Jackson Park Watch Update – January 26, 2020

Greetings, all!

Reviewing the new AOE

This Update focuses on the content of the recently released revised Assessment of Effects report.  A subsequent Update will cover the Consulting Parties webinar that took place on January 23.

Overall, this new “Final” AOE report is defensive in tone and inconsistent in argument.  It accurately documents extensive adverse effects to the historic properties of Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance.  Yet, signaling Mayor Lightfoot’s apparent embrace of the Emanuel administration’s cavalier approach to these historic parks, it repeatedly asserts that nothing will or should be done to avoid or minimize any of those adverse effects.  However, numerous comments calling for more review and public process that were expressed in Thursday’s webinar make it clear that this saga is far from complete.

See below (# 6) for a guide to the AOE text and auxiliary documents.

1.  What does the new AOE have to say about adverse effects?  

As noted above, the new AOE further documents the extensive adverse effects that the plans for the OPC buildings and site and the related road changes would have on Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. The expanded text and additional detail were provided in direct response to concerns expressed by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.   In this regard, see in particular Section 3.5, pp. 39-54.   A new section has been added (pp. 55-57, Section 3.6) documenting the adverse effects on Chicago Park Boulevard System, which includes Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

2. What does this “final” AOE continue to overlook?

The AOE is dismissive of numerous comments calling for better data. For example, on traffic issues, the AOE continues to assert that there will be no adverse effects on other historic properties or historic districts in the area (see pp. 58-67, Section 3.7). It asserts that impacts of increased traffic flow on auxiliary streets will be minimal, that fully satisfactory plans for parking are in place, and that the increases in traffic noise will be barely perceptible.  It ignores potential traffic impacts to roadways such as Jeffrey and South Shore Drive, vital to area traffic flow, let alone impacts to essential neighborhood streets such as Dorchester, Blackstone, and Harper. It also asserts that the visual impact of the OPC Tower on “other historic properties” will likewise be minimal.

3. What does the new AOE say about resolving these adverse impacts with avoidance, minimization, or, failing that, mitigation, as required by the NHPA?

The new AOE stakes out the position (p. 3) that “The City’s approval of the Foundation’s proposal to locate the OPC in Jackson Park is a local land use decision and is not subject to the Federal approval process, including mitigation.  The same is true of the roadway closures and the relocation of the track and field.”  

It also raises two new claims: First, that in working with the Obama Foundation on the OPC design and developing the road closures and other changes though the municipal review process (Plan Commission, City Council, South Lakefront Framework Plan), the City has already built in all needed avoidance, minimization and mitigation measures.  Second, the design of the OPC is “Olmstedian” despite all expert findings the contrary (pp 77-78).

As many JPW Update readers know, the OPC design was unveiled in May 2017 and CDOT’s road plans supporting that design were presented in June 2017, just as the Park District launched the South Lakefront Framework Plan process. In all the often-touted public meetings to follow, the plans for the OPC and roadwork were presented as final, and substantive comments on them were not solicited or collected.  There was absolutely no consideration of alternative designs. Instead, the public was asked to comment on plans for new walkways, bicycle paths, potential water features, and other amenities – all of interest, but none germane to OPC or OPC-related road changes.

The City’s position – a direct challenge to established National Historic Preservation Act protections and procedures – is repeated in more starkly in the concluding section:  “The actions of the City described in this report (authorizing construction of the OPC, closing roads, and relocating an existing track and field in Jackson Park) do not require Federal funding or approval and, therefore, are not subject to the NHPA’s requirement to consider avoidance, minimization, and mitigation of adverse effects to historic properties” (p. 75, emphasis added). 

In other words, the Lightfoot administration has fully embraced the Rahm Emanuel approach and gone beyond.  Emanuel advocated for the destructive transformation of the historic OPC site before the significant adverse effects were well documented and broadly known.  For the Lightfoot administration to continue to advocate for the 23-story tower and destruction of the Olmsted roadway design now that these adverse effects are fully documented can only be seen as a doubling-down.

4. What does the new AOE say about dialogue and discussion of alternative ways of addressing these adverse impacts?

Nothing. To the contrary, the whole Section 106 process has been abbreviated.  The City had previously announced in the fall that it would hold a webinar discussion with Consulting Parties to review the comments that had been submitted in August on the draft AOE, and that it would then prepare a Final AOE, which would be presented for further review and comments.  That webinar session was twice scheduled and twice cancelled. In January, without explanation, the City skipped directly to releasing a “Final AOE.”   Consulting Parties thus will have had one less opportunity to clarify details and to comment on the report as they prepare their final statements for submission by February 18.  Rather than encouraging and facilitating discussion and dialogue to reach a best option, the City and FHWA have gone in the opposite direction.

5. What about the Consulting Parties webinar on January 23?       

While the webinar presentation itself largely rehashed the content of the AOE, there were opportunities for questions and at times for substantive answers as well.  The City committed to posting a transcript of the Q & A section of the webinar on line, and that will allow us and others to evaluate just what was said.  Once that transcript is available, we will send out an “Assessing the New AOE: Part 2” and will also include suggestions for actions interested individuals and consulting parties may wish to take.

6.  Digging into the AOE?

As noted above, the Final AOE is posted on the JPW website.

That same document and also the appendices that are referenced in its text are available on the City’s Federal Review website (scroll down to the box for January 16, 2020 under Key Federal Review Milestones).   

Because it can be difficult to navigate the multiple auxiliary documents, which are a mix of new and previously issued materials, here is a brief guide to various appendices that may be of particular interest.  Note: this guide uses the document names that appear on the City’s website and the numbering of the pages that appears on your computer:

·         AOE Appendices (a bundling of parts of Appendices A-G):

o   Appendix B, (pp 30-31) — Figures 2 and 4 showing the City’s design proposal for using the eastern tip of the Midway for UPAAR replacement land and indicating the 7 other sites that were considered. 

o   Appendix D (pp. 47-134) — Visual Impact Assessment

o   Appendix F (pp. 197-98) – Consulting Parties list

o   Appendix F (pp. 211-215) – Summary of Public Comments Submitted in August 2019

o   Appendix F (pp. 217-362) – Full Texts of Comments submitted by Consulting Parties, August 2019

·         Comment Disposition – Appendix F: Comments and Responses

o   This purports to be a point-by-point response by the official agencies to the comments on the draft AOE submitted by the Consulting Parties in August 2019.  However, not all queries or concerns were addressed and many of the responses are repetitive formulaic statements rather than substantive responses.  Note that some responses that would redirect the issue from the Section 106 process to the NEPA review are based on an overly narrow reading of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

o   Note that this table incorrectly includes a statement attributed to the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council, which should be removed and  recategorized as a statement by individuals. 

ALSO OF NOTE:  Further brief filed in Protect Our Parks lawsuit

The original Protect Our Parks lawsuit was filed in May 2018.  JPW has believed from the beginning that the suit raised some very important questions about the proper stewardship of a public good such as Jackson Park and about the hidden processes by which decisions about the Park were made.

The original lawsuit was dismissed in June 2019.  However, POP filed an appeal emphasizing the core issue of appropriate stewardship by the City of invaluable public trust land. 

In August, 2019, the Protect Our Parks legal team, arguing that the information in the newly released AOE has a material impact on the POP lawsuit, asked Federal Judge John R. Blakey to re-open the case so that the information in the AOE could be considered.  Judge Blakey ultimately denied the POP motion to reopen the case. POP has now filed a second brief challenging that denial.  A hearing on these arguments has not yet been scheduled.  As always, we will keep you informed.


Thanks to all who have recently offered financial support.  As always, 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. 

Once again, we thank you.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

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