Planned dog park loses funds to improve more side streets
by BRIAN NADIG
Alderman Jim Gardiner (45th) said that that improving side streets will be his top priority when it comes to spending the ward’s annual allocation of $1.32 million in discretionary funds and that the proposed Austin-Foster Dog Park would be losing its funding.
"I think that 45th Ward streets are in disarray and are in desperate need of attention," Gardiner said. "It’s horrendous, and I think that constituents feel the same way."
Gardiner said that many residents have approached him about the poor condition of the streets where they live. He added that repairing streets, sidewalks and curbs and addressing flooding issues in the ward have been neglected for too long. Former Alderman John Arena held a community vote, called "participatory budgeting," on how to spend $1 million of the ward’s discretionary funds, and the winning projects in last year’s vote included $100,000 for the dog park, $150,000 for sidewalk repairs and $240,000 for colored LED lights at the railroad viaduct in the 5000 block of North Milwaukee Avenue. Improvements to the Jefferson Park Library, crosswalk bump-outs and the planting of trees have been among the winning projects in other years. Typically voters allocated about $500,000 for side street resurfacing. Ward residents age 14 and older have been eligible to vote on the budget, and the highest vote total occurred in 2018 when 761 ward residents participated. Online voting was allowed, and pop-up voting stations were also set up. The process included a committee of volunteers who reviewed funding suggestions and researched the costs of feasible projects. Last year, more than 15 projects were on the ballot. Gardiner said that he informed the Austin-Foster Dog Park Advisory Committee that he plans to have the $100,000 for the dog park used for other infrastructure needs. The committee reportedly planned to raise an additional $50,000 to $75,000 for the project through a series of fund-raisers, as the participatory budget allocation was not expected to cover all of the expenses. Gardiner said that about 300 residents who live near the Austin-Foster Playlot Park, 6020 W. Foster Ave., have signed a petition against the dog park. "I’m not necessarily for or against the dog park, (but) I have to respect" the concerns of those "closest to the park," he said.
At a March 20 community meeting hosted by the dog park committee, some residents raised concerns about barking dogs and said that the dog area could take space away from the ball fields. Steve Neidenbach, one of the petition circulators, said that at least 300 of the 360 signatures collected were from residents living within five blocks of the park and that 70 to 80 percent of those signing own a dog. The additional signatures were from those involved in a flag football league at the park, he said. The five-block radius for the petition was chosen because it is the standard which the Chicago Park District requires for support petitions for dog parks, Neidenbach said. Petition signers overwhelmingly wanted the funds to go toward street improvements, he said. The Chicago Park District was looking into the feasibility of a dog area at the park, and committee members said that the dog area would be positioned away from the fields. Calling it a multi-year project, members also have said that construction was not expected in 2019. Committee president Robert Simpson said that while he does not object to Gardiner’s overall efforts to allocate more funds for street resurfacing, the community vote process in which 290 residents voted for the dog park should not be dismissed. Last week the committee launched a counter petition and issued the following statement: "While we were disappointed to hear that the project would not receive the $100,000 in PB45 funds committed to it, we are hopeful that the neighborhood will still see a dog park of its own in the coming years.
"Close to 300 votes were cast for this project in the last PB45 cycle and many of neighbors near the park have expressed support for it. We’re focused on representing those supporters while respecting the concerns of those opposed."
Gardiner said that some of the winning participatory budgeting projects, including up to $15,000 for the installation of a butterfly garden at Gladstone Park, are being funded and that his office has been reviewing the list of possible projects.
In addition, the ward will be taking a year off from participating budgeting due to a lack of time, as delays could put the funding at risk, Gardiner said. The ward skipped having a participatory budget vote 2 years ago after the city Department of Transportation changed the schedule for wards to submit funding requests. At the time, Arena said that the time off from participatory budgeting would be used to find ways to get more residents involved, as voter turnout for the 2016 budget had dropped to about 280 residents.
Participatory budget votes have been held in about a dozen of the city’s 50 wards since 2009. Each ward gets the same amount of discretionary funds regardless of the ward’s land size.