EDGEBROOK — The plan to reduce the size of Wildwood Park in order to expand the severely overcrowded Wildwood Elementary School would set a bad precedent, a parks advocacy group said Monday.
Cassandra Francis, the president of Friends of the Parks, a nonprofit Chicago parks advocacy organization, said the plan to build a $15 million three-story annex on what is now Wildwood Park's basketball courts and water play area is the latest example of a "troubling trend" of park space being usurped for other needs.
"This could be one of the first couple of dominoes to fall," Francis said, pointing to plans to build a selective enrollment high school named after President Barack Obama in what is now Stanton Park and calls to build a museum honoring Star Wars creator George Lucas along the lakefront.
Heather Cherone chats with DNAinfo radio about the Wildwood school's proposed expansion:
"As a city, we have to challenge ourselves to look at non-park alternatives or solutions," Francis said.
Francis said her group was not involved in the Public Building Commission's site selection or design process for the Wildwood addition and only found out the park would be reduced in size at a public meeting held May 6 to unveil plans for the annex at 6950 N. Hiawatha Ave.
"That is not an unusual occurrence anymore," Francis said, adding that her group often finds out about a project such as the Obama high school or the Wildwood annex once it is a done deal.
Francis blamed the lack of communication and limited public involvement on city officials "scrambling to fulfill a directive from the mayor's office."
"Putting it in a park is the easiest thing to do," Francis said. "They don't have time to find a non-park alternative."
A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Although the main building was meant to hold 240 students, 424 students are enrolled at Wildwood. That gives the school a utilization rate of 177 percent, one of the highest in the city, according to CPS data.
Even with a four-classroom addition that opened next to the building, the school has an adjusted utilization rate of 128 percent, which is still considered overcrowded, according to data provided by CPS.
Still, Francis acknowledged the need for Wildwood to be expanded, and said it might be "the best option" to build the annex on what is now park land, especially since that land is owned by the Chicago Public School district and leased to the park district.
"We are in favor of high-quality education in Chicago," Francis said.
Wildwood is ranked among the best schools in Chicago by district officials.
"We hope that [the park land] will be replaced elsewhere in the area" to ensure the city's standard of at least two acres of open space for every 1,000 residents is met, Francis said.
A spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District did not respond to questions about whether the basketball court and the water-spray feature would be replaced elsewhere in Wildwood Park or in the area.
Wildwood Park is heavily used by the residents of the surrounding community, and as the school's enrollment climbs, there will be even more demand for park and open space, Francis said.
"It has the potential to divide the community," Francis said.
Molly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Public Building Commission, said parents at the school and residents of the surrounding area were consulted extensively about plans for the annex.
Seven different plans were developed for the annex in order to accommodate the homes directly across the street along Mendota Avenue and to maintain as much of the park and its open space as possible, Public Building Commission Executive Director Erin Lavin Cabonargi said at the May 6 meeting.
Plans to build the annex along Mendota Avenue were rejected because of the desire of nearby residents to keep the recently-resurfaced tennis courts and other objections from those homeowners, Lavin Cabonargi said.
Plans for the annex will be considered May 15 by the Chicago Plan Commission and May 22 by the Chicago City Council Zoning Committee, Lavin Cabonargi said.