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Worse Than We Thought

A lawsuit brings new dirt to light on the Park District's sweetheart deal with Latin School.

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It's been clear for more than a year that the Park District's plan to give a private school prime-time control over a corner of Lincoln Park is a bad deal for the public.

But records included in a lawsuit recently filed by area residents show that it's an even bigger stinker than most of us thought—and different from the questionable arrangement district officials have been defending for months in the press.

The suit filed by the Committee to Keep Lincoln Park Public seeks to stop a deal forged in 2006 between the Park District and the Latin School, one of the wealthiest private schools in the city. But to really understand it, you have to go back to 2002, when Latin first proposed building a new soccer field and running track in Lincoln Park. Locals erupted over the notion of tearing up open public space at the behest of a private school, and 43rd Ward alderman Vi Daley bowed to their wishes and opposed the plan. It appeared to die.

Instead it resurfaced in another form. At the urging of superintendent Tim Mitchell, the Park District's board approved a contract on October 25, 2006, that lets Latin build a state-of-the-art soccer field just east of the Lincoln Park Zoo and guarantees the school prime-time use of it for up to 20 years. The contract was introduced with no advance publicity from the district, and perhaps since it was approved the same day as deals to lease parking garages in Grant Park and bring Lollapalooza back to the lakefront, it received no media coverage at the time.

Under the contract's terms—revealed in the lawsuit—the Park District will kick in as much as $250,000 to install lights for the new soccer field. It will also keep the field in "broom clean condition" while "maintaining, repairing and replacing the landscaping, fencing and other related improvements." During the December-through-February off-season, parks workers will "protect it from the elements." Anything else? Well, district officials also have to bring Gatorade and pretzels for the Latin kids after their games. (OK, I'm just kidding about that part.)

Meanwhile, the Latin School will cover the cost—originally estimated at $900,000—of installing artificial turf, a drainage system, and bleachers.

Latin gets a nice little return on its investment: exclusive use of the field from 3 to 7 PM during the week and 9 AM to 1 PM on Saturdays during the boys' fall season and the girls' spring season, and every weekend morning during the summer practice season. If anyone else wants to use it during those hours—including public schools in the area whose players use ragged fields in other parks—they'll have to get Latin School's OK.

The Park District often sends out press releases, notifies community newspapers, or holds press conferences about major new projects it's proud of, like the parking garage deal or construction of play lots on the west side. None of that happened around this deal. It's unheard of for the Park District not to let aldermen know about major plans in their wards, but Alderman Daley says she didn't hear about it until Crain's Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz called her for comment last spring—several months after the board had approved it, and not long after she was reelected in a runoff.

A series of stories after that kicked up a firestorm of protest, with area residents and parks advocates accusing the district of cutting a backroom deal with Latin. Mitchell responded by saying it was too late to kill the plan—the contract was signed and the field was coming whether locals liked it or not. He added that residents should have known about the proposed field, as it was discussed at a meeting of the Lincoln Park Advisory Council. "Among the mischaracterizations and distortions reported was the suggestion that the agreement was shrouded in secrecy and conducted behind closed doors," Mitchell wrote in a March 13 letter to several newspapers. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Mitchell also wrote that Latin would wind up paying the district more than $222 per hour for use of the field. "That makes this location the priciest within the [park] system, and far from the sweetheart deal our critics have claimed."

But documents in the lawsuit tell a different story. Yes, the Park District did sort of brief the Lincoln Park Advisory Council: it sent two representatives to the group's meeting on September 13, 2006, but somehow they managed to describe the planned soccer field without ever mentioning the Latin School, according to the council's minutes.

The group generally has a conciliatory relationship with the district, and without knowing any crucial details of the plan, council members raised no major objections to it. Upon reading about it in the papers later, they were outraged. "The Park District legal staff continues to claim that the 'open meetings process was followed,' which is only true if we accept the premise that providing half the story, and not the whole truth, is sufficient at an open public meeting," Jill Niland, the council's president, wrote in a December 19 letter to Park District board president Gery Chico.

And the fees Mitchell disclosed in his letter are based on fuzzy math. According to the contract, Latin controls the field for up to 900 hours a year, or 18,000 hours over the course of ten years; then it can exercise an option for ten more. But Mitchell's numbers are based only on the first decade. Over the full 20 years, the $900,000 Latin was supposed to pony up to build the field comes out to about $50 an hour, not $222. By contrast the Park District charges private groups at least $107 an hour to use the field near Montrose Harbor.

After the uproar, the Park District and Latin revised their construction costs, saying that unforeseen drainage problems on the site had more than doubled the cost of the field to $2 million. The cynic in me immediately wondered if they were jacking up the figures to make the deal look a little less sweet, but then cost overruns are hardly unusual on public projects in Chicago. Anyway, with the overruns, Latin's getting the field for the hourly rate of $111 an hour for the 20 years. Construction costs would have to swell to about $4 million before Latin's per-hour rate hits $222. Of course, where's there a will there's a way.

Over the last few months Mitchell has also responded to criticism that the Latin deal would shut out local public schools—Manierre, Franklin, Jenner, Schiller, Newberry, and Lincoln Park High, just to name a few—by insisting that they would have a chance to use it. But Park District documents included in the suit show that he was singing a different tune when the board ratified the deal in 2006, predicting the field would be a moneymaker for the district because it could be leased out to the Chicago Social Club, a recreational league for young professionals, for nighttime games ending at ten o'clock. So public school kids could play on the field either for the last hour the park was open, before school, Sundays, or during the week over the summer. That or they could transfer to Latin. And that's not even getting to the question of when any other member of the public could use the field.

In any event, the residents filed their lawsuit on April 16, and two days later their lawyer, Thomas Ramsdell, came before Cook County circuit judge Dorothy Kirie Kinnaird looking for a restraining order to block further construction and ultimately stop the whole deal. The district tried to tell the judge that Latin didn't really have exclusive control of the field because the park was open from 6 AM to 11 PM, and after all Latin would only have rights every afternoon. But Judge Kinnaird was having none of it. "Where is this going to end?" she asked. Could Francis Parker, another north-side private school, control a soccer field elsewhere in Lincoln Park?

The judge gave the city and Park District lawyers a homework assignment, telling them to write briefs explaining the precedent for allowing a private school to have a primary control over public space.

I hope the fracas continues at least until depositions begin (if they do). The lawsuit raises a lot of interesting questions about how business gets done in this town, and it would be nice to get answers to some of them.

And by the way: the Park District is still obscuring Latin's involvement from the public. The sign next to the construction zone reads chicago park district south lincoln park athletic field.v

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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