Jackson Park Watch Update – January 27, 2018

Greetings, all! 

NEW! With typical short notice, the Park District/Chicago Parks Golf Alliance has scheduled ONE (and only one!) meeting for community review and discussion of the golf course plans: NEXT WEDNESDAY, Jan. 31, at the South Shore Cultural Center at 6 p.m.


Key issues to check on include:
* preservation of the Nature Sanctuary and recreation areas;
* expansion of the new golf course site beyond the current footprints of the courses;
* expansion of the current driving range rather than shifting it south of Hayes Drive;
* continued accessibility and affordability for local golfers;
* cost to taxpayers for infrastructure work; and
* evidence of a viable business plan.

NOTE: JPW advocates opposition to changes that go beyond the footprints of the current courses and/or that remove the Nature Sanctuary and existing recreational areas. A key point you may want to make: the upgraded golf course does NOT need to be longer and could fit in the current footprint! In fact, current discussions in golfing circles focus on problems with longer golf courses, with some elite players predicting that shorter courses are the wave of the future.

OPC redesign prompts further questions:

Jackson Park Watch has not previously commented extensively on the OPC site plan or building design. However, as JPW and others have had a chance to review the revised design for the Obama Presidential Center, attention is required.

The substantially greater height of the proposed tower (now 235’) and the revelation that the Obama Foundation apparently intends to spotlight it at night have been focal points for many. (For comparison, the Museum of Science and Industry is approximately 125’ tall and the Logan Center for the Performing Arts on the UChicago campus, also by the OPC architects, is 170’ tall.) Concerns about the large shadow on sunny days and the nighttime light pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods as well as about the impact on migrating birds are getting attention.

Questions about the uses of the proposed buildings have also been raised. The Lakefront Protection Ordinance application describes the tower as “composed of 8 primary floors and multiple mezzanine levels”; the museum is described as taking up about half of the building. There will be rental/event space in the tower and in other buildings. The relationship between the proposed 40,000 sq. ft. Athletic Center and the Jackson Park Fieldhouse and South Side YMCA has not been made clear.

Some have taken note of the overall site plan as well, observing that all traces of the existing segment of Jackson Park – trees, shrubs, grass, even the existing grade levels – would be eliminated by the OPC design. (The Obama Foundation plans to clear-cut and level the site.) Questions about the amount of existing recreational space that would be eliminated have been raised also, as well as questions about the replacement parkland that the City is required to provide in lieu of the OPC land. While the Obama Foundation prefers to call the proposed OPC campus “parkland,” a privately controlled site is certainly not a public park. Issues of ownership and control need to be clarified. The Obama Foundation states that the OPC will be free and open to the public, but we know that the museum and the underground parking garage will both require fees, and while presumably those fees have been factored into the budget, that information has yet to be made public.

Many have noted as well that the OPC redesign continues to presume the closure of Cornell Drive and the extensive road changes that would entail (all at taxpayer expense). The absence of attention to public transit or to access by pedestrians or bicycles has also raised some eyebrows: the auto-centric plan includes 450 parking spaces for cars and 38 for bicycles.

Two reviews are underway:

First, the Chicago Plan Commission review. The OPC has applied for rezoning of the park site as a Planned Development, and under a separate application argues that its plan meets all of the requirements of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. The CPD and CDOT have also submitted related applications; all are available on-line (scroll to bottom of screen). However, the applications do not include many supplementary studies needed for a thorough and rigorous review. Information from shadow and sun access studies, pedestrian circulation studies, tree studies, wind studies, traffic and parking impact studies, and other such vital indicators of the effects of the OPC on the near neighborhood and broader community should be made available for the review, not only to the Plan Commission members but also to the public in general; they are not now available. JPW will be pursuing these issues. The formal Plan Commission hearing on the OPC is now scheduled for mid-April (likely April 19, the regular meeting date).  All interested members of the public will be able to attend and testify, so you may want to add this to your calendar.

