Jackson Park Watch Update – March 25, 2018

Greetings all!

TAKING STOCK: the story of the Obama Presidential Center, road closures and realignments, and the related golf course merger/expansion project is complicated and ever-changing as it proceeds down multiple pathways simultaneously. Our attempt to cut through the confusion and summarize the current situation is below.

The Obama Presidential Center and the related road changes

The Plan Commission

  • The OPC application for a zoning change and the OPC and CDOT applications under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, long expected to be heard by the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday, April 19, may not be reviewed until May. We will keep you posted.
  • When the meeting does occur, it will start at 10 am and continue until all public comments have been taken.
  • Each speaker will be limited to 3 minutes, but everyone will be allowed to speak, so this could take many hours.
  • We urge everyone who has questions or concerns to be there if at all possible. We will provide more details about ways to participate as the date approaches.
  • Remember, Plan Commission approval will NOT mean the project can proceed. Approvals via the federal review process are needed before any work can start.

Federal review #1 – Section 106

  • A Section 106 review began December 1. Remember, this is a mandatory review of any project in a public park or place listed on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places that involves federal funding or requires federal approval: the proposed road changes trigger this review, which covers the OPC as well and focuses on historic buildings and sites.
  • The second Section 106 meeting has been set for Thursday, March 29, from 3:30 to 5:30 pm, in the auditorium of U Chicago’s Logan Center (915 E. 60th St.).
  • The meeting will consider the draft Historic Properties Inventory and Archeology Reports, and discuss next steps. The (very lengthy) reports are available online (scroll down to the March 19 entry under Milestones). The City’s Department of Planning and Development is taking public comments on the reports until April 19 via email to its general address – DPD@cityofchicago.org (be sure to include reference to Section 106 review of OPC in the subject line). The Archeology Report was summarized by Blair Kamin in the 3/25 Tribune.
  • The March 29 meeting is open to the public, and we urge interested people to attend. We note, however, that the timing is less than ideal for public input: CPS and many other schools are on break, the next day is Good Friday, Passover starts on Saturday, and Easter is on Sunday.

Federal review #2 – NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)

  • A NEPA review of the proposals for the OPC and road changes is also required. It will focus on impacts on the environment broadly defined as including wildlife and habitat, air and water quality, noise, traffic, and socioeconomic factors.
  • Although it was reported at the December 1 Section 106 kickoff meeting that the NEPA review would be “starting soon,” that has not happened. We are hopeful that there will be word on that schedule at the March 29 meeting.

Federal review #3 – Section 4(f)

  • A Section 4(f) review is also triggered by the CDOT road proposals under the US Department of Transportation Act, which provides for consideration of the impact on parkland and historic sites during transportation project development.
  • Beyond a mention in the initial letter sent to Section 106 consulting parties, there is no indication to date that this will take place.
  • A 4(f) review is especially important because it requires substantive consideration of alternatives to proposed road projects.
  • JPW will continue to follow this issue closely.

Federal review #4 – UPARR (Urban Parks And Recreational Recovery Act)

  • Because improvements and programs in Jackson Park were funded by several grants under the UPARR program, recreational areas in the park cannot be converted to non-recreational use unless certain conditions are met and approval by the National Park Service is forthcoming.
  • One of the conditions is provision of appropriate alternate parkland.
  • Virtually no public information has been made available about this review to date.

South Lakefront Framework Plan

The Park District has continued to rush through its hastily developed South Lakefront Framework Plan (SLFP), which is now slated to be approved by the Park District Board at its April 11 meeting. Here are key points to keep in mind:

  • The Park District and others continue to assert that the placement of the OPC, the proposed road changes, and the golf course expansion/merger were needed to support the SLFP.
  • In fact the opposite is the case: the SLFP was initiated after all of those proposals were already developed and was premised on their being in the Park. No public discussion of the status of these key projects was entertained at any point during the SLFP development process.
  • While there are many elements in the new SLFP that many may like, there is as yet no funding for anything other than (potentially) the OPC and road changes and the relocation of the current track to accommodate the OPC.  Like prior park framework plans, it merely sets forth, without funding plans or timelines, possible projects to be developed over the next 10 years, and is subject to on-going change.
  • Of particular concern in this regard is the failure to provide a real plan and timeline for the much-needed replacement of the Jackson Park Fieldhouse, now 60 years old and in bad shape after years of under investment.

