Clark Park ‘Hijacked by Outside Interests’ in Plans for New Boat House

By Patty Wetli | Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Aerial view of Clark Park as it exists today. Credit: Courtesy of Clark Park Advisory Council

The Clark Park Advisory Council (CPAC) and City of Chicago both want to draw attention to Chicago’s “other waterfront,” the Chicago River. But the two have dramatically different visions of the role Clark Park, 3400 N. Rockwell St., could play in achieving that goal.

Last September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced construction of four boat houses along the river, including one at Clark Park. On first blush, the news appeared a boon for the park, a portion of which sits on land formerly occupied by the much-beloved, long-defunct Riverview Amusement Park. Though the park boasts some of the loveliest riverfront property around, CPAC has struggled for nearly 20 years to squeeze resources from the Park District for basic amenities such as restrooms. A parcel acquired for the park just west of Lane Tech’s stadium, once home to a concrete crushing operation, remains a vast, undeveloped wasteland.

So any improvement has to be a good thing. Right?

Not according to the advisory council. Meeting with the Park District in February, members of the council were blindsided by a plan for the proposed boat house that bore little resemblance to a schematic the group

CPAC's vision for the park. Credit: Courtesy of Clark Park Advisory Council

viewed the previous October.

“They completely switched without giving us any notice. We were very shocked; we couldn’t believe that’s how the Park District would handle something this momentous,” says Bill Donahue, president of CPAC. “They basically said, ‘This is the plan. It’s the mayor’s mandate,’ and made it a foregone conclusion.”

The cause of CPAC’s objections: Where the original plan called for two buildings totaling 4,000 square feet to accommodate not only boat storage but bike rentals and concessions, the boat house presented in February had ballooned to 20,000 square feet, with the majority of space reserved for use by rowing crew teams. According to CPAC, the potential cost was estimated between $6 million and $9 million.

“We sat there with our mouths open,” says Bill Barnes, CPAC’s treasurer.

The footprint of the “oversized behemoth,” as Donahue has termed the boat house, would eat up two acres of Clark Park’s already scarce green space: The park’s 15 acres include seven acres of woods – home to a BMX bike park – and another acre claimed by the Cubs and Park District for a baseball field. Throw in the boat house, and Clark Park would have precious little room left over for volleyball, soccer, dog walkers, a playground and native gardens.

“It’s not that we’re against development,” Howard Luecke, CPAC vice president, is quick to note. “It’s that the second proposal completely overwhelms the park.”

CPAC is also disturbed by the closed-door nature of the Park District’s machinations, which Donahue likens to a “mini Meigs Field.” Whereas informational forums have been held for feedback on the boat house planned for River Park, residents have largely been kept in the dark regarding Clark Park, including members of the rowing community.

“There haven’t been any public meetings,” says Mark Carroll, a rowing coach for Loyola Academy and leader of the ad hoc Chicago River Boathouse Advisory Committee. “I think [the Park District] is being pushed from on top to get this done; there’s not enough time for public comment. I’m trying to figure it out too.”

Boat houses have been a dream of the city’s rowers for decades, according to Carroll. “We’ve never had this kind of momentum,” he says, but now he’s concerned that with the project on such a fast track (the first boat houses are projected to open in 2013), the Park District is focused on what can be done, not what should be done.

“I want these to be great,” he says. “With this, it feels like ‘whatever works is fine,’ not ‘let’s make this the best.’”

Among the questions hanging in the air: Who will manage the boat houses? Carroll’s team rows out of Skokie along with crews from schools like New Trier. “We have 250 athletes on the water a day. It’s quite busy.” Given the narrow width of the Chicago River at Clark Park, “it’s going to be like the Kennedy,” he says, particularly when recreational canoes and kayaks are factored into the equation.

Responding to Roscoe View Journal via email, Park District spokesperson Jessica Maxey-Faulkner addressed traffic issues by stating, “Rowers and paddlers will have to communicate to share the dock and the river, which we believe is manageable. Peak usage for these two user groups does not typically overlap.”

Carroll is skeptical that solution will suffice. “Relying on teams to say, ‘Here’s the schedule,’ to have teams run these facilities…teams don’t have that experience,” he says.

While CPAC is concerned about traffic as well, the group’s primary interest remains the size of the boat house, which the Park District insists is a non-issue. “The boat house is still two structures, as it was in October,” Maxey-Faulkner told RVJ.

“They’re confused,” counters Donahue. “The building is definitely 20,000 square feet. Everybody that we have spoken with, nobody has disagreed with that.”

Maxey-Faulkner did not reply to a follow-up query from RVJ to clarify the discrepancy between her statement and the information given to CPAC. Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), having been approached by the advisory council, is working on setting up a meeting with the Park District to sort through the contradictions and broach the need for public meetings.

Regardless of the ultimate size of the boat house, CPAC has a larger quarrel with the Park District.: the sense that Clark Park has been “hijacked by outside interests,” according to Donahue.

If the council seems overly possessive of public land, consider this: The group came into being when a small band of neighbors started picking up trash in woods formerly owned by UPS. “There was a solid foot of garbage,” recalls Donahue, including mattresses and dead animals. “There were people camping in there and starting fires. Gangs were hanging out at night.”

As land was purchased, CPAC gradually transformed the park from dumping ground to hidden gem, with the overall mission of preserving the park’s intrinsic beauty and wild nature. A comprehensive plan for the park’s continued development, crafted by CPAC, includes improvements based on the community’s usage: a playground, expanded walkways, and soccer and volleyball fields in the Lane Tech parcel, of the sort of faux turf that looks like grass but doesn’t get ground to dust after repeated use.

Contrast that wish list with reality: The current volleyball “court,” essentially a patch of dirt, boasts “bleachers” constructed of planks of wood laid atop tree stumps. “For months, we can’t get a dead tree removed,” says Donahue, and a sinkhole has opened up in the parking lot. Repeated requests to have the Park District haul away the rusted hulk of a football blocking sled have been ignored.

“Given all that, it’s hard to believe the Park District has $9 million. It’s an insult to the community,” says Donahue. “We’re doing all this work as citizens and they can, at the snap of a finger, get a boat house. Suddenly we have $9 million and we’re telling the Park District that’s not what we want there.”

But that’s what they’re getting.

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