By Bob Seidenberg
Independence Park is located a few blocks west of Green Bay Road, in the heart of the Central Street neighborhood.
It is perhaps the city’s only park that runs right up to the edge of a major shopping district.
It has also been 26 years since the 1.4 acre park has seen any substantial repairs, City Engineer Lara Biggs told a city committee last week.
The park’s ‘furniture’ — chairs, benches, trash cans — are long in need of replacement.
“Even the trees are in questionable condition,” Biggs said in her presentation to members of the city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) Dec. 6.
The city had already included the park in its proposed 2024 Capital Improvement budget, designating $1.7 million for construction.
Dining plaza would make park a ‘dual use’
Biggs had stopped by the Economic Development Committee, however, to speak in support of EDC members recommending in favor of $500,000 of the city’s remaining federal American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds going to supporting a Dining Terrace as part of the renovation.
Biggs told the committee that about 11 parks in the city show comparable wear to Independence Park, and were candidates for a major refresher project too.
Independence Park stood out, however, because of its location across from the business district.
Currently, a big portion of the park is used entirely as a neighborhood park, with people bringing their children to use its playground, she acknowledged.
“But the dual use of this is that you do get people who are coming from Central Street,” she told EDC members. “There are a lot of restaurants, businesses that sell food to go, such as Foodstuffs,” she said.
Dining Terrace rated high in Evanston Thrives report
When the weather is reasonable, people sit out in the park but “it’s not really set up for that,” she said.
At about the same time, officials were looking at making Independent Park an “ultimate use” park, the Evanston Thrives report came out, Biggs said.
The Independence Park “Picnic Edge,” or Dining Terrace, was one of the highest ranked items in the Evanston Thrives report earlier this year, which listed actions could put in motion to enhance the city’s business districts.
City staff members did not really conceive of having the Dining Place in their original plan, said Biggs. Some significant grade changes would have to be made in the park area. A retaining wall would also have to be built to accommodate a portion of the project.
“And so as we look at the budget, we really don’t have the funding to do this kind of improvement,” she told committee members. “It’s a different type of improvement than what we would typically do in a park.”
Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, noted that the $500,000 that was being requested would come from $3 million specially allocated by the City Council to go for economic development.
He also pointed out that the Dining Terrace was the fifth highest ranked project on the Thrives report and probably the only one in the $3 million likely going to Central Street “because we have to spread that around to other districts as well.”
“So that would check, I think, a really impactful box,” for us, he told the committee.
“This improvement will be the key feature of Central Street,” he wrote in a memo, “serving as its town square. The plan includes seating and lighting (similar to Fountain Square, a Christmas Tree, and a permanent place for performances.”
Starting off discussion, EDC member Lisa Dzeikan asked officials whether there was a way of separating the sidewalk work, treating it more as a traditional public works contract rather than using ARPA dollars intended for economic development.
Biggs said the sidewalk work could be separated out but that the city lacks the budget to tackle that side of the project now.
“We’re actually working our way through sidewalk improvement program that is maybe 15 years (removed from) being done
Dzeikan also asked the reverse: whether the park improvement could be done, leaving the sidewalk work for later when money is available.
That would pose a problem too, Biggs said, because of the way the plaza works, “where essentially you’re creating a concrete surface that comes back from the curb and creates this open flat space for tables and benches, chairs, and whatever other activities.”
For $1.7 million, bathrooms should be included: Kelly
Other EDC members raised questions about some of the other plans other components.
Council member Clare Kelly, 1st, asked about the absence of bathrooms in the renovation plans.
“Bathrooms are a pricey deal and would probably be many hundreds of thousands dollars more,” answered Biggs. In addition, she said officials received “quite a mixed reaction” on whether to include bathrooms in the public engagement on the project.
Currently, officials are looking at using Porta Potties — which she acknowledged was not ideal — positioning them close to the parking lot which runs adjacent to the park.
Kelly, who as city council member will have the chance to vote on the final project when it goes to the council for approval, said she couldn’t support the project without bathrooms. Previously, the only public bathroom was at the North Branch library across the street, “and that’s closed now,” she pointed out.
“It just seems like for the amount of money ($1.7 million for the entire project), there ought to be bathrooms included,” she said.
She also raised concern about the $1.7 million total cost of the park project, referring to remarks longtime 7th Ward resident Mary Rosinski, a member of the city’s Parks & Recreation Board, made during the public comment earlier in the evening.
Rosinski opened, saying, the total cost of the project to her “felt somewhat obscene and I’m not sure that’s the best use of our ARPA money.”
Rosinski, a longtime Realtor in the area, pointed out other park renovations in the area done for much lower costs and including more features.
Skokie Park District’s Central Park, located just across McCormick Blvd., at 9350 Central Park, redid all their equipment, she said, and the project included updating bathrooms, putting in a new water feature and making other improvements for $1.2 million. (The Skokie Park District received a $400,000 state grant towards the renovation.)
She named several other parks including one in Hubbard Woods. She urged committee members to “look at our neighbors, talk with them in what they’re doing,” saying she couldn’t begin to fathom how this is going to be $2.2 million” (adding in the ARPA allocation.)
“We spend way too much on our projects and we get better quality for the same amount of money…” she said.
Costs for some individual items seem ‘insane’: Nieuwsma
Kelly said she would feel more comfortable voting on the proposal if the price were more in the range of $1.2 million spent on the renovation of McCulluch Park, at Livingston and Jenks Street, which opened in 2021.
In response, Biggs said construction costs have escalated easily 30 to 40% since that project. In addition, the city is also seeing a huge supply chain issue, explaining the increases.
Council member and EDC member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th, focused on some of furnishings costs on a price list for the project.
The cost for one of the folding chairs “seems insane,” he said. “Five hundred bucks for one of those folding chairs…”
He took time out to do a Google search on his computer.
He search turned out a set of two for $199.50.
“It looks to be about the same,” he told Biggs, regarding the furniture’s quality.
“I will caution that it is probably not the same,” she said, adding that she will look into the cost.
“I like the idea,” said Nieuwsma of the total project. “This is something I’m super excited about.”
“Many of this went through that scoring process (in the Thrives study) and this came up near the top. We made the allocation for this kind of thing. My concern is now we spend the money efficiently. If it’s that high on that item, then what other items might it be kind of unusually high.”
Biggs stressed that the figures are just the consultant’s estimates at this point, and that costs for items could be brought down.
Committee members voted 9-0 in support of the issue moving forward to the full Council. which has final authority on the project.
Central Street’s ‘Town Square’
During citizen comment earlier in the meeting, Angela Shaffer, Community Director of Central Street Evanston, the non-profit group which manages and promotes the Special Service Areas including Central Street area, spoke in support of the $500,000 going to the Dining Terrace.
“Independence Park is Central Street’s Town Square,” she told EDC members. “It is the place where Central Street community events and family gatherings take place.”
In 2022, she said, Central Street Evanston “purchased picnic tables and we installed twinkle lights in the park. Since then, the impact has been tremendous. With limited sidewalk space for outdoor dining, the picnic tables, fill up with coffee drinkers and diners with their takeout orders.”
“There is currently no lighting in the park other than the tranquil lights and our beloved holiday tree,” she said. “So having a permanent and planned picnic edge would be a huge asset to the community and the surrounding districts.”