DUNNING — The first multi-use artificial turf playing field set to be built on the Northwest Side will boost sports organizations and make them more competitive with suburban leagues, team leaders said.
Plans are underway to build a small stadium — complete with lights, bleachers, press box, parking and bathrooms — on a 7.5 acre piece of now-vacant land on that was once home to a mental hospital and long-forgotten cemetery with $3 million in state funds, officials said Monday.
Tom Caravette, the chairman of the Portage Park Baseball Association board of directors, said the field would be a huge boost to the organization that has grown to nearly 1,000 participants in recent years.
"We have been waiting for this for a long time," Caravette said at a meeting Monday night hosted by Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) to gather community input on field, which would be used for baseball, football, soccer and lacrosse games.
The field will put Northwest Side teams "on par" with teams from suburbs like Park Ridge, said Tony Arena, the head of the Shabbona Saints football and cheer program.
"This field is perfect for our kids," Arena said, saying the team now hosts games on "rag tag" fields.
The city's Community Development Commission agreed to sell the land to the Chicago Park District last week for $1, allowing work to begin in earnest on the project that has been on the drawing board for more than a decade.
The field would be built in what is now the heart of Dunning, but was once the grounds of a Cook County poorhouse and later an asylum for mentally ill men and women. A long-forgotten cemetery that holds the remains of Chicago's poorest and sickest residents who died between 1890 and 1912 surrounded the facility.
"This is a big deal," said Jeff Stein, a member of the Dunham Park Boys Baseball Organization. "What better use for this land than to do something for the kids?"
The athletic field would be built at 4030 N. Oak Park Ave., just north of 19 acres of vacant land where many Northwest Side residents want a new high school to be built to relieve overcrowding at Taft High School.
An asphalt walking path and grass will encircle the field, said Rob Rejman, the director of the Park District's Division of Planning and Development.
There will be seating on both sides of the field, as well as a scoreboard and programmable lights, Rejman said.
Suggestions for the project made at Monday night's meeting include a play lot to keep younger siblings entertained while their brothers and sisters practice and a dog park along the narrow strip north of the field.
"We're going to build as much as we can, given the space and the cost," Rejman said.
Surburban sports teams would be charged a higher fee to play on the field than Chicago teams, said Park District Chief Operating Officer Patrick J. Levar.
Most of the several dozen people who attended the meeting said they supported the field, while some said they were concerned about noise, light pollution and crime.
Based on aerial maps, the field would be built on part of a long-forgotten Dunning cemetery that holds the remains of Chicago's poorest and sickest residents who died between 1890 and 1912.
In May, city officials postponed plans to rebuild Oak Park Avenue amid fears that the work could unearth thousands of bodies in the cemetery. Crews are using ground-penetrating radar to search for bodies, Sposato said.
An effort to extend the Dunning Tax Increment Financing District for another 12 years to raise $60 million that could be used to fund the high school is expected to be completed next month, officials said. The field will not be built with any money from the TIF, officials said.
But plans for the high school remain uncertain, although the field could be used by a future school's sports teams.
Right now, a new high school remains the "hope and dream" of many, said State Sen. John Mulroe (D-Norwood Park), who helped earmark the money for the athletic field and attended Monday's meeting.
The field would be adjacent to New Horizons Center for Children and Adults with Developmental Disabilities and Autism, 6737 W. Forest Preserve Drive.
Fred Haberkamp, the president of the center's board of directors, said he was concerned the field would compromise the safety of the children and adults who attend classes at the center and will use a new play lot.
"The safety of the children is the most important thing," Haberkamp said.
Chicago Park District officials promised at the meeting to work with the center to ensure the field does not effect its operations.
The field could open as soon as next summer, park district officials said.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: