Something was missing from Tuesday night’s public meeting at Chandler-Newberger Community Center, where dozens of Seventh Ward residents talked about ideas for an upcoming renovation to Independence Park.
Many of the surefire signs that an Evanston city meeting was in session – back-and-forth arguments among attendees, complaints about not having enough time to talk or too much time to talk – were conspicuously gone.
Instead of the typical presentation from the city and the designers followed by a question and answer session, Tuesday’s community meeting was an open house, where anyone could drop in between 6 and 8 p.m., write their feedback on sticky notes and put those notes on a number of posters featuring questions for community members.
“We did this recently on another project. We had a meeting on the lakefront in November, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to do this more often,’ because it equalizes the whole experience for people,” said Stefanie Levine, a senior project manager for the city. “We did another project, and we got some folks really hung up on one issue. And they just wouldn’t let it go. We never would hear from everybody. Some people aren’t comfortable standing up and speaking up in front of a big group. You don’t have to worry about that here.”
Independence Park lies in the city’s Seventh Ward north of Central Street and south of Livingston Street. The park was last updated in 1994, and it is “now exhibiting significant deterioration, lack of compliance with ADA code, and a lack of conformance with current playground safety standards,” according to the city’s website on the upcoming renovations.
In 2022, City Council hired MKSK, an urban design and landscape architecture firm, to design the new vision for the park for just under $100,000. The city also preliminarily budgeted $900,000 for the construction process itself. Tuesday’s meeting provided the first chance for residents to offer their personal preferences for the outcome of the project.
Many residents said they already liked the picnic tables and lights in the park, which were set up by Central Street Evanston, a group supporting the Central Street business district. But the park still does not have electrical wiring for permanent lighting or its own public bathrooms, and the walkways and playground are not compliant with modern accessibility standards.
“A lot of the paths around the perimeter are concrete, and they’re ADA accessible because they have concrete, so a hard surface,” said Brett Weidl, a principal designer with MKSK. “A lot of these pathways on the interior, I believe they’re all mostly gravel. That’s not as accessible, and they’re not a standardized width. Usually, you need a certain width to allow for the accommodation of wheelchairs and people passing.”
The surface of the playground is also comprised of woodchips, rather than a more updated and forgiving ground like the spongy, “pour-it-in” rubber that you might see outside schools nowadays, Weidl said.
One of the coolest benefits of the open-house style session, residents said, was the fact that kids who use the playground and the park almost every day were able to provide their own direct feedback and insights on what they want to see from the project. Many of them said they wanted more interesting or updated playground equipment that would also be useful for older kids, as well.
Many people wrote on their sticky notes that they wanted public bathrooms at the park, especially because families have started to eat takeout from Central Street restaurants in the park more and more often during the pandemic. Others mentioned things like a safer path across Central Street to establish a better connection between the park and the restaurants and stores nearby.
Some of the more innovative ideas mentioned included a splash pad for kids to play in water, and a permanent structure to host outdoor concerts or events in the summer. Last year, Central Street Evanston tried a “takeout picnic” event for the first time, where hundreds of people came out with food picked up from local restaurants to enjoy an evening of music, art and family.
“People brought their food to the park, and we were able to obtain a very temporary permit for people to drink wine in the park,” said Angela Shaffer, executive director of Central Street Evanston. “And we hired a professional group of singers. We really went all out. It was the first time that we had the festoon lights, so nobody knew they were up. It was huge and great, and we had maybe 300 or 400 people who came.”
Weidl and the MKSK team will use the feedback from Tuesday’s meeting to design several draft concepts for the park renovations, which will be presented at a second community meeting in March. A third meeting in the late spring or summer will give residents the chance to review a finalized design, and construction is expected to take place from late 2023 through the fall of 2024.