STREETERVILLE — When Argo Tea made a 15-year agreement with the Park District to manage concessions at the triangular Connors Park in Streeterville, part of the deal was that the whole property — including the glass-walled tea shop's interior — would remain open to the public, not just to customers.
"Connors Park is a public park and open to all," Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxy-Faulkner said.
But area residents say that distinction isn't clear, and worry that community members feel pressured to make purchases for the right to sit inside Argo and its patio.
"Right now, it's not clear to the public that we can use it," said Streeterville resident Coleen Burke, who lives a block from Connors Park.
When the deal went through in late 2012, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) requested that the park district "install official new Chicago Park District signage to welcome neighbors and visitors to our newly renovated neighborhood park," according to a community newsletter sent by Reilly's office in January 2013.
To date, there are no signs. Reilly said he views them as a last resort.
"I'm open to installing signs to that effect — it's a public amenity, and needs to be treated as such," he said. "It is my understanding the operator has acknowledged that obligation, so my hope is that signage is no longer necessary."
"But if it is, I'm certainly happy to explore it."
At a park district board meeting in early April, Burke made an appeal to board members about the need for welcoming signs.
"Connors Park is one of two open spaces in this neighborhood," Burke said at an April 9 board meeting. When the park district signed the deal with Argo Tea "the representation to all of us in the neighborhood was that this was still a public park, this was not going to be completely taken over as a private business."
"However, recent events have proven that that commitment may have eroded."
Burke was referring to an anecdote from longtime friend and area resident George Blakemore, who alleges that he was told by an Argo staff member last month that he had to leave the shop if he wouldn't make a purchase.
"I was told that I would have to leave," Blakemore said. "I said, 'No ma'am, this is a public park, I do not have to make a purchase,' and she threatened that if I didn't, they would call the police. I told them that it wasn't necessary for me to make a purchase and asked to speak to a manager ... who said I was allowed to stay."
"This isn't just about me," Blakemore said. "All of Chicago's taxpaying citizens have a right to use this park ... It should be treated more like a field house than a private business."
An Argo spokeswoman declined to comment about Blakemore's allegations, but said that the Connors Park location's policy has always been that the public can use the indoor and outdoor spaces without making a purchase.
"Of course the public is welcome," said Chris Gretchko, a spokeswoman for Argo Tea. "We are a tea cafe, but obviously we are a part of the neighborhood. We are a welcoming environment."
Reilly said after his office heard about Blakemore's allegations, he reached out to Argo Tea's management "to remind them that this is a a public park and they cannot excuse non-customers from their property, because technically, it's the park district's property," he said.