The Park District of Oak Park’s application for a federal grant to cover half of the costs of improvements at Stevenson Park can now move forward after the village board on Sept. 17 voted to approve a lease agreement for the land with the park district.

Park district Executive Director Jan Arnold said at the park board’s Sept. 6 meeting that while the village transferred the titles to five out of seven parks to the park district back in 2006, it kept the ownership of Stevenson and Barrie parks because of water reservoirs located below them. 

Stevenson Park is located on Lake Street at Taylor Avenue.

After the original 2006 lease was signed, the village contended that the Oak Park employee who signed it had no authority to do so. Since then, the park district and the village have been negotiating a new lease.

The issue, Arnold said, is that because the land is village-owned, a grant application can’t proceed without their support. And that, in turn, hinges on signing of the revised lease agreement. 

While the park district commissioners had some reservations about some of its provisions, they ultimately indicated that they would sign the agreement. The village board voted to approve the lease at its Sept. 17 meeting.

The park board is expected to give the go-ahead on the grant application at its Sept. 20 meeting, to give the staff time to submit it before the Oct. 1 deadline.

The 2011 Stevenson Park Master Plan calls for replacing a 1980s playground equipment. If the park district is able to get a $400,000 Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) grant, they would be able to make a number of other improvements. 

Those improvements include making the west entrance to the park handicapped-accessible, building a full walking loop, installing a bioswale on the Lake Street side of the park in order to reduce flooding, installing picnic and chess tables and installing a practice wall for soccer and lacrosse. 

If the park district gets the grant, it would need to provide $400,000 in matching funds which, Arnold said, has already been budgeted.

The new lease agreement between the park district and the village makes two major changes. Under the current agreement, if the village needs to dig up the park to work on the reservoir, it must put everything back the way it found it – and cover the resulting expenses of its own budget. 

The revised agreement requires the park district to cover the costs not related to backfilling any excavation. The second provision allows the village to comment on any Stevenson Park improvements that might affect the reservoir.

Park district officials also have an issue with the village’s proposal to use Stevenson Park as a permanent storage site for a program that allows residents to pick up mulch and compost materials for free.  

“They want to put it inside the park, and the park district is firmly against it, because we don’t believe its recreational purpose and we have limited land,” Arnold said.

During the park board’s Sept. 6 meeting, Arnold asked the board whether they wanted the staff to prepare the grant application for Stevenson Park or if they would prefer to apply for grant money for Rehm Park, which is owned by the park district, instead.

Most commissioners wanted Arnold to stick with the Stevenson application, feeling that the park was long overdue for improvements.

Commissioner Kassie Porreca remarked on growing concerns about racial equity in Oak Park, and the Stevenson improvements would allow the park district to address a clear inequity in parks serving different parts of the village.

“This is a good example, because it’s a racial equity issue,” Porreca said. “We have certain areas that are underserved, and we want to address that using the grant.”

While the commissioners had concerns about the provision on the village’s ability to comment on projects, they ultimately agreed that approving the new lease was ultimately in their best interests.

“I learned a long time ago that best agreements are ones that both parties are unhappy with,” said board Vice President Sandy Lentz. “I think it’s important for us to get [the improvements] done and get application in. I would hate for us to lose an opportunity [to apply] for a substantial OSLAD grant.”

The park district will be notified whether or not the grant application has been approved in May 2019.

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...