SOUTH DEERING — A project to create the first dedicated camping area on Chicago Park District property — and bring an accessible trail, boardwalks and more to a Far South Side park — received a big boost Wednesday when aldermen unanimously approved $1.5 million in city funds for the upgrades.
The project would allow visitors access to remote parts of Big Marsh Park, 11555 S. Stony Island Ave., potentially attracting a wider audience to the Far South Side natural area. The 300-acre park located on a former slag dump is the Park District’s largest natural site.
City Council approved $1 million in tax-increment financing, or TIF, funds for the trail around Big Marsh Park’s perimeter at Wednesday’s meeting. The trail will include boardwalks across marshy areas and outlooks for observing nature.
The other $500,000 will go toward a campsite, a new entry plaza and pavilions around the park. The campsite would be the first on Park District property, according to Friends of Big Marsh executive director Paul Fitzgerald.
Camping platforms and expanded access to areas of the park previously blocked by creeks and ponds will draw visitors “way outside of the current audience of BMX and mountain bikers and hardcore bird enthusiasts,” Fitzgerald said.
“The hope is these projects can be completed for the fall,” he said. They will open up the park “to our neighbors who enjoy nature … or people who are more interested in a serene park that’s close to home.”
The trail and camping projects are just the latest in a string of upgrades to Big Marsh Park in recent months, as the park district and park supporters aim to establish the natural area as a gateway to the Calumet region.
Last fall, a 32,000-square-foot paved pump track for bicycles was opened to the public. Big Marsh’s bike park also includes a one-mile dirt track for low-impact riding and three jump lines for BMX riders.
That same week, a sculpture at the southeast edge of Big Marsh Park — featuring plants and animals that have returned to the preserve following years of cleanup work — was completed by South Chicago artist Roman Villarreal and Pilsen sculptor Frank Diaz.
The steady improvements to Big Marsh Park are part of an effort to restore access to “degraded” Calumet region lands, park supervisor Stephen Bell said in October. Recent and planned upgrades are also in place for nearby Indian Ridge Marsh Park, Hegewisch Marsh Park, the Marian R. Byrnes Natural Area and Steelworkers Park.
The newly constructed Ford Calumet Environmental Center at Big Marsh Park will serve as a hub for programming and “eco-recreation” at the five Southeast Side parks.
The Big Marsh renovations were one of 17 park improvement projects unanimously approved for TIF funding by City Council, including $1 million for accessibility and cultural center improvements at Ridge Park, 1817 W. 96th St. in Beverly.
Aldermen also approved $300,000 for Washington Park, 5531 S. King Drive; $250,000 for Wentworth Gardens Park, 3770 S. Wentworth Ave.; and $125,000 for Brighton Park, 3542 S. Richmond St. The three South Side parks will receive playground improvements, accessibility upgrades and new landscaping.
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