Skinner Park Field House next to the basketball courts. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

WEST LOOP — Local park advocates are battling to make city officials keep their promise to build a field house at Skinner Park without taking away valuable park space.

Skinner Park, 1331 W. Adams St., has shrunk over several decades even as neighbors have packed into the West Loop. Mayor after mayor has pledged to work with park leaders to build a new field house to serve the bustling neighborhood, but those pledges have never come to fruition.

Now, there is a plan for the field house, but it would have no pool as advocates requested and it would be built on top of the basketball courts, said May Toy, president of the Skinner Park Advisory Council.

The council launched a petition last month to save the park’s basketball courts, demanding city officials commit to a field house with a pool. As of Aug. 16 the petition has collected over 1,500 signatures.

“Why do we need to choose between basketball courts, a pool and a field house?” Toy said.

Meanwhile, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) has accused Toy of holding up the project as critical tax-increment finance dollars needed for construction are set to expire. Burnett wants to compromise so the field house in some form can become reality, he said.

“Before I allow us to lose the TIF and not be able to afford to do anything, I’d rather proceed with possibly building that large field house without a swimming pool,” Burnett said.

The current field house at Skinner Park. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

Skinner Park, one of the oldest parks in Chicago, is 5.4 acres and serves about 9,500 people.

In 1975, the park spanned from Throop to Laflin streets and between Adams and Monroe streets. In 1995, the park was cut in half and the land west of Loomis Street was given to Whitney Young High School, where a new outdoor athletic facility sits today.

West Loop has exploded around Skinner and Mary Bartelme Park about a half-mile away. The increasingly dense residential area — the 60607 ZIP code nearly doubled from 2000 to 2022 — strains the smaller footprint of the park and its resources, advocates said.

The current field house, built in 1955, is 750 square feet with public bathrooms, a lobby, and one small community club room. Neither the building nor the bathrooms are ADA accessible, Toy said.

Toy wants a field house with a pool to serve the growing number of seniors and kids in the neighborhood. An indoor pool was the top amenity requested by residents in a 2017 park advisory council survey.

The Skinner Park Advisory Council has launched a petition to save its basketball courts from being built over. Credit: Melody Mercado/Block Club Chicago

The administrations of Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot all have promised to work with her on the project, but every mayor kicked the can down the road, Toy said.

In 2017, Toy met with the Emanuel administration and proposed building the field house on the parking lot of the police academy located across the street at 1300 W. Jackson St., Toy said. The police academy was set to be replaced by a new facility which opened earlier this year.

Toy met with the Lightfoot administration several times over the course of four years. In November 2022, Toy met with numerous members of Lightfoot’s team including former Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox and Chief of Staff Sybil Madison.

Toy thanked numerous city staff, including Cox and Madison, in an email Nov. 1 for meeting with her to discuss the needs for a new field house.

Toy said in the past Cox and Madison expressed support of the project in their meetings. Madison declined to comment to Block Club on the situation.

Fast forward to this year, Cox had continued to advocate for building its field house on the parking lot, Toy said.

Toy said she learned from Burnett that Brandon Johnson’s Chief of Staff Richard Guidice was unsupportive of the project since the new administration wanted to keep the land and possibly sell it because it’s valuable.

As a tradeoff, the city is pitching to build the new field house where the park’s basketball courts currently exist, but with no pool.

“I feel like the city is constantly working against us,” Toy said.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) at a City Council meeting at City Hall on June 21, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Burnett, who represents Skinner Park and also serves as vice mayor, confirmed to Block Club that city officials want to keep options open when it came to the “valuable” Jackson Street land.

A Department of Planning and Development spokesperson confirmed the department did several “test fits” for the field house, including on the parking lot of 1300 W. Jackson, but did not confirm if Cox supported the parking lot location.

“The test fits were conceptual. No determination on siting has been made,” the spokesperson said in an email Aug. 9. Cox resigned from the department on Aug. 11.

When asked about the field house in a press conference on Aug. 2, Johnson said no determination had been made on what to do with the property or land.

“Parks and recreation is a central part of my vision for the city of Chicago. And again, you know, having a whole community-led process for all of these decisions before anything is finalized, that is a commitment of my administration,” Johnson said.

There is $500,000 in local impact funds set aside for the development of a field house. The estimated project cost is $25 million. But so far, nothing has come to fruition since there is no finalized location.

Toy does not want the park to lose its outdoor basketball courts or have to compromise on not having an indoor pool.

Whitney Young High School has community-use hours for their pool, but Toy has argued the hours are not accessible as the pool is only open during the school year and open swim is only 45 minutes long during the week from 9-9:45 p.m and 4-4:45 p.m. on Saturdays.

The Central West tax-increment financing district, which would fund the project, expires next year, which would make that money unavailable. Burnett believes state legislators will not extend the timeline for the TIF district since the neighborhood no longer meets the definition of “blighted.”

At the end of 2022, the Central West TIF had a balance of $78 million, citing $1.6 million in expenditures, according to city documents. The TIF has been in place since 2000.

“It’s gonna be challenging to get the city to allow us to use that police academy land for a field house when they may need the money for budgets in the future,” Burnett said.

With no other available land nearby, that leaves Skinner Park with just one option. But it will leave residents with a solution they don’t want, Toy said.

“You need to be brave enough and come to our community and say it to our face. … Why you are screwing us over,” Toy said.

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