Jackson Park Watch Update – December 15, 2018

Greetings, all.

LOOKING AHEAD: As 2018 comes to a close, we offer an overview of key issues related to the increasingly controversial Obama Presidential Center proposals, as well as other relevant points. This admittedly lengthy Update will cover:

  • OPC process problems
  • Substantive problems with the OPC proposals
  • The attempted resurrection of the Park District/Mayor Emanuel/President Obama golf course proposal
  • The Friends of the Parks “State of the Park 2018” report

Enjoy reading! HAPPY HOLIDAYS and best wishes for a HAPPY 2019!


★OPC process problems

Community input lacking

Genuine community input about the Obama Presidential Center and related road proposals continues to be lacking. While the Obama Foundation has sent canvassers to some neighborhoods to promote its message and while it has hosted numerous, private and invitation-only meetings, it remains the case the it has convened only two actual community meetings where broad, unfiltered input could be given.

The community drive for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) has been a particularly hot issue. The Obama Foundation and former President Obama himself have been adamant in their opposition to a CBA, even though such agreements have proven elsewhere to be win-win propositions. The endorsement of a CBA by six mayoral candidates in a recent forum and the recent overview in the Hyde Park Herald demonstrate that the issue is live and gaining support, as does the recent CBA Coalition success in getting the issue on the ballot as a referendum in key precincts.

Problems with mandatory federal reviews

Because the OPC and its related road proposals would have major impacts on the Olmsted-designed historic Jackson Park, federal reviews under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy act of 1969.

The City and two city agencies – the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) – have major roles as day-to-day managers of these federal review processes.   Unfortunately, these agencies along with the Chicago Park District have not always been timely in communications, have not always been fully forth-coming with the information they share, and have not always honored the requirements of the federal review processes themselves.

For example, although the connections between the plans for the OPC and the required replacement of the existing track/field facility on the planned OPC site were clear, the Park District went ahead with the destruction of 40 largely mature and health trees in preparation for that replacement facility, only to be required to stop work until the federal reviews are complete.

As another example, although preliminary discussions between the National Park Service (NPS) and the City on the required replacement “UPAAR” parkland were still underway, the City’s DPD began a series of so-called “community consultations” targeting the east end of the Midway as the replacement land based on a misrepresentation of what had been decided. Fortunately, that effort appears to stopped after several parties called it to NPS attention.

The federal reviews process has been extended repeatedly and the original timelines for the OPC have likewise been repeatedly extended. At this point, the timeline for the next Section 106 meeting, originally scheduled for late spring 2018, is set for “early 2019.” It is unclear when the review process will be complete.

The related POP lawsuit

Much attention has been given to the federal lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks, a not-for-profit organization, charging that for a variety of public trust and public interest reasons construction of the OPC in historic Jackson Park should not be permitted.   (Note: POP does support construction of the OPC on Chicago’s South Side, just not in a public park.)

The lawsuit is ongoing. In the most recent hearing on Nov. 29, the City’s motion to dismiss the suit was pushed back until a hearing on Feb. 14. At the same time, the City’s motion to end the Court’s previously mandated discovery process, allowing POP to subpoena relevant documents, was denied. (Note: it was a POP subpoena that was responsible for the release of the University of Chicago OPC bid package). The judge did allow the filing of several amicus briefs in support of the City. Other amicus briefs might be forthcoming.

★Substantive problems with OPC plans

Demands for discretionary, tax-payer funded road closures/realignments

On June 21, 2017, the Park District hosted an event featuring the new OPC plan and a radical new road plan developed by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to “accommodate new traffic and parking demands of the OPC”. The CDOT road plan, to be implemented at taxpayer expense ($175 million or likely more), would have a major impact on Jackson Park:

  • It would dramatically impact local and commuter traffic patterns, raising major concerns about traffic delays and pedestrian safety.
  • It would chop off strips of existing parkland west of Lake Shore Drive and east of Stony Island Avenue.
  • It would reduce available street parking throughout the park, limiting ready access to central areas and the beach.
  • It would destroy key elements of the Olmsted design for the Park by eliminating Cornell Drive between 59th St and 63rd St., laid out by Olmsted in 1895 as a 40’ wide carriage pathway; it would also destroy the Olmsted design at the juncture of the Midway Plaisance and the Park.
  • It would eliminate the current Perennial Garden at the east end of the Midway Plaisance and replace it with a “Woman’s Garden” whose primary actual purpose would be storm water management.
  • It would convert Hayes Drive, now a moderately busy road with parking along both sides to serve users of local playing fields and the 63rd Street beach, into a high-speed, high-capacity roadway.  It would ban parking on the street and erect a permanent concrete media, thus establishing Hayes as a barrier between the north and south portions of the Park.

