Public Park Privatized in Chicago’s Gold Coast

In the last couple of months, we’ve received two inquiries from people asking what’s going on with Connors Park.  If you’re not familiar with the name, you may know it as the triangle-shaped slice of open space in front of the Sofitel (20 East Chestnut Street), bounded by Rush, Delaware, Chestnut, and Wabash.

It’s a very small space (about 17,000 ft²), and features a small pergola, a nice little fountain, a few bushes for neighborhood dogs to piddle in, and a significant vagrant problem.

In fact, it was the problems with vagrants that caused people to write to us.  They stated that the park has become dirtier in recent weeks, that the hobo population has spiked, and that the benches have been removed.

Before we could get a chance to head over there and check out the situation, a friendly e-mail arrived from Alderman Reilly’s office confirming the problems in that location, and laying the blame squarely at the feet of the Chicago Park District.

You don’t need to be a University of Chicago political scientist to know there are problems with the city’s Park District.  A simple subscription to the Sun-Times will reveal a world of problems in the agency.  It appears that the organization has been so busy lately threatening to arrest tourists, chasing around people with cameras, giving out sweetheart deals, and harassing television news crews that it’s been unable to pick up the trash at Connors Park or even maintain it.

According to the Alderman’s letter, because of the poor condition of the park, he had to assign trash duty to his own garbage collection crews, “Emptying of Park District trash receptacles and removing homeless debris from Connors Park – despite the fact this is a Park District responsibility.”

So Reilly came up with a solution.  If the Park District doesn’t want to do it’s job, get another organization to do it.  That organization, it turns out, is Argo Tea.

The locally-based teahouse chain has signed a 15-year agreement to repair, improve, and maintain Connors Park.  In exchange, it gets to put a teahouse in the center of the park.

Rendering of the proposed Connors Park Argo Teahouse

Rendering of the proposed Connors Park Argo Teahouse

The teahouse will be 60 feet long, 20 feet wide, and appears to have been designed by Mark Cuellar of MAC D+A.  It’s mostly glass, with a curved 10-foot-tall trellis to hide its mechanical components.

 

The park will get eight benches (it currently has zero, after the four old benches were vandalized), plus about 45 cafe-style seats.  Oh, and a big Christmas tree.

Interestingly, the Connors Park fountain will end up inside the teahouse, which could mean that it will be operable all year round.  The pergola is coming down, but that’s not a big deal since it’s not historic or anything.  It was added in 1999.

Privatizing public space isn’t anything new in Chicago.  The Park District, itself, is more than happy to kick all of the tourists and residents out of a public park they paid for if certain corporations (Allstate, Toyota, et. al.) come up with a big fat check.

But the Reilly deal is different in a couple of ways.  First, it’s for 15 years, not just a few days or weeks.  And second, Argo Tea will actually correct a neighborhood nuisance.  Unlike the time Allstate created a public nuisance by shooting off fireworks from Millennium Park to taunt Prudential, closing all the local streets so people who live in the neighborhood couldn’t go to or from their homes.

Connors Park Argo Teahouse diagram

Connors Park Argo Teahouse diagram

There are a bunch of conditions that Argo has to operate under:

  • It can’t build its structure any larger than the current paved portion of the park (hardscape).
  • Its building must be as open and transparent as possible.
  • It cannot require people to purchase anything in order to use the park, or its seating.  This includes the seating inside the teahouse.  Even in the winter.

While we lament any public property being turned over to a private entity, this appears to be the best way forward with Connors Park.  Interestingly, the family of the late Senator William Connors, for whom the park is named, supports the renovation plan. We applaud the alderman for being both proactive and innovative with this issue.

 

 

Editor

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003. He has degrees in journalism and communication, and spent 20 years as a professional broadcaster as a reporter, anchor, producer, and news director. He can be reached at editor@ChicagoArchitecture.info.

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3 Comments

  1. I walk by this park almost every week. I’ve lived in the area for over 7 years, and I don’t remember ever walking through the park itself. It always seemed taken over by the homeless or semi-abandoned. It’s sad that a public amenity will be privatized, but I’m glad that it will get a facelift and finally get some use from the public. I’m sure when Argot Tea takes it over that it will be packed with users. And if they provide free WiFi, it could become the toned down little brother to Mariano Park to the north.

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  2. Is it really “privatized”? The conditions of the contract Argo Tea has accepted seems to protect the public’s right of access. In fact, it would seem Argo Tea has merely accepted responsibility for maintenance. I had no idea about the Park District’s dysfunction but I think I’ll begin to look a bit more closely. On a side note, consider reading William Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” People attract people and tend to drive out the anti-social elements.

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    • Editor

      A great example of driving out anti-social elements happens every now and again in Uptown. Neighbors there engage in “Positive Loitering” on certain nights. They get together and have kind of a mini-block party or social gathering in the places where the drug dealers and other miscreants hang out. It’s my understanding that it works quite well.

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