The May 17 Chicago Plan Commission hearing on the OPC : the good, the bad, and the ugly
The bottom line: after hours of presentations, the Plan Commission members in attendance voted unanimously to approve all of the OPC-related applications. (For the record, ex officio Plan Commission members Rebekah Scheinfeld and Mike Kelly recused themselves.)
The Sun-Times and the Tribune provided useful and differing summaries.
Of course, JPW was there for the duration. Here are some additional observations from the front line.
- Staff of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) presented the project to the Plan Commission members with a decidedly positive and selective spin and without addressing or even acknowledging the many concerns that had been raised in advance. Thus, the height of the OPC Museum Tower was compared to commercial/residential buildings in Hyde Park, but not to the low profile set for Jackson Park by the Olmsted design. The CDOT road proposal was presented as necessary for the OPC plan without acknowledging that Obama Foundation officials have recently told JPW that the OPC will be built in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive remains open. As anticipated, the DPD recommended that the Plan Commission approve all applications and resolutions.
- Alderman Hairston led off a series of statements by City Council members in enthusiastic support of the OPC plan, all focused primarily on the (unsubstantiated) transformational economic impact it would have on the Southside and the City as a whole. Alderman Hairston noted first that “no groups oppose the OPC,” but then went on to dismiss “professional protesters.” The false dichotomy – good/bad, pro/con – colored the whole hearing.
- Over 75 members of the public, including JPW, spoke their 3 minutes’ worth. Another 50 or more individuals registered to speak but had to leave before their time came. (The testimony phase, including a short break, went from around 12 noon to 4:30.) The fact that the Plan Commission staff forced a “support”/”oppose” split among the speakers obfuscated the important truth that many of those “supporters” said things like “I support the OPC but. . . ” and then listed questions or concerns. And of course “opponents” such as JPW listed concerns but also said “we support the OPC.” There is no real opposition to the OPC per se; the devil is in all those details.
- JPW critiqued CDOT’s expensive, park-destroying and unnecessary road plan, and argued its application should be rejected. Likewise, we critiqued the Obama Foundation’s new “magical math” whereby it asserts that only one acre of new parkland is required to compensate for the transfer of land for the OPC, rather than the full 19.3 acres it will occupy.
- Among those speaking in strong support of the OPC were directors of three museums — MSI, Chicago History, DuSable – all claiming (as does the Obama Foundation) a long-standing history of museums in Chicago’s parks. The facts are more complicated: for example, the Museum of Science and Industry, a holdover from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, was built before today’s Jackson Park, which dates to 1895; the Field Museum of Natural History was not built in Grant Park, but on land adjacent to it donated by the Illinois Central Railroad; the Chicago Children’s Museum was not long ago forced to abandon a proposed location in Grant Park in the face of major opposition to the public park location. One has to suspect that museum directors around the city are thinking of opportunities to expand their museums into adjacent public parkland.
- A number of people voiced strong support for the OPC based on the long list of things they anticipate it will do: provide special education for needy young people; provide refuge from gang violence; provide a second home for youth at its library (presumably the Chicago Public Library branch); provide job training; provide opportunities for young black fathers aged 17-24, many of them incarcerated; bring economic development; uplift the entire South Side. It will be interesting to see how the Obama Foundation addresses these deeply and widely held expectations.
- As noted, the Plan Commission unsurprisingly approved all of the applications and resolutions. What we found depressing was not the unanimous vote in favor, but the total lack of discussion of any actual issues during the public hearing or, we understand, even in private before the meeting. Also alarming was the absence of any recognition of parks as public goods in and of themselves; instead parks were treated as spaces to be utilized for economic development. The only glimmer of responsible government was provided by some Aldermen and Plan Commission members who asked about the unspecified infrastructure costs to be borne by Chicago taxpayers and about the negative impact of the OPC development on affordable housing in the surrounding neighborhoods (two key concerns also raised repeatedly by individual speakers). But such issues were deemed not the purview of the Plan Commission and so not addressed.
- The Obama Foundation zoning application will be presented to and – one expects – approved by the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards on May 22. (The addition to the committee’s agenda was recorded by the City Clerk on Thursday morning even before the final vote by the Plan Commission.)
- The City Council will then be asked to approve ordinances to codify the new footprint for the OPC, authorize an Institutional Planned Development for the Obama Foundation, and endorse the development of a long-term ground lease agreement between the City and the Obama Foundation. The next City Council meeting is May 23, and it is likely these items will be quickly added to the agenda for that session rather than held for another month. As new taxpayer burdens and affordable housing are definitely the purview of the City Council, one can hope – but sadly not expect – that there will be substantive discussions of those and other issues rather than another rubber-stamp approval.
- The OPC plan is still subject to the federal reviews, now underway and expected to continue through 2018.
- Also ongoing is a lawsuit by Protect Our Parks that has charged the City and the Park District with violating their authority in agreeing to transfer public parkland to a private entity.
JPW is assessing its next steps. Stay tuned.
This fight is far from over. Your support is invaluable. Under the terms of our fiscal sponsorship agreement with Friends of the Park, donations to JPW are tax-deductible. Checks can be sent to JPW at P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.
Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch