An Artificial Battle | Politics | Chicago Reader

An Artificial Battle 

The latest round in the soccer wars is about turf—in more ways than one.

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Just as the Lincoln Park soccer field wars seemed to be waning, a fight has erupted on a second front. But this battle doesn't pit residents against the Park District—this time it's one group of park users against another, with the Park District fanning the flames.

To refresh your memory, it all started nearly six years ago, when the elite private Latin School, at North and Clark, proposed to build a soccer field and running track in the meadow just east of the Lincoln Park Zoo. In the face of overwhelming opposition from locals who wanted the land to remain open, Latin backed off. But in late 2006, the school and the Park District cut a deal that most people in the community knew nothing about: Latin agreed to build the $900,000 field in return for exclusive use during prime hours in the summer, fall, and spring. It would be closed in the winter.

As word spread over the summer of 2007, community activists became outraged. By last fall residents were protesting that it was unfair to allow a private school so much exclusive use of public land. But Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell said there was nothing he could do since a contract had been signed.

This April Latin was about halfway through building the field—whose price tag had risen to $2 million—when Protect Our Parks, a group of north siders, went to court and halted construction on the grounds that the Park District had not sought approval from the Chicago Plan Commission, as the law requires for any project on lakefront parkland. Under pressure from Cook County judge Dorothy Kirie Kinnaird, the Park District terminated its contract with Latin.

A victory for the community? Not completely. For one thing there's a big heap of dirt in Lincoln Park where there used to be a meadow. For another, the Park District says it's going to finish the field, covering Latin's costs, on its own—that is, with public dollars—and will seek consent to do so from the Plan Commission on August 21.

The cash-strapped agency hasn't specified where this money will come from. And even if Latin doesn't get to hog it, many Protect Our Parks members still don't want a field on the site. They're threatening to return to court to try to block it.

In the meantime, another turf battle—literally—has erupted on the northern end of Lincoln Park. In 2007 the Chicago Lakefront region of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) struck a deal with the Park District, agreeing to pay for the construction of two artificial-turf fields near Foster. But the work never got underway. After the Park District agreed to kill the deal with Latin, Mitchell announced that construction of the fields at Foster would also be delayed.

It was a curious decision, since the projects really don't have anything to do with each other. The Foster fields are not targets of litigation: the plans have been well received by nearby residents and local alderman Mary Ann Smith. AYSO games have been played in that corner of the park for years, and while the organization is a private nonprofit, it's open to anyone who wants to join and relatively affordable—$140 per player, with financial aid available.

Plus, Protect Our Parks members have expressed support for building and repairing soccer fields at Foster and elsewhere in the city. "We are not against soccer or kids," Tom Tresser, the group's president, e-mailed AYSO's lakefront region board. "There is obviously a need for more playing fields in the city—or at least a need to upgrade or possibly use artificial turf to make existing fields more serviceable. I would propose that we work together to solve the bigger problem. "

"We've got the Park District pushing ahead with the south field but dragging its feet at Foster," Tresser told me. "What's going on here?"

Mitchell didn't respond to my calls for comment, but to me it looks the district is trying to put the squeeze on AYSO. By insinuating that the fate of the Foster fields is connected to the mess at the south end of the park, district officials appear to be trying to force AYSO members to take their side in their fight with Protect Our Parks.

If that is their strategy, it appears to be working. On August 4, an unsigned message was sent from the general e-mail of AYSO's lakefront region urging the parents of the 3,200 children in the league to attend the City Council's Parks and Recreation Committee meeting the next day to show "that we support the Chicago Park District and their efforts to build safe, playable soccer fields."

The e-mail also accused Protect Our Parks of trying to block construction of the Foster fields. "Although the field on the south end of Lincoln Park does not impact AYSO directly, these special interest groups have their sites [sic] set on stopping AYSO from using the fields that we've been playing soccer on for 20 years so that they can be 'returned' to meadows," it read. "AYSO was initially asked to keep a low profile but it is time to make our voices heard."

The e-mail really pissed off Jim Ginsburg, a longtime AYSO coach and referee. "I am still furious about this," he wrote in an e-mail to Rich Costello, AYSO's lakefront commissioner. "I know you received a message from Tom Tresser that plainly stated: 'We are not against soccer or kids.'... I resent the kind of politics that plays one community against another." Costello did not respond to requests for comment.

This was the backdrop for the August 5 meeting of the parks committee, which is chaired by Alderman Smith. There was one item on the agenda: a "briefing" on "the use of artificial turf on Park District property." Smith says she called the meeting after parks advocates expressed concerns that synthetic surfaces can give off toxic chemicals, but no doctors or health experts testified. Instead, the meeting was dominated by soccer boosters and open-space advocates. The soccer boosters, including Costello and other AYSO leaders, talked up artificial turf because it minimizes rainouts and ankle injuries; members of Protect Our Parks cautioned against its widespread use.

Afterward Smith categorized the meeting as an "informational gathering session," adding that she will probably schedule other meetings to hear from health experts. "Artificial turf works—no question, I've seen it in my ward," she says. "But there is such a thing in life as unintended consequences, so I want to explore the issue more."

If nothing else, the meeting was a warm-up for the August 21 Plan Commission hearing, which ought to be a doozy. Look for groups from across the city that rent or borrow park space to side with the district—singing for their supper, so to speak.

It's easy to pit park users against one another because, as Smith points out, there just isn't just enough parkland in the city for all the people who want to use it. "You've got people who love dog parks and people who don't want them, people who want fields and people who want open space," says Smith. "There's competition."

Smith says she's pressing Mitchell to find additional land for new facilities. "If they don't have to be on open space, why put them in a park?" she says. "We have to examine other options."

If Chicago wins the right to host the Olympics, the space crunch will only get worse—under current plans, chunks of Lincoln, Douglas, Jackson, and Washington parks would be turned into construction zones for various sporting arenas.

Think of it as dogs fighting over scraps of meat. The smaller the scraps, the more viciously the dogs will have to fight.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.

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