With District 65 set to pave over the tennis and basketball courts next to Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center for a Fifth Ward school parking lot, and the city now mandated to replace that recreational space due to state grant requirements, a potential solution has emerged.
Unrelated to the Fifth Ward school project, Evanston recently acquired a parcel of land along the old Mayfair Railroad line between Evanston Township High School and Mason Park in the Second Ward, according to City Engineer Lara Biggs.
City staff and elected officials were already intending to use that land for a public park area, which could count toward the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ requirement for Evanston to replace the lost park space next to Fleetwood-Jourdain with a new site “of an equal or greater value.”
“We do have a pathway forward that could work out, and has a better than 50-50 chance of working out, that would not require the city to spend, necessarily, more money than it’s already planning to spend on park improvements,” Biggs told City Council representatives at Monday’s Administration and Public Works Committee meeting. “But if that does not work out … then the City Council will still be on the hook. And if this does not work out, plan B is going to be a significant financial investment.”
Based on their meetings with District 65 officials, Biggs and Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns said the district decided to use the court area for a parking lot so that a turf athletic field could be built on the remaining Foster Field space not taken up by the school building itself.
The district also intends to relocate the basketball court, but not the tennis courts, to a different part of the campus, according to Burns and Biggs.
The original designs for the Fifth Ward school site included a parking lot in the middle of the existing Foster Field, the courts left unchanged and “almost no green space,” Biggs told the RoundTable on Tuesday. In gathering feedback from families and neighbors, District 65 determined “that maintaining a green space is very important,” she said.
“Our plans are to maintain and improve this outdoor space for both district and community use rather than eliminating it for parking,” District 65 spokesperson Melissa Messinger said in a statement to the RoundTable. “It’s also important to note that based on our current site plans, the Fifth Ward Campus will have an on-site basketball court, essentially replacing the existing one. This will be in addition to the outdoor practice field and two age-appropriate playgrounds.”
When asked by Eighth Ward Council Member Devon Reid what might happen if the city simply chooses not to comply with the grant requirements, Biggs responded that the state’s natural resources department provides about $400,000 for Evanston park improvements every two or three years, which the city would likely lose in the future because of a failure to meet contract demands.
Biggs has not yet had conversations with school district staff about the impact of a leadership transition as Superintendent Devon Horton gears up for a potential move to a new job in Georgia, she said, adding that District 65 is focused “on building the Fifth Ward school, and not worrying about the legal obligation for this grant requirement.”
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th Ward) said he wanted to see better communication between city and District 65 staff, and he expressed disappointment about a lack of advance warning about the issue with park space.
“I just do not like being forced into a position where we have no choice but to take a certain vote,” Nieuwsma said. “If we’re doing the right thing for the community, we should approve this, but we have no choice, and that’s what I’m not feeling comfortable about.”
For his part, Burns told Nieuwsma that he feels communication between the city and district has been strong and consistent, and a change in plans is something both entities have to be prepared for in a project as complicated as this new school campus. He also invited Nieuwsma to attend future meetings involving city and district staff.
“District 65 is responding to community input by coming up with a solution to preserve the play field,” Burns said. “Registering concerns makes sense. I just don’t think it’s fair to put this on District 65. This is just a collaborative effort trying to come up with the best solution we can.”
In addition to finding new park space, I encourage consideration of pickle ball courts, the fasting growing sport in the nation, at that same location. Tennis courts and pickle ball courts can be designed to be used interchangeably.
(I am an equal supportor of SEPARATELY located tennis back boards for children, space allowing) so as not to throw kids off the courts (and on to the streets!) when the adults arrive for their racket games.