Jackson Park Watch Update – May 13, 2017

Greetings, all,

JPW has attended many meetings over the past few weeks. There has also been much coverage of the Obama Presidential Center and the golf course re-do in the media. We want to share what we think are the most important revelations, issues, unanswered questions, and opportunities for action, but will do so in two parts: Part #1, for those with little time to spare at the moment; and Part #2, for those with the time to read the detail.


Progress and questions: The vision for the Obama Presidential Center described by President Obama on May 3 has many positive features but raises key questions, especially concerning the ideas of closing Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd (where would that traffic go? who would pay?), of putting an underground parking garage topped with a plaza at the east end of the Midway between the Metra and Stony Island (again, who would pay?), and of situating large-scale outdoor arenas directly across from the tranquil natural areas of Wooded Island (could there be a buffer zone?). At the same time, backers of the proposed golf course “transformation” project say it requires closing Marquette Road, while the planning for the project itself has run into serious problems with worse than anticipated shoreline erosion and costly engineering challenges.

Comprehensive plan urgently needed: How can it be that these two proposals for such major changes to Jackson Park are proceeding on the same time line, but otherwise entirely separately. Coordination and community input are urgently needed, starting with addressing their impact on the character of the park and on traffic and parking. JPW continues to ask both the Park District and the Obama Foundation to establish an inclusive, transparent process that would give the community a significant voice in defining a common vision and comprehensive plan for Jackson Park.

What you can do: You can support that call by sending a message to:

Possible message: “The ambitious plans for the Obama Presidential Center and golf course transformation require not only coordination but an overall vision for Jackson Park. Please join with (insert either “the Chicago Park District” or “the Obama Foundation” as appropriate) to establish such a process, and ensure that the community has significant input.”


Obama Presidential Center

JPW was at the event on May 3 when President Obama described his vision for his Presidential Center (OPC). The label is important: this will not be a library in the usual sense, and no presidential documents or artifacts will be stored there; it will remain in private hands after construction rather than being turned over to the federal government. Instead, the physical records will be stored elsewhere in an existing government facility and documents will be digitized for immediate and easy on-line access. JPW salutes the Obamas for this innovation, and similarly applauds their stated intention for the OPC to focus on programming to train civic leaders and promote community interaction.

JPW was also at the May 10 meeting, another invitation-only event, where approximately 75 people heard presentations from the team of landscape architects concerning their current plans for the site and solicited input from those in attendance.

Not surprisingly, the scope and ambition of these plans give rise to major questions. Here are some significant issues that need to be addressed:

1)  The Obama Presidential Center proposal shifts the footprint of the Center northward and eastward of the original space defined for its placement in the City Ordinance of 1-21-15, which specified the area between 60th and 63rd, Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive.  This appears to increase the park acreage given over to the OPC as well as redefining its exact location. Will City Council have to vote on a revised ordinance?

2) The closure of Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd Streets is central to this initial design. Traffic studies of the feasibility and impact of this closure are reportedly underway, but plans for rerouting of the traffic currently using Cornell onto Stony Island or elsewhere are not yet publicly available.

  • According to some estimates, the closure of Cornell would add approximately five acres of green space to the Park. Would this be presented as all or part of the “nearby replacement green space” that the City promised to provide in the 1-21-15 ordinance?   Is the amount of replacement green space that was promised five acres or twenty or more?
  • How many acres of parkland would it take to provide new traffic exchanges or alternate routes? What would the net impact on park acreage actually be?
  • What would be the cost and who would pay for the work associated with the closure and rerouting?

3) A proposed underground parking garage – to be situated between the Metra and Stony at the east end of the Midway and topped with an outdoor plaza and walkways – was highlighted by the landscape architects at the May 10 event as providing good access to the OPC and good views over Jackson Park. However, President Obama specified on May 3 that the Obama Foundation would not be paying for construction of this structure, raising another question about the financing of the ambitious OPC proposal as well as how parking would otherwise be provided.

4) The OPC design includes a children’s play area, sledding hill and a large lawn area. These areas might have the latest in play equipment, climbing walls, and the like and would, according to the landscape architects, provide space for large public events such as concerts and movies. Those attractions could draw families to the OPC.  At the same time, many in the community value the current open and green nature of the portion of the Park that lies east of the OPC site and wish to preserve as much of that natural landscape as possible.  In order to protect those natural spaces, would the parkland freed up by the removal of Cornell Drive (if that occurs) function as a protective transition zone between the Millennium Park-type activities of the OPC and the adjacent nature zone of Wooded Island and Bobolink Meadow?

5) We note that the proposed design shifts the existing track and athletic field south toward 63rd Street, still across from Hyde Park Academy High School, thus helping the City fulfill its commitment to the community to relocate and rebuild that much-used facility. The OPC design also includes a “Proposed Athletic Center” adjacent to the relocated field. How does this relate to the existing fieldhouse? Would it replace it? Compete with it? Would the Obama Foundation finance this facility totally or in part?

6) What process will the Obama Foundation establish to ensure robust community input on the OPC plans announced so far and as they continue to evolve? The opportunity to comment on a website is fine, but is far from sufficient. Similarly, invitation-only events offer selected members of the community opportunities for input, but this too is far from sufficient.
Golf Courses Transformation
Work on this project has slowed. Recent articles in the Sun-Times and DNAInfo have reported that the $1.1 engineering study undertaken by the Park District has revealed problems with lakefront erosion along the South Shore golf course and further north that are more serious than expected and will be more costly to repair than anticipated. This work will be in addition to the underpass under South Shore Drive that would be necessary to connect the two golf courses. Park District CEO Mike Kelly has said that fundraising efforts for the golf course re-do are now being delayed until the full extent of the needed infrastructure work can be determined and federal or state money secured to pay for that work.

At the same time, the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance (CPGA) has confirmed that it wants to have Marquette Drive closed between Cornell and Richards Drives in order to accommodate the newly configured golf course. It has also mentioned the possibility of constructing a bridge over Jeffrey (rather than an underpass) to connect the Jackson Park segments of the course. The cost of both of these alterations would fall to the Park District, that is, to Chicago taxpayers. CPGA has also responded to concern about congestion caused by the hoped-for thousands of spectators at the proposed PGA tournaments, explaining that, as is typical for PGA tournaments, attendees at any PGA tournament in Jackson Park would park in remote lots (e.g., Soldier Field) and would be bussed to and from the course. Such an arrangement would avoid some traffic problems, but would likely dramatically limit the hoped-for beneficial economic impact of such tournaments on the immediate neighborhood.

In spite of the project delays, CPGA has already been actively launching new youth golf programs. JPW hopes that CPGA would sustain and expand such positive programming regardless of the final determination about the feasibility of the construction project.

What is the community’s vision for Jackson Park in the 21st century?

The wide-ranging changes proposed, separately and without any coordination, by the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance/Chicago Park District, would certainly “transform” Jackson Park, but as yet there has been no opportunity for the community to express its views about these projects and the future of the Park. There have been Obama Foundation events and CPGA events, each eliciting feedback or support from selected groups, but there has been no forum that considers Jackson Park as a whole, that articulates a common vision for the future, or that is open to the community as a whole. JPW has continued to urge the Park District and the Obama Foundation to establish an inclusive process to define a comprehensive plan for Jackson Park in partnership with the community.

You can support that call and express your opinions by writing to:

Possible message: “The ambitious plans for the Obama Presidential Center and golf course transformation require not only coordination but an overall vision for Jackson Park. Please join with (insert either “the Chicago Park District” or “the Obama Foundation” as appropriate) to establish such a process, and ensure that the community has significant input.”

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid

Jackson Park Watch


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