By Ben Joravsky

If the day should come, many years from now, when the city starts replacing concrete with grass, Chicagoans will have activists like Todd Wexman to thank. Over the last few years, Wexman has been testifying at hearings and writing letters to editors against plans to build more parking lots, even in parks.

He’s usually ignored, lacking as he does the clout or wealth to change the minds of politicians, bureaucrats, and Park District appointees. Not that he cares. “I think my ideas will eventually prevail–at least I hope they do–since we can’t afford to continue the way we are,” says Wexman, a north-side architect. “Something fundamental is wrong with the way we’re developing our city. It’s all about parking and cars. The attitude’s always, ‘Oh, let’s just build this one parking lot–then we’ll stop.’ But one parking lot leads to another. They never stop.”

The parking lot that currently has Wexman’s attention is the one emerging at Argyle and Damen in Winnemac Park, near his home. Ironically, the Winnemac Park improvement plan is relatively benign as these things go. It’s not one of those schemes conceived in secret by bureaucrats and developers and shoved down the throats of angry residents.

No, this development was requested by residents around Winnemac (a large park bounded by Damen, Argyle, Leavitt, and Foster) who have long insisted that it needs to be cleaned up. So starting late last year 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter convened a series of public hearings in which residents were encouraged to suggest changes they wanted made.

From the start one of the most repeated requests–right up there with improved baseball diamonds and tennis courts–was more parking. Residents were particularly upset by the hordes of cars that filled the side streets when soccer fans came to watch the adult games held summer, fall, and spring. Stick a parking lot in Winnemac even if it means losing some grass, people said, so we can park in front of our homes.

Project architect Ted Wolff designed a plan that gave residents pretty much what they requested. On the southeast side of the park, along Damen not far from Argyle, he inserted a 141-space parking lot. A soccer field would be lost to make way for it. But there would still be one large soccer field on Foster (just behind Amundsen High School), as well as five baseball diamonds, several tennis courts, and a football stadium.

The parking lot would be ringed by trees. Furthermore, to balance the lost grass, the portion of Winnemac Avenue cutting through the park would be removed.

On June 4, the plan was overwhelmingly approved by a few dozen residents who attended a meeting on the matter. But Wexman remained unsatisfied. “Just because the majority votes for something doesn’t make it right,” he says. “I don’t think the Park District should get into the habit of building parking lots in parks, no matter how many people are clamoring for parking. I don’t care if people say I’m being undemocratic about this. I think there’s a larger principle here about development and growth. I do a lot of traveling around the Chicago area and I’m amazed at all the new malls and subdivisions I see. I’ll read you something I wrote for another public hearing regarding suburban growth. ‘We are ravaging the land with breathtaking speed, and paying for it dearly. The city as we have known it is also under siege. Slowly but surely it is being turned into a parking lot.’

“That quote’s from testimony I gave at a hearing on September 26, 1997, and it’s even more true today. I’ve made a list of all the projects within a mile and a half of my house. There’s a teachers’ parking lot at a school on Winchester and Lawrence. There’s a huge parking lot at Irving, Damen, and Lincoln. There’s the giant lot going up on Lincoln for the Old Town School of Folk Music. And now this one in the midst of Winnemac Park. We have so little green space as it is. We should take the asphalt away rather than put more in.”

According to Wexman, the new lot at Winnemac is a senseless solution to a nonexistent problem. “There’s already a teachers’ parking lot behind Amundsen High School not far from where the new lot is going. So why build another? Second of all, the soccer field is on the Foster side of Winnemac Park, yet they’re building the parking lot near Argyle. Most people who come to the soccer field are going to want to park near Foster, rather than walk from Argyle. They’ll either park in the teachers’ lot or they’ll park on the street near Foster. Either way they won’t use the new lot. In other words, we’re paving over grass to build a lot that people don’t need and won’t use.”

Wexman spoke out against the parking lot at the public meetings and passed out flyers saying that “no landscape architect or planner with any integrity left in his or her soul would willingly acquiesce to a parking lot in Winnemac Park.” He wrote Wolff a letter informing him of a new eight-acre garden in the Bronx “built on a wooded wetland [with] a meadow, a wooded area, and a swale….Wouldn’t it be nice to make a path in our own Winnemac Park that winds, up hill and down dale, past meadows on which soccer and other games are played, through a woods, a swale, a small wetland, a romantic garden filled with native plants, and alongside a narrow greenhouse/laboratory operated by Amundsen students.”

But he couldn’t turn public opinion. “My wife and I were the only ones who voted against the parking lot. The whole meeting was orchestrated. Schulter had one guy from the audience thanking him and another guy saying what a great job Wolff had done. It was too much.”

He hasn’t stopped his protest on account of that vote. He’s sent letters of protest to newspaper columnists, to Schulter, to Park District general superintendent Carolyn Williams Meza, and to Mayor Daley.

“This week’s Chicago Tribune told of your chiding an architect or developer–I can’t remember which–for planting a sea of asphalt outside people’s windows…” he wrote Daley on August 6. “Well–I thought you might like to know that the Park District is building just such a sea in Winnemac Park. They will remove grass to make a parking lot….You might want to ask Superintendent Meza about this.”

Daley never responded, but Meza did, in a letter dated September 3. “Your letter regarding Winnemac Park was referred to me by the Mayor’s Office,” she wrote. “As the Mayor knows, we are not adding or subtracting asphalt at this site. We are removing Winnemac Street and replacing it with green space to create a more unified park. The parking that has been located along Winnemac, cutting through the middle of this green area, will be relocated to a small parking lot near Damen Avenue. No one will be seeing more black than green at Winnemac Park, but they will see a site that looks more like a park, with more trees, more passive areas and continued athletic activities.”

Schulter also thinks Wexman’s criticism is off base. “I am one of the original proponents of adding green space to the City of Chicago,” he wrote in a letter to Wexman that cited a long list of beautification projects he has endorsed. “I appreciate your position of wanting less asphalt and more green space in the ward and in the city as a whole. That is why I am so pleased that the community has agreed to tear up all of the asphalt that once constituted Winnemac Avenue….The removal of that useless strip will add a tremendous amount of green space as well as ambience to the area.”

So the project moves ahead. Bulldozers have plowed away a good chunk of grass along Damen, and in a few weeks concrete for the parking lot is supposed to be poured.

Still, Wexman refuses to concede. “If they put that parking lot in, they can always take it out later,” he says. “The problem starts at the top with Mayor Daley. He says he’s for trees and grass but he has no policy. It’s all ad hoc. He gets up in the morning and he sees a place that’s messy and he wants to clean it up. But then he lets them pave over Winnemac.

“It looks dreadful, doesn’t it? I hardly think that removing Winnemac Street offsets our loss. We should be after net reductions in hard surfaces, not trade-offs. We have to take a more visionary approach. We can’t just eat away at our parkland. I don’t mind if I’m alone on this. It has to stop somewhere. Someone has to speak up.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bruce Powell.