Sunday, August 07, 2011

Destroying a Park to Save It: The Tea House that Ate Connors Park

click images for larger view
In his newsletter to constituents on Saturday, 42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly unveiled what he called "exciting new improvements to scheduled to begin this season in Connors Park."  You know, like a Children's Museum in Grant Park.

Connors Park, one of the Chicago's oldest, dating back to 1848, is an absolutely wonderful space, triangular in shape, bounded by Rush and Wabash, Chestnut and Delaware, marked by a series of  majestic trees, dominated by the great elm at the north corner, which soars in proud defiant, counterpoint to the poorer, man made skyscrapers all around it.
There's also a small fountain, a pergola added in 1999, memorials to William J. Connors, and benches that apparently have all recently been removed after being vandalized..

The backstory to the announcement is Reilly's battles with the Park District to keep Connors adequately maintained . . .
Due to the lack of responsiveness from the previous Park District regime, Alderman Reilly detailed the 42nd Ward Superintendent and his Streets and Sanitation crews with regular emptying of Park District trash receptacles and removing homeless debris from Connors Park - despite the fact this is a Park District responsibility.
So Reilly went looking for a private concessionaire to take over responsibility for the park in exchange for letting them operate there.  He found his mark in Argo Tea, which already has an outlet in Loyola's Lewis Tower, a block south.
Alderman Reilly is pleased that the Chicago Park District has selected Chicago-based Argo Tea as the concessionaire to operate in Connors Park. Per the Concession Agreement, Argo Tea will be making a 15-year commitment to Connors Park and will assume full responsibility not only for new landscaping and maintenance of the park - but also the perimeter streetscape planters in the public-right-of-way.

The Alderman believes this public / private partnership will help to ensure basic maintenance, new landscaping each season, increased security, dramatically improved aesthetics and the addition of a true amenity for the surrounding neighborhood.
The more I look at this project, the angrier I get.  There's nothing wrong with the actual building.  As pictured in the single illustration released by Reilly it's light and airy.  It is also an overbearing intrusion into one of Chicago's rarest resources - open space in the center city.

The project is being sold with a series of half-truths.  The teahouse, says Reilly"will occupy 1,200 square feet of the nearly 17,000 square foot park."  17,000 square feet?  Look at the plan, which is detailed at 1/20 of an inch to a foot.  At that scale, the block, at its widest point, is approximately 100 feet, at its longest, about 200: 20,000 square feet.  Except that the block is slightly irregular triangle.  Divide by two, you get 10,000 square feet.  More importantly, the actual landscaped area of the park in the drawing is, at its largest points, 60 feet wide by 160 feet long, or 9,600 square feet.  Divide by 2: 4,800 square feet. 
So that 1,200 square foot teahouse, in actuality, is taking up about about a quarter of the actual space of the park.  Oh, and did I mention the "10 foot high "green walls" covered with vines - adding another 700 square feet of (vertical) green," basically shafts of shear wall to cover up utilities?

Connors Park becomes a moat of landscaping for the Argo Tea pavilion.
In one of the densest areas of the city, one of the last vestiges of open space is to be replaced by a structure eating up a quarter of the park, placed centrally to overwhelm the composition and slice and dice the landscape that remains into discontinuous adjuncts to the building.  The view of the great tree to the north is now shifted to the walkways along the periphery, or competing with the 17 foot height of the tea house.  If it survives.  The plan references a new gravel walkway with "minimal site disturbance to protect large tree." In the mega-built heart of the city, a rare tree like the one at Connors Park should get landmark protection against such "disturbance", however minimal.

We are also promised "permanent benches " that "collapse and lock at night."  I can see the tourist brochures now: Welcome to Chicago, the city that collapses and locks down at night.

This is the urbanism of exhaustion and surrender, a declaration that the third largest city in the United States, in one of its most traveled and wealthiest districts, with security cameras up the wazoo, cannot figure out how to adequately patrol a park next to an extremely popular seafood restaurant, several ultra high-end condo towers, and a five star hotel, to prevent that park from being repeatedly vandalized and overrun with vagrants. 

If this is Chicago's future, it has none.

read Reilly's full statement after the break.

Renovations to Connors Park Coming Soon!

Alderman Reilly is very pleased to inform you of some exciting new improvements and renovations scheduled to begin this season in Connors Park, a triangular neighborhood park located at Rush, Chestnut, Delaware and Wabash Streets in the Gold Coast.

