By Bob Uphues
The Cook County Forest Preserve District has sent Riverside-Brookfield High School and the Chicago Zoological Society back to the drawing board after the two entities thought they'd worked out a deal that would give the school exclusive use of an athletic field immediately north of the campus.
RBHS District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis told the Landmark last week that the school and the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo on Forest Preserve District property, had a "handshake deal" on a plan.
That solution included an L-shaped 652-space parking lot, expanding the existing 166-space paved lot. The expanded parking lot would have wrapped around a roughly 400-by-400-foot artificial turf athletic field that would be big enough to accommodate a practice football/soccer field and practice diamonds for baseball and softball.
The plan also would have added a third traffic lane north of Rockefeller Avenue, heading into the zoo's South Gate. The additional lane was seen as a way to move vehicles through the entrance gate more quickly and reduce backups on busy days.
The deal was considered firm enough that zoo officials were prepared to appear before the District 208 school board in July. But, according to Skinkis, the Forest Preserve District nixed the agreed-upon plan.
"We were happy, the zoo was happy, but [the Forest Preserve District] wanted changes," said Skinkis, who added that two Cook County commissioners working with local and zoo officials on the plan, Peter Silvestri (D-9th) and Frank Aguilar (D-16th), supported the handshake plan.
"They were disappointed it didn't get approved," Skinkis said of the commissioners, who broke the bad news to school and zoo officials in a conference call last month.
The stumbling block for the county, said Skinkis, appears to have been the loss of too many trees to make the plan a reality.
That was confirmed by Carl Vogel, a spokesman for the Forest Preserve District in an email.
According to Vogel, the Forest Preserve District identified a number of bur oaks in that area, including some that were as old as 250 years old.
"Oaks are a keystone species for the local ecosystem -- an important habitat for native wildlife --and a species is that is imperiled in northeast Illinois," Vogel said.
The district has for years viewed land use requests very closely, Vogel said, and that a key advisory group was in the process of adopting position papers recommending "that the Forest Preserves give very stringent reviews of requests for land use other than remaining open and in a natural state."
"As Cook County becomes increasingly developed, the value of retaining our natural heritage for future generations has never been higher," Vogel said.
Chicago Zoological Society President/CEO Stuart Strahl was on vacation last week and was unavailable for comment.
School and zoo officials have been working since late 2017 on a plan that would provide enough overflow parking for the zoo on its busiest days and still provide RBHS unfettered use to an athletic field directly north of the school building.
For years, the zoo has allowed the school to use a large grass meadow north of the school for athletic purposes. In 2006, the two entities signed an agreement allowing RBHS to use the zoo's south auxiliary parking lot for faculty parking on school days and to use the athletic fields when they aren't needed for overflow parking for the zoo.
The school district paid the zoo $22,000 during the 2019-20 school year for use of the parking lot and fields. That cost does not include the school district's expenses for plowing the parking lot in winter and repairing the ruts on the field and cleaning up trash after cars park there.
A May 20 memo from Skinkis states that "the wear and tear that has occurred over the years from parking and driving cars on the playing surfaces have taken its toll."
The RBHS varsity baseball and softball teams and lower-level soccer and lacrosse teams use fields in Brookfield and North Riverside for games, which come with an additional cost for busing players back and forth.
Spreading out teams in three different locations – some teams still are able to use on-campus outdoor facilities – poses another problem. There aren't enough athletic trainers to cover every location.
In 2017, the District 208 Board of Education issued $3 million in working cash bonds to fund a solution. In 2018, the school district hired Westbrook Strategic Consulting, a firm run by former Elmwood Park Village Manager Jay Dalicandro, to assist the RBHS with government relations, zoning and other planning aspects of the project.
Dalicandro worked alongside Silvestri for years in Elmwood Park, where Silvestri formerly was village president.
Vogel said the Forest Preserve District hadn't ruled out a solution completely and said it would continue to work with zoo and school officials. He said the district had requested a master plan for the area, "taking into account the needs and assets of the Forest Preserves, Brookfield Zoo, Riverside-Brookfield High School and the villages of Brookfield and Riverside."
"We value our relationship with the zoo and with the local municipalities and remain committed to exploring how we all can best serve our constituents and fulfill our unique missions," Vogel said.