After due diligence from the community, the Saint Ignatius athletic fields deserve the opportunity to move forward to benefit the greater good
September 6, 2019

Saint Ignatius recently held a celebration on one of its new athletic fields. Many community members are looking forward to the new facilities.

Recent efforts by Saint Ignatius College Prep to construct new athletic facilities on 12 acres of land across from its campus along Roosevelt Road will benefit many in our community. It’s a “win-win” for the high school, the students and families at nearby John M. Smyth Elementary School, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the University of Illinois at Chicago, other area residents, and possibly local sports programs.

The project has been a long time in the making as it took some years for Saint Ignatius to acquire the land bounded by Roosevelt Road, Blue Island Avenue, and Morgan Street. The previous landowners and tenants have included the Duncan YMCA, Provision Theater, and UIC, which used the southern portion of the acreage for parking. It’s a $5 million investment and a consortium of entities, including Saint Ignatius, its nonprofit partner Inner City Education and Recreation Foundation (ICERF), CPS and Smyth School, UIC, and the City of Chicago have joined together to hone the vision and secure community input and approval. Saint Ignatius and ICERF have led the fundraising effort and no City dollars are going towards the project. Some may disagree with how much input was given to Smyth School parents and other community residents, and that has led to the recent halt of the project.

In addition to offering Saint Ignatius student athletes sorely needed new athletic fields for the school’s outdoor sports, including baseball, football, lacrosse, soccer, and rugby, future phases will add tennis courts, bleachers, and concession stands to the athletic fields.

What is just as exciting is that the local community will have access to, and benefit from, this multi-million dollar investment by Saint Ignatius and ICERF. UIC will be able to use the NCAA-sanctioned track. Smyth School will have access to the privately operated Dan and Ada Rice Park, which also is undergoing renovations as part of this project, with full access during the Smyth school day, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. In addition, Smyth School will receive a new circle drive for student drop-offs and pick-ups—which will add more security and safety to a congested Blue Island Avenue. It also will receive a multimedia sign and the removal of the building that formerly housed the Bernice Joyner Child-Parent Center (CPC). Therein lies the rub.

The project was abruptly halted by 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez in the summer as he, some Smyth parents, members of the Pilsen Alliance (which he served as director leading up to his election), and other community residents have voiced objections as to how the project has been communicated to the community and the planned demolition of the building housing the former Joyner center. That structure, which has been dormant for ten years and is suspected to contain asbestos, is an eyesore and of no use to Smyth School or the community. CPS has had a decade to do something with the building, and instead it has let it remain shuttered and says it “is unfit for educational programs.”

We find the sudden delay by Alderman Sigcho-Lopez puzzling. The discussions around the Ignatius field project and supporting documentation made its run through the CPS some time ago. A Chicago Board of Education report from 2017 outlined and made public the shared use agreement’s details. We would have hoped that the Smyth School Local School Council and parents would have been made privy to those documents at that time.   

For the record, Gazette Chicago offered a strong endorsement of Sigcho-Lopez when he was running in a crowded field to replace disgraced former Alderman Daniel Solis. We did so for many reasons, and one was Sigcho-Lopez’s activism and willingness to stand up for those lacking appropriate representation in the community. We stand by that decision and are pleased to see his willingness to stand up for the community as an elected official. Yet, we disagree with him on this one.

For 37 years, Gazette Chicago has railed against decisions “made in a vacuum.” In our coverage in this issue on this subject, Sigcho-Lopez said he wanted to see an end to “business as usual and back-room deals.” We do, too, and that’s why we endorsed him over the others in the field and are glad that the Solis years as alderman are behind us. However, unless Sigcho-Lopez and other opponents to this project can offer solid evidence that a “back-room deal” occurred, we ask that after a reasonable number of future community meetings and input, the project be allowed to proceed.  So, please, go ahead and show the Smyth parents the original agreement about the demolition of the Joyner CPC.

We also don’t agree with the opinion of an individual attending the meeting held by Sigcho-Lopez on July 22 that this is an effort to expedite gentrification. We don’t see the connection between new athletic fields and high-priced housing. We also don’t see Saint Ignatius turning these fields into a high-end residential development any time soon—not when it has waited all these years to acquire the land, raise millions of dollars to build the facilities, and offer tangible benefits for its students and their families and for the surrounding community.

We do agree that something should be done to preserve the name and legacy of Bernice Joyner, who was beloved in the community. Saint Ignatius is open to doing so.

John Chandler, Saint Ignatius vice president and president of ICERF attended the July meeting and spoke openly about his institution’s intentions. He referenced Saint Ignatius College Prep’s long-standing presence in and contributions to the community.

So, let’s bring all of the needed parties together again; have some open lines of communication; allow Alderman Sigcho-Lopez to do his due diligence; and then get past the arguing and put a much needed project that will benefit so many local entities back on track.

It’s a “win-win” for all who will exhibit good sportsmanship on the athletic fields and for all who will have access to what looks to be shaping up as some of the best athletic fields on the Near West Side. Let’s all get along and let’s “play ball!”