LINCOLN SQUARE — The Chicago Park District is delaying a decision on whether to allow lights at Welles Park’s baseball and softball diamonds, saying it needs more time to consider the plan after a group of neighbors came out in opposition.
Due to the community being “divided” on the lights, Michele Lemons, the park district’s director of communications, said the park district did not make a final decision in April as requested. The nonprofit Welles Park Parents Association, which offered to finance the project, asked permission to add lights to four of the park’s five diamonds.
David Saunders, the association’s secretary, told Block Club the baseball group is now exploring the possibility of adding lights to only two diamonds at Welles Park.
Lemons confirmed the park district is looking at how this smaller, revised proposal could work but added that no final plan will be approved without community feedback.
“Obviously, there’s a lot to do between now and that potentially becoming a reality. But we’re actively engaged with the park district and community to try to make that happen,” Saunders said.
The association was founded in 1990 and serves more than 1,600 players ages 5-19. Despite hosting games at a half dozen North Side parks, the association says it still has a yearly waitlist with dozens of children.
The initial proposal for lights at four of the park’s five diamonds would have allowed the association to add about 280 slots for practices and games during the spring season, which runs mid-April to mid-July.
The association first announced its intention to add lights in February and the initial proposal would have cost about $600,000. The association offered to foot the bill for the lights by fundraising and applying for grants.
Because some of the grants were time sensitive, the association asked the park district to make a decision on their plan by the end of April so the lights could be ready for the spring 2022 season.
“We don’t very often get people in the community coming to us saying ‘Hey, you know what? We plan to raise $600,000 and invest it in the park in our neighborhood.’ It just doesn’t happen very often,” said Gary Kuzmanic, a park district area manager.
But a small group of Welles Park neighbors opposed to the lights say the added games and practices would create unwelcome traffic and parking congestion and generate too much noise and trash at the park.
This group of neighbors voiced their opposition at three community meetings where the baseball group presented its plans. They argued the park district was moving too fast when it initially agreed to make a decision on the lights by the end of April.
This group also launched a petition in opposition to the proposal that currently has 280 signatures.
“This decision is one that is going to affect the entire Lincoln Square neighborhood and people’s enjoyment of the park,” said Aaron Christensen, a neighbor opposing the lights. “And unfortunately, once the genie comes out of the bottle there’s no putting him back in.”
The pressure from neighbors opposed to the lights led to the Welles Park Advisory Council postponing its April 26 vote on whether to support the association’s proposal. The park district has final say on the lights but wanted the advisory council and Ald. Matt Martin (47th) to weigh in on the plan before a decision was made.
“The last few weeks have felt incredibly stressful because I can understand both sides of this issue,” said Sherry Skalko, an advisory council member. “…It feels like the [advisory council] has been put in the crosshairs of this decision making process when the park district and the alderman both have their own [decision] processes.”
The advisory council also shared the final results of a community survey asking about the lights that ran from March 23 through April 19. Out of 893 respondents, a majority, 570, supported the lights.
The survey also showed 179 people who live within two blocks of the park oppose the proposal, according to Skalko.
The leaders of the North Center and the Lincoln Square Ravenswood chambers of commerce previously told Block Club their membership is in support of the lights because it would bring more foot traffic to the area.
Brent M. Webb, commander for the American Legion: Tattler Post 973 at 4355 N. Western Ave., also told Block Club its 205 members voted to unanimously support the initial light proposal. The Tattler Post would have also benefited from the increased foot traffic, according to Webb.
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