LINCOLN SQUARE — Big things are happening at little Jacob Park.
First the park was chosen for a new playground, courtesy of the Chicago Plays! program.
Now comes word that thanks to an exchange of $99,999 between the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Transit Authority, Jacob Park is officially .26 acres larger, having added a piece of CTA property to its .39-acre girth.
"I'm a pretty happy guy these days," Ben Ranney said.
A member of an informal group of the park's proponents, many of whom share a Virginia Avenue address with the park, Ranney has been lobbying for the acquisition of the CTA land for the past several years.
The CTA parcel, used most recently as a staging area during the massive Brown Line station reconstruction project, sits immediately adjacent to the south end of the park, separated by a mere chainlink fence.
"It wasn't so much of a blight as a missed opportunity," Ranney said. "Jacob Park is a lovely little park, but it's tiny."
Talks related to the CTA plot date back to at least 2010, when Ranney began tracking his emails on the subject. Residents enlisted their partners on the Horner Park Advisory Council, then-Ald. Gene Schulter and eventually Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th) to "encourage CTA to think differently," Ranney said.
At the most recent Park District board meeting, members voted to buy the land for Jacob Park at a price "well below the market value," according to a park district statement.
"That makes us super excited," Kate Messing said of the expansion news. The mother of twin toddler girls lives just two blocks from the park.
"We play here every day. Lots and lots of kids come here," she said, including a regular contingent from nearby Waters Elementary. "We just love the park."
Though Jacob Park is very much a neighborhood hangout, Ranney said the addition of the CTA land is a boon for anyone interested in one day enjoying the natural scenery along the Chicago River.
Much of the eastern bank of the river is fronted by private residences, he noted. Jacob Park is the rare slice of public land located immediately along the water, between Lawrence and Montrose avenues.
"That's another reason why this was important to do," he said.
Though access to the river is currently limited — walled off by a fence due to the steepness of the bank — Ranney envisions a future in which a "neat little trail" would provide a path for people to "go down with a fishing rod or just get close to the water."
That future is several years off, though, he conceded.
While the CTA land received a "clean bill of health" from an environmental standpoint, it's studded with exposed rock and overgrown with vegetation, Ranney said.
As much as he'd love to tear down the fence tomorrow, "there will have to be a process of identifying costs just to provide public access" to the CTA parcel, he said.
The most practical idea for developing the land, and the one receiving the most support to date, involves "very modest improvements" that would create an open field where kids could run around and play, couples could picnic or a person could simply enjoy a sunny afternoon with a good book.
More ambitious riverbank restoration plans will have to wait.
"We have a limited ability to raise funds," said Ranney, though he's hopeful neighbors might be able to identify grant money, perhaps even from federal sources.
"But the heavy lifting will continue to happen at the grassroots level," he said.
For the moment, Ranney is simply savoring a victory for the little park that could.
"I walk my dog around the block and the other night, four people came up and said, 'Hey, that's cool about the park.' It's the talk of the neighborhood."