Riis Park school approved despite uncertainty surrounding a new park to make up for open space reduction at Riis
by BRIAN NADIG
The Chicago Plan Commission at its Feb. 18 meeting approved the proposed construction of the new Belmont Cragin School at Riis Park, 6100 W. Fullerton Ave., despite uncertainty of where a new nearby park may be built to replace the 3.24 acres of park land being used for the school.
About a week later the City Council approved the project.
Plans call for the removal of the gymnasium wing of the 1929 fieldhouse and an outdoor ice rink at the 55-acre park to accommodate the construction of a three-story school and a multi-purpose building, which would be used as a gym, cafeteria and auditorium. Currently the Belmont Cragin elementary school shares space with Northwest Middle School, 5252 W. Palmer St.
To make up for the reduction in open space land at Riis, project officials told the commission that they are committed to seeking $10 million in tax increment financing funds which would be used to renovated the fieldhouse, including removing some walls to allow for more larger community spaces inside the building.
However, details of a possible new park in the community were not presented at the meeting.
Commission member Alderman Gilbert Villegas (36th) recommended that the Chicago Park District look at constructing a park on a 15-acre industrial parcel that is under the control of the Cook County Land Bank Authority. “The site is an eyesore,” he said.
“We’re happy to look at it,” park district chief executive officer Michael Kelly said. “If it is industrial, of course, the environmental (cleanup) is going to be a big hurdle.”
Prior to the meeting Friends of the Parks, a proponent of maintaining open space in parks, issued a letter stating that it would not file a lawsuit to stop the school’s construction but that it was looking forward to working with project advocates on the creation of a nearby replacement park.
Also at the hearing, concerns were raised about exterior design of the school building.
“I do think it falls short of design excellence,” commission member Laura Flores said. “I think it’s more reflective of a housing project. You really can’t recognize it’s going to be a vibrant (school project).”
Alderman Ariel Reboyras (30th), whose ward includes Riis, testified that despite design concerns, the project must continue to move forward given the need for a new school in “one of the fastest-growing” neighborhoods in the city.
“Children can’t learn well in a crowded classroom, as we all know,” Reboyras said. “It’s never too late to make some (design) changes.”