CHICAGO — Community groups who have fought for decades for the completion of DuSable Park say they want their voices heard as Mayor Lori Lightfoot moves forward with her $40 million plan to honor Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.
Lightfoot announced her plan in late May as a counteroffer to aldermen who were on the verge of renaming Lake Shore Drive after the city’s first non-indigenous Black founder — which the mayor opposed — but members of a coalition focused on the park say they weren’t consulted by the mayor’s team.
The $40 million package includes $30 million in funding from the city and $10 million from developer Related Midwest, which committed the funds in 2020, toward the construction of DuSable Park, a 3.3-acre plot of land owned by the Chicago Park District to the east of the Related’s two-tower development at the former Chicago Spire site.
But members of Friends of the Park, the DuSable Park Advisory Council and the DuSable Heritage Association — all part of a larger coalition of park and DuSable advocates — told Block Club they are fearful the park’s completion is held captive to the whims of the luxury real estate market, further clouded by financial uncertainty related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Related Midwest, which has several large projects throughout Chicago, received necessary zoning approval for their project last year but has yet to break ground at the site.
Lightfoot initially opposed the renaming of outer Lake Shore Drive, but last week forged a compromise with Ald. David Moore (17th) and supporters of his ordinance to rename the coastal highway Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive. The City Council approved the renaming in a 33-15 vote Friday.
Monday, Lightfoot said she was still committed to her alternative plan, portions of which she expects the City Council to vote on by September.
“I really do believe it’s very important not just to have a name out there, we’ve got to teach our residents, and particularly our young people, about the history of Chicago,” she said Monday at an unrelated event. “And it’s way past time that people understood the importance of DuSable to this city’s founding.”
The plan includes finally completing DuSable Park, which has been in the works since 1987 when former Mayor Harold Washington gave the land to the Chicago Park District to develop a park in DuSable’s honor.
The plan Lightfoot announced in May called for renaming the Riverwalk after DuSable, placing a large monument to DuSable and his wife Kitihawa where the Chicago River’s three branches intersect, putting another memorial on Michigan Ave. near DuSable’s former homestead and creating an annual DuSable Festival to teach the history of his life and times to Chicagoans and tourists.
All of that sounds familiar to those who’ve been pushing the city to complete the park and establish a “founder’s trail” connecting the park to the Riverwalk. Already, there is a festival every summer to mark DuSable’s death.
Lightfoot “is making the plan her own,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Park, which has advised the Friends of DuSable Park coalition.
“But, we do think that in the midst of these negotiations that have been going on about how to honor DuSable, the many coalition members who’ve been carrying this message for 30 years ought to be part of the conversation,” she said.
Having Chicago’s mayor adopt the groups’ goals is “not a terrible thing,” Irizarry conceded.
“This is how you get things done in Chicago,” she said. “Either you win oppositionally or you get the leadership to buy into your thing and make it theirs. We just want the park to be done.”
Serge JC Pierre-Louis, the founder and former president of the DuSable Heritage Association, first became involved in the push to complete the park around 2000, he said.
At the time, Pierre-Louis signed up to support the park district’s creation of DuSable Harbor. It was then he learned Washington had previously designated land to erect a park in DuSable’s honor.
He said his group was consulted for the Chicago Monuments Project, but it was “disappointing” the mayor did not reach out “directly” to advocates who have “been there for a very long time pushing this agenda” when crafting her DuSable proposal.
He urged Lightfoot to separate the park’s completion from the Related Midwest development, saying it’s “disrespectful to wait on the real estate cycles.”
If the mayor doesn’t prioritize funding to complete the park now, “it might sit there for another 10 to 12 years,” he said.
In response to questions, the mayor’s office said in an email that the “city has engaged with a number of community groups and stakeholders at each stage of this project,” but incorrectly identified Pierre-Louis’ group as “The Heritage Group.”
“The Heritage Group—which includes members of Friends of DuSable, (Friends of the Park) and (Streeterville Organization of Active Residents), among others. It is important to note that there are several existing voices advocating for DuSable and how he is honored in Chicago, and the City is committed to continuing the engagement process,” the statement said.
Although Related Midwest committed $10 million to the park, the deal allows the company to use the site as a construction staging area as it builds the first of two towers they plan to build west of the park, across Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive.
Paul Montes, president of the DuSable Park Advisory Council — recognized by the park district as advisors and caretakers for the park’s creation and future — agreed that the park shouldn’t be “tethered” to the nearby development.
If the Related Midwest project doesn’t move forward, Montes is worried the coalition will again be left in the dust.
“That’s been the problem all of these years,” he said. “It was tied to the (Chicago Spire) and the Spire didn’t go forward. If we’re tied to the development of 400 N. Lake Shore Drive and it doesn’t happen, that means we don’t have a park, regardless of what the pledges are, regardless of what the promises are.”
Over the last decade the park district, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, remediated the soil of thorium, a radioactive material used by the Lindsay Light Company to make gaslights at the site until the 1930s.
On Tuesday, park district spokeswoman Michele Lemons said “the Chicago Park District is committed to working with Related Midwest to complete the development of both projects.”
“The Chicago Park District is currently preparing to release the (request for proposal) for design and engineering services for DuSable Park. The Park District anticipates that a design team will be selected this year,” she said.
The work at the park, including repairing the revetment surrounding the land, has made the land “shovel ready,” said Montes.
Last September, the City Council approved $5 million in funding toward the planning and design of the park, but is relying on the $10 million from Related Midwest to cover construction.
On Tuesday, the mayor’s office said the $40 million investment includes the previously committed $10 million from Related Midwest and $5 million the City Council approved last year, taken from Open Space Impact Fees.
“The remaining $25 million will cover the development of new public art projects and programs,” the mayor’s office said.
The mayor’s office did not say whether DuSable Park would still be funded if Related Midwest’s development falls apart.
A spokesperson for Related Midwest said: “DuSable Park is a jewel on our urban lakefront and we hope it will be a gathering place for the entire community.
“Related Midwest is committed to working with the Mayor’s Office and the Chicago Park District to build DuSable Park and honor the legacy of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Chicago’s founding father.”
Montes says he “can’t be at rest” until he sees “sufficient funds” committed to the park by the city, “not funds being pledged by a developer.”
“Without those funds, this could go around in a circle again, nothing happens for the next 10, 20, 30 years again, for a park that was dedicated more than 30 years ago and still hasn’t been built,” he said. “Why is it DuSable’s Park that hasn’t been built?”
The only mention of the community groups in the mayor’s May statement touting her plan is that the creation of an annual DuSable festival “would allow the City to expand and support existing community-based events that take place every August on the anniversary of his death.”
Irizarry said “we’ll be happy for the city to maximize that and make it a big public festival that we don’t have to do anymore.”
The coalition’s 2021 commemoration will take place August 21 and include both in-person and virtual programming, although final details are still in the works.
Pierre-Louis said he’s hopeful the park finally will be built because of the renewed interest in DuSable and the current climate of change in the country.
“I can see people in America having a conversation openly about topics that have been taboo and very painful to talk about: systemic racism and what Black people are going through in their relationship with the police, economic opportunities that are missing in some parts of the city,” he said. “That’s an important conversation, and I have a lot of hope that something very positive is going to come out of that, including the DuSable Park.”
The groups said they will continue to push the mayor to stay true to her commitment.
“We’re just hoping that these aren’t words in vain, that these are words that will have significant meaning and push behind them to see the actual development of the park,” Montes said.
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