Henry Hauser wasn't looking for a fight. The 67-year-old former school principal says that being retired has been good for him and his wife, Esther. Hauser, who lives in a north-side high rise a few blocks from Irving Park and the lake, is an avid golfer. "Every day--rain or shine--I'm out here at the Waveland course playing golf. I love golf, and in my opinion this course is the nicest in the city."
But then Park District officials announced a plan to close the Waveland Avenue entrance to Lincoln Park from Lake Shore Drive, to stick a tollbooth at the Irving Park entrance a few blocks to the north, and to charge motorists $2.50 to enter the park.
Hauser was outraged. It was as if the system's honchos didn't want people to use the park. And after all, at this location the park is not inundated by wealthy people. Many of the golfers are seniors on fixed incomes; most of the picnickers and ball players are residents of Uptown. Slap them with a $2.50 parking fee, and they would just not come.
"I couldn't believe this idea; it just made no sense," says Hauser, who has mounted a campaign against the proposal. "Charging people $2.50 to use their own park? You bet I was angry."
He wasn't alone. As word of the proposed tollbooth spread, park users reacted with passionate indignation. The resulting debacle has been a classic case of public officials creating trouble that they don't need. Now, even Park District officials are distancing themselves from the plan.
"This idea never was an accomplished fact," says Nancy Kaszak, a Park District lawyer. "It was always only a proposal. I think a lot of people who are protesting it got their facts wrong."
The irony is that the idea was originally Robert Nelson's. He's the Park District's director of special services, and his efforts--until now--have won praise. A former boat salesman, Nelson was put in charge of Park District marinas, traditionally a haven for corruption. Connie Robison, executive director of the not-for-profit group Friends of Lincoln Park, says: "Robert Nelson is one of the finest appointees [executive director] Jesse Madison has made. He has been very open and receptive to the public."
Nelson says he concocted the tollbooth idea as a way of replacing the income lost because vandals had destroyed virtually all of the 605 parking meters in the parking lot near the golf course.
"It was a question of lost revenue," says Nelson. "We weren't making money from the parking meters anymore." Last year, the Park District simply removed all the parking meters, which vandals had decapitated or smashed.
"I say good riddance to those meters," says Hauser. "I was happy when they removed them. They were so ugly. They marred the scenery."
No one seems to know for certain how much revenue the meters collected. Installed five years ago when Ed Kelly was park superintendent, they collected 25 cents for two hours. But police rarely ticketed cars on expired meters.
The parking lot may have money-raising potential: this part of Lincoln Park is heavily used. There are tennis courts, softball diamonds, Brett's Waveland Cafe (popular for its freshly baked cakes and bagels), and of course the golf course. Some people like to stroll down the rocky promenade that winds along the waterfront. Others like to sit on the rocks and stare at the lake.
But it's not clear exactly how many people drive, walk, or bike to the Irving Park location. The closest bus line drops people on the other side of Lake Shore Drive. Most golfers must drive--how else could they transport their clubs? But even on busy weekends, although the parking lot is crowded, it's almost never filled.
"The Park District collects money from people who play tennis, and they have fees for the people who golf," says Hauser. "And those fees are going up. It costs five bucks to play nine holes. Out-of-towners pay $6. And we have a good turnout. Every year we run the Midwest Amateur Public Links Golf Tournament. We get players from all over the area. We got one guy who comes from Florida. They love this tournament. They'll raise about $1,000 for the Park District in fees. And now they want to charge for parking? It will drive people away. And it will probably cost the district as much money to run the tollbooth as they'll make."
Park District officials see things differently.
"We have to face the fact of Park District expenses," says Kaszak. "We'd like to cover our costs so we don't have to do a tax increase. More and more governmental entities are considering user fees. We're no different."
There's also the issue of vandalism and crime in the parks.
"Waveland has been a problem for a long time," Kaszak continues. "It's been run over by gangs. There have been drug deals. We've found five bodies there. I go there in the morning, so I know. I found a body there once at six in the morning. It was a dead body. I don't know if he was shot or knifed; I didn't want to look. The police do sweeps at ten at night, and then the gangs come back. By closing the entrance at Waveland and installing the [toll] gate, we might stop some of this gang activity." The tollbooth would not be manned at night but the gate would be closed.
