January 13, 2021
Dear friend of the parks,

Since Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly made misleading statements today at the park district Board of Commissioners’ monthly meeting about Friends of the Parks’ position, we decided it was important to set the record straight—about our approach and stance regarding the complicated issue of a proposed new school building in Riis Park.

Some of you may have read about a proposal to build a new school on the grounds of Riis Park. We’ve certainly heard about it from neighbors who aren’t happy. We’ve spent a good deal of energy over the last three years trying to make the best of a bad situation. We thought it was terrible that Mayor Emanuel authorized a new charter school to function in a space across the street from Riis Park and then put frustrated parents in a position to have to fight for public parkland to address the overcrowding needs of a nearby public school--overcrowding which has been spurred at least in part by displacement of Latino communities in light of the gentrification surrounding The 606/Bloomingdale Trail.  

Nothing is as simple as it seems.
Belmont-Cragin Elementary School Is Getting A New $44 Million State-Of-The-Art Building - Block Club Chicago
"The school’s new, three-story building is being built on the parkland at 6100 W. Fullerton Ave. It will have room for about 700 students in preschool through eighth grade, according to CPS officials.

Rodriguez, whose daughter Samantha is graduating from the elementary school in the spring, added that the school has gotten some pushback from neighbors who questioned whether parkland should be taken up by a school."

While saying that he himself initially didn’t support the Riis Park school building project because he doesn’t like the idea of taking up park space, Superintendent Kelly took a dig at Friends of the Parks. Until this point in the meeting, we weren’t even a part of the story being told today. But he went out of his way to say that he thought it was odd that we supported this project while opposing other such projects (i.e. the Obama Presidential Center). This is a calculated misrepresentation of our position.

So let’s be clear.

Friends of the Parks’ position on the proposed school building in Riis Park is exactly the same as our position regarding the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park: 
  • As it is legal to build public buildings in parks in Chicago, we will not sue over it. There is a lot of precedent for building a school in a park in Chicago, like it or not.  
  • And just like we first encouraged the school boosters to find other land in the community, we have always said that we wish the Obama Presidential Center had been sited on vacant land across the street from Washington Park.  
  • Just as we have insisted with the Obama Foundation that it is their responsibility to replace the park acreage that the Obama Presidential Center will usurp in Jackson Park with new parks in the surrounding neighborhoods, we have insisted that the green space taken up at Riis Park be replaced with parkland in the surrounding area.

The difference is that the community groups, parents, and school leadership that are pushing for a school building in Riis Park have engaged deeply with Friends of the Parks to better understand our concerns and have agreed to organize actively in favor of the development of new parkland in the immediate area to make up for green space lost to the school building. They have identified some preferred parcels per conversations with the City and have met with us about it. They also have engaged us numerous times along the way to get our feedback on plans--feedback which has positively impacted this process via: 
  •  a minimization of the footprint of the new building;
  • an understanding of the importance of renovating rather than bulldozing the historic field house at the site (including the opportunity to make it ADA accessible);
  • a stated commitment to emphasize the value of nature and parks in the educational approach of the school;
  • a stated commitment to work together toward positive park activation for the benefit of the whole neighborhood.
Group tour of Riis Park in 2018 with parents and boosters led by FOTP board member Tom Drebenstedt, who lives in nearby Galewood
Riis Park Advisory Council and school boosters held a socially distanced meeting with FOTP board Advocacy Committee members and staff at Riis Park in June 2020 
Friends of the Parks has been in communication with the school boosters on and off over three years, including them as presenters at our 2018 Parks as Democracy? Conference (just as we did with the Obama Foundation in 2017, in fact), to discuss the controversy associated with this project.

Meanwhile, we also have heard from various individuals in the community that are not pleased with this project. We have helped to make connections with the school boosters and encouraged them to utilize democratic principles to voice their opinion about the project, including with the two relevant alderman that have also been in our communication loop around this effort.

Additionally, a competing community organization reached out to us to try to get us to block the project. Since we seek to promote and listen to the voices of community members most impacted by park projects and policies, we encouraged the dissenting group to talk to Northwest Side Housing Center, which centered the Quality of Life plan process from which this concept emerged. Northwest Side Housing Center then invited the other group to mobilize constituents to discuss the project, but there was little-to-no follow through by the opposing group.
FOTP Earth Day 2017 at Riis Park. To watch a video message from Riis Park parktivists and local alderman in 2018: click here.
After many meetings, site visits, and phone calls with Northwest Side Housing Center, the Riis Park Advisory Council, the school principal, and the fabulous parent organizers (who actually led most of the meetings), we put in writing the fact that we did not intend to sue over the project despite our distaste for new buildings on parkland. For further clarity, here is the letter that we provided to the Chicago Park District back in October of 2018 regarding the issue: 
October 5, 2018 

To Whom It May Concern: 

This letter serves as official notice that Friends of the Parks does not plan to pursue any legal action against Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District, the City of Chicago, or the Northwest Side Housing Center over the development of the new Belmont Cragin Elementary School proposed to be located in Riis Park. 

