Eyesore on the Emerald Necklace

CHICAGO But now, some residents are angry about their North Side boulevard being bulldozed.

Chicago's Emerald Necklace is lush boulevards built in the late 1800s, majestic buffers that break up seemingly endless urban concrete. The Emerald Necklace links seven of the city's major parks and was modeled after the grand parkways of Paris and Rome.

"This is a 100-year-old legacy. It should be respected. This is the 100th year of the Burnham Plan," said Palmer Square resident Sharon Hoogstraten.

"It was supposed to be a free and open space forever," said Palmer Square resident Steve Hier.

Palmer Park is part of Chicago's 26 miles of boulevards, ten acres of open, natural space that generations have nurtured and protected from change.

"The number one reason I moved here is the park," said Kurt Stirnkorb, Palmer Square resident.

Six months ago for the first time, a part of an historic boulevard was abruptly turned over by the city to the Chicago Park District. An unsightly 15-foot high fence was erected, forcing pedestrians into the streets and blocking the open view of the neighborhood. The plan by the park district and the alderman: a kiddie playground.

"This playground that is being set up is specifically for tots. The sculptures here are themed after the Velveteen Rabbit, and it's a sculpture made after input from children and families in the neighborhood," said Ald. Rey Colon, 35th Ward.

"Most of the neighbors were against it, that didn't seem to matter and we're stuck with it," said Palmer Square resident George Schneider.

He's stuck with it because City Hall OKed it.

According to a Landmark Commission staff report, a kiddie park named for a talking toy rabbit would not violate Chicago's century-old mandate that the boulevard be kept an "open meadow." The Landmark Commission concluded: the totlot would not have any adverse impact on Daniel Burnham's master plan.

"Landmarks completely rolled over for this which was very confusing to me, because if you try to change your windows they have strict rules and they said [the tot lot is] needed," said Hoogstraten.

Last spring, the construction fencing went up even before the zoning change was approved and all of the permits were in place.

"I understand the feelings of immediate neighbors. There have been more delays than anticipated," Colon said.

While the I-Team interviewed the alderman, some local residents showed up in Palmer Square to square off with Colon about his controversial pet project.

"I was afraid that nothing was going to happen. They're going to continue working?" one resident asked.

"They're going to continue work. They have all the permits," Colon replied.

"There's a lot of frustration with the community not knowing what is going on," another resident said.

For 25 years, the tight-knit Palmer Square Homeowners Association has raised money to beautify the park. In a 1986 video, they partnered with the Morton Arboretum to plant hybrid elm trees that grace the boulevard's pathways.

"We raised our children here climbing trees; parents interact in this park with their children. It's creative play. You don't watch your kids on a slide while you sit on a bench," said Hoogstraten.

There are already four play lots within three blocks of the square, and residents wonder why another is needed.

"What's really important for children and adults is green space. We don't need more stuff," Hier said.

What puzzles them even more is why City Hall has ignored their concerns despite petitions, letters, meetings and even picketing alderman Colon's office, leaving them to wonder how much clout average citizens really have.

The one thing that neighbors and the alderman agree on is that the park district may do a better job of maintaining Palmer Square than the city has.

Daniel Burnham, the architect of modern Chicago, is known for the "make no little plans." Oddly, it is a little plan for a tot-lot in Palmer Park, that some say will disrupt Burnham's Emerald Necklace, worn proudly for a century by the city he helped design.

The Palmer Square project was originally slated to be completed last July. Alderman Colon says he hopes the park will be open by late October. But residents say they are skeptical it will be finished this year.

Copyright © 2023 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.