That golf course plan

  • Beyond the much-hyped revised design, proposals to actually move the project forward have not been submitted to the Plan Commission.
  • While a Section 106 and NEPA review would certainly be required for that project, as would a review under the City’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, none has yet been initiated.
  • Funding for the golf course and/or the expensive related infrastructure has not been identified.

The broader context

This complicated story of multiple proposals, reviews and timelines for changes in Jackson Park is set against the background of the surrounding neighborhoods that will be impacted by the proposals. A recent Washington Post article provides a wide-angled view of the issues.

Donations welcomed – and needed!

THANKS to all who have recently donated. Your trust and support motivates us to persist – and that we will!

Beyond our new roads initiative, now well underway, we continue to need funds to support the legal assistance that has been critical to ensure that our work is focused effectively. Please send your checks to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. If you have questions about our request for support, please feel free to contact us at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – March 18, 2018

Greetings all!

New JPW roads initiative underway

Jackson Park Watch has launched a new initiative, commissioning an expert analysis of CDOT’s plans to close Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets in Jackson Park in order to accommodate the initial design for the Obama Presidential Center. The JPW initiative also includes exploration of an alternative that would allow the Obama Presidential Center to remain in Jackson Park.

Jackson Park Watch believes this initiative is necessary for several key reasons:

  • The CDOT-proposed road changes, most recently estimated to cost $175 million (although that is certainly not the final tab), put an undue and unnecessary burden on taxpayers, and the Obama Presidential Center could still be located in Jackson Park without all those expensive changes.
  • The CDOT-proposed road changes create problems of pedestrian and vehicular safety and congestion. For example, the recently revealed proposal to create a “road diet” on Cornell Drive between 57th and 59th Streets creates a bottleneck for drivers, a hazard for those trying to use the parking spots along that stretch, and safety problems for adults and children, especially at local schools. The proposal to route traffic between Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island along Hayes Drive creates a new congested and hazardous “S” curve that bisects the park.
  • The CDOT-proposed road changes make it difficult for local users to access the park for recreational uses. For example, the proposal to ban parking along Hayes Drive – now heavily used by people to access the adjacent playing fields, the 63rd Street Beach, the golf course, or Wooded Island – limits access to green and open space and does not include adequate new parking options. Indeed, the CDOT parking analysis, which projects the loss of 236 parking spaces overall, is focused on meeting the needs of visitors to the OPC and not those of other park users.
  • The CDOT-proposed road changes destroy key portions of the historic Olmsted design of Jackson Park.
  • There is no need to rush to decision. Despite the Plan Commission’s almost certain approval of the CDOT-proposed road changes in April, no work on any road change can begin until the federal reviews – now underway and set to last until at least December – are complete.
  • There are alternatives that would enable the Obama Presidential Center to exist in harmony with Jackson Park and its neighbors. One such example, the alternative that JPW’s traffic expert will explore, is the proposal to narrow Cornell Drive and “calm” its traffic, which was a recommendation in the 1999-2000 Jackson Park/South Shore Framework Plan and was touted most recently in the 2016 proposal put forward by the Park District and Project 120.

JPW’s roads initiative took shape when three things converged: City Hall announced the $175 million price tag to taxpayers; the traffic study behind CDOT’s plan was posted on the City’s web site; and after 20+ refusals, JPW was able to find a well-established traffic consultancy to undertake an evaluation. Stay tuned for the more news on this.

Meeting Report #1: A “community conversation” at last!