While Friends of the Parks does not support the construction of non-park related buildings in Chicago's public parks and is deeply distressed when public green space is taken from the community, there is legal precedent for public schools to be built in Chicago's parks. Though this situation, along with the current effort to build the Obama Presidential Center in a park, has prompted us to begin to investigate strategies to enact legislation that will make this harder in the future, our legal and risk analysis suggests that a lawsuit to stop this project at this time is not a wise use of our organization's resources. 

We certainly do understand the importance of a new school building for the overcrowded Belmont Cragin community and all that it means for the parents and the youth. As we have been in conversation with a number of the parents and representatives of the school through the leadership of the Northwest Side Housing Center and the Riis Park Advisory Council over the last year or so, we have come to be very impressed with their organizational skills and dedication to their community. And we have appreciated their responsiveness to our concerns as we have shared with them our mission and vision regarding the important role that parks play in the health of our city. They now better understand our deep concern about the erosion of park space in Chicago and our intolerance of the suggestion that constructing a building in a park is an appropriate response to the years of disinvestment in both capital and programming that has been perpetrated upon parks in Chicago's low-income communities and communities of color for decades. 

Over the years we have written many letters of opposition to the construction of school buildings in parks, and the City and Chicago Public Schools have proceeded over our opposition. Though our opinion on that issue has not changed, we have chosen to engage the Belmont Cragin school advocates in a partnership relationship to pursue the creation of 3.3 acres of replacement park land for the community somewhere very close by in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. We appreciate that the Northwest Side Housing Center leadership has committed to work just as hard to make this a reality as they have worked to make a school a reality, and we will hold them accountable to that. We appreciate that they have brought The Trust for Public Land to the table as an additional partner to pursue the creation of the replacement park land.

We will expect the Trust for Public Land and the City of Chicago to make just as high a commitment to the replacement of this Riis Park green space as they did to the development of The Bloomingdale Trail/The 606. In fact, we will demand a higher level of commitment, as we have expressed our concern that there are two feeder parks on the west end of The Bloomingdale Trail/The 606 that remain uncompleted by The Trust for Public Land and the City of Chicago, which we see as a huge equity concern, especially as the City promotes development that espouses further development of The Bloomingdale Trail/The 606 on the east end. 

In fact, we see in this project a systemic challenge that must be addressed with much more comprehensive planning in the future. The gentrification that has been accelerated in the neighborhoods around The Bloomingdale Trail/The 606 by the approach taken to its development has actually contributed to the overcrowding in Belmont Cragin which now leads to the call for the construction of a school in a park. 

Just as we have told the Obama Foundation that we will not stop saying that the Obama Presidential Center should not be in a park while we work with them behind the scenes to promote as much green space as possible and the replacement of all displaced amenities, we will apply a similar approach here. While we work with the Belmont Cragin school partners to find the most realistic win-win within the current reality, we will actively call out and work against the systemic injustices that work to the detriment of healthy parks for a healthy Chicago. 
Additionally, we have since shared with our partners in the historic preservation sphere the background about our process with the community and the position that we ultimately took. They do not all seem to have the same opinion about this project.

We are sure there will be disagreement among our membership and donor base about this, just as there has been disagreement about the Obama Center.

Like we say, democracy is messy.

But we believe that our leadership role is to work toward the best possible solution for Chicago’s parks. Within the limits of current law, we believe this is it for Riis Park.
Initial plans for Belmont-Cragin School in Riis Park, 2016
Current plans for Belmont-Cragin school after further feedback from the community, FOTP and CPD
To be clear, there are those among us who have been strategizing about how to strengthen protections for Chicago’s parkland from those who see them as a site just waiting for a new building to be built. At this time, most of Chicago’s parkland does not enjoy the same public trust doctrine protection that our lakefront does, which was the legal tool that enabled us to protect Burnham Park lakefront land from the proposed Lucas Museum.

Stay tuned.

Until then, take a look at these beautiful snapshots of Riis Park in 2018: click here.

In solidarity,

Juanita Irizarry
Executive Director
Friends of the Parks