Hanson Stadium in Belmont Cragin on June 10, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

BELMONT CRAGIN — Residents are pushing back on a proposal to build a Chicago Fire training facility at Hanson Park, saying the scope of the project would clog traffic on nearby streets and swallow a huge chunk of public land.

The soccer team’s $90 million, three-story performance center would include seven fields at Hanson Park — bounded by Central, Grand, Fullerton and Long avenues — and relocate the front offices to the facility.

Nearly 200 neighbors joined a virtual meeting Thursday with Fire officials and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) to discuss the proposal.

The Hanson Park property is owned by Chicago Public Schools and the facility would neighbor Hanson Park Elementary, Prosser Career Academy and Prieto Math & Science Academy. Amanda Gallegos, a teacher and coach at Hanson Park, said students use two of the fields included in the footprint of the Fire facility for gym, recess, practices and games. She asked team officials to make a written commitment that kids would not lose access to those fields during and after school.

“We have four gym classes at once and one small gym, we need the use of this outdoor space […],” Gallegos wrote in the meeting’s chat.

Rendering of what the renovated campus at Hanson Park could look like. Credit: Provided.

Paul Cadwell, the team’s Senior Vice President of Community Programs, Engagement & Facilities, said they have met with the district several times to figure out a lease agreement for the land. The current negotiations would allow CPS students access to all but three grass fields dedicated to Chicago Fire players during the school day, Cadwell said.

The team would also offer access to the park for events like graduations, farmers markets, local youth sports, music festivals and CPS sporting events, Cadwell said. But because negotiations are ongoing, Cadwell could not answer questions about how the public could reserve access to the site for those types of events if the plan moves forward.

Aubrey Perlee, who teaches at Prieto, relayed a comments and questions from 6th-grade students who said this is potentially another scenario of neighborhood park space disappearing. In January, the Chicago Park District agreed to lease part of Riis Park to CPS to build a new elementary school.

“First, we’re losing Riis Park to the new school. Now you’re taking away the green space by our school. Where are we supposed to play? Where do we walk our dogs? What are kids going to do for exercise when school isn’t in session?” Perlee wrote in the meeting chat.

Other neighbors said they worry about parking and traffic. The plan would have 220 Chicago Fire employees heading to the facility. Even though the 625 planned parking spots exceeds the city’s minimum requirement, neighbors said it will exacerbate problems on Grand and Fullerton avenues.

A rendering of Hanson Field with the seasonal dome that would be installed during the colder months and removed when warmer weather returns. Credit: Provided.

Billionaire investor Joe Mansueto bought the team in 2019, moved games back to Soldier Field from Bridgeview, and shifted the front offices to the Loop. The plan to build in the working-class Latino neighborhood of Belmont Cragin is part of Mansueto’s plan to keep the team’s operations in the city limits. 

Cadwell said the team has gotten to know the neighborhood through its foundation’s community programing. They’ve worked with area schools for nearly a decade and seen how passionate the neighborhood is about soccer.

“The neighborhood has one of largest populations of school-aged children anywhere the city. Over 130,000 school aged children living within a three mile radius of this campus,” Cadwell said. “We need to create a fan base that see Chicago Fire Football Club as its club of choice. And we want to identify players that can play for our club.”

The project would be privately funded and not use any city money to build, Cadwell said.

The team would continue to play home games at Soldier Field, and fans wouldn’t have unfettered access to the facility. Organization leaders also plan to rehab the 2,000-seat Hanson Stadium at 5501 W. Fullerton Ave., which has deteriorated in recent years. 

“This project will generate much needed revenue for the city and economic development along the corridor,” Villegas said. 

Because of the project’s large scale, Mansueto and his organization need several layers of City Council approval, so there’s no timeline set for construction.

Thursday’s meeting was beset with technical difficulties.

At first, Villegas’ office did not use a pro-Zoom account, capping attendance at 100 people. When people started messaging the alderman and his staff that they could not access the meeting, Villegas asked Cadwell to stop speaking so they could upgrade the Zoom account and resume the meeting later in the evening. 

Then at least one attendee started drawing on the slides during Cadwell’s presentation because Villegas and his staff didn’t lock the screen. This person started writing “Stop Gent” before staffers changed the settings.

Cadwell and Villegas said they plan to keep meeting with neighbors before the formal proposal is submitted to the city. Villegas also asked neighbors to submit feedback on the proposal by calling his office at 773-745-4636 or via email at Ward36@gmail.com.

To watch a video of Thursday’s presentation click here.

Someone started writing “Stop Gent” before the ward staff and a presenter from the Chicago Fire figured out how to stop people from writing on the screen. Credit: Screen Capture.

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Lincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park reporterrnrnalex@blockclubchi.orgnnLincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park reporterrnrnalex@blockclubchi.org Twitter @avhndz