Flawed Process #1 – NEPA review and its Environmental Assessment
As was noted in the October 12 Update, 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 as part of the review mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The comment period ends October 30.
While JPW is still preparing its comment on the Environmental Assessment, it is clear that, as expected, the review process is designed to short-circuit standard procedures and ensure quick approval of the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes precisely as proposed.
A few key points:
- A massive project like this would normally require a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement, based on analyses prepared by the federal agencies involved, but the federal agencies and the City (which is the applicant for approval) are insisting that this EA will suffice.
- The EA falsely relies on the South Lakefront Framework Plan as the validation for the proposed changes to the park, even though the SLFP review and plan came after the OPC and related road changes were announced. It also deceptively implies that the SLFP is a solid commitment by the Chicago Park District for improvements (.e.g., parking spaces) rather than an unfunded wish list.
- The EA uses an improper baseline for evaluation. In fact, it illogically uses two different No-Action Alternative Baselines – a proper one (Jackson Park as it is today) for the National Park Service action and one that defies common sense (Jackson Park as it would be if the OPC had already been constructed and section of Cornell Drive and the Midway Plaisance already closed) for the Federal Highway Administration action. By so doing, the EA avoids required consideration of all reasonable alternatives. Instead, considering only variations on the design presented by the City, it then – surprise! –reaches the foregone conclusion that the City’s current plan is the preferred alternative to minimize or mitigate adverse effects on the environmental footprint.
- The EA’s attention to key categories of the natural environment such as trees, wildlife habitat, migratory birds, water resources is selective and incomplete. For instance, the EA excludes from consideration the impact of the 235-foot museum tower on the flocks of migratory birds that pass through the park each fall and spring.
- Also inadequate is the EA’s assessment of the impacts of the proposed changes on the human environment, on the communities surrounding the park and beyond. Of particular concern is its conclusion that traffic congestion problems will be temporary and, once construction is complete, minimal. The EA does not look beyond the boundaries of Jackson Park, and ignores the impact of the projected traffic diversions on the adjacent neighborhoods — north, south and west — and dismisses the impact of the loss of 233 parking spaces within the park that will likely both discourage current local users of the park and also inflict new traffic congestion and parking problems on residents’ adjacent to the park. The socio-economic assessment is also weakened by reliance on out-of-date estimates for the economic impact of the OPC on Jackson Park neighborhoods. The projections in the EA are based on data and analyses prepared several years ago (pre-pandemic, pre-lakeshore disruptions) and in some cases commissioned by the Obama Foundation. Given the current uncertainties about tourism and other economic drivers due to Covid-19 and given already skyrocketing rents, new, independent assessments are needed.
- The EA segments Jackson Part into sections and actions that are excluded from environmental impact reviews (the OPC campus and related road closures) and sections and projects that can be reviewed (selected parts of the rest of the park). Among the non-OPC projects excluded from review is the golf course merger project, even though it is included in the SLFP and it would have a major impact on the environment of Jackson Park by its cutting of many more hundreds of trees beyond those marked for removal for the OPC.
JPW will submit a comment statement for the record, making these and other points. If JPW Update readers wish to submit statements for the record on these or other particular topics, see the directions below. However, JPW fully expects this deeply flawed EA to be approved. That will be a sad rejection of Olmsted’s doctrine that this park (or any park) should be treated and assessed as an organic whole when considering any changes or “improvements.”
- Written comments on the voluminous Environmental Assessment report (EA) are being accepted through October 30, with two options for submission:Written statement submitted via the NPS on-line site by 11:59 PM Mountain Time on October 30, using a standard NPS 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 mail earlier to be safe. You may use the print version of the NPS comment form, or just send a standard letter.
Flawed process #2 — The final whimper for the Section 106 review
The Section 106 review process that began in December 2017 is finally limping to a conclusion three years later. Although the Assessment of Effects report determined that the proposed changes to accommodate the OPC would have serious adverse effects on the distinctive and historic character of the park, the Federal Highway Administration that is responsible for the review has ignored both standard procedures and common sense and acquiesced entirely to Rahm Emanuel’s decision to give full control of 20 acres of Jackson Park to his friend President Obama for the next 99 years. Efforts to invoke the Section 106 statute’s requirements to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” the adverse effects of the OPC on Olmsted’s historic design have been resisted. It’s the Chicago way — public policy by fiat.
In a webinar for consulting parties on October 30 the FHWA will formally present the final version of the Memorandum of Agreement that concludes the review process. In spite of major opposition to the draft MOA in August by JPW and many other organizations and individuals, the final document makes no substantive changes, and the FHWA will entertain no additional comments.
The meagre mitigation actions proposed to compensate for the takeover of Jackson Park by the OPC and memorialize its 125-year span as an Olmsted-designed recreational respite for South Siders include: various written reports with photographs and diagrams of Jackson Park today and some unspecified interpretive materials to be developed (perhaps in digital format, perhaps as signage); the rehabilitation of two long-neglected structures – the English Stone Comfort Station adjacent to the future OPC campus and the Statue of the Republic on Hayes Drive; and the promise that the public will be granted a 45-day review and comment period to consider the City’s controversial plan to install a children’s playground on the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance as replacement recreational space for the site being taken over by the OPC.
Needless to say, perhaps, JPW (and many other consulting parties to the Section 106 review) will not be signing the MOA.
Protect Our Parks and the on-going legal record
Protect Our Parks continues to analyze its next steps following a recent federal district court decision that merely affirmed what had previously taken place in the federal circuit court. Analysis of the proposed Environmental Assessment (see above) suggests that there may be additional grounds for further legal action. JPW will continue to follow these various legal threads and keep you posted.
Prospects for OPC groundbreaking still distant
In the meantime, there are no prospects that construction of the OPC — and the accompanying destruction of key aspects of Jackson Park, including the Women’s Garden, almost 800 trees, and the iconic Olmsted design of Cornell Drive and its intersection with the Midway Plaisance — will begin anytime soon. Things to watch: City budget problems, rising lake levels, increasing construction costs.
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