After pushback from Little Village, Lawndale, Park District OKs changes to permit process for big events

Community members united to demand that big music festivals leave Douglass Park, which links Little Village and Lawndale.

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A resident holds up a sign at a news conference in September expressing opposition to big concerts at Douglass Park.

A resident holds up a sign at a news conference in September expressing opposition to big concerts at Douglass Park.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

After months of pushback from community members concerned about megafestivals taking over a neighborhood park, the Chicago Park District is implementing changes to the permitting process.

Events with 10,000 or more attendees per day will now be required to receive approval from the district’s Board of Commissioners before the permit is issued, according to the Park District. The change, introduced in September and followed with a public comment period, is intended to add a layer of transparency to the permit process for large events, according to a news release from the Park District.

The change was passed unanimously during Wednesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting. Park District Board President Myetie Hamilton said during Wednesday’s meeting that the public submitted 52 comments about the changes, with about half in support of the amendment, according to a recording of the meeting.

Others told the board they would like the Park District to lower the 10,000-attendee threshold; some want the Park District to have a dedicated concert venue; and others raised concerns about added bureaucracy, Hamilton said as she summarized the comments during Wednesday’s meeting.

The changes come after community members in Little Village and Lawndale pushed back against how many large-scale music festivals were using Douglass Park, which bridges the West Side communities. Residents estimated that they lose access to a portion of the park for more than 40 days during the summer because of the music festivals. Community members, who staged protests and their own music festival, called for artists to drop out of Riot Fest.

Douglass Park Riot Fest

Festivalgoers walk by Graffiti that reads “NO RIOT FEST IN OUR PARK” along the fence that encloses a portion of Douglass Park for Riot Fest, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

The Park District said it already had made some changes to large events, requiring event organizers to have a community engagement plan. In a meeting in September, Park District General Supt. and CEO Rosa Escareño said it was not satisfied with the rollout of the community plans yet.

“The purpose of many of these events are really to bring opportunities of entertainment and engagement in communities. These communities often don’t have those opportunities,” Escareño said of the large-scale events in public parks. “So we want to make sure we are preserving that, and that we are enhancing that, but it is so critical to ensure that we are including community voice.”

Anton Adkins, who lives near Douglass Park and has spoken out before about the festivals, said he thinks the changes could be a step in the right direction. He said he wants to make sure the permit decisions include transparency, and he would like the Park District to prioritize the community over the profits a festival could generate.

“Some kind of way where — when the community gives their input, that there is actual value given to the words of community members and not just being a show,” Adkins said.

Karina Solano, a community organizer with Únete La Villita, said the community-based organization will be monitoring the implementation of the changes since there are doubts it will address their concerns. It continues to push for megafests like Riot Fest to leave Douglass Park permanently, she said.

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Thousands flock to Douglass Park for day one of Riot Fest, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

“It’s been a pattern where there’s been a whole lot of listening, and just listening in itself is not justice,” Solano said.

Some of the concerns include how the board will collect community input since many Little Village and Lawndale residents can’t submit feedback online, Solano said. Her organization also want limits on promoters donating to politicians, which could sway decisions, she said.

Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said the change shows progress in the Park District listening to the concerns of the community. But there are questions about how much weight commissioners will give the community input they receive.

Irizarry said Friends of the Parks still is pushing for other solutions to address residents’ concerns, such as continuing talks about having a centralized location where the city could host large music festivals. Friends of the Parks also has been brainstorming what a community benefits agreement would look like for communities that host megafestivals, she said.

“There might be times when having a particular festival in a particular park might not be a bad thing under the right conditions,” she said. “How could there be a real conversation between Park District, the community and the promoter and the alderman, or whoever else needs to be in that conversation?”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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