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

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