Related to the Plan Commission review: It has been announced that the Obama Foundation, CDOT, and the Park District will host public meeting(s) in mid-February in preparation for the Plan Commission hearing. It is unusual for such a preparatory meeting to occur, and it is unclear what purpose such a meeting could serve. JPW has asked for more information and will share what is learned.

Second, the federal review process is focused on the questions of whether the proposed development is appropriate for an historic park that is on the National Register of Historic Places and whether the project will have adverse environmental impacts. Since the Plan Commission and City Council can be expected to approve the applications that come to them, these federal reviews are extremely significant. Construction of the OPC cannot begin until these federal reviews are concluded and mitigation of adverse impacts (if any) is explored.

Stay tuned for more information on these parallel reviews and for specific opportunities for public input.

South Lakefront Framework Plan timing questioned:

Among the “Key Milestone” dates posted on the City Department of Planning and Development website are several unspecified events in January and February designated as “preparation for final steps” in the development of the new South Lakefront Framework Plan and concluding on an unspecified date in April when the final plan would be presented to the Park District Board of Commissioner.

However, as has been noted many times, the Framework Plan process that the Park District is running is seriously flawed in two essential ways:

  • rather than being one coherent planning process that encompasses the whole of Jackson Park, it is siloed, with three (or more) projects being proposed simultaneously yet reviewed separately;
  • further, it is based on the premise that the Obama Presidential Center will be constructed as now proposed, that all of the (costly) road changes it demands will take place; and that the golf course merger/expansion will similarly occur as initially proposed.

In fact, none of these projects can proceed prior to the end of the federal review process described above, which is expected to conclude in the fall at the earliest.   We understand that the Park District wishes to create momentum for all of these proposals. However, any Framework Plan based on these initial premises may well need to be revised shortly depending on what actually transpires during the review.

Help us with a donation!

The legal assistance your donations have enabled us to secure is proving invaluable. Such expert counsel is critical to our ability to raise key questions and concerns. Please consider a contribution (or a second one). Your check can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you! 

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

Jackson Park Watch Update – January 14, 2018

Greetings, all!

More recent news — AGAIN!

NEW! Be sure to check out the new “Federal Reviews” page on our website for information about the federal review processes and to read the comment letters from a range of organizations that are posted there.

OPC redesign: Hard on the heels of the community’s successful push to force the Obama Foundation to abandon plans for an above-ground parking garage on the east end of the Midway Plaisance, the Obama Foundation, demonstrating its determination to press ahead quickly, released plans for an Obama Presidential Center redesign.

As reported in the Sun-Times, Tribune, and Crain’s Chicago Business, and covered broadly on radio and TV, the redesign, while including some interesting architectural features, is essentially just a restatement of the plans released many months ago – except that the tower is now to be 225’ tall! But still not addressed are many key community concerns, including the impact of the OPC and of the essentially discretionary road changes on the Olmsted design and vision for Jackson Park and the cost and sources of funding for those extensive infrastructure “improvements.” As the Sun-Times noted in an editorial, much more discussion and information are needed. The Sun-Times also reported the previously unpublicized fact that the controversial proposal to close Cornell Drive, which is driving the road configurations, was part of the University of Chicago’s original bid to attract the OPC to Chicago.

  • Not enough people know that Cornell Drive, rather than being a recent addition to the Park, was designed by Olmsted himself in 1895 as the best way to experience the Park. A broad roadway to be shared by carriages and cars, it was 40’ wide. (For more on Olmsted’s vision and design for Jackson Park, see the statements by The Cultural Landscape Foundation and National Association of Olmsted Parks posted on our new “Federal Reviews” page.)

Rezoning and Lakefront Protection Ordinance applications submitted simultaneously:  Also this past week the Obama Foundation submitted formal applications to the City for permission to build the OPC under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and to rezone the site from parkland zoning to planned development institutional zoning.  Property owners within 250’ of the site that is now claimed for the OPC should soon receive notices of the applications from the Obama Foundation’s law firm Neal & Leroy. If you think should receive such a notice and do not, let JPW know at jacksonparkwarch@gmail.com .

