While the national political scene continues to command attention, here is a reminder of where things stand with regard to the proposal for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
Federal Regulatory Reviews Are Still in Process
National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106)
November 24 was the deadline for consulting parties to provide signed approval of the Memorandum of Agreement that will conclude the Section 106 review of the proposal for the OPC. As previously noted, JPW (and many other organizations) found the mitigation measures codified by the MOA to be woefully deficient and refused to sign. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) rebuffed all objections and suggestions for modifications. The final MOA has not yet been issued.
National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA)
October 30 was the deadline for public comments on the Environmental Assessment (EA) prepared by the National Park Service (NPS). Bundled with the NEPA review is the proposal to use the eastern tip of the Midway to replace recreational features in Jackson Park that will be lost to the OPC in order to fulfill the requirements of the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR). JPW argued strongly that the initial EA is inadequate and flawed and that an additional, more substantive examination – an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – is necessary to fully and accurately evaluate the massive effect of the proposed Obama Presidential Center on Jackson Park and its surroundings. JPW’s statement on the EA and those of other organizations are available on the JPW website. After reviewing the written and oral statements it has received, the NPS will either issue a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) or call for the more detailed investigation of an EIS.
- Under Section 4(f) of the US Department of Transportation Act, FHWA must complete a review to determine if there is any feasible or prudent alternative plan that would avoid or minimize the harm done to Jackson Park by the proposed road changes – changes that would, among other actions, slice off strips on the east and west sides of the park in order to widen Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue to compensate for the closure of Cornell Drive. While no public comment is required for this review, JPW and other organizations did comment on the draft document that was posted in April.
- A Section 408 review is required for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to authorize the discharge of road construction debris into Lake Michigan and also to authorize alterations to the just-completed, five-year-long, federally-funded Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration Project that focused on rehabilitating the lagoons and areas around Wooded Island. While no public comment is required for this review, JPW and other organizations did comment when USACE posted a public notice in April.
Schedule for Concluding Federal Reviews Uncertain
We presume that the FHWA will soon distribute the finalized MOA, ending the Section 106 portion of the federal reviews without seriously addressing the identified adverse effects on Jackson Park.
The schedule for the NEPA determination by the National Park Service is uncertain. The Cultural Landscape Foundation, in a recent summary of the Section 106 and NEPA reviews, predicted NPS would report “in the next few months.” That assumes the NPS will follow a standard process. In contrast, the City’s website gives “Fall and Winter 2020” as the timeframe for making that NEPA decision as well as for finalizing the Section 4(f) review and beginning the development of plans for UPARR replacement space on the Midway. The implication is that, whereas a thorough historic resources review took three years, all of the interrelated environmental reviews will be squeezed into a few months rather than accorded the appropriate attention and community engagement required for a project of this scale.
The Section 4(f) and Section 408 reviews are closely tied to the NEPA review and presumably all will be concluded in rapid sequence, but when the dominoes will fall is unknown.
What does this mean for the construction of the OPC?
The Obama Foundation has recently announced the hiring of a new construction overseer and its aspirational goal of opening the OPC facilities and campus in 2023. It is important to remember, however, that there are certain conditions that must be met before any construction work can begin:
All of the federal reviews must be completed. Only then can the City and the Obama Foundation conclude the enabling agreements – Master Agreement, Use Agreement, Environmental Remediation and Indemnity Agreement – that were appended as exhibits to the City Ordinance approved on October 31, 2018.
As with any property transfer, there are due diligence requirements before execution. Before the City can sign the Master Agreement, the Obama Foundation must submit a budget with Projected Total Construction Costs for the OPC and must certify that it has in hand actual funds or legally binding commitments for funds equaling or exceeding those costs. The Foundation must also certify that it has established an endowment dedicated solely to maintaining and operating the OPC for the 99-year term of the agreement. It was recently reported that the Obama Foundation has raised a little more than half of the construction costs (estimated earlier at $500M). There has been no information about the establishment of the endowment fund for the OPC or the estimated annual operating budget it must be able to support. The Foundation is also dependent on fundraising for the salaries of its staff and the Obama Fellows programming it has already begun.
The City also faces funding challenges involving its infrastructure commitments for the OPC project. At a time when the City is in a precarious fiscal state, the total cost of these commitments has not been made public and their place in the City’s budget is not clear.
Ongoing legal challenges to the OPC
Beyond the financial requirements facing the Obama Foundation and the City as detailed in the city ordinance, the lawsuit by Protect Our Parks challenging the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park continues to cast a shadow over the project. POP is appealing the ruling of the appellate court and has said it is prepared to utilize any and all appropriate forums, federal and state, to present its argument that the City has violated its public trust fiduciary responsibilities. While the court actions do not prohibit the start of construction work, they do give potential donors pause.
Looming also is the possibility of legal action regarding the to-date flawed federal reviews.
What you can do
As the above notes indicate, the OPC train is chugging along, even gaining momentum in the wake of the election and the publication of President Obama’s memoir, but it has not yet reached its destination. The OPC is still a proposal, not yet a reality. Still to be done: the federal review process must be conducted properly, and the requirements of the city ordinance must be fulfilled.
If you remain concerned about the current proposal – its potential impact on Jackson Park and the surrounding communities, its cost to taxpayers, its environmental consequences, its ill-considered traffic plan, or any other aspect of the project – you should continue to make your thoughts and suggestions known to local media outlets and to the City officials who should be held accountable – Mayor, Aldermen, Commissioners of Transportation and of Planning and Development. Contact information is available at Take Action on the JPW website.
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