Alderman Reilly Against Latest Park Privatization Plan

Mariano Park Pavilion

Mariano Park Pavilion

For the last few months we’ve been following the growing concern in the Gold Coast over the future of Mariano Park. For those of you unfamiliar with that particular sliver of Chicago, it’s the space bounded by North State Street, North Rush Street, and East Bellevue Place that puts the “triangle” into Viagra Triangle.

From early spring into the late fall, it is the hub of the neighborhood.  A lively place where Bugaboo-pushing Eastern European nannies pretending to be Western European nannies pause for a gelato at the Whispers Cafe when it’s hot, or a latte when it’s cold.  Where 50-something romeos pushing 60-something cruise around in wide-open silk shirts and Italian sports cars showing off their new hair plugs.  And where any number of the city’s micro-dress clad aspiring actress/model/photographer/blogger/food stylists can find love, at least for one night.  It is a park surrounded by restaurants full of people there to be seen, not to be seen eating.  Where it’s important that people know you paid $42 to valet your car, rather than walking from your condo two blocks away.  It is the beloved narcissistic nexus of the Gold Coast and everyone likes it that way.

Everyone except the Chicago Park District.  Fresh from its privatization of Connors Park, an identically shaped and sized park four blocks away, the District wants to do the same thing to Mariano Park.  The neighbors aren’t having it.

At least three competing neighborhood groups have sprung up, all with the same goal — to oppose any park redevelopment plan that resembles what happened down at Connors Park.

Argo Tea at Connors Park

Argo Tea at Connors Park

In many ways, the Connors project was a success.  It took an under-utilized slice of urine-soaked concrete, scraggly bushes, and a perilous pergola and turned them into a glass house with an Argo Tea cafe inside, surrounded by outside seating and some minor landscaping.  It’s certainly a visual improvement.  But not everyone agrees that it was a civic improvement.

There have been reports of people being told by Argo employees that they must purchase a beverage if they want to be there.  However, it is very specifically spelled out in the documents governing this privatization that the “park” is still a park, and that the public is welcome to sit anywhere it likes.  Inside or outside.  With or without a beverage.  They can even use the bathroom without buying anything.  Strictly speaking, a stinky homeless guy could wash his feet in the fountain inside the tea house and from a legal perspective, there’s nothing that Argo can, or should, do.  It is, in every way, still a public space.

But that’s where the architecture of intimidation comes in.  There are ways of subtly communicating with people that they’re not welcome.  Or that only certain types of people are welcome.  Start with the doors.  Sure, they’re glass.  But the park didn’t have doors.  Now it’s a barrier.  And a good way of keeping homeless people out, since they often have large loads of what remains of their personal possessions.

The paths leading from the public sidewalk to the tea house do not match the public sidewalk.  A visual indication of a property boundary.  And the paths to the seating areas are no longer straight.  They’re gently curving among the landscaping.  Nothing wrong with that from an aesthetic perspective.  But it’s a longer path, and another psychological hurdle.

On my last visit to the tea house in Connors Park I wanted to see how long I could sit there before someone approached me about purchasing something.  Unfortunately, it was a hot day and I’d just hoofed it from North Avenue Beach all the way down to Chestnut Street, so I was thirsty and lined up for a Carolina Honey Breeze out of instinct.  My social experiment was a failure, but I plan to try again.  Perhaps when I’m not at my most clean-shaven.

But public property rights aren’t what’s at the heart of the Mariano Park dispute.  It’s about changing something that isn’t broken.  Mariano isn’t a haven for the homeless.  Its landscaping isn’t bad at all.  The only thing it lacks is more seating, but that’s just because it has some of the best people-watching in the city, and you can easily lose yourself for a couple of hours whispering with your neighbor over a tumbler of Whispers coffee.

Even the small pavilion (1031 North State Street) where Whispers serves coffee is beloved.  Yes, it’s undersized.  But it’s historic.  We profiled it six years ago, and it was built in 1895 and designed by Birch Burdette Long, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s staff members.

If the Park District moves ahead with another privatization plan, surely the pavilion will be lost.  Along with much of the well-used seating.  Those who claim to have seen some of the proposals say every one includes a larger building, and less seating.

We haven’t done too much with the story up until now because much of it has been based on rumors.  If there’s one thing advocacy groups are good at, it’s spreading rumors.  And they just get bigger and uglier and they spread.

Now, finally, 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly has weighed in on the issue.  As a member of Chicago’s city council, he doesn’t have any authority over what happens to the city’s parks.  But he can do one thing: Block a liquor license.  And that’s one of the rumors that people have been really worried about — that the company that gets its hands on the park will start selling booze.

It’s a natural fit for the park, considering the neighborhood.  But a liquor license never made any place cleaner, safer, or more attractive.  You only have to look at before-and-after pictures of pretty much any Walgreens to know that.

Shake Shack at Madison Square Park in New York. Courtesy of Shake Shack.

Shake Shack at Madison Square Park in New York. Courtesy of Shake Shack.

According to the alderman, the Park District has received about ten applications for the privatization project.  In reality, it’s received at least 18.  Here’s the list of entities that responded to the Park District’s bid, excluding (when obvious) shell companies and companies that sign up to bid on government contracts only so they can get the information on the contract and then sell that information to other companies.  If you want to see the unedited list, click here.

Drawing of the Gibson's plan for Connors Park

Drawing of the Gibson’s plan for Connors Park

Some of those names are familiar.  Some are not.  Some are already operating restaurants in Chicago parks.  Others are ambitious little food carts ready to take the next step.  One is a newspaper; but that’s no stranger than the credit card company that operates a cafe a few blocks away.

Alderman Reilly singled out three applicants.  The existing Whispers cafe is one of them.  But also on his list is New York’s Shake Shack. Interestingly, the first Shake Shack location was in a park.  And based on the pictures on the company’s web site, it looks pretty nice.

Another entry on the list is Gibson’s Steakhouse across the street.  But not just Gibson’s. The alderman calls it “Gibson’s on behalf of Ralph Lauren.”  Ralph Lauren, you’ll remember, has a very popular restaurant six block away at Chicago and Michigan.

But Mr. Reilly is against any foodservice at Mariano Park.  Mostly because of trash and delivery concerns.  But again, there’s nothing he can really do about that.  All he can do is give the Park District the frowning of a lifetime.

Location: 1031 North State Street, Gold Coast

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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