  • JPW is analyzing these applications with the assistance of its attorneys. Look for information about the applications, how this process will unfold, and how the community can participate in the Plan Commission reviews in the near future. Although we know the process is effectively controlled by the Mayor, it is essential that community concerns are raised and that the Obama Foundation, CDOT, and the Department of Planning and Development are required to address them.
  • Note that, as the applications themselves acknowledge, even after Plan Commission and City Council approvals are secured, approvals through the federal reviews now underway are also needed.

OPC construction contracts: The Obama Foundation has received kudos for contracting with the Lakeside Alliance, a consortium that includes four local minority-owned construction firms. While this is indeed good news, it is interesting to note that the fifth, non-minority-owned member of the consortium, Turner Construction Co., will alone have a 49% share of the work.

Help us continue our work with a donation!

The federal reviews will continue for many months; they are key to the final outcome. In the meantime, the Plan Commission/City Council process needs to be critically scrutinized.   Much is at stake. Your donations help us bring outside expertise to maximize the community voice. Please consider a contribution. Your check can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you!

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

Jackson Park Special Update – January 9, 2018

Greetings, all!


The parking garage: The Obama Foundation has announced that it is abandoning its attempt to build an above-ground parking garage at the east end of the Midway Plaisance and will instead build a garage underground on the site already designated for the Obama Presidential Center.  Read all about it in the Sun-Times, Tribune, and Herald.  Congratulations to all those who helped create this positive outcome!  Let us all hope that the Obama Foundation continues to listen to community voices!

UChicago faculty letter:   Faculty at the University of Chicago are circulating a letter stating concerns about  numerous aspects of the Obama Foundation plans to date and raising the question of whether an alternate site for the OPC should be considered.   As reported in Crain’s Chicago Business, “W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, said he and Jonathan Lear, a philosophy professor, initiated the letter. Mitchell, author of a book, “Landscape and Power,” attended community meetings hosted by backers of the Obama Center and found them patronizing, he said. Compared with long presentations, he said, there was little time for questions from the audience. ‘More and more I heard these murmurs of discontent, which were getting louder and louder,’ he says, recalling his conclusion: ‘Well . . . this is one of those Chicago power plays.’”    (Note: you may have trouble accessing the full text of the Crain’s article unless you subscribe or have established a log-in.)

FOTP comments on the Section 106 review:  We want to add to the report in our last Update on the federal review of the impact of the OPC the historic Jackson Park.  In its consulting party statement, Friends of the Parks identified the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park as a key adverse effect on the entire Olmsted park system; highlighted the need to preserve the road system in keeping with the Olmsted design; and called again for comprehensive park planning.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch


Jackson Park Watch Update – January 6, 2018

Greetings, all, and Happy 2018!

2018 is off to a busy start on Jackson Park issues.

Federal agencies review OPC and CDOT plans:

Update readers will recall that the federally-required reviews of the massive proposed changes for Jackson Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, began on December 1. The initial focus is on Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and an accompanying review under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) that will begin soon.

JPW among many others signed on to be a “consulting party” to the Section 106 process and was at that December kickoff meeting. At that meeting, a proposed list of historic park features and maps of the “Area of Potential Effect” (APE) that would be evaluated during the review were presented, and consulting parties were invited to submit feedback for the public record by January 5. To date, we have been able to review the submissions by Save the Midway, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Midway Plaisance Advisory Council, Openlands, Landmarks Illinois, National Association of Olmsted Parks, Blacks in Green, and Preservation Chicago – and our own, of course. Some major concerns and themes that we found repeated again and again include:

