Jackson Park Watch Update – June 22, 2020

Greetings, all!

The FHWA steamroller hits a bump

In our last Update we reported on the ongoing Section 106 review of the proposed changes to Jackson Park to accommodate the Obama Presidential Center.  We noted that the deeply flawed process seemed designed to ensure approval of the changes with only token and totally inadequate mitigation efforts to address the severe adverse effects of the OPC on the park. 

It was then a pleasant surprise on June 12 when the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that is managing the review process notified consulting parties that the final meeting of the Section 106 review, originally scheduled for June 17, would be postponed for a full month, until July 16.  The FHWA’s explanation for the pushback cited the need to allow enough time for public review of the draft Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that was to be discussed at that final meeting. The FHWA did not explain, however, why the draft MOA was delayed nor set a date for its distribution to consulting parties.

A fuller explanation for the delay may lie with letters sent along with the FHWA message.  (The FHWA communication to consulting parties and letters referenced below are provided as attachments to this Update, as they are not posted on the City’s website.)

Most important is the May 26 letter sent to the FHWA by the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).   Saying “we believe our role is to protect cultural resources as part of the public planning process,” SHPO offered for the first time its list of what would be needed to properly address at least some of the adverse effects of the project on historic Jackson Park.  While falling short of what JPW and other consulting parties advocate, SHPO’s proposals for mitigation are nonetheless substantive and pointed.  In addition to supporting targeted archeological excavations and restoration of the Cheney-Goode Memorial, the Statue of the Republic, the English Comfort Station, and the Women’s Garden, SHPO also listed several major mitigation requirements under the header of Additional Design Review:

·         Shift the proposed OPC campus to the south to preserve the historic roadway connection between the Midway and Jackson Park and to avoid the demolition of the Women’s Garden.

·         The City’s proposed use of the east end of the Midway Plaisance as UPARR replacement parkland must meet the Standards for Rehabilitation as determined by SHPO.

·         The pedestrian path to replace Cornell Drive should reconstruct the Olmsted appearance in placement, cross section, surface, edges and plantings.

This is extremely significant.  The SHPO is a mandated signatory on the final MOA, and thus its opinion carries special weight.

It is also significant that, while repeating its formulaic response – “we have no authority” – the FHWA has in effect passed the buck to the City.  In a June 9 letter to Eleanor Gorski at the Department of Planning and Development, FHWA asked that  the City provide a written response to the suggestions “received from Section 106 consulting parties asking either (1) the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) be relocated outside of Jackson Park or (2) that the design of the OPC be modified to further minimize effects to historic properties.”     

We commend the SHPO for raising its voice. We can only imagine the behind-the-scenes discussions.  Until those conflicting positions can be resolved, we don’t expect to see a draft MOA.  As we have said many times, the saga continues.

Lake level rises and rises . . . .

In the meantime, as the Tribune has just spotlighted in a front-page article,  Lake Michigan is near its historic high water mark and is expected to continue to rise due to climate factors.  We note this because of the implications for two important components of the OPC plan.  First is the plan to rely on the widening of South Lake Shore Drive between 57th Drive and Hayes Drive/63rd Street to accommodate the significant amount of additional traffic that would result from the closure of Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd Streets. This portion of Lake Shore Drive will continue to be vulnerable to rising lake levels and storm damage.  Second is the plan to construct a 235’ tall tower (about 23 stories in height) and a substantial underground parking garage immediately adjacent to the West Lagoon in Jackson Park, where the water table level is rising in tandem with the lake level.  From a purely environmental and engineering point of view, we have to question the wisdom of persisting in these plans. 

What did the City poll actually find?

Readers will remember the on-line survey that the City conducted in mid-May, asking for suggestions about resolving the adverse effects that the OPC and road changes will have on Jackson Park.  It was no surprise to many that the City in effect suppressed the actual poll results, presenting only those that fit its narrow definition of the project.  JPW has asked the full results of the poll, to no avail.  We will now submit a FOIA request asking for that information.

Stay tuned.  As always, we will keep you posted.


Thanks to all who have supported us financially.  As always, we will welcome your contributions.  If you have any questions about contributing, please contact us at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com and we will get back to you.

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
Jackson Park Watch

(to see attachments, contact jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com)

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