Along with all of the frenetic news about the midterm elections and the tragic violence around the country there has been a confusing blizzard of reports related to the Obama Presidential Center. In this Update, we hope to sort it out for you.
THE MAYOR’S OPC ORDINANCE
No one was surprised when the compliant City Council passed the Mayor’s proposed OPC Ordinance on October 31 without questioning or dissent. Passage of the City’s enabling Ordinance was reported in the Tribune, Sun-Times and Herald (with additional commentary in the Herald). JPW recently wrote to City Council members to raise questions about outstanding problems – costs to taxpayers, displacement of local residents, loss of public parkland, traffic problems likely to result from road closures and realignments – and to observe that the City Council will be held accountable for whatever problems these unresolved issues create. (JPW’s letter to the City Council is attached.)
What was actually passed? Will construction start anytime soon?
The actual Ordinance passed by the City Council included a long list of more or less factual “WHEREAS” recitals, along with nine substantive sections. The text that was adopted authorizes the City to take the following key steps BUT only after the federal reviews are completed:
- revise the 2015 site footprint to accommodate the different plan that was unveiled by the Obama Foundation on May 3, 2017;
- acquire the land from the Park District;
- approve the closure of streets within the newly reconfigured site (Cornell Drive, the eastbound end of Midway Plaisance);
- grant the “right of use” to the Obama Foundation so the Foundation can construct the OPC, in other words, turn the land over to the Obama Foundation;
- accept ownership back from the Foundation of “improvements” to the site once the OPC has been constructed;
- execute, after the federal reviews are completed, agreements with the Obama Foundation that will give it effective control over the site once again. Drafts of these Transaction Documents (Use Agreement, Master Agreement, Environmental Remediation Agreement, UPARR Grant Agreement Amendments, and Mitigation Agreements) were circulated with the text of the Ordinance, but were not part of the actual Ordinance adopted on Halloween;
- appropriate “amounts sufficient to pay the obligation of the City pursuant to the Environmental Agreement,” an open-ended, uncapped commitment.
BOTTOM LINE: Construction is NOT about to begin, so what happens now?
As claimed by proponents, passage of the City’s enabling Ordinance does indeed constitute a step forward. But as was also noted, work on the project cannot begin until at least these steps are completed:
- Settlement or dismissal of the Protect Our Parks lawsuit. If POP prevails, the OPC would not be able to be built in Jackson Park, but the OPC could be constructed elsewhere on the South Side (or anywhere).
U.S. Federal District Court Judge John Robert Blakey has scheduled a POP lawsuit case-management conference for December 5 and indicated he would then set a date for a trial. While Mayor Emanuel publicly dismissed the POP suit as “frivolous,” the City and Obama Foundation have been taking the suit very seriously. In response to the suit, the City has restructured the land swap transactions between the Park District, City, and Obama Foundation to ensure that the City will be the technical owner of the OPC site after the OPC is constructed even though the Obama Foundation will maintain and secure the site, manage programming, rentals, and permitting, and otherwise control what occurs in the area. The Foundation has firmed up its relationship with the National Archives and Research Administration (the custodian of the Obama presidential records). The Park District ceased work on the new track/field facility pending conclusion of the federal review. In response to a POP subpoena, the Obama Foundation released the University of Chicago bid package. Because of these actions and with the passage of the new Ordinance, some expect the City to ask Judge Blakey to dismiss the POP suit prior to the next court date. That is a distinct possibility, but it is unclear what the City’s motion will look like and, in any case, POP will have the opportunity to address and respond to such a motion.
- Completion of the federal reviews. We are currently experiencing a lengthy pause in the federal review process. The next “Section 106” meeting, already pushed back numerous times, will focus on potential adverse effects of the OPC design on the historic site in Jackson Park. No date has yet been set although the meeting may occur in November or December. The National Park Service (NPS) has taken over as the lead agency for the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review; while we believe discussions between the City, Obama Foundation, Park District, and federal agencies are occurring, there is no definite information on the NEPA process and no information on the scheduling of the required public meeting. We do know that, contrary to some City representations, the NPS has not signed off on the City’s desire to use the east end of the Midway between the Metra tracks and Stony Island Avenue as the UPARR replacement land. We also know that NPS considers new parkland to be a suitable UPARR replacement option provided that it is in reasonable proximity to Jackson Park.
- Settlement of other potential lawsuits. We are aware that complex, contentious federal reviews with the kind of great public significance that attaches to this project can sometime lead to lawsuits alleging that the reviews themselves were incomplete or improperly conducted. Since these reviews are not complete, it is unclear whether any such suits might be in the works.
SPECIAL FOCUS: costs to taxpayers
One of the issues JPW has focused on is the costs of the OPC project to Chicago taxpayers. News about the major new costs coming down the pike for Chicago taxpayers underscores the recklessness of the Mayor and City Council committing to millions of dollars for OPC-related spending at this point. Consider these two big ticket items:
Spending for discretionary road changes. The $172 (plus) million in spending for the road changes the Obama Foundation has demanded in Jackson Park is unnecessary: Obama Foundation officials told us in an April 5. While the City succeeded in getting a state appropriation of $172 million for the Jackson Park work, and while this is at least in part federal funding funneled through the state, Chicago taxpayers have contributed to all of this. This potential federal funding is not tied explicitly to the OPC and could be used more productively for much-needed road work elsewhere in the City and state.
Blank check for uncapped obligations for unknown environmental remediation at the OPC site. The Ordinance passed yesterday included this in Section 6: “….with respect to the Environmental Agreement, the City shall appropriate amounts sufficient to pay the obligations of the City pursuant to the Environmental Agreement, and the City hereby covenants to take timely action as required by law to carry out the appropriation provisions of this sentence.” In making this commitment, the City Council has signed a blank check. The draft Environmental Remediation and Indemnity Agreement [Sections 4 and 8], ready to be finalized after the federal reviews are complete, provides that the City will cover a wide range of “incremental costs” due to the pre-existing environmental condition of OPC site in Jackson Park, known to have a high water table and potentially contaminated soil.
Amidst all of this uproar, we want to share a cautionary letter that appeared in the Tribune.
“Empty Promises” comments astutely on the deceptive promises of economic benefits for the community near the planned OPC. Those who have read the University of Chicago bid package will have noted that the University itself believed that the Washington Park site would have superior economic development benefits for the community.
CBA Coalition launched referendum campaign
From a recent Hyde Park Herald, we share this:
“….On Oct. 23, the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition officially launched its referendum campaign on its proposed ordinance covering the relationship between Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and other University of Chicago-related development south of the Midway Plaisance.
The alliance of community organizations is gathering signatures from voters in four precincts near the OPC: one in the Fifth Ward and three in the 20th Ward….
The coalition set a Nov. 10 deadline to file petitions, and it must collect signatures from eight percent of the total ballots cast in the November midterm election for the proposed ordinance to be included on the February municipal ballot. The last day to file petitions in Chicago is Nov. 26.”
OUR WORK CONTINUES:
Although the City Ordinance has now passed, 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