CHICAGO — The conservation group Openlands has been quietly but actively acquiring a number of parcels in the Washington Park neighborhood to assemble land for a future eight-acre park anchored by the historic Raber House — one of Chicago's oldest landmarked buildings.
The Downtown-based group is working with the city to assemble 60 parcels for a park that would be set around the Raber House, 5760 S. Lafayette Ave.
The city currently owns the Raber House, which is unoccupied and in disrepair. The 2½-story house was built by John Raber, a "prominent area businessman, real-estate developer and politician," according to the city's website.
The park would be bounded by State Street on the east, 57th Street on the north, 59th Street on the south and the railroad tracks that service the Rock Island Metra line on the west. The land currently includes the Perry Avenue Community Farm.
Openlands Vice President of Conservation Emy Brawley said there's no timetable for the acquisitions, but the prospect of a future park on the South Side is exciting nonetheless.
"The land is there, it's just a matter of someone having the vision and taking it from what it is to what it could be," Brawley said. "It's a very ambitious effort to repurpose this land."
So far Openlands has transferred three parcels to the city, Brawley said. Two houses were at the end of their useful lives and were demolished; one house remains in place and is now serving as the headquarters for the Perry Street Farm operations. The city already owns more than 30 lots that it has acquired over the years through tax delinquency and other administrative processes, Brawley said.
South Side neighborhoods that include Washington Park and nearby Englewood lost nearly 150,000 residents in 2010 from the all-time high in 1940, according to the city's Green Healthy Neighborhoods report. The population decline has left those areas with 11,000 vacant lots, or more than 800 acres of vacant land, the report said.
"This area has experienced a massive depopulation and has a large amount of vacant land," Brawley said. "This gives us an opportunity to repurpose these areas with productive uses — urban agriculture, parks and other greenspace — that can have catalytic effects on nature. And there's a boost in economic vitality that parks can play in neighborhoods."