Good luck trying to find a place to get up a softball or soccer game somewhere in the 760 acres the city wants to redevelop along the North Branch of the Chicago River. There is not a park in sight.
That needs to change, and in a significant way. The North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Plan, which goes before the Plan Commission Thursday, should include an upfront commitment for significant, usable open space.
Chicago has a history of being exceptionally good about setting aside open space for parks and sports fields. Visitors from other big cities have marveled for a century about Chicago’s many and sizable parks, ring of green boulevards and — thank you, Cook County — generous forest preserves. But as the city allows big new residential buildings to replace old factories as part of its plan to remake the aging North Branch industrial area, a full commitment to new parkland is not yet sufficiently part of the mix.
Local aldermen say the booming nearby neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Logan Square and Wicker Park already are “park-starved.” The North Branch modernization plan is an opportunity for the city to redress that imbalance by ensuring there is enough parkland for the new people who will be moving into the area, which runs 3.7 miles on a diagonal along the Chicago River between the Damen Avenue bridge and Kinzie Avenue.
Under the modernization plan, the city would ease rules that allow only industrial uses in the area. Instead, developers — who have been snapping up choice sites — will be allowed to add homes, stores and office buildings. Over the years, the city expects three times as many workers and several thousand new residents. Theu will all need open space to exercise, socialize and escape, if only for a moment, the pressure of urban congestion.
The modernization plan does say that at least 10 acres should be set aside for parks and envisions linear green space along the river. But Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry says an upfront guarantee is needed that parkland will in fact be set aside and that it will be contiguous so it can be used for recreational fields and not split up into a jumble of “little bitty green spaces in front of condos.”
It’s also crucial the open land be truly public and not green space under private control, she said.
Whatever happens along the North Branch will set a precedent as the city considers similar modernization for 25 other industrial areas around the city. This is an opportunity to ensure more areas of the city will become park rich.
Now’s the time to lock in and live up to Chicago’s official motto of urbs in horto — a city in a garden.