of the month, however, Miller had changed her tune. The borings revealed an amount of polynuclear aeromatic compounds, or PNAs, a by-product of coal used for heating purposes, “exceeding acceptable residential levels,” she says. “To make the park comply with Illinois Environmental Protection Agency standards, the site would have to be excavated.” All vegetation, trees included, would be removed. “We looked at our options,” says Miller. “In the end we realized we had no choice.”

Luckenbach and Sister Cecilia weren’t so certain. “I wanted to make sure that we did everything we could to save those trees,” says Luckenbach. Specifically, he asked to see the Park District’s environmental study. “I had an environmental consultant who was willing to look over the report and give us a second opinion,” he says.

But when Luckenbach and his neighbors asked to see the study, the Park District “told us they couldn’t show us the report unless we filed an official request,” says Luckenbach.

So on April 1, Sister Cecilia, representing a group called the North of Howard Parks Advisory Council, wrote a letter to Munir Um’rani, the Park District’s freedom of information officer, officially requesting “a copy of the Environmental Assessment I and II documents pertaining to” the playlot.

Several weeks passed without a response. Luckenbach called Um’rani. “He told me he hadn’t seen our request,” says Luckenbach. “So we sent him a new one.”

Another week passed. On May 24, Um’rani responded by denying their request to see the study. “Pursuant to 5 ILCS 140/7(1)(s), the Chicago Park District (CPD) denies [your] request,” he wrote, “since said studies were conducted in contemplation of real estate negotiations currently underway. For the record, 5 ILCS 140/7(1)(s) permits a public body to withhold the records, documents and information relating to real estate purchase negotiations until those negotiations have been completed or otherwise terminated.” In other words, since the Park District didn’t officially own the land–no money was changing hands, but there were a few last-minute details before the title was transferred from Peoples Housing–they didn’t have to show Luckenbach and his neighbors the study. And since they didn’t have to show them the study, they weren’t going to.

The rejection caught the residents off guard. Until then they’d thought of themselves as the district’s partners. Now they felt more like adversaries than allies. “I still don’t understand why they didn’t immediately release that environmental study,” says Luckenbach. “We’re not unreasonable people. We live next to this playlot. Forget the trees for the moment–if this is a contaminated site, posing a danger to the community, believe me, we want to know and we want the Park District to do whatever it is that they have to do to protect us. Believe me, I’m a lot of things, but I’m not suicidal.”

On June 3 the residents appealed Um’rani’s decision. Seven days later he rejected their appeal, again telling them they had to wait until the Park District owned the playlot. On July 15, Luckenbach finally got a copy of the study after pleading with Moore to ask the Park District to make one available. Immediately he ran it over to his consultant, John Polich, president of Gabriel Environmental Services. “John called me to say the studies were not complete,” says Luckenbach. “He said they did not include critical analytical data and drawings he needed to make any judgments as to whether the trees could be saved. We needed more information.”

Luckenbach called Moore. The Park District wanted to start soliciting bids from contractors by the end of July, and “time was of the essence,” says Luckenbach. “I said, ‘Joe, we still don’t have all the data.’ We wanted him to intervene with the Park District to put things off until we could get a full evaluation of the study, then meet one last time with the Park District to see if it was possible to save some trees.”

After several days of back-and-forth, Moore told Luckenbach to call LeeAnn Tomas. “On July 29, I had John Polich call LeeAnn. They talked for about an hour, and he told her exactly what information he needed,” says Luckenbach. “She said she would get it to him.”

Another four days passed. On the morning of August 3, Luckenbach called Polich for an update. “He told me he still had not received the information he needed to complete his assessment,” says Luckenbach. “I called LeeAnn and she said, ‘What is it that he needs?’ I said, ‘You spent an hour talking to him about it.’ And she said, ‘Well, I work with a lot of different parks.'”

Eventually Tomas sent Polich more information, though Polich says he still hasn’t received all the data he requested. But based on what he’s seen he believes the park can be designed in a way to both save the trees and protect the public. “I absolutely believe that they can design a park to restrict exposure to the PNAs,” says Polich.

But by the time Polich got the study it was too late. At an August 4 meeting in Rogers Park, Miller told residents that the Park District had settled on a final plan including complete excavation of the site by October. For better or worse, the trees were coming down. “They need to start construction before the end of the year or they’ll lose the Allstate grant,” says Moore.

Park District officials are confident the public will come to like the new playlot, even without the old trees. “We will replace the trees with new trees,” says Miller. “We have a lot of shrubs, annuals, and perennials. This is going to be a wonderful, lush garden playground. We feel really great about the design. I wish I was next door to this park.” Moore also praises the project. “I don’t think the Park District is in the business of cutting down trees if they can help it,” says Moore. “In this case they had no choice. When it comes to public safety, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Like so many other things in life there are costs and benefits. The benefit is we’re going to get a new playlot this year.”

Luckenbach and his allies remain unconvinced. “I know this is not the end of the world, but it leaves me feeling pretty bad,” says Luckenbach. “It’s not like they have a brownfield here. I think those trees could be saved. The Park District just didn’t want to listen to us and they didn’t want to change. They have their way of doing things and that’s just how it’s going to be.”

Union Park Gets Its Weight Room

The good news out of Union Park is that the weight room’s coming back. As reported in the July 30 Reader, the Park District closed the little room in the field house under the Lake and Ashland el stop on the grounds that the equipment was old and hazardous to the people who used it. This explanation struck the lifters as odd, since the equipment consisted of free weights that “wouldn’t hurt you unless you dropped one on your toe,” as one user put it. The lifters, an eclectic mix of African-American men, including cops, parole officers, and ex-cons, had another theory for why the room was closed. “They don’t want too many black folks mingling in the same place,” one of them told me–particularly a park in a gentrifying area. Park District officials vehemently denied that race had anything to do with their decision, saying they just didn’t have the money to buy new weights.

Well, they must have found some. On Tuesday a Park District official told me that they’re not only buying new weights for Union Park–they’re outfitting it with a new fitness center. “We are bringing back weights, along with additional equipment,” says Michele Jones, a Park District spokeswoman. “It will be what you see in our fitness centers–free weights, treadmills, stationary bikes.” The new room should be operating in October, she adds. Jones says she doesn’t know how much the fitness room will cost, or where the Park District found the money to build it.

Some of the lifters are openly appreciative. “I guess if we work hard enough, we can all get along,” says Eric Hudson, a weight-room regular. Others remain skeptical. “I don’t know why it takes two months to replace the weight room. It didn’t take two months to destroy it,” says Stefan Morgan, a resident and longtime activist on the west side. “Now they’re going to spend more money, when all we wanted was to replace the weights. I hope they’re not using this new facility as an excuse to raise rates and force people out. In general, we want Union Park to be more of a community facility, not a rented-out facility for people who live in other areas. I can’t be pacified with the replacement of the weight room.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.