A legacy for the future: Parks in the reimagined
by Aldermen Michele Smith (43rd) and Brian Hopkins(2nd)
|An 1890s view, looking north, of the area now known as Grant Park. It was a site of squatters' shacks, army camps, livery stables and mountains of garbage. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)
More than 125 years ago, A. Montgomery Ward faced bitter opposition as he fought to protect Grant Park in Chicago. It is not hard to imagine the taunts, head shakes and objections in the face of development pressures east of Michigan Avenue. His vision was labeled pure folly, but his legacy is one of Chicago's most unique features.
The comparisons between the creation of Grant Park and a new public park in the Clybourn Planned Manufacturing District today are unmistakable.
Both sites uniquely border timeless natural assets - Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, respectively.
In 1890, the area we now call Grant Park was a ravaged site of squatters' shacks, livery stables and mountains of unsightly cans and rotting garbage. The city wanted a convention center, railroad facilities and an armory there. The green carpet, stately trees, splendid gardens and playing fields were beyond everyone's imagination - except for Ward. Today, the former Finkl Steel site and adjacent planned manufacturing district, or PMD, are also despoiled ghosts of a harsher era.
Grant Park complements our downtown economic epicenter of tourism and business. A recreational park in the PMD will anchor families in the city and keep them on the tax rolls. The PMD touches at least four wards and is surrounded by approximately 88,000 people. That population is growing. In Lincoln Park alone, the number of children has doubled in the last five years compared to a decade ago. This is putting intense pressure on recreational facilities. Soccer, baseball, and other youth and adult leagues are at a saturation point due to lack of space. The demand for year-round facilities is completely unaddressed.
In 1998, the Chicago Park District called for 2 to 5 acres of public space per 1,000 people. We have stumbled badly since then. In the current study area for the PMD, there is only 0.65 of an acre of public space per 1,000 Chicagoans. City dwellers without yards need parks for team sports, individual exercise, recreation as well as relaxation and a general sense of well-being. Future neighborhoods will one day savor open green space just as our downtown thrives, in part, because of it.
As the recent sale of the former Finkl Steel site demonstrates, land valuations are increasing rapidly in anticipation of proposed zoning changes. A government "assist" on such a grand scale demands a return on investment for generations of Chicagoans. Designating public recreation space within the PMD balances short-term profit with civic responsibility.
We have asked the Chicago Department of Planning and Development to establish development criteria for the Clybourn PMD that will ensure the priceless land along the river also includes a public park with recreational facilities. We must not miss this moment. We can create a public asset and still accommodate private interests on the last large tract of land to be developed in this part of the city.
In this reflective season, let us be humbled and guided by our remarkable history. A. Montgomery Ward had vision to fight for our lakefront park. A reimagined riverfront deserves the same. A century from now Chicagoans will praise the lasting gift of green we had the foresight to bequeath.