EDISON PARK — On May 8, neighbors near Brooks Park, 7100 N. Harlem Ave., were gobsmacked to learn they'd be getting a state-of-the-art roller hockey rink at no cost to taxpayers, courtesy of a fully baked arrangement between Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) and the Chicago Blackhawks.
On May 9, those same neighbors woke to the sound of chainsaws ripping through more than a dozen 30-year-old trees, signaling that construction of the $250,000 project was already underway.
The instant turnaround was a gut-punch to the nearly 100 residents who packed the Brooks Park field house on Monday night, many of whom demanded to know why they hadn't let in on the planning process. While nearly all attendees said they welcomed the new rink, the room brimmed with fears that its placement within the park could exacerbate flooding or open new safety issues.
Not even Deb Maddox, an area manager for the Chicago Park District, had been tipped off about the new rink before crews began working on it, she said.
The same goes for leaders of the Brooks Park Advisory Council, including council vice president Eileen McGing, she said.
"None of us were alerted that this would be happening," McGing said. "It came as a total surprise. That was the problem."
The 175-by-75-foot rink was pegged for a "late-spring opening" in Brooks Park, 7100 N. Harlem Ave., according to Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) [41st Ward]
Measuring 75 feet wide and 165 feet long, the rink would be built with a special SportCourt tiling surface designed especially for roller blades, according to Napolitano. Crews also plan to plant 30 new trees to make up for the 17 that were already chopped, he added.
The project is being overseen by park district officials, who estimated earlier this month that the rink could be ready for use by "late spring."
The district will "continue to work with the alderman to find the best way to offer this new amenity to Brooks Park," according to a park district statement released Monday.
The rink is planned for the western edge of the park, in a location some neighbors fear could exacerbate flooding for nearby homes already reeling from water damage. Napolitano said city officials plan to build a massive "water retention vault" in the middle of the park, but it's unclear when the project would become reality.
The city's water department had "not received any engineering plans for review" related to the rink as of Monday, according to an email from department spokesman Gary Litherland.
Nearly 100 neighbors attended Monday's meeting. [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]
Michelle Molise, who lives in the 7100 block of North Odell Avenue, said moving forward with the project without waiting for the sewer project to finish could put her home at "imminent flood risk."
"When you build an impenetrable surface of that square footage and replace natural ground seepage, that water has to go somewhere, and we're panicked that it'll go into our homes," Molise said. "Because we're flooded even when there are moderate rains, and we've already spent tens of thousands of dollars on flood protection."
Some attendees on Monday suggested that planners consider other corners of the park, like a green patch facing Harlem Avenue just north of the field house, as an alternative site. But Napolitano said it could endanger younger hockey players to invite them so close to the busy thoroughfare.
"I've talked to the park district, and they're going to take another look at it, but I don't know if they have the infrastructure to put it out front there," Napolitano told DNAinfo on Tuesday. "For the Blackhawks to give us this ... gift, and then for us to come back and say 'We want you to build a fence and a barrier too' — that might be looking a gift horse in the mouth."
All throughout the meeting on Monday, neighbors cheered the new rink's potential to foster a new generation of hockey players unburdened by long trips or steep membership fees at suburban rinks.
But many of those same speakers also scolded the alderman for what they say is keeping neighbors at arm's length during the site selection process, especially after Napolitano had publicly criticized a City Council colleague along the same lines just days earlier.
"I think the rink is a great idea, but the lack of transparency in government is what I think concerns a lot of the residents here," said Eric, a neighbor who declined to say his last name Monday. "It seems like business as usual in the city of Chicago. And while we want the rink, the site selection is horrible."
Napolitano had been "sworn to secrecy" by the Blackhawks until earlier this month, he said, out of fear that neighbors would feel betrayed by the NHL team if the deal fell through.
"If this were being built with public funds, we would be holding meeting after meeting about this ... but it was gifted, so the process doesn't look the same," the alderman said Monday. "This doesn't take a dime of taxpayer dollars. So for there to be trickery or some form of dirty politics — I get nothing for it but a rink in our park."
A spokesman for the Blackhawks declined to comment on Tuesday.