  • Requests for a one, holistic, comprehensive review of all the proposed plans for the Park, stemming from frustration with the siloed attempt to assess the impact of the various proposals (OPC, golf course, road changes, Park District elements) separately, in isolation.
  • Requests that full information about all planned projects be revealed (especially those for Obama Presidential Center and the golf course) along with questions as to how a possibly premature review aimed at a moving target could be productive.
  • Deep concerns about the ways in which the OPC plan and in particular the road changes that it requires distort or destroy Frederick Law Olmsted’s design and vision for Jackson Park.
  • Numerous recommendations that the APE be expanded to include all of the Midway Plaisance (not just the eastern tip) and additional suggestions to include Washington Park as well to fully respect Olmsted’s original concept of the three parks as a single South Park System.
  • Substantial opposition to the above-ground parking garage on the Midway Plaisance as proposed by the Obama Foundation, along with multiple suggestions for an underground garage under the OPC buildings.

We want also to highlight some additional points from these individual submissions (with apologies for omitting other excellent points in the interests of space):

  • The Cultural Landscape Foundation strongly critiqued Obama Presidential Center plans, including the design of the high rise “Tower” and the proposed changes to the Olmsted road network that contradict the original Olmsted intent. TCLF president Charles Birnbaum stated many of the concerns in a Huffington Post op-ed piece.
  • Openlands proposed a statement of principles to guide the Section 106 review including: minimize building in the parks; replace any land used for buildings with new or reclaimed park acreage (with the added note that the greening of vacated roads does not constitute new park land); provide convenient public access and transportation; exploit synergies with existing community and cultural institutions; and restore and revitalize all of the parks – Jackson, Washington, and the Midway Plaisance.
  • Landmarks Illinois called for expanding the APE to include both the Woodlawn neighborhood in light of potential economic displacement impacts there and the Jackson Park Highlands Historic District, and, within the APE, for acknowledging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers GLFER Project on and around Wooded Island as a national model for balancing ecological needs with historic preservation goals.
  • The National Association of Olmsted Parks called for designation of Cornell Drive and Hayes Drive themselves as historic resources within Jackson Park.
  • Preservation Chicago added concerns about the proposed removal of the May McAdams Perennial Garden between Stony Island Ave. and Cornell Drive where Jackson Park meets the Midway and the impact on the Park’s many and invaluable trees, green spaces and gardens.
  • Finally, Jackson Park Watch asked that the review area include the entire golf course project and challenged the claim that the existing 1999-2000 Framework plans calls for closing Cornell Drive, points raised also by Blacks in Green.

We believe all would benefit from reading in full the thoughtful statements from all of the consulting parties noted above. We hope soon to be able to post these documents and others Section 106/NEPA materials on our Jackson Park Watch website. Stay tuned while we work this out.

Also ahead in 2018:

JPW is also tracking other strands of the Jackson Park story and will keep you informed:

  • The Park District has said it will hold community meetings on the golf course project in the first quarter of the year but there is as yet no schedule. Park District CEO Mike Kelly recently noted that the project is stalled by private fundraising difficulties and the high public cost of the necessary infrastructure improvements ($30 million for underpasses; TBD for shoreline revetments), but he vowed to continue to push the project.
  • Whether the golf course project discussions will be under the umbrella of the South Lakefront Framework Plan process is unclear.       Next steps and the end date for that process is unclear, but we expect that the Park District will hold additional public open houses on the Framework Plan in the first part of this year.
  • Throughout 2017 the Obama Foundation repeated its intention to present the plan for the OPC to the City Council and Chicago Plan Commission by November.   Now there are references to making that submission in the first half of 2018.       In the meantime, the Obama Foundation has just awarded its construction management contracts, while it has continued to refuse to work with the Obama Community Benefits Coalition on a written community benefits agreement. The possible construction start date is now set for the end of the year.


The Section 106 reviews will continue for many months, and much is at stake. Your donations help us bring outside expertise to maximize our effectiveness. Please consider a contribution. Your check can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you!

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch