CHICAGO — Despite pleas from some neighbors and community groups to delay the vote, the Chicago Park District board on Wednesday approved a contract to begin the design of the merger of two South Side golf courses.
The $1.1 million contract calls for SmithGroup JJR Inc., an integrated architecture, engineering and planning firm to draw up plans to turn the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a professional course, with Tiger Woods' TGR Design taking the lead on remaking the two lakefront courses.
Neighors of the courses Wednesday argued argued the contract was "putting the cart before the horse," as it awarded money for a project the community itself had yet to sign-off on.
"My conflict is don’t spend the money first and then tell us there’s a community engagement process. Let us be the determining factor of where our tax dollars are spent," said Naomi Davis, who lives across from Washington Park and asked the board to delay the contract.
The park board argued the contract allows the park district to see what can be done with the project, and that there will be plenty of meetings where the community can weigh-in during the coming months.
"This is an opportunity to look at what is possible, this is not stepping in front of or taking the place of the community engagement process [and] around all the benefits that will come to bare with this renovation. This is very much to begin the technical engineering process," sCommissioner Erika Allen said.
The process is similar to what must be done when renovating any other park in the city. It serves to survey the land and the expenses of the renovations, she said.
"It’s not really a process for public discussion. Once those results come back that’s when it starts," she said.
Just two days earlier, Chicago Park District Supt. Mike Kelly presented plans for the $30 million proposal to about 150 people at the Jackson Park field house, 6401 S. Stony Island Ave. He promised new amenities, like a beach house at the South Shore Cultural Center and new underpasses at 67th Street and Jeffery Boulevard, that would come along with the revamped golf course.
Monday's crowd questioned whether the Park District's priorities were in the right place, when it was putting so much effort and rallying private funds for a sport on the decline when there was an immediate need to replace the heavily used football field, running track, baseball fields and more than 20 acres of parkland that will soon be displaced by the construction of the Barack Obama presidential library.
While Kelly said he remains committed to replacing parkland used for the library, he gave few details about what would actually happen this year.
Friends of the Parks urged the board to hold off on the vote prior to the Wednesday meeting.
“The community is clearly split on their opinions about the professional golf course,” Executive Director Juanita Irizarry said in a statement posted on Facebook after Monday's meeting.
“But one thing is for sure, when the community meeting with the park advisory council takes place only two days before the Chicago Park District board is scheduled to vote on a contract to get work started related to the golf course — it's a set-up,” Irizarry said. “There was never any intention to have a community participation process with integrity.”
The group questioned how neighbors could trust they would be listened to when the decision to remake the golf course was made without their feedback.
People at the Jackson Park Advisory Council meeting Monday were also critical of the plan after recently released emails between Kelly and Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed the planning for the golf course had been happening behind closed doors for months before it was brought to the public.
"When things are done secretly, when things are done in processes that are not the same that have been promised, it’s hard to trust. So even if they say things that sound pretty good about a golf course, it makes us harder to believe that they’re really going to do those things," Irizzary said.
After the vote Wednesday, Irizarry said Friends of the Parks wasn't surprised.
The Chicago Park District and community groups have different definitions of community input, she said.
"There is one thing when you do charettes ahead of time with a visioning process that does not have a bunch of paths already set, it’s another thing when you do a planning process in response to a path you intend to go down," she said. "I think they’re headed down the latter and we have been calling for a comprehensive planning process that would include all the needs and visions for Jackson Park."
While park district officials said the golf course is a redevelopment the community asked for previously, that framework plan is from 2001 and "not even from this decade." Since then, the neighbors have seen major investments like Project 120 and the Obama library, Irizzary said.
"They really should have done a new framework plan in this decade ahead of this process of planning for a golf course," she said, adding the group has yet to decide if it is before or against the renovations.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about enacting the plan after 16 years, Allen said. Each month residents come to the board meeting and ask why aspects of their neighborhood park haven't been renovated, Allen said.
"When there’s not resources available that’s what happens," she said. "It’s unfortunately part of the challenges of balancing such a huge portfolio of properties for community interest."
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