The Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, appears to have closed the door on a land-sharing agreement with Riverside-Brookfield High School that would have secured permanent, clear access to athletic fields north of the school in exchange for increased paved parking for zoo visitors.
Last fall, RBHS District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis thought he had found an acceptable solution, one approved by both the high school and the Cook County Forest Preserve District, which owns the land.
That solution included shrinking the size of the athletic field and reducing the total amount of paved parking from 851 spaces to 618. The size of the field and the number of paved parking spaces were reduced after the Forest Preserve District nixed a plan acceptable to the zoo and high school last summer that would have resulted in the removal of too many bur oak trees, some of which were said to be at least 250 years old.
In late February, Jennifer Baader, vice president of government affairs for the Chicago Zoological Society informed Skinkis that the latest plan, which had the approval of both the high school and the Cook County Forest Preserve District was not acceptable.
According to Baader, in an email to Skinkis on Feb. 24, reducing the amount of paved parking spaces by 233 was just too much.
“Having 233 less spaces on peak days means 233 cars are stacked up on all available routes to the zoo, often in Riverside and Brookfield commerce areas and along First Avenue,” Baader wrote. “It also means slower cycling of available spaces, which makes the problem worse.
“All this reduces guest experience as well as revenue to the zoo at a time when our levy has remained flat. And earned revenue is at a premium.
“We cannot afford to do this as an institution to our guests, members and surrounding municipalities.”
Asked by the Landmark whether there was any way forward on a solution in the future, Baader said that the Chicago Zoological was committed to allowing the high school to continue its present field/parking-sharing arrangement.
However, her response also indicated negotiations with the high school were over.
“While we worked with all parties to find a mutually agreeable way forward, ultimately no plan was identified that could provide exclusive use of the ballfields to the high school while retaining adequate parking for the zoo and respecting the Conservation & Policy Council of the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Nature-Compatible Recreation position paper,” Baader said in an email to the Landmark on March 5.
The Chicago Zoological Society’s decision is a blow to high school officials who have been working for the past four years to secure a deal where the ball fields north of the school are able to be used at all times by students and athletes.
“At this time I’m not sure what the next steps will be,” Skinkis said in an email to the Landmark last week. “I need to discuss this with the [school] board. It appears as if the zoo is walking away from the table.”
The school pays more than $20,000 annually to rent the fields and the 166-space parking lot immediately west of them. The school uses that parking lot on school days for staff vehicles. It also plows snow from the parking lot and repairs damage to the field that results when Brookfield Zoo uses it for overflow parking on busy days.
When that happens, the school loses the ability to use the fields and the cars leave behind ruts that make the fields dangerous to play on if they’re not repaired. As a result, the high school buses varsity baseball and softball teams as well as lower-level lacrosse and soccer teams to parks in Brookfield and North Riverside for games, which comes at additional costs in time and money.
In order to secure permanent, sole use of the fields, the District 208 school board in 2017 issued $3 million in working cash bonds to fund the investigation and implementation of a solution. They also hired a consultant to serve as a liaison between the school district and both county and Brookfield Zoo officials.
According to Skinkis, “the school district has spent approximately $17,000 on engineering and surveying services related to the revisions/proposals discussed at multiple meetings with the zoo and forest preserve over the last 18 months.”
Skinkis said he did not know what the next move would be with respect to the field/parking issue, saying the zoo’s response to the latest plan was “disappointing.”
“We have met every design request they suggested,” Skinkis told the Landmark. “We had a verbal agreement this summer on a plan, but the Forest Preserve District requested design changes to minimize some of the trees being impacted.
“The school district went back to the table and came up with a new design. The latest plan had the support of the commissioners and the forest preserve, but we couldn’t get the zoo on board.”