With all this in mind, Nelson unleashed his proposal. And at first it didn't make much of a splash. His audience was the Lincoln Park Advisory Council, a not-for-profit citizens' group affiliated with the Park District.
"Mr. Nelson told us about his tollbooth idea at our June meeting--I guess that was June 14," says Grace Chun, president of the council. "We came away thinking that it was definitely going to happen, at least on a test basis. From what [Nelson] said at that meeting, I thought it would be tried this summer on a trial basis."
A few days later, reporter Lee Hill broke news of the tollbooth in an article she wrote for the Lerner newspapers: "Waveland golfers, tennis players and other park users will soon have to pay an attendant to park at Park District lots along the lakefront. Robert Nelson . . . said the district will staff the Waveland lots 'maybe as early as mid-July.'"
That article initiated the opposition to the plan.
"Someone called me and read me that article, and my first reaction was: 'These guys are crazy,'" says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Park, a nonprofit watchdog group. "I called up Nelson right away and said: 'Have you lost your mind?' I was so angry. I said: 'Do you guys have anything floating between your ears!'
"Then I calmed down. I said: 'Bob, what is your reasoning?' He said that there's been some vandalism back there. I said: 'What does that have to do with parking? These folks out there during the day--the golfers and tennis players--aren't the vandals. If you have a vandalism problem, Robert Nelson, don't raise parking fees--work with the police!"'
Tranter also argues that closing the Waveland entrance and installing a tollbooth at Irving Park will cause traffic jams.
"They would be creating traffic problems where they do not now exist," says Tranter. "If you want an idea of what it could be like, take a look at the Fullerton exit. We have long traffic lines there because of all the cars going to the zoo. We don't have a backup coming off the drive at Irving. At least not now. Close the Waveland entrance--so that traffic exiting the Drive is funneled a few blocks north to Irving--and stick a tollbooth at Irving, and it's another story. There will be cars lined up on the exit ramp back to the Drive. I told that to Nelson, and he said: 'We have to make up for lost revenue.'
"I said: 'Bob, our parks are not made to generate revenue.' That's not what a publicly run park system is about."
The discussion quickly evolved into a dispute over whether Nelson--or any Park District board official--had the right to install the tollbooth without board approval or a public hearing. Nelson claims he does, and that his appearance before the advisory council counts as public review.
Tranter and Hauser disagree. And there is some question as to whether the Waveland entrance can be closed without federal approval, because Lake Shore Drive is a federally funded road. At the very least, local aldermen say the matter should be studied by the city's traffic engineers.
"We're absolutely against the tollbooth," says Dave Ochal, chief of staff for Alderman Helen Shiller, in whose 46th Ward this part of the park lies. "There's no way we would let the Park District implement this without more hearings."
Hauser made copies of Hill's article, distributed them to fellow golfers, and encouraged everyone to call the Park District and protest. The Park District could find no tollbooth supporters among local residents. Both Shiller and Alderman Bernard Hansen--whose 44th Ward adjoins that portion of the park--were against it.
"We've gotten quite a few complaints about this one," says Nelson. "I have to admit I'm a little surprised. We put a similar tollbooth in at the parking lot at the Adler Planetarium and didn't get this kind of response."
"The tollbooth [Nelson's] talking about is downtown," says Tranter. "You assume that if you are going downtown, you are going to have to pay to park. That's a given. The neighborhood parks are different. These are part of the community. Since when do we charge people so much money to park in their very own community?"
In the face of this opposition, the Park District dropped its plans to install the tollbooth immediately. And a district official says the tollbooth cannot be installed even on a trial basis without Park District board approval. Last week, board members shuffled the proposal to a board committee, where--wary of public sentiment--they may let it die.
Of course, that's not guaranteed. Nelson remains loyal to his idea, and board members may rally behind it. One thing only is for certain: as long as the tollbooth is a possibility, Hank Hauser's not going away.
"Nelson bills himself as a big efficiency expert: he's trying to milk every penny he can out of the parks," says Hauser. "If he's such an efficiency expert, he should go after the payrollers who do nothing. That's where the real waste is. Some of these park officials get a fancy title and they think the parks belong to them. They forget that the parks belong to the people."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.