Despite these concerns and others, and despite the fact that Obama Foundation officials have acknowledged to JPW that the OPC could and would be built in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive were to be kept open, the Obama Foundation has been adamant in its refusal to reconsider its demands for these road changes. The Obama Foundation demands for road closures/realignments are a major focus of the federal reviews now underway.


There have been major concerns about the displacement of long-term, low and moderate income residents as property values and property taxes increase pursuant to the construction of the OPC. The dramatic gentrification and displacement that accompanied the construction of the “606” elsewhere in Chicago has only fueled this concern. While savvy, persistent organizing by the CBA Coalition is making good headway in forcing attention to this important issue, the Obama Foundation continues to oppose any CBA and the City has promised only to “monitor” the situation.

What about economic development?

The Obama Foundation and former President Obama himself as well as various City politicians have made extravagant claims about the economic development benefits that will accrue to the Chicago’s South Side as a result of the OPC. There are reasons to doubt that any such benefits will develop. Review of the site chosen by President Obama himself, close to the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, shows a dearth of adjacent open land on which restaurants or shops could be constructed. Had President Obama chosen to locate the OPC close to 63rd Street or on the west edge of Washington Park, available adjacent open land within walking distance could well have become prime development sites. As it is, there are concerns that the OPC will have the same de minimus impact on the neighborhood as the Museum of Science Industry: people drive in and park, view exhibits, buy some food and souvenirs, get in their cars, and leave.

Plans for the building and site

Less attention has been given to the Obama Foundation’s plans for the buildings and site, thought by many to be inappropriate for an historic public park. At the personal behest of former President Obama, his Obama Museum building will be 235’ high, the equivalent of 23 stories. The site will be clear-cut, taking out close to 400 trees, the vast majority of which are mature and healthy according to the professional inventory the Obama Foundation itself commissioned. Replacement trees will be provided, but it will take decades for them to provide the same benefits as those that will be destroyed. The Olmsted-designed berms too will be leveled, and in its place there will be a Maggie-Daley-style park; all traces of the current park with its open spaces and natural character will be gone.

★Golf course resurrected?

After languishing for months, the proposal for the merged/expanded PGA style golf course originally promoted by Mayor Emanuel and Park District CEO Mike Kelly with encouragement from former President Obama suddenly appeared on the Park District Board meeting agenda on December 12. It took the form of a proposal, passed without discussion or dissent, to “modify” a much smaller prior contract with Smithgroup JJR to a new total of $3.9 million for further design work on the proposed remake of the existing golf courses.

Follow up discussion with a key Park District Board staff member emphasized that this new contract is for design only and that there is no funding to actually redo the golf courses or related projects. This appears to JPW to be a part of the not-so-lame-duck Mayor Emanuel’s attempt to lock in as many of his plans as possible even as he is about to leave office. Note that Park District CEO Mike Kelly and the Park District Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor and are not accountable to the public.

★Must read: FOTP State of the Parks 2018  

At that same December 12 Park District Board meeting, Friends of the Park’s Executive Director Juanita Irizarry described the highlights of the FOTP’s just-released State of the Parks 2018 report. (Coverage in Crain’s and the Sun-Times) Based largely on data provided by the Park District itself, and echoing complaints of disparate treatment often heard on Chicago’s South Side, the report documents park disparities based on local residents’ income and color in a wide variety of areas, including programming, safety, facilities, budgets, capital projects, and maintenance. If the indignant reactions of Park District CEO Kelly, Board president Jesse Ruiz, and vice-president Avis Lavell are any gauge, the report seems to have hit home. We encourage everyone to read the executive summary if not the full report.

★2019 will be eventful – with your help, we will carry on!

You may want to remember JPW in your-end-of-year giving. Contributions to JPW are tax deductible.

Long-time JPW participants will remember that JPW started back in early 2016 with questions about the Project 120 proposals to build a pavilion and outdoor music venue in Jackson Park near the “music court.” Now – amazingly – we are entering into our fourth year.

Your tax-deductible financial support helps us obtain the professional expertise we need to continue to raise essential questions and help ensure that the public’s interest in historic Jackson Park is protected.   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