Mayor Rahm Emanuel is moving playgrounds to the front of the line for the Chicago Park District’s limited construction money, with other big-ticket projects like new fieldhouses moving back in the queue.
For the mayor, it’s about getting the most possible bang for the buck without having to come up with any new revenue.
The mayor announced the playground push in a lofty Thursday speech about his park initiatives that was packed with high-minded references to Daniel Burnham’s “make no small plans” vision and Chicago’s “City in a Garden” ideals.
“When Lincoln Park, Chicago’s first major park, was built in 1867, the founders said it would be the lungs of the city, breathing new life into our neighborhoods,” Emanuel said during his remarks in a gym at Harrison Park in the Pilsen neighborhood. “I wanted to come here, to the historic Harrison Park a century after it was built, to show how we are breathing new life into our city, our neighborhoods, with our parks.”
But the “Chicago Plays” playground program boils down to making budget choices that prioritize certain building projects over others. The Park District will commit much of the $10 million in annual discretionary funding in its existing capital budget to fixing or building new playgrounds around the city during the next five years. The plan is to complete each playground for a fraction of what the city has been spending. No new money will be raised for the work.
The construction contracts likely will go to a handful of companies that are pre-qualified as Park District playground builders, among them Walsh Construction Co. II LLC and McDonagh Demolition Inc. The work has not yet been put out to bid, according to Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner.
The savings will come mostly from laying down less expensive specialized mulch ground cover around playground equipment instead of the rubberized panels that have been installed in Park District playgrounds in recent years. The cheaper material and installation should help drive down the cost of each new playground from around $500,000 to about $100,000, according to Park District CEO Michael Kelly.
Thanks to those lower costs, the Park District expects to be able to complete work on 300 playgrounds with new equipment and the new mulch surfaces in the next five years. It would have taken around more than 20 years to do the same amount of work with the prior costs and spending levels, Kelly said.
“We’re getting smart about it. (Chicagoans) just want new (playground) equipment,” Kelly said in explaining the move away from the costlier rubberized ground cover. “We’re going to get new equipment, refurbish the mulch and the surrounding playground. They’re going to get a brand new playground and we’re going to be able to touch 300 in five years.”
“The bottom line is, we’re strapped,” Kelly added. “Everybody’s strapped with cash. You have to stretch your dollars and be more strategic if you want to reach all the neighborhoods of Chicago.”
Kelly acknowledged the playgrounds-first agenda will come at the expense of larger, costlier projects like new park fieldhouses. “I don’t think we’ll probably do a new fieldhouse without serious cash coming from an outside source after this,” he said. “A fieldhouse roughly is $10 million, so it’s a big chunk of change.”
In addition, Emanuel’s vision for the parks involves reaching as many different neighborhoods as quickly as possible. As he told the crowd Thursday in Pilsen: “In all our neighborhoods, we will see that Chicago makes no little plans, and is truly a city in a garden.”