Evanston would need to spend triple what it does now to catch up on deferred upgrades for its 75 city parks.
That’s what Capital Planning Bureau Chief Lara Biggs told aldermen Saturday as they discussed their goal of investing in city infrastructure and facilities.
Biggs said the city typically rehabs one park a year and the average life of a park upgrade is about 25 to 30 years before it needs another refresh.
“We should be doing more like three parks a year,” Biggs said.
“It’s very reactive, we don’t have a long term plan now,” Biggs said. With a budget of about $1.5 million annually, she said, the city does one thorough upgrade of a park and then “fixes a lot of little problems” at other ones each year.
Parks Director Lawrence Hemingway said that without a strategic plan for parks, the city has struggled to respond to community demands for new programming.
He said that without that plan it’s been hard to come up with places to offer relatively new sports like Pickleball or to decide how to deal with the loss, to high water levels, of the lakefront dog beach.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the city “is blessed to have a lot of parks.”
He said that with 75 city parks in 7.5 square miles Evanston has more parks than Skokie, with 44 parks in 10.6 square miles, or Arlington Heights, with 45 parks in 16.3 square miles, or Schaumburg with 61 parks in 19.4 square miles.
The Trust for Public Lands says more than 99 percent of Evanstonians live within 10 minutes of a public park, either the 75 owned by the city or an additional 18 owned by other agencies. That compares with 95 percent in Skokie, 90 pecent in Arlington Heights and 89 percent in Schaumburg.
The national average is 54 percent.
Bobkiewicz said the City Council needs to decide what kind of park experience it wants to provide for residents.
“We can’t continue to be everything to everybody. We can’t have 75 parks in 7.5 miles and meet all the programmatic needs,” he said, noting that many of the city’s parks are very small and aren’t programmed “other than having a couple of trees.”
That led Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, to suggest that perhaps the city should get out of the parks business by spinning off the park system into an independent park district with its own elected board and taxing authority.
“Does it make sense to investigate a park district so we can take better care of our facilities?” Fleming asked.
Many other communities in Illinois have separate park districts, but they contribute to the proliferation of local government units — roughly 7,000 in all — which gives Illinois the distinction of having more local governmental units than any other state in the nation.
Given that Evanston recently spent years in an ultimately successful campaign to improve governmental efficiency by combining Evanston Township’s functions with the city, and that the city already has two smaller park districts serving portions of town, creating a new park district might be an unlikely solution.
But the city manager promised to provide more information about that option at a future City Council meeting.