Earlier this month, Ald. Michael Scott (24th) held a series of public hearings on a proposed music venue in North Lawndale that, until the community meetings, had been a concept mulled in media reports and the subject of closed-door discussions.
At a Sept. 7 public meeting, organized by the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, Scott and Chicago Park District Project Manager Michael Lange clued residents in on the details of the proposal, which calls for an outdoor stage and a lawn area in the north half of the park, at the northeast corner of Ogden Avenue and Sacramento Drive. The existing native plants would be located northwest of the lagoon, replacing part of the existing golf course. A proposed nature area may feature recreational space for kids.
While NLCCC enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, some of the residents that attended were skeptical. Several expressed concerns about how much input the community had in the process and argued that the money would be better spent fixing the park’s existing problems.
Scott told the residents that he had the idea for the music venue in Douglas Park since he worked for the park district, but he couldn’t get much traction until he became an alderman. When the park’s golf course opened about 15 years ago, he said, it was popular, thanks in no small part because of Tiger Woods’ example. But over the last eight years, he added, its use has been slowly declining.
Scott emphasized that he didn’t want to get rid of the golf course altogether and said he didn’t want to get rid of the native plants; rather, he argued, he simply wants to get more usage out of the portion of the park that he described as under-utilized and create something that would complement the park’s existing art programs.
“We want to open it up as cultural venue, not just concerts,” Scott said, citing Shakespeare in the Park, Midnight Circus and performances by Douglas Park’s dance program as examples of what kind of events the new park would host.
Throughout the town hall, the alderman refused to answer any Riot Fest-related questions, but struck down any notion that the park would be taken over by private companies.
“People have been throwing out [that] Jam Productions is going to take it over, and it’s not the concept behind it at all,” Scott said, referencing the live entertainment company that produces Riot Fest.
The alderman said that the Douglas Park programs would get the first priority while free city-wide programs would get second priority. Scott said he hoped to have as many free events as possible while also preserving the physical integrity of the park.
The stage, Scott noted, would be located close to the intersection, so that performers wouldn’t have to drag equipment through the park soil. The lawn would spread out north of it, across the portion of the park that’s currently mostly native plants and the southwest section of the golf course.
Lange said that the proposed venue would fit about 5,000 to 7,000 people. Concessions and portable bathroom facilities would be installed at the northwest corner of the lawn.
According to the renderings presented at the meeting, the mini-golf course would stay in place, as would the portion of the golf course directly east of the lagoon. The sections southwest and west of the lagoon would be removed and native plants would be moved to the west section.
Lange explained that the new native plants area may include a play area for children, but only if there is a local community organization that would be willing to maintain it.
Scott also said that the plan calls for clearing away some plants between the future lawn and the lagoon, so that people driving down Ogden would be able to see the field house.
“A lot of people don’t know the field house exists here, because you don’t really see it,” Scott said. “When people have a clearer sight line of where they’re going, they’re much more willing to walk to that place.”
Before the two officials spoke on Sept. 7, Sheila McNary, the chair of NLCCC’s art and culture subcommittee, gave the proposal a ringing endorsement.
“I love this park and I’m excited to see something happen in this area,” she said. “I think people in this area are waiting for cultural things to happen and for some development.”
But many residents that spoke during the meeting had reservations. Cata Truss, of Austin, argued that the Park District shouldn’t build a music venue until Douglas Park’s existing maintenance issues are addressed. She cited the field house staircase as a major example. She also argued that the revenue generated through Douglas Park programs should stay in the park.
Scott responded that he would be looking for private funding to help cover the construction costs for the music venue. He also said that he would be open to including repairs to the stairs in the project. As for the program revenue, Scott said that it was necessary to help fund parks that don’t generate any revenue whatsoever.
Lange subsequently told Austin Weekly News that all park revenue goes into the same pool of money, which then gets dividing up between individual parks. There aren’t “any set-asides,” he noted.
Scott said that he anticipates the proposed venue generating both jobs and “opportunities for entrepreneurship.”
“Hopefully, there will be some kind of concession where you can have [something] directly from the community,” the said.
Resident Delette Porter-Williams said she was concerned about losing golf course space.
“Each and every time that we want to put something in this park, we have to lose something,” she said, adding that part of the reason she believes the golf course wasn’t used is because the park district didn’t provide equipment for residents that want to play.
“This is not a golf course where you’re going to shoot eight to 10 holes,” Scott replied. “This is a learning golf course. We are going to keep the golf course here, because we don’t want to take it away from the young people.”
Resident Eric Lindsay felt that the alderman should have asked for community input before drafting the proposal.
“Bringing us a meal and just saying ‘this is [what] your meal is’ – I don’t think that’s a good relationship,” Lindsay said.
Kathy Haibash, who has lived near Douglas Park since 2009, told reporters after the meeting that she shared Lindsay’s concerns about community input. She said that, when rumors of the project first began circulating sometime last winter, the alderman promised greater community involvement
Scott responded to those critiques by noting that the proposed Douglas Park project isn’t set in stone and that residents would have an opportunity to give feedback and suggest ideas by filling out surveys that NLCCC would hand out after the question and answer portion of the meeting was over.
“We’re here before the community now, we have our surveys,” Scott said. “The plan, in my mind, changed over and over, because I’ve had conversations. “
Scott said that the feedback was being collected through NLCCC because “too many cooks spoil the broth.”