Since taking office in 2007, Alderman Reilly has been working to address the challenge of the Park District's poor maintenance record, a growing homeless / vagrant problem, and ongoing vandalism at Connors Park. Over the past four years, the Alderman has tried to engage the Park District to solve these neighborhood concerns - but prior management at the Chicago Park District failed to make notable improvements to the maintenance or infrastructure of the park.

Due to the lack of responsiveness from the previous Park District regime, Alderman Reilly detailed the 42nd Ward Superintendent and his Streets and Sanitation crews with regular emptying of Park District trash receptacles and removing homeless debris from Connors Park - despite the fact this is a Park District responsibility.

Last year, Alderman Reilly determined that the best hope to improve the physical conditions at Connors Park would be to secure a private concessionaire willing to make substantial improvements to park security, maintenance, waste removal and landscaping at no cost to local taxpayers.

Alderman Reilly is pleased that the Chicago Park District has selected Chicago-based Argo Tea as the concessionaire to operate in Connors Park. Per the Concession Agreement, Argo Tea will be making a 15-year commitment to Connors Park and will assume full responsibility not only for new landscaping and maintenance of the park - but also the perimeter streetscape planters in the public-right-of-way.

The Alderman believes this public / private partnership will help to ensure basic maintenance, new landscaping each season, increased security, dramatically improved aesthetics and the addition of a true amenity for the surrounding neighborhood.

Alderman Reilly's office has worked extensively with the owner of Argo Tea to ensure this new concession will deliver tangible improvements and noticeable public benefits while not limiting public access to Connors Park by requiring:

(1)    The Park District and Concessionaire to ensure Argo Tea's retail structure could not extend beyond the existing amount of hardscape in the Park - to ensure there will be no net loss of vegetation or open green space;

(2)    The structure must be as transparent as possible - using a modern glass and steel frame that incorporates green elements and green walls to compliment the Park, as opposed to heavy brick or concrete; and

(3)    The Concessionaire will be held to the highest maintenance and security standards - providing adequate number of personnel on-site to enhance security for visitors and ensure the Park is clean and free of debris.

Most importantly, Connors Park must remain a truly public park. Per the Alderman's request, the Park District will install official new Chicago Park District signage to welcome neighbors and visitors to our newly renovated neighborhood park.

When reviewing the plans, you will see the fountain is to be enclosed within the Argo Tea structure. Initially, there were concerns that enclosing this public feature would limit public access to the fountain. However, Argo Tea has acknowledged that the public is welcome in the Argo Tea structure without purchasing any food or beverages. Public seating will be provided both inside and outside of the structure, including outdoor tables and chairs - again no purchase required.

The Concession structure is designed with a greenhouse aesthetic and will occupy 1,200 square feet of the nearly 17,000 square foot park - less than 10% of the total park footprint. The greenhouse is a galvanized steel structure with glass walls and doors in addition to a translucent polycarbonate roof. The Argo Tea structure will be 11 feet tall along the perimeter and 17 feet at the highest point of the roof peak.  The perimeter of the structure is clad with a curved trellis and 10 foot high "green walls" covered with vines - adding another 700 square feet of (vertical) green.  A trellis structure will create additional covered outdoor areas open to the public year round, adding another 900 square feet of green.

Per the Concession Agreement, Argo Tea will be responsible for the landscaping and structure within the park. Argo will maintain all planting beds and perimeter parkways. All existing trees and large bushes will remain in the new park. New planting areas will be landscaped with salt-tolerant, native vegetation in order to ensure, for the first-time, four seasons of color in this highly-visible park.

Argo Tea will also be responsible for all maintenance of the structure, including damage or graffiti, contracting with pest and rodent extermination contractors for the entire park area; and managing all refuse within 100 feet of the concession area for daily removal. The Park District has also pledged to implement a rat abatement and general pest control plan prior to construction in Connors Park.

To address neighborhood requests for a contingency plan in the event Argo Tea is unable fulfill their obligations, the Concession Agreement contains protections including a timeframe by which the Park District can reclaim the site and install a new concessionaire. In the highly unlikely event this situation were to occur, Alderman Reilly is fully committed to work with the Park District to negotiate with a suitable vendor who would produce a high-quality product worthy of this prominent location.

Alderman Reilly also asked the Park District to address concerns regarding the preservation of the two monuments currently on-site honoring Senator William Connors. The Alderman is pleased to report both monuments will remain intact and be moved just slightly to accommodate the new park entrances at both corners. The pergola structure is not a part of the memorial to Senator Connors - in fact this structure was part of a landscaping upgrade made in 1999.

At the Alderman's request, the Park District contacted the Connors family to inform them of this upcoming renovation and to seek their input, and the Alderman was informed that Senator Connors' descendants are lending their support to this important park upgrade.

