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Leone Beach Park Overhaul Plan Includes Kayak Launch, Nature Center

By Benjamin Woodard | October 28, 2014 8:06am
 The initial plans are backed by $100,000 in state funding, officials said.
Leone Beach Park plans
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ROGERS PARK — Preliminary plans revealed by the Chicago Park District Monday night to renovate Leone Beach park and field house include kayak rentals and storage, concession or vendor space and an interactive nature center.

Park district landscape architect Erich Sprague, who was heavily involved in the overhaul of the former zoo space at Indian Boundary Park, presented the initial plans, which are expected to change as community members give their input.

On Monday, some residents suggested building an indoor pool in the field house, opening a restaurant or concession area, a dog park and even a jet ski launch.

Ben Woodard discusses the plans and some interesting history behind the beach:

 The Chicago Park District plans to redevelop the park tucked away at 1222 W. Touhy Ave. at the north end of Loyola Park.
The Chicago Park District plans to redevelop the park tucked away at 1222 W. Touhy Ave. at the north end of Loyola Park.
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Bill Morton

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said state Sen. Heather Steans (D-7th) secured $100,000 in state capital funds to help get the project going. Other funding has yet to be identified, according to a park district official.

"It has a grand history, but unfortunately over the years it has fallen into a state of disrepair to the point that it is mostly used for storage," Moore said to attendees on the second floor of the Loyola Park field house. "We want to bring it back to its former glory."

The field house, a former pumping station built in 1889, has served as the home of Rogers Park's lifeguards since 1906. The park's namesake, former park supervisor Sam Leone, ran the Junior Lifeguard Program there for 40 years until his death in 1965.

But in the past 10 years the program has been "gutted," according to former instructors and members of the program who attended the meeting.

Bobby Diamond, a 64-year-old who was trained by Leone himself, said he had once worked with 400 junior lifeguards each year in the program. Now there are only about 100 registered at Leone Beach Park and 700 registered citywide, according to park district numbers.

Diamond said the intent of the renovation should be to build the program "back up to what it used to be."

He and other former lifeguards also encouraged the park district to create a museum to honor Leone with photos and memorabilia.

"Please, whatever you do, make that space [about] Sam Leone’s legacy ... first and foremost," said former Leone lifeguard Tim Colleran. "If you choose not to, you are going to have a lot of very vocal unhappy people."

Brett Renaud, 40, who entered the lifeguard program at Leone Park Beach when he was 10 years old, said the program had been "asking for improvements for years" at the field house. He said the program, and its historical significance, shouldn't be "swept under the table."

The park district and the lifeguards and instructors who ran the program at Leone have a complicated past. In 2005, the district canceled boating programs at the beach, removing all the boats stationed at the field house. Some of the removed equipment had been bought by the park's supporters, said Chris Serb, who wrote and published a book, called "Sam's Boys," about the history of Leone.

"Why isn’t Sam Leone higher on the agenda here?" Serb said at the meeting. "We see this as the cornerstone of rebuilding this program."

Moore and a park district official stressed that the plans would develop with input from the community.

Sprauge, the park district architect, also showed off the preliminary plans for other areas of the park.

"The interior of the building is not in great shape," he said. The field house would be made accessible to those with disabilities, he said. Lockers, bathrooms, showers and other amenities would also be added.

Outside, the parking lot would be revamped with permeable pavers and a median to help with the flow of traffic.

On the beach, a "natural dunescape" would be constructed and some play equipment added, but would also maintain access to the water. The playground currently located to the west of the field house would be removed and replaced with oak trees, community gardens and an interactive nature center, according to the initial plans.

There would also be spaced allocated for kayak rentals and storage and a concession vendor. Leone Beach is a designated stop on the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

Moore said the city would pursue additional funding for the project.

"As we’re looking to pay for this, we’re going to leave no stone unturned and no potential dollar untapped," he said.

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