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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Whitney Young’s Sports Complex Was Supposed To Be For The Public. But West Loop Neighbors Are Locked Out

The Michelle Obama Sports Complex was hailed as a facility for "everybody." But neighbors say leaders are restricting public access by locking its field during public hours and charging fees to use the tennis courts.

The Michelle Obama Sports Complex locked during public use hours Thursday, June 2.
Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
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WEST LOOP — A fee-based reservation system and padlocked facilities has residents questioning whether Whitney Young Magnet High School’s publicly funded fields and amenities at Skinner Park are really for the community.

The prestigious public high school unveiled its $4.3 million athletic complex in 2019, named after alumna and former first lady Michelle Obama. Funded completely with tax-increment financing, the state-of-the-art, multi-purpose field can host multiple types of sports, and the facility has a training area for track and field events, scoreboards, batting cages and more.

During its unveiling, the complex was hailed as a facility for “everybody.” While students would have priority to the field, it was to be open to the public — with the exception of the turf field, which would require a permit, Principal Joyce Kenner previously said.

But in recent months, residents have complained about arriving to the field during its public-use hours only to find it padlocked, said May Toy, head of the Skinner Park Advisory Council.

“I don’t think that that the neighborhood should have to scale a 10-foot fence in order to use that track,” Toy said.

Whitney Young’s tennis courts also recently reopened after resurfacing made possible by a successful donation campaign, which included grant and community funding. Some in the community were surprised when the school unveiled a new fee-based reservation system, charging $15 per hour to use the courts.

This isn’t what the school agreed to, said Toy, who had previously negotiated with Kenner that “at least half of those tennis courts would remain open for community use without a fee.”

Kenner was not immediately available to comment. Athletic Director Chris Cassidy did not return calls.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
The Michelle Obama Sports Complex locked during public hours on Thursday, June 9.

Toy has enlisted the help of Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), who said he’s been in contact with Chicago Public Schools to resolve the issue.

Burnett, who supported the addition of the Michelle Obama Sports Complex to the neighborhood, said he did not support the limited access and fees Toy has described.

“Everybody is on the hustle because of budget constraints, which is understandable, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of people in the community,” Burnett said. “Public space, public park, public money, we want to make sure that everybody gets a fair share of what’s available.”

A Chicago Public Schools spokesperson said in a statement the district is “committed to creating safe and welcoming school environments.”

“The district is looking into these allegations and complaints and will work to remedy any conflicts,” CPS officials said.

‘Every Time I Would Call The Answer Was Always No’

Milos Bajic has run the West Loop Soccer Club since 2015 to provide a fun, competitive youth soccer program at an affordable price. The club practices at Skinner Park and hosts summer camps and competitive leagues for kids.

When Bajic learned of the turf fields being built at Whitney Young, he reached out to school officials to see if he would be able access them, but he got no concrete response, he said. When the fields opened, he tried several times to secure a permit, but he was consistently told the fields weren’t available during the day, he said. The times that were offered were 8 p.m. or later, much too late for a kids soccer camp, Bajic said.

So, the club continues to practice and play at Skinner Park while Bajic watches other groups use the field he’s been trying to access since 2019.

“Every time I would call, the answer was always ‘no,’ but then we see on those days somebody else [using them], and it’s like, how can this happen?” Bajic said. “It’s not like we wouldn’t pay.”

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
Whitney Young unveiled it’s newly resurfaced tennis courts recently and with it a fee-based reservation system. Previously the courts were free.

Darshan Desai, who lives near Skinner Park, said Whitney Young leaders need to work more closely with the community.

As an avid tennis player, Desai donated $200 to the school’s campaign to resurface its tennis courts. Desai thought he could contribute to the cause as someone who would want to use the renovated courts, not knowing that access would change after they reopened.

“I think a lot of people would agree that, at least with the tennis courts and maybe some other things, that … it was very clear that updates were going out as a FYI,” Desai said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen any response to a question a resident has asked. Whatever they wanted to communicate … it’s been one-way.”

Desai said he doesn’t oppose a fee structure because it helps with better management of the courts, but he does think the price is a little steep compared to other facilities. For example, at XS Tennis, a facility on the South Side, Desai pays $16 an hour for its courts.

“I fully acknowledge that I’m going to be willing to spend more than maybe the average person when it comes to tennis because it’s my passion,” Desai said. “But if I had to put a number out there, I thought, probably $10 an hour. So $5 a person is a little bit more reasonable.”

School officials did not respond to questions asking why they decided to implement a fee-based reservation system.

Reservations for the tennis courts are only available during evenings on weekdays and all day on weekends. That availability should expand since the courts often go unused during the day, Desai said.

Desai said he reached out to the school to ask about expanding the court’s availability. Officials told him availability might expand this summer — if the courts are not already reserved by other camps and events, he said.

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