The March 7 symposium at the University of Chicago was the scene of the first and, to date, only genuine community conversation about the Obama Presidential Center and the myriad of related issues. It demonstrated that, as pointed out not long ago in the Tribune , the debate is more about race, class, and power than about Jackson Park, President Obama, or the OPC.

After an opening by symposium organizer and UC faculty member Tom Mitchell and presentations by the invited panelists – Naomi Davis of Blacks in Green, Charles Birnbaum of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Jawanza Malone of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and (in a statement read by Mitchell) Michael Sorkin of the Michael Sorkin Studio – the audience had its chance to voice opinions in a discussion moderated skillfully by Barbara Ransby, a UIC faculty member.

And opinions there were, cutting across race and class and neighborhood lines! Some challenged the right of others to ask questions or voice concerns. Some insisted on the importance of raising questions and getting answers in the interests of transparency. There was common agreement that the OPC should be on the South Side and that President Obama himself is not the issue. There was much disagreement about the impact of the OPC on the surrounding neighborhoods, with strong support for a community benefits agreement as essential to protect residents from displacement. Another recurring theme was the need to hold the University of Chicago accountable for the secrecy of its bid for the Obama Library (a bid never made public), which offered public park land and also, reportedly, the closure of Cornell Drive, but required nothing of the University itself.

Sadly, the Obama Foundation, the City, the Park District and the University had all refused invitations to participate on the panel. No follow-up is currently planned.

The symposium can be viewed in full on YouTube. (You may need to adjust the video to start at the very beginning of the discussion).

Meeting Report #2: South Lakefront Framework Plan Final Meetings

The final round of South Lakefront Framework Plan meetings this week presented the Park District’s close-to-final version of its aspirational, unfunded potential changes to the Park. As with prior versions, it presumes that the OPC will be sited as the Obama Foundation originally projected, that all of the OPC-related road changes will occur, and that the current golf course merger/expansion plan will take place. Meeting fatigue has clearly set in, as shown by the fact that the meetings were not well attended. This is perhaps accounted for by the additional fact that, while relatively small issues have been acknowledged and sometimes addressed, big questions about the golf course, nature sanctuary, road changes, and the siting of the OPC itself have been off limits throughout. While Park District presenters continue to say “we are listening” and “this is a work in progress,” this version of the Framework Plan will be taken to the Park District Board for approval in the near future (April 11 is the targeted date).

If you missed the meetings, the presentation slides and posters are available on-line and comments on the “draft” plans can still be submitted.

Is it inevitable?

Many have noted the ways in which the Obama Foundation, the Mayor, the Park District, and CDOT have portrayed the adoption of all the plans for major changes to Jackson Park as inevitable, a Chicago-style “done deal.” But is that accurate? Here are some things to remember:

  • Plans for the Obama Presidential Center to date have no permissions, no approvals, and no permits. Final approval is not possible prior to the conclusion of the federal review process.
  • Plans for the major road changes CDOT has proposed to accommodate the OPC have no permissions, no approvals, and no permits. Final approval is not possible prior to the conclusion of the federal review process.
  • The adoption of the hastily executed South Lakefront Framework Plan is an attempt to enshrine the OPC, the associated road changes, and the expanded/merged golf course proposal, but it does nothing to assure that the proposed changes will be implemented. Funding for those three initiatives is not yet secured, and funding for the associated park amenities which many in the community would enjoy is not on hand and will not be even after the SLFP is approved.

Your support is time-urgent!

We have appreciated generous donations from a large number of supporters for our work to date. Now we find ourselves in the position of asking for additional contributions.

We believe that our new roads initiative is critical to our work going forward for several reasons:

  • the roads proposal is the most problematic part of the overall plans to “transform” Jackson Park, relying as it does on massive, discretionary, and disruptive taxpayer-funded changes to the road system in the Park;
  • the road changes need to pass numerous federal reviews (section 106, section 4(f), NEPA), and approval is not certain;
  • exploring options only makes sense so that all concerned can consider alternatives that would be in the best interests of the OPC and the community it wishes to benefit.

