Last Hurrah in Douglass Park for Riot Fest? Park District Board to Insert Itself into Permit Process for Large Events

VIDEO: Joining “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the Chicago Park District’s approach to large events is Juanita Irizarry of  Friends of the Parks and Anton Adkins, who lives across the street from Douglass Park. (Produced by Andrea Flores)

Residents of North Lawndale say they are tired of having their neighborhood park, Douglass Park, hijacked by for-profit mega-events every summer, and they’ve renewed their objections in advance of this weekend’s Riot Fest, which is expected to attract 40,000 attendees each day. 

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Thirty organizations signed onto a letter demanding the Park District stop allowing Douglass Park to be used for large festivals. The letter was submitted to the Park District Board of Commissioners at the group’s monthly meeting Wednesday.

“Public parks should remain open to the public,” said Noreen McNulty, representing the coalition.

For its part, the board of commissioners appears poised to act on those complaints.

On the meeting’s agenda: Introduction of an amendment to the Park District code, which, if approved, would insert commissioners into the permit approval process for events drawing more than 10,000 attendees. The board’s decision would be final, and not reviewable by the general superintendent.

“The board’s goal is to ensure the community’s voice is at the center,” said Myetie Hamilton, who was appointed to the board in September 2021 and elected its president in February of this year.

In her first year of experiencing the cycle of the city’s special events, Hamilton said she’s been made “very aware of the challenges.” 

Chief among the complaints of those opposed to not only Riot Fest but Heatwave (held in July) and Summer Smash (held in June), is that between set up, tear down and needed repairs to park grounds, access to a large swath of Douglass Park is lost for a third of the summer. 

“We are forced to protest for the right to play,” said one resident, speaking during the public comment portion of the board meeting. “The revenue is not as important as our quality of life.”

In 2022, permit revenues — for everything from family reunions to Lollapalooza — have totaled nearly $20 million, Juliet Azimi, the Park District’s chief administrative officer, said during a presentation to the board on Wednesday.

Those funds help keep programming fees low across the district, she said, but there’s been increased sensitivity to assertions that profit is being prioritized over Chicagoans’ enjoyment of their parks.

This year, the district mandated community engagement in its contracts with large event organizers and also initiated a listening tour to gain a better understanding of residents’ concerns, she said.

Rosa Escareño, who was tapped in May as the Park District’s permanent general superintendent after serving as interim head for several months, said she wasn’t satisfied with “how things have been rolled out this year,” and a new process of evaluating permit applications for large events would be “reflective” of the district’s commitment to community engagement.

People have 45 days to comment on the proposed amendment (click here to review). The board of commissioners will then put the matter to a vote at a future meeting.

Note: This article will be updated with video. 

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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