An aerial view of 31st Street Beach. The park district plans to more than double the size of the an existing parking lot, center. Image: Google Maps
Last month I reported on the Chicago Park District’s plans to expand a parking lot at the southwest corner of 31st and Lake Shore Drive, a short walk from 31st Street Beach and Harbor. The proposal would enlarge the lot, currently 60,000 square feet of asphalt, by 85,000 feet — that’s about 1.5 football fields worth of existing green space that would be replaced by blacktop.
The project would add more than 250 spaces near the beach, which already has over 650 existing garage and surface lot spaces within a five-minute walk. It would cost $1.6 million, paid for harbor bond funding.
I noted that Friends of the Parks has endorsed the project. Executive director Juanita Irizarry told me last month that if the group advocated against more parking at the South Side beach, they would have essentially been “tell[ing] people of color that they can only utilize the beach if they arrive by CTA or bicycle.”
On the other hand the Active Transportation Alliance is against the parking expansion. Executive director Ron Burke argued that transit, walking, and bike access should be improved instead. “Let’s give people MORE open space, play areas, trails and other attractions and LESS pavement for cars,” he said via email.
The design of the expanded parking lot. Image: Chicago Park District
After my article ran, Delmarie Cobb, a lifelong Bronzeville resident and owner of the Publicity Works PR firm fired off an angry email to 4th ward alderman Sophia King’s office about the parking plan and cc-ed me. “Now, the city wants to take more green space so the harbor users will have more parking options,” she wrote. “There’s plenty of parking at the old Michael Reese parking lots.”
In addition to the 650 aforementioned nearby beach and harbor parking spaces, there are 250 public parking spots at the former hospital site, a ten-minute walk from the beach at 31st and Cottage Grove. The city purchased the property under Mayor Richard M. Daley as part of its failed bid for the 2016 Olympics.
“Until the city decides what to do with that land, it should be used to accommodate beach goers,” Reese wrote. “We’re already paying for that land, so why should we pay an additional $1.6 million for 250 parking spaces?… On Fullerton, the city [built] six additional acres for green space. At 31st St., the city found 85,000 square feet of green space to turn into a parking lot.”
4th Ward staffer Prentice Butler declined to comment on the lot expansion project, except to confirm that Alderman King is in favor of the plan.
This sign installed by the entrance to the garage last winter indicated that the garage was for boaters only. Photo via Delmarie Cobb.
When I reached Cobb this afternoon, she told me that she has since realized that, while the parking lot expansion will eliminate green space west of the drive, it won’t affect parkland closer to the beach that is used for barbecues, land she says is in short supply. While that’s less objectionable to her, she still finds it problematic that money was found for more asphalt while a community center originally planned as part of the harbor project, completed in 2012, was never funded.
While the park district and the 4th Ward haven’t had much to say about why exactly it’s believed that another 250 spaces are needed, Cobb offered an explanation. She provided a photo taken last winter of a permanent sign installed by the garage entrance claiming that all public parking spots in the 317-space facility was full, and spaces were only available to people with harbor passes. “Obviously the garage wasn’t full in the middle of the winter, but they were treating it like a private garage for boaters,” Cobb said.
Cobb says that when King took office last spring, she asked the park district to remove that sign and put up a new one stating that the garage spaces are available to the general public. Cobb recently went out with an intern and interviewed boaters to learn more about the parking situation. She says the boaters, many of whom live outside of the city, told them the lot expansion is planned because harbor pass holders were sometimes having trouble finding space in the now-public garage.
“The boaters said they don’t feel they should have to schlep all their stuff from the Michael Reese site to the harbor,” Cobb said. “That’s fine for the residents, but not for the boaters.”
“It just goes to show, the city can always find money to do what they want to do, such as projects to entice tourists,” Cobb said. “But they can never find money for the things we need like the community center, things that improve quality of life for neighborhood residents.”