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City To Buy Unused Cemetery Land For Nature Preserve

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May Chapel at Rosehill Cemetery. (RosehillCemetery.com)

May Chapel at Rosehill Cemetery. (RosehillCemetery.com)

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CHICAGO (STMW) — The city would acquire 21 acres of woods and wetlands that belong to the sprawling Rosehill Cemetery on the North Side and turn the tract of land into a nature preserve under a plan introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The mayor is seeking city approval to spend $7.8 million — which would come from tax increment financing and tax-exempt bonds — to acquire the land in the northwest corner of the cemetery, roughly Peterson and Western. The city would then turn the tract of land over to the Chicago Park District for a $1.

“The land will be developed into a nature preserve with walking trails, a bird sanctuary and fishing opportunities in the existing … pond,” Michele Lemons, a park district spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to the Sun-Times.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), whose ward includes Rosehill Cemetery, said the nature preserve has been in the works for nearly a decade — and Emanuel got the ball rolling on the purchase with his first congressional earmark.

Negotiations with a “very difficult owner” slowed the process down, but Emanuel picked up the pace shortly after taking office, the alderman said.

“The day of our first meeting, he asked me what ever happened to that project. I told him we were getting very close with negotiations. He had the corporation counsel re-double his efforts, created a drop-dead date of Labor Day, and we made it,” O’Connor said.

“People — not just in my community, but all over the city will have a 20-acre nature preserve in basically virgin forest. This is one of the largest additions of park space the city has had in over 50 years. We’ve been referring to it as a mini-Morton Arboretum. It’ll be a destination spot.”

O’Connor noted that Rosehill Cemetery has been the source of “lawsuits and controversy” for years.

“Before I was elected alderman, they wanted to put a Jewel there. After that, there was talk of a Home Depot. This will end that discussion for all time,” said O’Connor, the mayor’s City Council floor leader.

The only concession the neighborhood had to make in exchange now is allowing senior housing in some of the undedicated portions of the cemetery.

Park officials would work with the Chicago Department of Transportation to secure federal grant money for dedicated trails, fencing and other work in the park. While the city is expected to close the deal with Rosehill’s owners in November, park officials didn’t have a firm timeline for fixing up and opening the preserve, noting that design plans for the area would be unveiled at yet-to-be-scheduled public hearings.

Park officials say that in planning for the area, they’ll be sensitive to the quiet solemnity of the neighboring cemetery.

“There are trails,” Lemons, the park district spokeswoman said. “But I don’t see anything that promotes super active recreation, such as playgrounds and things like that.”

Jessica McDunn, spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, Rosehill’s owner and operator said: “From what I learned, this is going to be a passive park. It is what it is and the city will keep it in a natural state.”

The stretch of land has never been developed for cemetery use, said McDunn, who works in the company’s Texas office.

“The park district has been assured there are no gravesites on the property” its acquiring, Lemons wrote in an e-mail.

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