It has been a pleasure to work with the Park District to secure a concessionaire to properly maintain and secure Connors Park. Alderman Reilly looks forward to witnessing this renovation which will transform the park landscaping; create more useable park space; and re-establish this park as a popular neighborhood gathering place.


Anonymous said...

Depaul's Lewis Center is at Wabash & Jackson. The existing Argo is at a Loyola building.

Lynn Becker said...

Thanks - correction made.

Anonymous said...

This is great. Bums monopolize the park daily- passed out drunk on every surface in this small park. I am surprised the author of this article does not acknowledge this fact.

Lynn Becker said...

Too bad you couldn't bother to the read the article. The problem is quite clearly referenced in the next to last paragraph, and the question remains as to why the city can't adequately police a park in one of the wealthiest, most traveled areas of the city to keep it from happening. Is it a problem at the John Hancock Plaza? Is it a problem at Mariano Park just a couple blocks north? Then why should it be a problem at Connors, other than blatant neglect and/or mismangement?

marothisu said...

I think you make some good points in this article. I live extremely close to this park and have always thought of it as a beautiful area. When I first read an article about this, I thought "Hm, interesting idea." Because I thought 1200 square feet wouldn't be that bad. When I read your article, the point you make about the equal square footage of the park is a pretty good one.

You see, I wouldn't mind seeing a little thing open in the park, but it might be a little big as you've mentioned. To the north in Mariano Park, I think they did it right for the fact there is a hut basically that does not take up much space. Why don't they do something more like that at Mariano Park with Argo? It wouldn't be unique because Mariano Park has something like that?

As far as why it's abused by Vagrants now, my theory is because there's no real extremely active businesses that are open late night. Goddess and Grocer closes at 9, and Sofitel Hotel is the only thing close to that, but the main entrance does not face the park. Walking through there on a weeknight for example, it does seem as if nobody is around and would be easy to sleep there if you were a vagrant. John Hancock's area is not abused probably because the area is probably patrolled more and also you have to go down a number of steps to get there in the first place.

I wouldn't mind SOMETHING in that park, but something that wouldn't have an effect on the nature too much. It is a beautiful park really, albeit small.

Lynn Becker said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Your point about the difference about the Connors and Mariano neighborhood is well taken. The Viagra Triangle crowd probably does a lot to keep Mariano less abused. Still, the Argo Tea a block south at Loyola is open only until 11 - 10 on Sunday's. How will their presence protect the park during the prime sleeping hours, when they are closed?

Connors in its current state is a problem, but it shouldn't be an intractable one. If we can't protect a very small park in the midst of the Gold Coast, the problem is much larger than Connors Park and it needs to be solved short of simply during over the key to commercial interests.

Anonymous said...

If you don't like the design, fine - that is your right. Do not, however, frame this as an issue of access to parks. There are no less than three other parks within three minutes of this one, and that doesn't include the LFT. Park access are serious issues in neighborhoods like Logan Square and Little Village; in this part of town though the argument rings hollow.

Anonymous said...

Correction to the above comment: meant to type FIVE minutes.

Lynn Becker said...

Sorry, it IS about access. This is one of the most densely populated and built areas in the city. EVERY bit of open space in this area is precious. NONE of it is disposable. There is no shortage of Starbucks, teashops and the like through this district, there is a shortage of open space in a field of skyscrapers built lot line to lot line.

Anonymous said...

Rubbish...Rodgers Park, Edgewater, and Lincoln Park - as Community Areas - are all considerably denser while Logan Square isn't terribly far behind. Two of these neighborhoods have less park space than the Near North. The other two are "saved" by Lincoln Park and Montrose Harbor, but otherwise virtually no parks to speak of in their respective neighborhoods. The Near North, on the other hand, has a good amount scattered evenly throughout the community area and thus likely has the best access to park space of the five mentioned here. Perhaps more importantly, the other neighborhoods - with the exception of, perhaps, Lakeview - unquestionably have far fewer resources in terms of city spending dollars, resident capital, and corporate investment. If this deal was made in another neighborhood, you can bet that residents would jump on the opportunity to revamp their underserved parks. This neighborhood simply has the luxury of being able to complain about it.

Cities have to make difficult decisions because resources will always be limited. To say that every resource is precious is a specious argument that is both shortsighted and poor policy development. I ask, which is worse? Allowing multiple parks to become disinvested, or investing more heavily in another because one is off the table? Make no mistake: I am generally not for privitization, but if placing an Argo Tea on 1,200 square feet of Connors Park - 0.01% of the Near North's total park space - means that the Parks Department might have resources to construct pocket parks in badly underserved areas, then so be it.

