Jackson Park Watch Update – August 1, 2019

Greetings, all!

The federal reviews have resumed with the recent release of the 61-page Assessment Of Effects (AOE) report which concludes that plans for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes will have an adverse impact on historic Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. It has drawn major attention, confirming that observers who have questioned the suitability of the plan as proposed for the historic Park are correct.  The report is lengthy, technical, inconsistent (different sections were obviously written by different parties), but also significant, setting the stage for new phases in this on-going saga.  Since we know that not everyone has the time or stamina to read it through, this Update will:

  • Highlight several issues that are of key importance to Jackson Park and the near neighborhoods:
  • overall adverse impact of the Obama Foundation plans for OPC site;
  • traffic; and
  • recreation/parkland replacement.
  • Comment on reactions by the Obama Foundation and by Mayor Lightfoot.
  • Reiterate the importance of attendance at the public meeting on the AOE report that will occur Monday, August 5, from 6 to 8 pm at the Logan Center on the U Chicago campus (915 E. 60th Street, first-floor theater).

Three key issues

Adverse impact on Jackson Park. 

In strong and clear language, the most significant portion of the AOE (pp. 28-33) concludes that the proposed OPC buildings and campus  and  related road changes will have a host of adverse impacts on Jackson Park and also on portions of the Midway Plaisance. There has been widespread coverage of the report, including in Block Club Chicago and the Sun-Times.  When considering the historic Park as it is today and comparing it with the Obama Foundation/City plans to clear cut and level the site, erect a 235’/23-story museum tower, and make major road changes throughout the area, this conclusion is no surprise.  This finding raises important questions:  Would the Obama Foundation be willing to “right size” the museum tower”?  Leave Cornell Drive and eastbound Midway Plaisance open? Develop a plan to save as many trees on the site as possible rather than cutting them all?

After the August 5 meetings, changes will likely be made to the AOE to reflect input from consulting parties and the public. The next step in this process will be federally mandated efforts to identify possible changes to the plans that would avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse impacts on the Park.


JPW has long been concerned with the Obama Foundation demands to close Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets and eastbound Midway Plaisance east of Stony Island and to make additional major changes to areas roadways, all at taxpayer expense.  Not only are taxpayers being asked to foot the bill, but this plan is discretionary: Obama Foundation officials have told JPW in private meetings on two occasions that the OPC could be located in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive were to remain open.  Further, a satisfactory analysis of the traffic impacts has never been forthcoming.

There is an available alternative.  Prior to the selection of Jackson Park for the OPC, Project 120 developed a  plan to slim Cornell Drive to four lanes throughout and to slow traffic by adding traffic calming features, a proposal that was endorsed by the Park District itself.  JPW commissioned an expert traffic analysis  that came up with a similar proposal, a proposal that the City has refused to acknowledge. 

JPW’s traffic expert also raised a series of questions about gaps in the traffic data that the City continues to rely on in this AOE.  One key issue is the complete absence of analysis of the spillover traffic impacts of the closure on Cornell on roads throughout the area, both larger roads such as Stony Island, Lake Shore Drive, 67th Street, and Jeffrey, and the myriad of neighborhood streets that already suffer from intermittent traffic overload. A second key concern is lack of attention to parking needs in and around the park.  The underground garage at the OPC is designed to accommodate visitors to the OPC museum and events.  But for regular, local users of the Park, the loss of on-street parking along Hayes and Marquette has not been addressed, and the impact of parking spillover in the surrounding neighborhoods (including by OPC visitors) has not been assessed.

This absent data is now critical:  In the sections of the AOE assessing impacts on historic buildings and historic districts, the City asserts that there will be only “minor traffic increases that will not be perceptible” and concludes that there will be no adverse impacts whatsoever on those adjacent areas (pp. 16-17).   This is an assertion that the Obama Foundation has seized on its media efforts to diminish the damaging AOE assessment of adverse impact on Jackson Park. 

JPW suggests that increased traffic and parking problems would cause widespread adverse effects that are simply left out in the current iteration of the AOE.  Likewise simply ignored are the hazards of increased traffic for pedestrians and school-related vehicular and pedestrian traffic associated with the three schools along Stony Island Avenue.

Recreation and parkland replacement

Despite the seemingly final descriptions in the portions of the AOE that deal specifically with recreation changes in Jackson Park (pp. 3- 4),  the National Park Service has not signed off on anything related to either proposed changes in recreational opportunities or parkland replacement (see p. 5). 

In brief, the City proposes that the existing recreational facilities and spaces on the OPC site would be replaced with new recreational facilities on the OPC site rather than with new recreational facilities for local users in new replacement park space elsewhere in the surrounding communities.  While such facilities on the OPC site would presumably be open to all, local users would be in competition with tourists.  Further, the OPC site would be privately controlled green space, maintained and secured by the Obama Foundation rather than the Park District, so access to these areas would be subject to Obama Foundation policies. 

Additionally, as the AOE report newly describes in detail, the City has renewed its attempt to designate the east end of the Midway Plaisance park as its preferred UPARR replacement parkland.   To quote: 

Finally, the City proposes to dedicate acreage as replacement recreation opportunity on the eastern portion of the Midway Plaisance bounded by the North and South Midway Plaisance, Stony Island Avenue, and the Metra railway…. The City proposes modifying the Eastern Midway to accommodate a combination of open space and formal play area.  In order to accomplish this project, the central area would reduce in size.  The western side of the historic sunken lawn would be altered with the addition of a play area and walks….”   (p. 4)

As the AOE report makes clear on  pp. 23-24, this  newly detailed proposal for a  play area on the east end of the Midway would have an adverse impact on the Midway, itself an historic landmarked park .  Still to be decided by NPS is exactly how much replacement parkland is required  to compensate for the turnover of park space for the OPC.   There is mention of a future public process to address these issues, but no details of the timing or format.

Responses by some key actors

Predictably, and in keeping with its style of  media management, the Obama Foundation has said all is well — we expected this, no design changes needed — and in fact has touted the resumption of the federal review process as a victory.  Their response can be seen most fully in the Hyde Park Herald’s 7/29 article commenting on the AOE release.  How well this continuing refusal to compromise on anything of significance will work for the Obama Foundation is yet to be seen.

In keeping with her approach to the many major issues she is confronting, Mayor Lightfoot has taken a measured approach, emphasizing listening to community voices.  It is for this reason that we strongly urge participation in the public meeting on the AOE that will be held Monday evening August 5 from 6 to 8 pm at the Logan Center on the U Chicago campus  (915 E. 60th Street, first-floor theater ). The meeting will begin with a formal presentation and Q&A session in the auditorium, followed by a poster session in the lobby with staff to field additional questions and take comments.  The extent of participation and the comments by participants will be of great interest to Mayor Lightfoot and her administration.  We urge people to be there are to voice their questions and concerns.

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