Penny Park in the city’s Second Ward is shown in this file photo.

Before eventually deciding to keep the opening and closing times for city parks, Evanston Parks and Recreation Board members discussed several reasons not to adopt a proposal to end park closure times.

Members of the City Council’s Human Services Committee voted 3-2 on May 2 against sending Eighth Ward Council Member Devon Reid’s referral to the board for further consideration.

Reid’s proposal called for eliminating a city ordinance provision in “Park Hours of Operation” that makes it unlawful to be in the park beyond posted hours for any reason. The ordinance apparently covers all public parks within the city – those owned and operated by the City of Evanston, the Ridgeville Park District and the Lighthouse Landing Park District.

Currently, Evanston’s park hours are 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. April through October and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. November through March.

Similar to other proposals Reid has made since being elected last year, he said this was meant to address criminalization of noncriminal activities.

“This is simply to end the criminalization or end the fact that [police] will be allowed to arrest someone in a park for being in a park after 11 o’clock. For me, I think this is a quality-of-life [issue],” Reid told committee members.

“You know, we often get out of council [meetings] at midnight,” said Reid. “If one of us wanted to take a second and walk into Ingraham Park [behind the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., where city meetings are held], and decompress because we had a tough meeting, I don’t think that should be illegal.

“If someone works at Target or Food 4 Less – or pick any business – and they get off late … and would like to decompress peacefully at a park, I think they should have a right to do that.” 

Park board’s reasons for keeping closure times

Parks and recreation board members raised a number of objections to Reid’s idea, and Audrey Thompson, the city’s new Parks and Recreation Director, wrote a memo outlining the objections:

  • There is no precedent of any other municipality or park district not having park closing hours;
  • There is no compelling reason to have 24/7 open park hours;
  • Parks and green spaces need time to rest to recover properly;
  • There would be an increase in patrolling the parks if there were no park hours;
  • The homeless population may migrate to the parks;
  • There is a major concern with unauthorized usage of the park during overnight hours;
  • People would congregate in the parks near neighboring houses;
  • The noise being made in the parks would disturb surrounding neighbors.

In her memo to the committee, Thompson also reported that police made 12 arrests in 2019, 10 arrests in 2020, and two arrests in 2021 related to calls using the location code, “park/playground.”

They cited one person for a city ordinance violation, after issuing four citations in 2020 and four in 2019, she reported.

In discussion of the proposal, Council Member Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward in central Evanston includes Penny Park and Mason Park, said “I get a lot of complaints from my residents regarding the use of the park after certain hours.

“When lights are on, residents complain,” he said. “When there is noise and activity, residents complain.” 

The change might invite more homeless people to the parks, Braithwaite said, “which creates a whole other host of problems that I don’t think we’re ready to respond to.”

“This is something that definitely needs to be fleshed out a little bit more,” he told Reid, who is a first-term council member.

Council Member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, who was chairing the meeting, also was concerned. 

“I get a lot of calls about dozens and dozens of young people who congregate at Lighthouse Park [2611 Sheridan Rd.] in the summer months,” she said. “They joy-ride around the parking lot; they go down to the dunes and build bonfires. I think people will be really distressed to think that we might lighten on making sure our parks are closed at 11 p.m.” 

Reid said he’s fighting criminalization

But Reid said his proposal does not negate enforcement of the existing city ordinances.

“Whatever the rules are, I don’t think you’re allowed to just go down to the beach and create a fire,” he said.

He pointed to other parks, including some of the country’s national parks, which are open 24 hours. The city of Paris, “which is known for having very restrictive access to their parks,” (about five years ago) changed ordinances to allow parks to remain open at night, he said.

Legally, “I think there’s a strong case to say that there may be a violation of rights for unnecessarily restricting access to a public space,” he said.

A quick search of federal case law on park hours showed that, when challenged, federal courts have upheld the right of city and federal parks to restrict hours for “reasonable maintenance and upkeep.”

“I think we can make it very clear in our ordinance that encampments are not allowed in our parks,” Reid said, stipulating, “you can’t build structures (or encampments) in our parks.”   

As for “folks congregating and noise being made in the parks, we will still have noise ordinances that will still need to be enforced,” Reid said. “If we’re just talking about someone who is in their 20s, for example, and they’re in the park, if they’re not doing anything that’s disruptive, why do we need to move them along, and why do we need to criminalize?” 

But Thompson came back to the ordinance violations she cited in her memo.

“If you look at those reasons, most of the times there are other behaviors that are going on,” she told committee members.

“If you’re saying there is no consequence for being in the park after hours,” she said, addressing Reid, “then why would we have hours at the park?  If that’s the case, they’re open 24 hours a day and so there would be no consequence for being in the park.”

She said the thrust of the policy is working with people, not criminalizing.

Thompson used the analogy of a grocery store that closes at 10 p.m. “If it’s closed, it’s closed. And so even if [people are] in the grocery store and they’re not stealing, they shouldn’t be in the grocery store after hours.”

Reid responded that in a park, in contrast to a grocery store, there is nothing to steal.

“When it’s closed, there’s no liability,” he said.

Thompson held to her position: “Even if they’re not taking anything, when the grocery store is closed, they [store owners] still want to say, ‘Hey, it’s 10 o’clock, the grocery store is closed, move on.’ “

“If we’re in a park – if there is no rule about what time the park closes, then there is no reason for us to say ‘Move about,’ ” she argued.

Some parks “are very dark, and some of our parks do not have lighting,” she added. “There are parks that I wouldn’t want anyone to be in after hours when it gets really dark.“ But she stressed, “It’s just my recommendation, and [the] council, of course, has every right to change the rule.”

Committee members voted 3-2 against Reid’s motion that the proposal be sent back to the Parks and Recreation Board for further review.

Voting to return the proposal to the board were Reid and Bobby Burns, 5th Ward. Voting against were Braithwaite, Revelle and Juan Geracaris, 9th Ward.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.