To the Editor,
The Chicago Park District has variously described it as the “Midway Plaisance East End” park, or the “UPARR Recreation Replacement”. By whatever name, the facility on the undeveloped block of Stony Island across from the Obama Presidential Center will be a new front door for Hyde Park, a gateway experience. It will be your view entering the University, and when Cornell is closed at 59th, it will be your view exiting DuSable Lake Shore Drive and proceeding south on Stony Island.
As the Park District has revealed its plans to turn this vacant patch of seasonal wetland into a destination playground, the “community” has raised several fair concerns, among them that this block is a high speed traffic island without significant parking, and that managing the natural flow of waters under the Midway is a costly fool’s errand, as Olmsted knew 150 years ago.
But the Park District has, it seems, $3,000,000 that can only be spent here under arcane Federal-State-Local agreements governing OPC development. And they are going to spend it.
Here is the good news: the Park District is spending it real style, creating state-of-the-art play and gathering areas for users of all ages. How do I know? Because the park’s designers –the “Site Design Group” – has a track record in Chicago and elsewhere. I spent an afternoon in two of SDG’s Chicago projects – Palmisano Park in Bridgeport, and Mary Bartelme Park in West Town.
I cannot begin to describe Palmisano Park – a brilliant adaptation of an abandoned quarry, pond and landfill area into a place of nature and repose with spectacular views of the city skyline. Visit it yourself to understand what Site Design Group did, and the tempting overdevelopment from which they refrained.
Mary Bartelme Park occupies a city block perhaps half the size of our UPARR area. In this space Site Design Group placed a dog run, a playground with a jungle of equipment, and a large public light-sculpture court integrated with a network of broad paths and seating areas. All of this is arranged among grassy five-foot high berms that both effectively separate various areas and themselves are comfortable places to sit and watch the world go by. On the warm afternoon that I sat on a berm, there were literally hundreds of people (and dogs) using this park, of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors, compatibly, respectfully, peaceably. There was no litter or dog waste – zero. It was beehive-busy, but without feeling congested. Wonderful park design.
But a park is not just design: it is maintenance. A shiny new UPARR park might look fine at ribbon-cutting but could quickly deteriorate under the stewardship of a threadbare Park District; the condition of Jackson Park is the obvious precedent. This concern was somewhat allayed by both Palmisano and Bartelme Parks, each about 10 years old. The Park District is maintaining both to a high standard; the complex nets and fittings of Bartelme’s playground equipment appeared intact and crawling with kids. This maintenance effort may reflect Park District priority on new and showcase facilities, or volunteer support and community pressure. Well, our UPARR Park will be a far more visible showcase than ether Palmisano or Bartelme, and we can reasonably hope it will receive similar maintenance attention.
A park filled with people is a wonderful thing for many reasons. It is wonderful for the users, and that includes us. And it is the very best form of security in a troubled time in our troubled city. From the city planning perspective, our UPARR park may be a fundamentally poor application of resources in this location, but we in the neighborhood seem likely to be net winners.
So let’s grab it and shape it – for example, by demanding well-maintained toilet facilities in the adjacent 59th St. Metra station. And the Herald could do a public service by conducting a contest to NAME the new UPARR park.