Beyond our roads initiative, we continue to need funds to support the legal counsel that has been critical to focus our efforts effectively. If you have questions about our request for support, please feel free to contact us at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – March 4, 2018

Greetings all!

Obama Foundation’s second public meeting pitches project

The Obama Foundation’s public meeting on February 27 featured an appearance by former President Obama himself in full campaign mode to promote the transformational impact of the OPC on the South Side. No changes to the Obama Presidential Center or the CDOT road plans were announced, although numerous questions about the road plans were raised in the related breakout session. The Tribune responded with an editorial raising important questions about the seeming absence of practical plans to realize the promised $3 billion in OPC-related growth over the coming decade along with the concern that, like the Museum of Science and Industry, the OPC might have virtually no positive impact on the neighborhood. Tribune critic Blair Kamin followed with a commentary noting two challenges presented by the OPC: balancing the tension between the opportunities for economic development and the dangers of residential displacement, and “the difficult and still-unresolved task of placing the Obama center in the historic landscape of Jackson Park.”

More meetings!

Yes, we know, there have been a lot of meetings. Now the Park District has announced two more – March 13 and 14 – to review the new South Lakefront Plan prior to finalizing it for submission to the Park District Board in April and thereby enshrining plans for the expanded golf course, road changes, and new OPC footprint. We note that those plans have not been approved yet and, in the end, may not be. The meetings will take place at the South Shore Cultural Center, from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. both days, with a presentation scheduled for 6:15. We realize the many followers of JPW Updates have been to untold numbers of public meetings, too many of which have resulted in little if any responsive revisions in the plans presented. Nonetheless, we urge you to attend once again and to let your views be known. Absence of public participation can be all to readily construed as public apathy, which is far from the case as regards plans for Jackson Park.

It’s about the PARK

JPW appreciates Lolly Bowean’s recent analysis in the Tribune , skillfully demonstrating that differing opinions about the roads, the Obama Presidential Center and the golf course are not neatly divided along any of the predictable lines of race, class, or education. As we all work toward an outcome that is positive for Jackson Park, for the neighborhood, for the broader community, and for the OPC and its positive mission, JPW hopes that we can remember this.

Preservation Chicago continues to sound the alarm

A year ago Preservation Chicago included Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center in its annual “Chicago 7 Most Endangered ” list of historic sites in Chicago, shining a light on the threats represented by proposals for the parks from private-interest groups with no public accountability — the Obama Foundation, the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, and Project 120. Now Preservation Chicago has taken the unusual step of including those two parks again in its 2018 Chicago 7 list, indeed putting them at the top of the list and adding the Midway Plaisance to the roster of threatened South Side landmarks.   Renewing its call for a transparent, comprehensive, and thoughtful planning process for the South Side parks to protect the historic landscapes and structures, Preservation Chicago also offers six specific recommendations that warrant the attention of JPW readers.

Section 106-related updates

The JPW website’s coverage of the federal reviews currently underway now includes a letter from the Hyde Park Historical Society concerning Cornell Drive and the Perennial Garden that was recently submitted for the Section 106/NEPA process. The federal reviews themselves have been delayed and extended. The next Section 106 meeting, originally scheduled for February, will now take place sometime in March; the full federal review process is now expected to continue until at least December.

Save this date: Plan Commission hearing April 19

While the federal reviews seemingly lag, the Chicago Plan Commission hearing on the applications for the OPC and the CDOT-designed road changes remains set for April 19. There will be opportunities for testimony from the public; you may want to plan to be there. JPW’s FOIA work indicates that surprisingly few impact studies about of the Obama tower or road changes have been conducted in preparation for that hearing. JPW remains concerned about the absence of overall comprehensive planning and the segmented nature of the approach the City and Obama Foundation are pursuing. Look for more about these issues in the future.

Your support is essential!

As the Plan Commission hearing date nears, we continue to seek expert legal and technical counsel in order to raise key questions and pursue community concerns. Your check to support this expert assistance 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