Federal agencies leap ahead to the next review
As many of you may already know, on September 28 the National Park Service initiated a public comment period for an Environmental Assessment of the impact of the proposed construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on Jackson Park. This is the first opportunity for public input into the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act ) review process, which is designed to prevent or minimize potential negative effects of federal actions on the natural and human environment.
The Environmental Assessment (EA) is the first step in gathering information about a project in a number of categories, from wildlife to socio-economic factors. Based on the EA, the federal agency can reach a ‘Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) in which case the project will move forward according to a preferred alternative defined by the Environmental Assessment. Or, the EA can reveal that there will indeed be significant environmental impact and that more detailed analysis is needed, in which case the agency will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in order to identify alternatives with better environmental outcomes.
For the OPC project, the Environmental Assessment covers the roadwork for which Federal Highway Administration funding is needed. It also incorporates an evaluation of the OPC plan for the National Park Service (NPS) under the terms of the UPARR (Urban Park and Recreation Recovery) Act that funded improvements in Jackson Park in the 1980s and applied permanent restrictions to preserve the park’s recreational facilities. Additionally, the report includes requested actions to be taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in order to facilitate the construction of the OPC. Public comments on the voluminous Environmental Assessment report (EA) are being accepted through October 30.
JPW’s quick assessment of the Environmental Assessment
JPW has long been concerned about irregularities and inconsistencies in the conduct of the NEPA review of the OPC, and unfortunately the EA report now before us only confirms that the concerns were fully justified.
- Following in the groove of the Section 106 review – a convoluted and pre-determined sham exercise, this Environmental Assessment skips key facts, is based on an indefensible segmentation of the project under review and on false assertions about the significance of the South Lakefront Framework Plan (SLFP), and predictably concludes that there will be minimal environmental impact and the preferred alternative is existing plan for closing some roads and widening others, clear-cutting the OPC site and destroying the existing Women’s Garden, and using the eastern tip of the Midway to as replacement parkland for that consumed by the OPC, among many radical changes.
- The clear intent seems to be to move forward quickly without preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the OPC, even though for a major undertaking of this scale and import an EIS is virtually always required. An EIS would expand the analysis beyond the information gathered for the EA, allow for active public collaboration to define the range of issues and potential alternatives to be addressed in the EIS, allow for a minimum of 45 days for public review of a draft EIS, conduct further research and analysis if then warranted, and allow for a 30-day “wait period” after publication of a final EIS before concluding a decision on the proposed action. Given the gaps and inconsistencies in the EA, a full Environmental Impact Statement is necessary to consider and minimize the impact of the OPC on Jackson Park. It all depends on defining “significant impact.”
- Similar to the Section 106 review, the federal agencies have established a cumbersome process that seems intended to discourage or limit public input and to yield the pre-determined conclusion endorsing the current OPC proposal. Even allowing for the extraordinary challenges presented by Covid-19, the public comment process for this review seems difficult to navigate and not conducive to productive discussion. Most of all, it seems extremely abbreviated. The still-in-progress Section 106 review began in December 2017. Yet the time allowed now for reviewing a complex report is barely a month, and the time allowed for oral comments (2 minutes) is absurdly short. Altogether the process represents bureaucracy at its most controlling and distant. (See below for more detail about the process.)
- JPW will be submitting a written statement to help ensure that there is a robust public record of the many deficiencies in the review process and in the terms of the EA, and we will share that statement with you as soon as possible. We encourage those interested to submit your own brief comments for the record as well, and hope you will share your comments with us. As with the Section 106 review, there is no commitment by NPS to full transparency, so sharing submissions helps overcome that failure.
- Among the issues JPW will be addressing are: the absolute necessity for an EIS; the deceptive reliance on the SLFP as a public process to develop the current proposals for Jackson Park; the confusion of asserting that the Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement will resolve negative impacts to Cultural Resources in Jackson Park even before that MOA has been finalized; the assertions that there will be no impact on migratory birds and that the loss of 789 trees is insignificant; the flawed selection of the Midway for a children’s play area.
What is the review process?
In addition to the content of the Environmental Assessment, the process announced for the required public hearings also raises concerns.
- Unlike the Section 106 review, the NEPA review will have no direct interchange between federal officials and members of the public – no dialogue, no response to questions or requests for clarification. Instead, all communication is impersonal and indirect.
- The federal agencies present their case via the written report and its appendices, and via a 37-minute YouTube presentation that is available on-line now and that will be repeated at each of the webinar sessions announced for later this week.
- Also unlike the Section 106 review, no designated organizations are given special status as “consulting parties.” Rather, individuals may submit comments in one of several formats.
- Written statement submitted via the NPS on-line site by 11:59 PM Mountain Time on October 30, using a standard on-line form.
- Written statement to be submitted by regular USPS mail service to Todd Wyatt of the City’s Department of Planning and Development. The submission must be postmarked by October 30, so (as with your Nov. 3 ballot) mail earlier to be sure. You may use the print version of the NPS comment form, or send a standard letter.
- Oral statement (limited to 2 minutes) made during on-line webinars on either October 12 or October 13 (pre-registration required).
- Oral statement made in person, by appointment, to a court stenographer on October 15, 3-5 PM, at the South Shore Cultural Center.
- NPS will consider only one statement per individual, no duplicate submissions (so either speaking at a webinar or submitting a written statement).
- Even allowing for the extraordinary challenges presented by Covid-19, the public comment process for this review seems difficult to navigate and not conducive to productive discussion. Most of all, it seems extremely abbreviated. The still-in-progress Section 106 review, for instance, began in December 2017. Yet the time allowed now for reviewing a complex report is less than a month, and the time allowed for oral comments (2 minutes) is even shorter. Altogether the process represents bureaucracy at its most controlling and distant.
Finally, a couple of observations:
The cover sheet of the Environmental Assessment report includes a note that it cost the NPS $1,372,000 to produce the study. That’s a useful reminder of how much public funding – federal, state, city – has been and will yet be required to facilitate the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park even though the OPC is touted as a private project to be fully funded with private support. The expenditure of so much public monies could have been avoided – and valuable public space protected — had the City not embraced the University of Chicago’s proposal to locate the OPC in an historic public park. Too much has been spent already, but future public expenditures could be minimized if the OPC were to relocate to a non-park site or even adjust its footprint in Jackson Park. Given the fiscal challenges confronting all levels of government now, financial restraint seems not only wise but necessary.
As you review the complexities of the Environmental Assessment, you will appreciate the astute observations of John Clement in a recent letter to the Hyde Park Herald.
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