After a heads up email from Gary Balling, executive director of the Park District of Oak Park, local baseball stakeholders made their voices heard Wednesday night about plans for the makeover of Stevenson Park.
As the park district held its fourth and final public meeting in a months-long park planning process, members of Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball made a ninth-inning discovery that park planners want to remove the baseball diamond and backstop completely.
"We lost two ball diamonds already," said Dee Jeffries, president of Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball. "We lost one at Barrie when they made the [sledding] hill — and then at Taylor Park. Removing the backstop would make this field kind of useless. Losing this field would really hurt our program," she said. The changes slipped past baseball advocates because "we were busy playing baseball," said one coach.
The Stevenson meeting was the final master plan public meeting for the entire Oak Park system upgrade. Over the past several years, 18 parks have begun long-haul renovations based on master plan meetings with stakeholders, employees and the community.
Soccer coaches from Strikers and AYSO got the first crack at the Stevenson Park redo and asked for a large, multi-purpose field, preferably with artificial turf to make spring play less muddy. Parents and neighbors asked that the park design be more accessible and that the playground maintain its current footprint. In addition, neighbors wanted a walking path created around the playing field. Neighbors also requested more welcoming entrances in the southeast and northwest corners of the park. A "green" committee asked that the fewest number of trees — especially memorial trees — be removed or relocated. Baseball representatives at Wednesday's meeting found what looked like a fait accompli and had to scramble to suggest an artificial turf infield and temporary backstop.
Josephine Bellalta, a landscape planner with Altamanu, the park district's consultant, said conflicts arose as many different interests vied for claims on the 3.3-acre space that abuts the Green Line train viaduct.
Even with a larger soccer field, AYSO soccer coach Sergio Firpo said that at 248 feet wide, the Stevenson Park planned field was too small for U14 soccer. Most U12 and older AYSO games are played on 300-foot fields in less land-locked communities.
"We have such a shortage of large field areas in Oak Park," he said.
Jeffries said 1,800 Oak Park children play youth baseball on 140 different teams. Firpo pointed out that AYSO had 3,500 children participate in fall soccer and 650 in the spring. The conflict seems to pit baseball vs. soccer, the coaches said many children participate in both sports.
Peter Traczyk, a District 97 school board member who is also involved with both girls' baseball and Strikers soccer, called the Stevenson redo "a golden opportunity" because the field is lighted. He suggested restoring the diamond with an artificial turf infield and some kind of "seasonal backstop" that could be dismantled. Other baseball supporters at the meeting included Dewitt Kelly of the Mustang League and Phil Hunt from Shetland.
Balling said storage and maintenance might make a seasonal backstop — or a removable net — problematic and expensive, but that he would investigate. Park district officials contend that leaving a permanent backstop at the edge of a soccer field is unacceptably dangerous. Balling seemed receptive to the suggestion of an artificial turf baseball diamond.
Three Altamanu plans were whittled down to two, both with large rectangular playing fields. Plan A — which included an "artificial shade element"— got the most support from youth sports team representatives, but neighbors said they preferred Plan B which includes a peripheral walking path. "This park is not being used to its full potential by the neighborhood," said Maggie Testore, who lives on the 300 block of South Humphrey, and whose children participate in soccer and baseball. Neighbor Kelly Pollock, from the same block, said the park needed better access and remembered carrying her stroller up the stairs to the playground when her children were little. The walking-path option "brings people in of all ages and provides nice circulation. This is our park."
Frank Lipo, president of the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest also voted for Plan B, noting the welcoming staircase at the northwest end of the park. The historical society hopes to eventually relocate to the old Pumping Station, which sits at the far west end of the park.
The park district has allocated $300,000 in its 2014 master plan for the first phase of the Stevenson update. Built atop two water reservoirs, Stevenson Park currently has a multipurpose field, a recreation center, a baseball/softball diamond, and a double-playground for ages 2-5 and 5-12. The east side of the park holds a skate park and basketball area. The rec center at 49 Lake is the home of the park district's teen center.
Jeffries thanked Balling for making sure baseball people got to participate on the Stevenson project.
Park Commissioner Christine Graves said that getting input from baseball and soccer communities was critical. "You have to get [baseball and soccer] both in the same room. When they hear each other, that's when they can compromise."
The park board will next discuss the Stevenson plan at the July 14 Committee of the Whole meeting at the Oak Park Conservatory.