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North Branch Plan Needs A Big Park, Not A Bunch Of Small Ones, Critics Say

By Ted Cox | May 10, 2017 5:32am | Updated on May 17, 2017 9:21pm
 RANCH Triangle Association President Reatha Kay says little changed in the final North Branch Industrial Corridor Framework Plan, citing renderings such as designs for the riverwalk.
RANCH Triangle Association President Reatha Kay says little changed in the final North Branch Industrial Corridor Framework Plan, citing renderings such as designs for the riverwalk.
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Chicago Department of Planning and Development

RANCH TRIANGLE — Critics of the North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan said a concession by city planners to set aside "at least" 10 acres for parkland in the area might not go far enough to address the needs of an area starving for recreational space.

The city's Department of Planning and Development released its final framework for the plan to modernize the corridor Monday night.

It will dictate development in the area for decades to come, and it was immediately endorsed by 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins, who touted concessions from city officials to commit to 10 acres for "ballfields, playgrounds and additional open space for public recreational use."

 RANCH Triangle President Reatha Kay appeals for parkland at an earlier public meeting on the North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan.
RANCH Triangle President Reatha Kay appeals for parkland at an earlier public meeting on the North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Hopkins called the 10-acre commitment "a floor, not a ceiling" on how much open land would be set aside for public use in the corridor, a 760-acre area running on a diagonal along 3.7 miles of the Chicago River between the Fullerton Avenue bridge and Kedzie Avenue.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), the most vocal advocate of a large park in the modernization plan, welcomed the concession Tuesday, but warned, "The fight is not over" and announced her intention to press the issue when the framework is presented to the Plan Commission for final approval on May 18.

Smith demanded specifics, suggesting that waiting to allot 10 acres in individual developments in the area invited a piecemeal approach, a criticism echoed by community groups.

"The plan does not contain a mechanism to secure significant contiguous [park] space," Smith wrote Tuesday in a letter to constituents. Instead, smaller open areas could simply be sprinkled throughout the corridor as it's redeveloped, she said.

And without knowing how many people could end up living in the corridor, it's impossible to know if the 10 acres of parkland will even be enough, Smith said. She said Oz Park already is overtaxed and will only be more burdened with the proposal to add homes in the areas north and south of Goose Island for people working in the industrial corridor.

Reatha Kay, president of the RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association, welcomed the commitment to provide 10 acres of open space, but likewise argued that it has to be in a single plot to provide any real benefit to area residents.

"If you don't provide for a park in the plan, you could have just an aggregation of little parks that add up to 10 acres," Kay said. "What's to stop someone from saying they'll provide 10 acres, but it's going to be 10 tot lots?"

Kay said the RANCH Triangle already had plenty of playlots, but the only place for older kids to play is the basketball court on Clybourn Avenue.

"How many of the green spaces in RANCH actually have grass?" Kay asked. "I don't think any."

Kay said that, aside from the late concession to create 10 acres of parkland that could include a ballfield or could be a skate park, the plan remained largely intact from earlier drafts.

"I don't really see that it's substantively changed," she said.

Lincoln Park community leader Allan Mellis agreed, saying that points he'd made to Planning and Development staffers at numerous public meetings on the plan had been met by nods of approval, only to be left out of the final framework.

"They should take the comments they were provided and show where they were adopted" in the plan, Mellis said. "But they probably found there weren't too many."

Mellis said the framework was vague enough that an office building could be constructed with open space around it, but could be kept private.

"They could build it and have it and say, 'Well, it's for employees,'" he said.

Mellis also said the park debate threatened to overshadow other key issues in the plan, such as traffic congestion and the lack of any real improvements to public transportation.

"My big concern is still the traffic congestion," he added, with the prevalence of truck traffic in the area and the potential addition of thousands of new residents around Goose Island.

Mellis pointed to long-term plans to simplify the tangled viaduct complex at Cortland, Armitage, Ashland and Elston avenues and said that should receive top priority because of many government agencies involved. Otherwise, he added, it could be 30 years before any work is actually done on it.

Kay said the RANCH Triangle Association had a board meeting scheduled for Wednesday to discuss its plan of action. Mellis and Smith both signaled that they'd be taking their cases directly to the Plan Commission next week.