Section 106 ending with a whimper
JPW had no expectations that the July 16 webinar run by the FHWA and the City as part of the Section 106 review would result in any substantive change in the trajectory to rubber stamp the proposed plan for the Obama Presidential Center, and those low expectations were fully realized.
The draft Memorandum of Agreement presented to consulting parties at the webinar does absolutely nothing to address the well-documented adverse effects on Jackson Park of the current plan for the OPC and the road changes it requires. It does nothing to preserve a central portion of Jackson Park as it has stood for over a century, defined by its Olmstedian vision of open spaces and natural areas. The Women’s Garden would be dismembered, and the distinctive Olmsted circulation pattern would be eradicated. There would be no provision for new parkland to replace the 19.3 acres that would be lost despite how much COVID has heightened our awareness of the importance of outdoor space and public parkland. Instead this improperly manipulated review has skipped over mandatory consideration of measures to avoid or minimize these adverse impacts, and recommends only meaningless “mitigation” steps that are in fact a slap in the face of those who treasure the Park as it is. The Cultural Landscape Foundation characterized the MOA terms as a swap of invaluable, historic parkland for “signage” – abandoning the real for the virtual — and highlighted, with disappointment, the unexplained decision by the Illinois State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) to endorse the draft MOA, in a complete reversal of its previous assessment.
Comments on the draft MOA may be submitted until August 10. Some additional, as yet undefined review of a final MOA will follow, but our expectations are again low.
As previously stated, JPW will not be a signatory to the MOA as it now stands. Beyond recognizing the gross inadequacies of the draft MOA, we have also come to recognize that the whole context for evaluation of the proposed OPC has now changed.
Time to rethink the plan for the OPC
Along with issues of transparency, survey ethics, openness to public input and badly flawed review procedures, the Section 106 process has failed because it is being conducted as if the social, cultural, and economic landscapes that existed when the OPC was first proposed six years ago are still intact. Chicago, along with the rest of the U.S., has been radically changed by the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the sudden onset of a severe economic recession. We don’t know what the future will look like, but we can be sure that it won’t look like it did in 2014. With that in mind, we strongly recommend that there be a fundamental rethinking of the entire OPC project in order to assure its full success.
Although we urgently hope that we will conquer the coronavirus sooner rather than later, we don’t know how the practices that we’ve all taken for granted will carry over into the future. In particular, will large-scale tourism and packed public venues such as museums be common again? Remember, the large economic benefits that are attributed to the OPC depend upon the very optimistic attendance estimates prepared by the Obama Foundation’s consultants. The pandemic experience casts doubt that there would be 625,000-760,000 visitors annually (a projection that was already more than twice the attendance recorded at any other presidential library or museum over the past forty years). If more people explore the OPC digitally rather than in-person, the economic benefits are, by definition, reduced accordingly.
Most critically, the pandemic has exposed the crucial need for health and social services in Black communities around Chicago, and at the same time has delivered a body blow to the finances of both the City and its residents. At a time when the City’s budget resources are stretched very thin and will be for the foreseeable future, should the City spend over $200 million to close Cornell Drive, reconfigure other roadways, and commit to the greater unquantified costs for environmental remediation and mitigation measures to accommodate the current plan for the OPC? In a time of severe financial strain, when the City projects a $700 million deficit, attention should be given to identifying the significant expenses that could be minimized or avoided by rethinking the siting of the OPC. Reducing the cost of the project by moving it could also accelerate the date by which the Center can open.
In addition to the new economic realities, the lockdowns undertaken during the pandemic have made all of us more aware of the critical value of our public parks as safe and essential spaces to explore natural settings and promote our individual and civic health. Given that new awareness, is it wise to sacrifice a core portion of Jackson Park, when we could have both the park and the OPC if its site were modified or moved? Mayor Lightfoot has called for new (and very needed) investments in underserved communities on the South and West Side. Preserving Jackson Park, by reducing the OPC footprint or rebuilding it on a non-parkland site will multiply the investment in our South Side communities.
Beyond the immediate and lingering social and economic impact of the pandemic, the current OPC plan should be reassessed also in the context of the environmental changes that have now become so evident. Record high levels in Lake Michigan, with predictions of higher levels to come, call into question the practicality of removing Cornell Drive as a major traffic connector for the South Side and beyond. In particular, the proposed expansion of Lake Shore Drive to accommodate the significantly increased traffic resulting from the closure of Cornell Drive would take place directly adjacent to the rising lake itself, raising the prospect of regular traffic disruptions as higher lake levels combine with the increased frequency of heavy storms. Climate change does not seem to have been part of the assessment when the OPC roadway plans were developed; it must be considered now. Similarly, the rising lake levels and the higher water table that follows in tandem have raised questions concerning the wisdom of constructing a massive 235’ museum tower and an underground parking garage immediately adjacent to the West Lagoon in Jackson Park, originally itself a marshy area, or the feasibility of draining the wetland on the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance.
Given the convergence of these new challenges – financial, social, environmental, we believe now is the time for a reevaluation of the current plan for the Obama Presidential Center, just as other development plans, private and public, are being reexamined in light of the current crises. The urgency of these challenges cannot be ignored. The cost to demilitarize the police system, to strengthen the public schools, and to expand public health programs to eliminate racial injustices will be staggering, but it must be paid. Similarly, the problem of lakefront erosion must be addressed without delay and before other investments can be made. Support for the OPC on the South Side is almost universal and community expectations are high. But to fully realize those expectations, the City and the Obama Foundation must remove their blinkers and rethink the plan for the OPC within the context of this new era.
Given that the Section 106 federal review of the OPC is nearly at an end, and in keeping with her move to Michigan, Margaret Schmid is stepping back from her active role in JPW. As she does so, she wants to offer heartfelt thanks to all who have worked with and contributed to JPW in these recent years. She of course will continue to follow further developments with great interest.
To try to fill Margaret’s big shoes, Ray Lodato and Jack Spicer have joined the JPW board of directors and will work with Brenda Nelms to monitor the many proposals for Jackson Park. JPW’s guiding principles remain:
- Transparency in decision-making about the Park – no backroom deals
- Meaningful community input on major changes to the Park – no top-down decisions
- Preservation of the Park as a democratic public space – priority to local uses and local users, with maximum grass, trees, and open space
- Development of one comprehensive plan for the entire Park – forestall its division into unrelated segments
THANK YOU FOR YOUR DONATIONS!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you.
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As always, we thank you.
Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch