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The ruling halting construction of the soccer field the Latin School is underwriting at the south end of Lincoln Park might keep a similar project at the north end of the park from getting under way. Soccer fields #1 and #2, two sloped dirt fields laid out side by side just east of Lake Shore Drive and south of Foster Avenue, have been used for about a quarter century by Region 418 of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). They're the two biggest fields 418 plays on, and "the conditions are unsafe, terrible," says 418 commissioner Rich Costello. Region 418 decided its kids deserve better. So 418 approached the Park District and struck a deal: It would pay $500,000 up front -- which would cover the next four years of annual permits -- and the Park District would grade the fields and install artificial turf.
That work was supposed to begin in June, as soon as the spring AYSO season is over. But now that the $2 million Latin project has stalled, Costello doubts the Park District will run the risk of starting another."Quite frankly, I don't know if we'll get the fields built anymore," he told me. "Everything's on hold. We have to wait to let the dust settle."
It's easy to dislike the Latin-Park District alliance -- a small, rich private school teaming up with a public body to commit taxpayers' dollars and public land to build a field that the school will have exclusive access to during prime time. AYSO isn't public either, but some 3,200 boys and girls play soccer in the Region 418 program, which is open to any family that wants to join it. And while the Latin-Park District deal seems to have proceeded in the furtive manner that seems to be second nature to Chicago's movers and shakers, the AYSO project has been much more up-front: Costello says, "The Park District said to go talk to the alderman [Mary Ann Smith of the 48th Ward] and to Friends of Lincoln Park. They wouldn't talk to us until we went through the rounds."
But the Latin School and AYSO have this in common: both saw their kids playing soccer on third-rate fields and decided to do something about it. Both worked out roughly the same arrangement with the Park District -- private money to make new fields, public money to maintain them. Both -- and this seems to get lost in coverage of the Latin deal -- already had longstanding relationships with the Park District. Latin's been pulling permits for decades so its students can do sports in Lincoln Park, and someone speaking for the school says that once the new soccer field's built, if it ever is, Latin will end up reserving just about as much park space as it reserves now.
During the spring and fall seasons AYSO permits tie up pretty much all of Lincoln Park between Lawrence and Foster, both east and west of Lake Shore Drive, all day Saturday, most of Sunday, and weekday evenings (for practices). The public lands Latin and AYSO could be accused of cornering -- and Latin is catching it hot and heavy -- they cornered a long time ago.
Latin's been playing its varsity soccer games on Lincoln Park's sod field at Montrose. "It's still the best field they have but it's old technology," says Costello. "It's in heavy demand but it's not a very good field any more. It's used day and night. They put lights up so it gets even more use." When rain has turned AYSO fields to mud, Costello has asked to shift games to the Montrose field, but it's never available. If Latin shifted its games to the new artificial turf field down by the zoo, the Montrose field would become more available to other schools and leagues.
Last August, WBEZ's Gabriel Spitzer put the Latin deal in a context that tends to get overlooked. Public-private partnerships are becoming the way government bodies get things done. The Park District wants to build soccer fields around Chicago and it can't afford to do it by itself. "Latin's paying for that one," parks superintendent Tim Mitchell told Spitzer, "therefore I then can pay for one in a community that could not afford to do that." Spitzer didn't ask Mitchell about other soccer fields, but in addition to the Latin and AYSO fields, these are planned:
A field in Calumet Park, 9801 S. Avenue G, funded by the district. A field in Riis Park, 6100 W. Fullerton, funded by TIF revenues; a field in McKinley Park, 2210 W. Pershing, funded by the Parkways Foundation and Lollapalooza (part of its deal to use Grant Park for a music festival in August).