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Committee approves tot lot funding

Evanston’s Economic Development Committee gave conditional approval Wednesday night to plans to turn a vacant lot in the 1100 block of Dewey Avenue into a tot lot.

The proposed 5,542 square foot park site.

Evanston’s Economic Development Committee gave conditional approval Wednesday night to plans to turn a vacant lot in the 1100 block of Dewey Avenue into a tot lot.

The proposed 5,542 square foot park site.

The approval to spend up to $50,000 of city funds on the project was conditioned on backers of the park finding the rest of the money needed — now estimated by the city’s parks chief, Doug Gaynor, at over $350,000.

Emy Brawley, of the conservation group CorLands, told the committee that commitment was enough for her group to go ahead with planned purchase of the property for $70,000 from the bank that has foreclosed on it.

CorLands would then hold the property for up to three years while the community organization and the city sought to raise the rest of the funds.

Up to half the purchase price of the land could come from a state open space land acquisition grant program that has a July 1 deadline for applications, so supporters are hoping the full City Council will vote to go ahead with the plan at its next meeting June 10.

Seven of the city’s nine aldermen are on the Economic Development Committee, and only one, Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, voted against funding the tot lot project.

Burrus, a fundraiser for Northwestern University, said she doubts supporters, who’ve formed the Grandmother Park Initiative, will be able to come up with the money needed, because the tot lot will serve only a small segment of the community. She also suggested moving forward instead with plans for a tot lot at Robert Crown Park, a large city park located just a block-and-a-half from the 1125 Dewey Ave. site.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, raised questions about the long-term cost to the city of removing the lot from the tax rolls, but ultimately voted in favor of the plan.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she believes any improvement to Robert Crown is years away. Wynne said she doubts the city will see any significant revenue loss during the time the conservation group holds the land waiting for the rest of the project funds to be raised.

She said tot lots built in her ward have improved the areas around them. "There’s no question they’ve altered the nature of the community and who buys in the neighborhood," she added.

The neighbors group had originally requested the $50,000 from the city’s Dempster Plaza Neighborhood Improvement Fund, which was created to receive a slice of anticipated sales tax payments generated by the shopping center a few blocks from the park site.

The payments were intended to be used for projects designed to mitigate community impacts from the shopping center development.

But city officials recently discovered that because of accounting errors, the fund — instead of having the money the park group wants — actually has a deficit of nearly $34,000.

And, because of low occupancy levels at the shopping center, the development isn’t currently generating enough sales tax revenue to replentish the fund.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, who’s 2nd Ward includes the tot lot site, said the community group’s initiative shouldn’t be allowed to fall apart because of the city’s accounting mistake. And he said he’s convinced that ultimately the plaza will be revived and generate revenue to reimburse the city for the park expenditure.

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