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.
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.
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.