The results of the latest round of participatory budgeting in the 33rd include setting aside $75,000 towards a new, educational nature play space at Bateman Elementary (left) and $25,000 to upgrade the community food pantry at Drake gardens. Credit: Provided.

ALBANY PARK — Albany Park residents will see improved street and alleys, a new nature play area and a shed to support a community food pantry following an annual vote on how to spend city money for the ward.

Each year, the 50 wards get $1.5 million each from the city’s budget for special projects and repairs. Since 2020, the 33rd Ward has allowed neighbors to vote on how that money is spent using participatory budgeting. 

The majority of more than 800 neighbors who voted said they wanted $500,000 set aside for alley and street resurfacing across the ward, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) said.

That amounts to about half the total funds for this year, so Rodriguez-Sanchez is using the remaining money on the seven most popular projects neighbors voted on.

Of that amount, $25,000 will be set aside to upgrade the community food pantry at Drake gardens, 4643 N. Drake Ave.

Albany Park residents launched the food pantry during the early days of the pandemic to help people facing food insecurity in the neighborhood. Since then, they’ve donated canned goods and other non-perishables for neighbors in need, volunteer Evan Hoffman said.

The current plastic shed that serves as storage for the food pantry at Drake gardens. Credit: Provided.

The pantry is open 24/7, but it is limited by the small, plastic shed it uses for storage. The shed has also suffered wear and tear due to the extremes of Chicago weather. 

The new, more durable structure will have space for signs and will store garden tools, as well as a fold-out “lemonade stand”-style window to allow volunteers to better host the garden’s fresh produce, seedling and seed swap events. 

“It’s going to be fantastic to be able to bring more people to gather and have more events that build community,” said volunteer Evan Hoffman.

Neighbors also voted to devote money to improve traffic lights at California and Diversey avenues, but that project will move forward using funding from state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas. The ward money instead will pay for $250,000 of playground improvements neighbors wanted at West River Park.

Bateman Elementary, 4220 N. Richmond St., will get $75,000 toward an educational nature play space to help children develop social and emotional skills. 

“I think Bateman has been wanting a space like this for a very long time and there hasn’t been the resources to do it,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “So we are super proud that we get to be able to to invest menu money in schools like this.”

Another $25,000 will be used to create a public gathering space near Kedzie and Leland avenues, near the Brown Line stop. 

The goal is to have this space serve as “gateway to Albany Park” that would expand the curb, allow for the installation of public art and seating and lighting upgrades that would beautify the neighborhood and contribute to public safety, Rodriguez-Sanchez said. 

“Spaces that are occupied constantly are less likely to have violent events happen,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “And it builds the fabric of our communities by having people be able to interact by creating space for markets so people can come out and sell their products, and have space for recreation, too. It just makes our community stronger.”

Other wish list items that made the cut include $75,000 for repaving sidewalks for residents who are older or who have disabilities, $250,000 for stamped crosswalks and $25,000 for trees.

However, Rodriguez-Sanchez said she is looking into whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to have 75,000 new trees across the city over the next five years could allow the $25,000 to be spent elsewhere.

Ballot items that didn’t make the cut this year due to a lack of funding include $16,000 for a safety net at Cleveland Elementary’s soccer field, $15,000 for picnic tables at California Park, $60,000 for tennis court resurfacing at Brands Park and $24,000 for benches and the repair of the dolphin statue at Brands Park.

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