Jackson Park Watch Update – December 15, 2019

Greetings, all!  Best wishes for a happy holiday season and the new year.

In this Update:

  • Looking back: four years!
  • Looking ahead: what’s next for the OPC, golf course projects
  • Lake levels rising


As we move into 2020, JPW heads into its fifth year.  It is a good time to review objectives that still guide JPW’s work.  Our goals are to promote:

  • transparency in decision-making about Jackson Park;
  • meaningful community input on major changes to the Park;
  • preservation of the Park as a democratic public space with priority to local uses and users; and
  • development of one comprehensive plan for the entire Park.

JPW originated out of concerns about ill-defined plans for a visitor center and outdoor music venue adjacent to the Museum of Science and Industry put forward by a little known organization, Project 120.  JPW ultimately surfaced a secretive Agreement between the president of Project 120 and Park District CEO Mike Kelly giving Project 120 the green light for that project and other potential changes to the core of Jackson Park.  Community voices raised in response to JPW’s information put a brake on those plans; former President Obama’s announcement in summer of 2016 that he had chosen Jackson Park for the site of his Presidential Library (now Center) sidelined them indefinitely.  (Click here for more on Project 120 and its proposals.) 

As we enter year five, issues related to plans for the Obama Presidential Center and for its sister project, the merged/expanded golf course, are now front and center.

Looking ahead: what’s next for the OPC?

The Obama Presidential Center is currently on hold. The Obama Foundation cannot cut a tree or bring in a bulldozer.  No roads can be closed or reconfigured.  No construction can begin.  What will it take to move OPC plans ahead? and when? (Click here for JPW’s coverage of the OPC.) 

What?  No work can begin on the planned OPC until the completion of the federal reviews.  Even then, only if the completed reviews sign off on the project plans as they now stand, can the project move ahead without revisions.  

How likely is it that the federal reviews will green-light the OPC plans as they currently stand?  This is quite unclear, especially given that the draft Assessment of Effects report, released in late July, determined that the plans would have significant adverse impacts on Jackson Park and the fact that additional information on the potential impacts has been requested.   Stay tuned as this unfolds.

When?  Mayor Lori Lightfoot indicated in a recent meeting that the City wants to move the process ahead.  However, beyond the still unfinished Section 106 review, there are other mandated federal reviews to follow, including the NEPA environmental impact review, the Environmental Impact Statement that a project of this magnitude should require, and the 4(f) review of the planned road changes.  These additional reviews will take time.

Additionally, the Protect Our Parks lawsuit appeal is still alive and, given the significant delays noted above, may well be concluded in time to have an impact.  An eloquent recent op-ed in Crain’s by the lawyers managing the appeal, Richard Epstein and Michael Rachlis, spelled out the rationale behind the appeal.  Epstein’s description of the case in an earlier interview in the Hyde Park Herald ago gives another overview of the key elements of the appeal. 

Another voice: Discussion of the OPC and its siting in Jackson Park was recently enlivened by public remarks by Lee Bey, a noted African-American author, former Sun-Times architecture critic, and recent Vice-President of DuSable Museum.  In a November 26 appearance at the Silver Room on 53rd street, Bey criticized the design saying “I think that that tower is foolishness…. It’s clad in limestone or granite; it’s shoved in this park.”  In comments that drew applause, Bey asserted that a location in Washington Park near the Garfield Green Line Station would be superior to the proposed Jackson Park location, and said that the OPC “is being oversold as a [economic[ catalyst.”

Looking ahead: what’s next for the golf course?

The golf course merger/expansion project, too, is on hold.

As recently reported, the SmithGroup’s engineering work on the design of the merged/expanded golf course has been put on hold by the Park District – back in February, it has become known.  Instead, SmithGroup now has a separate contract with the Park District to assess projected impacts to Park District property along the Chicago lakefront resulting from rising lake levels and the increasing number of extreme storms sparked by climate change and to develop a prioritized action plan, including potential sources of funding for work that will be required. While the golf course project has not been cancelled, it is definitely now on the backburner.

About those lake levels    

The news:  Lake levels in 2019 have equaled the record high levels of 1986; they are predicted to continue to rise; and it is unclear whether the agencies in charge of protecting Chicago’s lakefront have the resources to do the job.

High water levels are getting serious attention all around the Great Lakes region.  It was the topic of a meeting convened by Congressman Bobby Rush in Bronzeville on Monday, December 2, featuring representatives of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Park District, and CDOT.  The Army Corps predicted that Lake Michigan levels will be higher next year than this year, but declined to make any longer-term forecasts and dodged discussion of climate change.  We note that Donald Trump has forbidden the military, of which the Army Corps is a part, from discussing climate change or using climate change information in its analysis or planning.

Corps personnel indicated a particular concern about the impact of storms and high waves combined with the high water levels on shoreline conditions and erosion.  Damage done on November 11 this year along S. Lake Shore Drive between 48th and 51st was cited as an example.  In response to questions, the Corps also identified some key limits on its work.  For one, the Army Corps is not authorized to assist private property owners. Further, Congressional action is required before the Corps can undertake any long-term protective measures to assist local governments, and local governmental units must exhaust their own funding sources before the Corps can step in.

The Army Corps, Park District, and CDOT asserted that all three entities are working together to assess the situation and plan next steps. As mentioned above in the golf course project section, the Park District has commissioned SmithGroup to develop a full assessment and a prioritized action plan.  Given that continually rising lake levels will affect Jackson Park beaches, our golf courses, the Jackson Park lagoons (which rise in tandem with the lake), S. Lake Shore Drive, and potentially even the plans for the OPC, we will track developments with interest and will share what we learn.   


Thanks to all who offer financial support.  We welcome your contributions.  You can contribute in three ways:

  • You can contribute via checks made out to Jackson Park Watch sent to directly to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. 
  • You can contribute via PayPal here.
  • You can contribute via checks from donor-directed funds sent to our fiscal sponsor Friends of the Parks at FOTP, 17 N. State St., Suite 1450, Chicago 60602, ATTN Kevin Winters.  Such checks should be made out to FOTP with a note stating they are intended for Jackson Park Watch. 

As always, we thank you.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid

Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

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