SOUTH LOOP — Ever since plans to build a 12,000-seat, $300 million athletic arena for DePaul in the Prairie District were proposed — and quickly set in motion — by City Hall last spring, residents of the surrounding Prairie District community have decried their limited opportunity for input.
But ultimately, members of the DePaul community will be Prairie District residents' new neighbors. So the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the private Catholic university, reached out to the neighborhood association in advance of their annual "Festival on Prairie Avenue" about co-sponsoring the event, and having university representatives attend the fest to finally field resident concerns.
It will be "absolutely the first time" community members have been able to question DePaul representatives directly about the plan, said Tina Feldstein, president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, which organizes the festival.
"When this whole thing was announced back in May, I was in shock, and I had invited Father Holtschneider to come down: I basically said 'I cannot believe you guys would even consider making this kind of announcement. You have not even bothered to talk to the community at all,'" Feldstein said.
As the deal moved forward, Feldstein offered Holtschneider a tour of the community around the arena site.
"He was shocked. He'd never ever walked around the neighborhood, and he didn't understand that this arena would actually be in the neighborhood," Feldstein said. "He said he would really like the opportunity to be in front of the community. I told him that we have the festival coming up, and he said, 'Can we be there?'"
The university agreed to co-sponsor the festival along with the neighborhood association, Doran's Landscape, the Glessner House Museum and other South Loop businesses. DePaul's pep band will perform, university employees will man a table with giveaways, and the school is providing an inflatable bounce house for kids, according to a joint release from the alliance and DePaul.
Although she described her neighbors as "very well-mannered in general," Feldstein said she warned Holtschneider that "there may be people that are expressing their disappointment and frustration. And they said, 'We're prepared for that.' They understand."
"It is a pleasure to support the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance and all our South Loop neighbors," Holtschneider said in a statement. The president couldn't be reached for comment, and a rep from his office said he'll be traveling during the festival this weekend.
"We look forward to identifying additional opportunities in which we can join forces with our friends in the South Loop and further honor our 115-year connection with the people of Chicago," the university president continued.
Feldstein said she thinks the outreach is a step in the right direction, but she said DePaul, the city and McCormick Place owners the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority have a long way to go improving relations with the Prairie District.
"They feel that they owe it to the community to give us this opportunity," Feldstein said. "They're gonna be our neighbors, and they realize it's important to establish a relationship."
"I absolutely wish [McCormick Place officials] and the city felt the same way."
The Festival on Prairie Avenue runs from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday at Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. A $7 donation is requested.