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Community surveys, input from stakeholders, and site visits by consultants all taken last fall agree: Evanston’s parks, open spaces and recreation areas are only slightly above average. Landscape architect and planner Sarah White, Vice President of the consulting firm The Lakota Group, presented findings and recommendations at the Nov. 28, 2016, City Council meeting.
The overall C+ rating was for the open spaces and facilities, City Parks/Recreation and Community Services Director Lawrence Hemingway told the Council. Such “facilities” are the paths, playground equipment, restrooms, drinking fountains, and the like. Although the City’s capital improvement budget includes funds for parks maintenance and improvement each year, overall funding for capital projects has been tight for several years.
Evanston’s 89 parks and open spaces include parks operated by the City of Evanston, Ridgeville Park District, and Lighthouse Landing, the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s Perkins Woods, and the playgrounds of District 65 schools.
Last year, the City distributed and posted online a survey in both English and Spanish to ascertain how the community felt about its parks and open spaces. The City reports that 1,859 people responded to the community survey; of those, 1,349 were complete responses and 510 were partial responses.
The results of the survey showed that amenities to open-spaces that were ranked most important were restroom facilities (32%), paths and walkways (31%), playgrounds (35%), and athletic fields (baseball, soccer, etc.) (35%). Features that were ranked as “highly needed” were beaches (78%); walking, running, and biking paths (79%); natural areas and habitats (59%); playgrounds (59%), and athletic fields (53%). Forty-six percent cited the need for one or more swimming pools.
The open spaces where the community’s needs were best met, according to the survey, were tennis courts, playgrounds, and beach offerings. Community needs are not met, the survey found, in the area of swimming pools, off-leash dog areas, outdoor ice rinks, and soccer/multi-purpose fields.
At parks, the survey found, 57% of respondents cited a need for improved restroom facilities and 39% of respondents cited a need for improved athletic fields. Among the improvements needed for athletic fields and courts were cleanliness and maintenance, lighting, landscaping, and drinking fountains.
Improved restroom facilities were also cited as needs at the beaches. Other aspects of beach areas cited for needing improvement were the cost of access and tokens, the beach policies and rules, showers and rinse areas in the restrooms, cleanliness and maintenance, and the size of the beach and swimming areas.
Lakota Group Findings
The Lakota Group evaluated 112 public open spaces, including athletic fields and courts, beaches, drinking fountains, parking lots, paths and trails, playgrounds, restrooms, seating areas, and passive green spaces such as community gardens, school gardens, and the bird sanctuary in Ladd Arboretum. The team analyzed each open space feature in terms of availability to public; quality and functionality of equipment functionality, quality of amenities, quality of surface, and cleanliness and safety.
Features: The team found that only three of 11 features received a B, or “good” rating, the others scored only average overall, and no single feature class received an “excellent,” or A rating. The lowest scores, C-, were for athletic fields and restrooms. Restrooms, they found, suffered mainly from deterioration, and athletic fields from deficiencies in fencing, seating, and surfacing.
Open Space: The majority of open spaces – 52% – received a rating of “Good” or higher, the team found, with an overall system score of a C+, or “fair.” Wards 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 contain an “A-level” open space, but the team found a “cluster of low-ranking parks at the northeast side of the City.” Open-space features receiving high marks are the athletic field at King Arts School, the green space at Lincolnwood School, the athletic court and the drinking fountain at Baker Park, and Lee Street Beach. A map of parks coded by individual park score can be found on the City’s website, cityofevanston.org, in the open space scorecard report in the City Council packet for Nov. 28.
The fact that so many of the facilities are in need of maintenance and repair indicates that they are being used, and the Lakota Groups said the City and the other entities that manage open spaces here “should be proud of their open-space system.” They also said, “There is much work to be done” and recommended two approaches: making improvements to the areas that received a rank of C or lower, and working with the other entities – the park districts, school District 65, etc. – to address system-wide issues.
Among their recommendations were having consistent signage with rules and open hours posted clearly; improving drinking fountains and installing diaper-changing stations in restrooms, as well as making cosmetic improvements there such as painting and patching ceilings, walls, and windows.
After Ms. White’s presentation, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl asked, “Do you have price tags?”
“No,” Ms. White replied. “That was not part of our scope of work.”
Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, said, “As for next steps, I would ask you to go backs to the Parks and Recreation Board and come back to us with a plan of what we can do – in not just the next six months, but next year. We need to be having this conversation over the next year to figure out what the priorities are for next year’s budget.”
Mr. Hemingway said the report and recommendations comprise “one tool that I can use, along with staff and City management, in terms of prioritizing our capital needs in our park system.
“We got a C+. None of us is, I’m sure, happy with a C+. … Our athletic fields are maxed out from the usages, but they also have not been invested in, so we have to make a priority as a department, as a Council, as a City.”
Staff can look at the problem as one of individual parks, as one for amenities, or as a combination, Mr. Hemingway said. “It really is going to depend on guidance from the Parks and Recreation Board and from user groups, so we can put that plan together to try to put realistic numbers so that we can start to move the needle and improve our system,” he said.
Ald. Miller suggested that Mr. Hemingway return to Council with both options – for system-wide amenities and the individual parks.
No other Council members spoke, and the aldermen accepted the report.
The 2017 budget contains an allocation of $4.9 million for pond rehabilitation at Lovelace Park, renovations to Fountain Square, reconstruction of the south pier at the Church Street harbor, improvements to the north baseball field at James Park. Funding for the renovation/reconstruction of Penny Park, expected to be completed this year, was allocated in prior years and carried over until the project was bid.
The capital improvement policy in the current budget says the City will “rehabilitate parks through periodic replacement of pavement, athletic fields and courts, equipment, site furnishings, infrastructure, and landscaping; undertake improvements to enhance and protect the lakefront park system; maintain Evanston’s community recreational facilities to the high standard expected; and bring play equipment into compliance with CPSC/ASTM safety guidelines and ADA requirements.”
The City’s capital improvement plan is a rolling five-year plan. In addition, to reduce the amount of debt, the City now pays for many smaller capital projects through its operating budget rather than issuing bonds to pay for the projects.
The capital improvement policy in the current budget says the City “will maintain all of its physical assets at a level adequate to protect the City’s capital investment and to minimize future maintenance and replacement costs.” The policy also says long-term borrowing will not be used to finance current operations or normal maintenance and that bonds issues for capital projects may not exceed the expected life of the project – in other words, the City will not issue, for example, 20-year bonds to finance a project with a shorter life expectancy.
Using 2016 data for its projections, The Lakota Group offered some demographic predictions about the City, saying the 2016 population of 76,991 is likely to increase to 78,495 individuals in 2021. The number of household is expected to increase from the 2016 level of 31,236 to 31,953.
Other projections for 2021 include the following:
Age: growth in the 25-44 and the 66+ age segments.
Race and Ethnicity: decrease in the White Alone (64%, down from 65%) and Black Alone (15%, down from 18%) populations; increases in the Asian Alone (12%, up from 8.6%) and Hispanic/Latino (12%, up from 9%) populations.