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Residents want to be heard on plans to demolish Clarendon Park Community Center

Clarendon Park Community Center

The Clarendon Park Community Center is projected to undergo renovations, but the community members are fighting to save the historic building from totoal demolition. | Emily McTavish/Sun-Times

Three years ago, Lara Dunbar was getting used to being a stay-at-home mother after working full-time as an office administrator downtown when she started walking around Clarendon Park.

Park staff, she said, were a welcome resource for children’s activities.

Dunbar, 34, now brings her children — Evan, 6, Alexander, 3, and 6-week old Russell — to Clarendon Park at least three times a week to play. Evan attends the after-school program Park Kids. He’s home-schooled, so Dunbar values the chance for him to socialize.

“He gets to not only spend time with kids his own age, but older kids,” Dunbar said.

But Evan and other children in that program could be displaced. Planned renovations to the park’s community center, 4501 N. Clarendon Ave., may disrupt Chicago Park District programs.

The Clarendon Park Advisory Council is petitioning to save the community center from total demolition; they plan to voice their concerns at the Park District Board of Commissioners’ meeting Wednesday.

The council wants the dated building renovated, but members don’t like the current plan: tearing it down all at once, and replacing it with a new building on the same site. An online petition has collected more than 2,200 signatures; another 283 have signed on paper.

Katharine Boyda, the council’s president, said she and the other members prefer phased-in renovations, so programs can continue in part of the old building while the rest is torn down and replaced. Programming could then move into the new portion, while the rest of the project is finished.

At a September community meeting, the park district presented several options: basic repairs to the existing building and three plans for a brand-new building that would incorporate walls from the original structure as a historic element.

The proposed new building would add 7,000 square feet of program space; 40,000 square feet in all, including a walking track, exercise rooms and a outdoor patio.

There is $6.1 million in available funding, according to a presentation by the park district in September. Of that amount, $4.6 million is from tax-increment financing, which was announced by Ald. James Cappleman (46th) in 2017, and the remaining $1.5 million is from the park district. Cost estimates for the various options offered by the park district were over the $6.1 million available, and infrastructure upgrades alone would cost $11 million, officials said.

They also said the park district will determine at a later date how it will raise additional funds.

The community center was built in 1916 as a beach house when Lake Michigan’s shoreline was closer. The last major makeover, in the 1970s, removed two towers from the building. Since then, maintenance has been lacking, Boyda said.

A 2016 building assessment concluded the roof, mechanical system, electrical system, plumbing system, accessibility, interior finishes and infrastructure needed work, according to Heather Gleason, the park district’s director of planning and development.

Historic photo of the beach house at Clarendon Park

Clarendon Park’s community center, originally a beach house, featured two brick towers that were taken down during the last major renovation to the building. | Provided

Losing the Park Kids program at Clarendon also would hit parents in the pocketbook. At Clarendon, the fall term costs $24 for residents of the neighborhood; $72 for the entire school year. For non-residents, the entire year costs $144.

At Margate Park, about a mile north, the Park Kids program for the entire year costs $345 for residents and $690 for non-residents, though the program description for each, listed on the park district website, are the same.

Part of the appeal of the program at Clarendon is the lower cost. Without it, Dunbar said, she and her husband would have to consider other options.

“I wouldn’t be happy about it,” Dunbar said. “But [Evan] does need some time out of the house away from all of us.”

Another draw at the Clarendon Park Community Center is Kuumba Lynx, a citywide after-school youth arts organization.

Christopher “Mad Dog” Thomas, a program manager for Kuumba Lynx, is disappointed in the plans.

“The design that they’re making should add value to the programs that are already existing there and enhance those spaces,” Thomas said. “So that way they have all the necessary things to thrive.”

The community center also is home to a model railroad club, with about 35 regular members. They meet to run HO-scale trains over the 1,400 feet of hand-laid track every Friday night. But park district plans show the club displaced, with some trains in a display case and no space for the layout.

Club member, Pat Reardon, a former Cook County first assistant public defender, said he and other members have discussed moving the railroads if the building were to come down. But if they have to, they won’t return.

“They won’t move it twice,” he said. “They’re not going to move into some storage facility and leave it there for a year and then move it back again. If we move it, we’ve got to put it back up.”

More public meetings are planned to gather feedback on the plans.