Park Space by Acreage:
Edgewater, 384.6;
Lakeview, 320.9;
Near North Side, 243.1;
Logan Square, 99.8 with boulevard space;
Rodgers Park, 89.9

Sources: Census 2000, CMAP Land Use Files circa 2006

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with this. What happened to the Friends of Connors Park? The group that successfully solicited neighborhood condo buildings for thousands of dollars in an effort to halt new construction in the neighborhood? Why are they not up in arms? I thought their premise was to protect the park? Oh, that's right. Perhaps they were more concerned about their views being blocked and used their "concern" for the park as a guise.

Truth be told, once the benches were removed, the homeless folks moved on. I, and plenty of other area residents, frequent and enjoy the park. I'm not happy at all about the Alderman's decision. Moreover, as a constituent, I never received any correspondence about the plan to hand the land over to

Connors could be a user friendly park. Similar to Water Tower park, folding chairs -- that can be locked up and stored in a corner each night -- could be added. This way no one is going to sleep there.

As for police presence, it's not uncommon for the police to park a horse trailer adjacent to the park. It's also not uncommon to see a police car sitting there. However, if need be, ask the 18th district for some additional attention to the park.

In my opinion, the loss of Connors Park is blatant neglect and mismanagement. I didn't think I'd ever say this, but I'm really starting to miss Natarus.

Lynn Becker said...

Anonymous, thanks for agreeing with my argument: The Argo Tea deal is a privitization of a public good.

The difference is you find using economic hardship as an opportunistic excuse to hand the keys to more and more of our public assets over to private interests fine and dandy. I don't. And if you think letting this pavilion be built in Connors Park will result in the Park District creating new park space in underserved areas, I've got a bridge I want to sell you.

Your argument about density is also specious. In 2000, density in Near North was the highest in the ciy, over a third denser than Rogers Park, and more than twice as dense than Lincoln Park. And that's before all of the high-rises of the last decade, several of which surround Connors Park.

Tony said...

And the Daytime Emmy goes to Lynn Becker! This, ladies and gentlemen, is how melodrama is DONE!

Personally, I would have wrung a little more emotion out of “the great tree” but that might have invited unwanted comparisons to Avatar itself. And, of course, “argo” could have been a pretty rich vein of metaphor…maybe he was up against word limits.

Regardless, I live in this neighborhood and have Mr. Becker to thank for awakening me to the fact that it’s a veritable Mumbai. Does Alderman Riley really think that he can get away with bringing in the squalor of a teahouse?

Fight on, Mr. Becker! Horto in Horto!

Anonymous said...

Lynn, because Hancock plaza is occupied by businesses and is a major tourist attraction right on Michigan Avenue. Connors Park is not.

If it's a park, it needs to attact people, not bums. Currently that tiny triangle strip has absolutely zero attraction. SO why would people go there?

So let's pose the question differently.. if you were a mayor, how would you revitalize Connors Park? And please explain this without generic statements like "make it look nicer", etc.

Anonymous said...


Any update on the Connors Park & Argo Tea union? Perhaps I missed a previous update, if so, I apologize,

Thanks, Ed

JFC said...

Ugly. The park now has an ugly edifice, something that looks like toy made from an Erector set. Alderman Reilly came in on a reform movement because of all the new constuction that was destroying the charm of this neighborhood. He is now a part of that problem. He has destroyed this park, its beauty, its charm. He should go away before he does any further damage. The edifice should be bull-dozed and the park restored to what was there. As for the bums, they should be thrown out, too. This was a lazy way to solve an urban problem. The teahouse could have been a pavillion. Instead, through neglect on the part of the City in overseeing its development it is an eyesore worse than what was there before.

Anonymous said...

I just saw what used to be Connors Park for the first time this evening.

This just theft plain and simple.

Chalk another one up for the business sociopaths.

Might I suggest constructing a Walmart in Washington Square Park because the homeless sleep there also

Jo T said...

Wow! Amazing that someone could compare green space in the Gold Coast to Rogers Pk. Edgewater and most of all Lincoln Pk or Logan Square. In each of those neighborhoods around half the homes have at least a little green space right in front of their houses plus parks in the area. Logan Square has Logan Boulevard running for blocks that people use as a park space. And some have trees and yards! These little slices of greenery in cavernous highrise buildings should be protected, savored and enjoyed. Plus no one mentions the fact that this park was once a memorial park to the people of that neighborhood who lost their lives fighting in WWII.

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