Pointing to the fact that there is no public park within walking distance of their neighborhood around Crain Street and Dewey, Darrow and Dodge avenues, Gay Riseborough and cohorts Adam Finlayson and Jennifer Goldstein have set out to turn a vacant lot on Darrow Avenue into a tot lot.
Having a public place for small children to play would be a benefit to the neighborhood, they say, adding it is one of the few areas of town without a nearby public park. At present, parents of young children must cross Dempster Street or other busy streets to reach a park.
The playground at Washington School becomes a public playground after school is closed for the day – as is the case with all public school playgrounds – but Ms. Riseborough and others say that playground is designed for school-age children, not for the infants and toddlers for whom the tot lot would be developed.
The group had hoped to jump-start their fundraising efforts with money from a neighborhood improvement fund that Joseph Freed company was requuired to establishe when it developed the shopping plaza at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue. Ms. Riseborough said the group approached the City to request money from the neighborhood funds and they were told by Morris Robinson, now retired from the Community Development Department, that there was $80,000 in the fund. The group was taken aback, she said, when they learned just a few weeks ago from Second Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste that there was no money in the fund.
“We were told repeatedly that the money was [in the neighborhood improvement fund], and we of the Grandmother Park Initiative did everything the City asked of us in order to win the neighborhood vote of approval for the $50,000 we requested,” Ms. Riseborough told the RoundTable. “There was supposedly $80,000 left in the fund for our neighborhood.”
Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons told the RoundTable that he knew in December that there was no money in the fund. He added, “I don’t know where the $80,000 figure came from.”
Nonetheless the group feels its plans are solid: turning the vacant lot where a house burned two years ago and this year was demolished into a neighborhood area.
Noah’s Playground for Everyone is one model for the Grandmother Park Initiative. The family and friends of Noah Cutter (a child born with disabilities who died very young) raised part of the money for the City to rehab the playground in Lawson Park (near the lighthouse) to be accessible for all children. Some members of the Noah’s Playground group are on the Grandmother Park committee.
The cost of the park, including purchase of the land, design and landscaping, and installation of the equipment is about $220,000, Ms. Riseborough said, all of which must be raised privately. After the park has been established, the group will give it to the City’s not-for-profit Evanston Parks Foundation, and the City will maintain it.
Meanwhile, says Mr. Lyons, the Grandmother Park group and the City are working with Open Lands, a not-for-profit group that acquires land for public use, to purchase property in the area. Paul D’Agostino, superintendent of Parks, Forestry for the City, told the RoundTable he and Doug Gaynor, director of Parks, Forestry, Recreation and Community Services for the City, had met with the Grandmother Park group and supported the concept. “We could not commit any funding at this point. There are 75 [existing] parks we have to maintain, but we’d like to help them where we can.”
Mr. Lyons also said the City is “trying to figure out how the land [acquisition] will work,” looking in particular to see whether grants might be available to help with the purchase of the property.
The group received some support, but no approval for funding, at the April Economic Development Committee meeting. Ms. Riseborough says they plan to return to EDC in May with representatives from Open Lands.