Did Park District officials tell alderman Vi Daley about their plans to build a soccer field in her ward? It's not a trivial question: the board has agreed to allow a private school exclusive access to public land.
A bedrock principle in Chicago politics says no one tells aldermen what to do on their own turf (with the exception, of course, being the mayor). But on October 25, the Park District board voted unanimously to lease a prime piece of property in Lincoln Park to the Latin School without bothering to inform 43rd Ward alderman Daley (who's no relation to the mayor).
At least that's what she says. Park and Latin officials tell a different story, though they're cagey about it. When I asked Park District commissioner Laird Koldyke why the board didn't tell Daley about the soccer field, he said, "I don't know that she wasn't notified." (For the record, Koldyke, a Latin parent, abstained on the October 25 vote.)
When asked the same question, Park District spokesman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said, "I believe there was communication with the alderman's office."
Well, was the alderman notified or not?
"I'll have to talk to someone who has the details," she said.
Off the record, Latin School and Park District officials are far more assertive. "I don't want to get into a public thing with an alderman--especially my alderman," says one Latin School official. "But, yes, we talked to Alderman Daley. So did the Park District. [Parks superintendent] Tim Mitchell's a politically savvy guy. Do you think he'd do this without talking to the alderman?"
For her part, Daley's sticking to her story: she says she didn't know the Park District was installing the soccer field until this spring when Crain's Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz called her for comment. "We had a meeting on this--oh God, I don't know how many years ago," Daley says. "But that was a different plan. That was a running track. We had a lot of meetings back then and there was a lot of community opposition. As far as I knew it was a dead issue."
As Hinz reported, under the terms of the deal, Latin School, located at North and Clark, will construct a field with an artificial surface at the south end of Lincoln Park, spending between $900,000 and $1.3 million (construction estimates have been rising). The Park District will spend $250,000 to install lighting.
In exchange for building the field the school will have exclusive use of it during much of the spring and fall soccer seasons. It gets to use the field from 3 to 7 PM every weekday in April, May, September, and October. It also gets the field from 8 to 5 on weekdays in August, to gear up for the fall.
The agreement lasts for ten years, and the school has an option to renew for another ten years, provided they split the cost of resurfacing the field with the Park District. According to Maxey-Faulkner, Latin has "permitted use for about 880 hours per year for ten years. If you consider they're spending $900,000 to build the field, that comes to a $100-an-hour permit fee."
That's a pretty good rate--the Park District charges private groups $160 to play a single 90-minute game on the turf field at Montrose and Lake Shore Drive. If you take the second ten years into consideration, Latin will probably wind up paying far less than $100 an hour for 20 years' worth of prime-time usage. (How much less depends on resurfacing costs.)
It's not like they need the discount. "We're not talking about poor people," says one Latin School parent. "Annual tuition [for the grammar school] is roughly $20,000 a year, plus they ask parents to kick in another $5,000 for the building fund. There must be three or four billionaires in that school. Believe me, $900,000 for a soccer field is chump change for them. They can raise it in a minute."
And what does the Park District get out of the deal? When the Latin School's not using the field it can generate income through rentals to local sports clubs. But at prime times it will be largely unavailable to the ten or so public schools in the area. Currently the Park District has no plans to offer community soccer programs at the site. The field is going to be another pay-to-play facility, as the Park District continues to drift further from its mission of providing free or affordable recreation to city residents.
Back in September or October, when there could have been a public hearing on the soccer field, Alderman Daley was entering a tough reelection battle and it might have been difficult for her to endorse it. "I would have been raising tough questions," says Michele Smith, who wound up losing to Daley in April's runoff.
Smith says she finds it hard to believe that the Park District didn't tell Daley about the soccer field. But if they didn't tell Daley, Smith insists, it's because the alderman didn't want to know. "This is how Vi operates--she hates to take a stand," Smith says. "Any stand would offend someone--either Park District users or Latin parents. They were giving Vi plausible deniability. That way she can say, 'Don't blame me, I didn't know.'"
Daley dismisses this as nonsense. But she still hasn't taken a position on the deal. She says that's because she hasn't seen the plans for it. She says Mitchell assures her he'll hold a meeting to show them before construction of the field starts later this summer. "The residents will get to see the plans," says Daley.
So if residents object, will the Park District kill the deal?
"No," she said. "I recently talked to Tim [Mitchell]. Tim made it clear that it was important to have that field."
So what's the point of the dog-and-pony show? "The Park District wants people to be able to see the proposal," says Daley. "So they're going to show them."
A TIF for the Traders
The city's tax increment financing madness reached new heights of lunacy this week, when Mayor Daley announced he wants to give CME a $40 million handout.
CME is the new company created by the merger of the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. As part of the merger the two companies plan to gut their workforce by about 19 percent, firing over 400 employees, so they can reduce expenses, improve productivity, and make even more money for shareholders and top executives.
By law, TIFs are supposed to create jobs by subsidizing development in blighted communities. I still don't understand how the booming Loop even qualifies as a potential site for one, much less how the city can justify rewarding a company that's firing more than 400 employees. Essentially, the city's paying CME more than $100,000 for every job it eliminates.
Maybe there's just so much money in the growing downtown TIF slush funds that Daley feels compelled to throw it around. In the last few months he's given $5 million to Navteq so it could move from one end of the Loop to the other, $51 million to developers who want to revamp the old post office, $58.8 million to developers who want to put 18 stories atop Union Station, and $880,000 to Barry Callebaut, the company that drained more than 3,000 jobs from the west side when it closed the old Brach's candy plant. TIFs have become a tax-supported welfare program for the fabulously wealthy.
In his comments to the press Daley said he wanted to keep the exchanges in town. But there was never any threat that they would leave. True, for several months, Intercontinental Exchange, a company based in Atlanta, bid against the Merc to buy the Board of Trade. But according to the New York Times, Intercontinental made it clear that "as part of its offer, it agreed to keep the combined entity in Chicago and have its headquarters at the Board of Trade's landmark building in the financial district."
Don't forget, TIFs are property tax dollars diverted from the schools, parks, county, and other taxing bodies. Roughly half of every TIF dollar comes from the public schools. Schools CEO Arne Duncan and the City Council should wake up and oppose these deals benefiting corporations to Chicago's detriment. Fat chance.
For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Site of the proposed field in Lincoln Park illustration by Godfrey Carmona.