When work begins in coming years to widen the I-290 expressway, some properties along the highway will enjoy special protection, said Rick Kuner, a retired Oak Park trustee and transportation expert.

Park land is protected from highway eminent domain laws in a special way by a 1966 law, bolstered by a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Kuner said, in a special issue brief from the Oak Park IDOT study group Citizens for Appropriate Transportation. 

The Illinois Dept. of Transportation must follow stricter rules if it wants to use park land, even temporarily, according to Section 4(f) of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Act of 1966, Kuner wrote.

According to the rules, any transportation projects using federal funds must meet strict guidelines if they impose on any parks, recreational areas or historic sites. IDOT would be obliged to use a “feasible or prudent” alternative first before impinging on any park property, the law says.

Several parks are adjacent to the expressway in areas where IDOT hopes to increase the highway from six lanes to eight. The proposed highway construction area travels through Columbus Park in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, past Oak Park’s Barrie and Rehm parks on the south and the Wenonah “tot lot” on the north. 

Kuner also said Columbus Park and the Oak Park Conservatory — both listed on the National Register of Historic Places — would have special protection if I-290 construction caused negative impacts.

“IDOT must seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate [the effects],” Kuner said.

In Forest Park, park areas in the Ike corridor include the park district at 7501 Harrison, Community Garden land at Harlem Avenue and I-290 and the dog park at Circle Avenue and Lehmer Street.

In Forest Park’s case, the dog park and land used by the community garden are both on “county-owned” land, said Village Administrator Tim Gillian. 

“It is possible that Cook County had a deal at some point with IDOT to build the I-290, but we are not in possession of any record that says so,” wrote Gillian, who thinks there is an agreement with IDOT and the county for use of the land. 

In spite of requests from the Forest Park Recreation Board and dog owners, the village has said they are reluctant to improve the land because it’s not village-owned. 

Kuner thinks the murky ownership of the dog park and community garden area could lead to IDOT proposing using land as “a potential staging area for trucks, or concrete mixers during construction.” 

It would be up to the village to negotiate with IDOT how it will be brought back to original condition, after construction, he said.

When the expressway was built, starting in 1955, it ran right through another type of green space in Forest Park — the Forest Home and Concordia cemeteries. Graves had to be moved and next-of-kin (some overseas) had to be identified and notified. 

But Gillian said cutting through a cemetery is easier than changing park land.

“One of the things that I recall from an IDOT meeting was that it is easier for IDOT to take control over cemetery property than it is to take park district property,” he said.   

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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