Once again, there is news, this time the release of the previously secret University of Chicago’s bid for the Obama Presidential Library (sic). As reported first in the Sun-Times, the Obama Foundation’s release of this document was prompted by the Protect Our Parks lawsuit, which had subpoenaed the bid package. The bid document can be found as an attachment to the Obama Foundation press release (scroll to the bottom).
The release prompts us to say once again that JPW welcomes the OPC to Chicago’s South Side as a vital historic tribute to the nation’s first African-American President. We do wish, however, that the University had recommended and the former President chosen a less controversial plan; in that event, construction of the OPC would already be well under way.
What do we know now that we didn’t know prior to the release of the bid?
- From the beginning the University bid included a new master plan for all of Jackson Park, reaching much beyond what would have been needed for the Obama Presidential Library itself.
- The University was a key driver of the initial proposals. However, its plans were developed in close collaboration with the City and the Chicago Park District, both of which agreed to the transfer of public parkland for this project well before there was any public discussion or authorization by either the City Council or the Park District board.
- The plan was to include an actual Presidential Library, now replaced by a Chicago Public Library branch, and an academic component, since removed.
- The University was also behind the proposal to expand and merge the existing Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses, which was included as part of the plan from the start, denials by the Mayor, the Park District and the Obama Foundation notwithstanding.
- The University proposal asserted that the new master plan would help “spur the development of the 63rd Street corridor.” With the proposed location of the OPC at 60th and Stony Island, any emphasis on developing 63rd Street has disappeared.
- The Sam Schwartz traffic study commissioned by the University for its bid plan proposed to block off Cornell Drive at 60th Street in order to dedicate a narrowed version of the roadway for vehicular access to the Obama Library. But the study did not propose the closure of eastbound Midway Plaisance, nor require the sacrifice of parkland to widen Stony Island Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, nor propose to turn Hayes Drive into a new east-west highway.
- Apparently unaware of the requirements for federal reviews of the proposed changes to Jackson Park or of the level of community concern that would greet the plans, the University envisioned securing all necessary approvals of the project within 60 days.
What big questions remain unanswered?
While the original University proposal was publicly touted as totally privately funded, the proposal hinted at multiple lines of taxpayer support via the City, County and State. At present, the ultimate costs to the taxpayers, while unclear, are increasing. For example:
- The road changes the Obama Foundation is demanding would cost at least $175 million, funds that could be used more productively for road work throughout Chicago.
- The proposed User Agreement between the City and the Obama Foundation includes an uncapped provision that the City would pay for undefined “environmental remediation” work. Since the site has a very high water table and since the OPC plans include both an underground parking garage and a 235’ tall building (think 23 stories), this could be considerable.
- The City (again, think taxpayers) would pay all of the utility connections required for the OPC.
- A 2016 amendment to state legislation passed to accommodate the Obama Presidential Library project provides that the Chicago Park District could levy a new 0.15% tax equal to the “full fair cash value” of taxable property in the City. This tax remains on the books.
This increasing cost shift to taxpayers is occurring at the same time that Chicago taxpayers, already burdened by recent fee increases and property tax hikes, face pressure to come up with more money for public pensions and pay hikes for police and firemen, as well as other things needed to maintain life in the city.
#2 LOSS OF PARKLAND:
The University proposal asserted that “The University is in active discussions with the City and Chicago Park District to establish a park-positive plan for each site that would generate new parkland to more than compensate for park space occupied by the Presidential Center.” The reality today is quite the opposite. At present the City, Park District, and Obama Foundation continue to insist:
- that the 19.3-acre OPC “campus” would be the same as parkland;
- that closing Cornell Drive and Midway Plaisance would yield an increase in parkland even though the roadways are already included in the park’s acreage;
- that only one acre of replacement land will be needed to fulfill the mandate of the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR), and that the one acre should be located on the Midway, itself already parkland, making short shrift of the idea that this would be “replacement.”
All of these assertions are dubious. What is clear, however, is that the OPC site would be operated, maintained, secured and directed by the Obama Foundation, not by the Chicago Park District, and that public accountability would be lacking.
#3 DISPLACEMENT OF LOCAL RESIDENTS
The University proposal included various assurances of significant economic benefits to the Woodlawn area including the statement that “An aggressive residential infill program led by the City can expand housing in the area and bring new residents to the neighborhood. Given the abundant vacant land, economic development in Woodlawn will be unlikely to displace current residents.”
The current reality, however, is that residential displacement is rapidly occurring and that the City’s response, via the Mayor’s proposed amended OPC ordinance, is to “recognize the potential for demographic change and displacement” and to commit to “closely monitoring property values and other indicators of neighborhood change and implementing measures to preserve economic diversity, home ownership and affordability for long-term residents in the communities surrounding the OPC.”
Clearly this falls far short of meaningful action to address these critical issues, while completely ignoring the alternatives put forth by the Obama Community Benefits Coalition to address exactly these same issues.
#4 IMPACT ON TRAFFIC AND PARKING:
As noted above, the original University of Chicago bid included a professional traffic study by the well-known firm Sam Schwartz that did not call for eliminating Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets or for eliminating the eastbound segment of the Midway Plaisance between Stony Island and Cornell Drive. Subsequently the decision was made to close Cornell completely between 59th and 63rd streets and to remove that segment of the Midway Plaisance. That decision has profound reverberations, requiring extensive, costly roadwork that would change the shape and character of Jackson Park, greatly diminishing the parking spaces available for park users, and, most importantly, establishing road patterns that offer new problems rather than solutions. JPW commissioned a professional review of that final recommendation that identified many unanswered questions as to how well traffic could flow under the conditions demanded by the Obama Foundation. Those questions need to be thoroughly investigated and the results made public before further action is taken.
The bottom line:
Given the new information from the University of Chicago bid, given the credibility and public trust issues that continue to be trouble many observers, and given the City’s pressing financial situation, Jackson Park Watch believes that the City Council should defer a vote on the Mayor’s proposed OPC ordinance until:
- All of the costs to the public involved are clear and have been made public. If the City Council wishes to impose those costs on the taxpayers, that should be clear.
- The National Park Service has made its final decisions on parkland conversion and parkland replacement and those decisions have been made public. If the amount of parkland in Jackson Park is going to be reduced without complementary new parkland nearby, the City Council should knowingly vote for that result.
- “Monitoring” residential displacement as it occurs – while acknowledging that it has “the potential” to occur – is offensive tokenism. If the City Council proceeds to endorse this proposed ordinance, it should be clear that it is endorsing likely residential displacement as a part of the package.
- A more complete analysis of the predictable results of the road closures and realignments that the Obama Foundation now requires should be conducted and the results should be made public. If the City Council wants to adopt a plan that is likely to cause increased traffic congestion in the Jackson Park neighborhood and beyond, that should too be made clear.
Out-going Mayor Rahm Emanuel is asking the City Council to embrace an important monument to former President Obama. The monument is vital and does indeed belong on Chicago’s South Side. Unfortunately, the project as now defined has some major flaws. If the City Council rubber-stamps the Mayor’s proposed OPC ordinance, the City Council will own those significant problems. JPW is writing the members of the City Council urging them to defer action until all of the these vital issues have been acknowledged and addressed and the answers are available not only to the City Council but to the public at large. We encourage others to do so as well.
Our work continues:
This process is far from over. Your financial support helps us obtain the professional expertise we need. Checks made out to Jackson Park Watch 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