By Bob Seidenberg
Evanston Parks and Recreation Board members offered eight reasons at their Feb. 17 meeting for the city not to adopt a Council member’s proposal to end park closure times.
Members of the City Council’s Human Services Committee touched on a number of these at their May 2 meeting, voting 3-2 against sending Eighth Ward Council member Devon Reid’s referral back to the Board for further consideration.
Reid’s proposal called for eliminating a provision in a city ordinance – under “Park Hours of Operation” – that makes it unlawful for people to remain in a park for any reason beyond the posted park hours. The ordinance appears to cover all “public parks” within the city – those owned and operated by the City of Evanston, Ridgeville Park District, and Lighthouse Landing Park District.
Currently, Evanston park hours are from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., during April, May, June, July, August, September, and October, and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. the rest of the year.
Similar to some other referrals he has made since his election to the Council last year, Reid told Committee members, his proposal was meant to address criminalization of certain activities.
“This is simply to end the criminalization or end the fact that on our books [that] someone will be allowed to arrest someone in a park for being in a park after 11 o’clock.
“For me, I think this is a quality of life [issue],” Reid told Committee members.
“You know, we often get out of Council [meetings] at midnight or after 11. If one of us wanted to take a second and walk into Ingraham Park [located behind the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., where city meetings are held], and decompress because we had a tough meeting, I don’t think that should be illegal.
“I mean, if someone works at Target or Food 4 Less – or pick any business – and they get off at 11 p.m., or 12 o’clock, after, again, a long shift, and they would like to decompress peacefully at a park, I think they should have a right to do that.”
Park Board’s reasons for staying with current times
Parks and Recreation Board members had raised a number of objections to the idea, wrote Audrey Thompson, the city’s new Parks & Recreation Director, in a memo to the Human Services Committee meeting.
These reasons included the following:
• There is no precedent of any other municipality or park district not having park closing hours;
• There is no compelling reason to have 24/7 open park hours;
• Parks and green spaces need time to rest to recover properly;
• There would be an increase in patrolling the parks if there were no park hours;
• The homeless population may migrate to the parks;
• There is a major concern with unauthorized usage of the park during overnight hours;
• People would congregate in the parks near neighboring houses;
• The noise being made in the parks would disturb the surrounding neighbors.
Some constituent concerns about park use
In discussion of the proposal, Council member Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward in central Evanston includes Penny Park and Mason Park, said, “I get a lot of complaints from my residents regarding the use of the park after a certain hour.
“When lights are on, residents complain,” he said. “When there is noise and activity, residents complain.”
He pointed to an additional concern prompted by Reid’s proposal — that the change might invite more homeless families to the parks — “which creates a whole other host of problems that I don’t think we’re ready to respond to.”
“This is something that definitely needs fleshed out a little bit more,” he told first-term Council member Reid.
Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, chairing the meeting, also joined Braithwaite in concern.
“I get a lot of calls about dozens and dozens of young people who congregate at Lighthouse Park [2611 Sheridan Road] in the summer months,” she said. “They joy-ride around the parking lot; they go down to the dunes and build bonfires. I think people will be really distressed to think that we might lighten on making sure our parks are closed at 11 p.m.”
Criminalization not necessary: Reid
But Reid argued that his proposal would not change enforcement of any of the concerns raised by committee members.
“Whatever the rules are, I don’t think you’re allowed to just go down to the beach and create a fire,” he said.
To the argument there is no precedent for a municipality or park district not to have closing hours, he pointed to the country’s national parks, many of which are open 24 hours, he told Committee members.
Paris, “which is known for having very restrictive access their parks,” recently changed that policy to allow guests to occupy the parks at night, he said.
Legally, “I think there’s a strong case to say that there may be a violation of rights for unnecessarily restricting access to a public space,” he said.
To the assertion that parks and green space need time to rest, “I’m not too sure about that,” he said. “I can’t find any data or science that backs that up.”
“I think we can make it very clear in our ordinance that encampments are not allowed in our parks,” he said, stipulating that “You can’t build structures in our parks,” with “structure” referring to encampments.
“And you can certainly legislate around that concern,” he told Committee members.
As for “folks congregating and noise being made in the parks, we will still have noise ordinances that will still need to be enforced,” he said.
“If we’re just talking about someone who is in their 20s, for example, and they’re in the park, if they’re not doing anything that’s disruptive, why do we need to move them along, and why do we need to criminalize?”
Parks activity and a grocery store analogy
In her memo to the committee, Thompson reported that police made 12 arrests in 2019, 10 arrests in 2020, and 2 arrests in 2021 related to calls using the location code, “park/playground.”
They issued 1 C-card, citing a person for violating of city ordinance, after issuing four in 2020 and four in 2019, she reported.
“If you look at those reasons, most of the times there are other behaviors that are going on,” she told Committee members.
“If you’re saying there is no consequence for being in the park after hours,” she said, addressing Reid, “then why would we have hours at the park? If that’s the case, they’re open 24 hours a day and so there would be no consequence for being in the park.”
She said the thrust of the policy is working with people, not criminalizing.
Asked Reid, “Can you say someone was peacefully sitting in a park at 12 o’clock quietly on a bench, is that a concern of staff?”
Thompson used the analogy of a grocery store that closes at 10 p.m.
“If it’s closed, it’s closed. And so even if they’re [people] in the grocery store and they’re not stealing, they shouldn’t be in the grocery store after hours.”
Reid responded that in a park, in contrast to a grocery store, there is nothing to steal. “The benches are bolted down. They don’t want the trash cans necessarily. When it’s closed there’s no liability.”
Thompson held to her position. “Even if they’re not taking anything, when the grocery store is closed, they [store owners] still want to say, ‘Hey, it’s 10 o’clock, the grocery store is closed, move on.’
“If we’re in a park — if there is no rule about what time the park closes, then there is no reason for us to say ‘Move about,’” she argued.
Some parks “are very dark, and some of our parks do not have lighting, and so we can’t say ‘In this park, it’s okay to be in this park at certain hours,’” she added.
“There are parks that I wouldn’t want anyone to be in after hours when it gets really dark and there are miscreant behaviors that go on in the park from someone else.
“That may not even be with that person who’s just kind of hanging out in the park and not doing anything that’s illegal. So, I still wouldn’t want a person in those parks when it gets like, two, three o’clock in the morning.”
She stressed, “It’s just my recommendation, and Council, of course, has every right to change the rule.”
Committee members voted 3-2 against Reid’s motion that the proposal be sent back to the Parks & Recreation Board for further review, taking into account some of the points he raised.
Voting to return the proposal to the Parks & Recreation Board for further review were committee and Council members Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, and Reid.
Voting against sending the proposal back were committee and Council members Braithwaite; Revelle; and Juan Geracaris, 9th Ward.