Jackson Park Watch Update, May 3, 2021

Greetings, all,  

The past month has seen bursts of activity by the City, by the Obama Foundation and by Protect Our Parks regarding the proposed construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.  The media has a hard time keeping track of so many strands.  Here’s our take.

New lawsuit focuses on flawed federal reviews

On April 14, Protect Our Parks, joined by six co-plaintiffs, filed a new lawsuit in the US District Court of the Northern District of Illinois regarding the proposal to construct the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.  The complaint asserts that the recently concluded federal reviews of the OPC project were improperly structured and asks that proper reviews be conducted before any construction-related activity can begin.   

Specifically, the complaint notes that long-established federal laws enacted to protect public parkland and historic places require a diligent consideration of viable, less-harmful alternatives prior to approval of any project that would adversely impact such spaces, and it charges that such due diligence was completely lacking in the various reviews of the OPC project.  Instead, following the lead of the City, the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service sliced and diced the proposal for radical changes to Jackson Park into artificial pieces to be considered separately instead of being evaluated as the unitary undertaking that it so obviously is. By such segmentation, which is prohibited by law, the federal agencies failed to fulfill the statutory mandates and failed their responsibilities to concerned citizens and the public interest. 

An executive summary and the full text of the lawsuit are available on the POP website.  While the complaint is lengthy, it is very readable and recounts in plain language the many flaws and inconsistencies in the federal review process that have been noted by so many who participated in the review sessions.   Reports on the lawsuit appeared in the Sun-TimesHyde Park Herald, BlockClubChicago and Crain’s.   The schedule for consideration of the complaint has not yet been set.

Separately, on April 26, the US Supreme Court declined to hear a petition seeking the reversal of a ruling by the 7th Circuit Appeals Court in the initial challenge by Protect Our Parks to the City’s transfer of Jackson Park land to the Obama Foundation.  Herb Caplan, president of POP, said the decision was disappointing but not unexpected. The Supreme Court hears fewer than 2% of the appeals it receives annually. 

Much ado about nothing new

Coincidentally, on the same date that the new lawsuit was filed,  the City staged a press conference at the Museum of Science and Industry so that Mayor Lori Lightfoot could proclaim again that utility work in Jackson Park was about to begin in preparation for the OPC and other previously announced city and state commitments could also be repeated. There was no new news. The event, which also drew Governor J.B. Pritzker and Obama Foundation Board Chair Martin Nesbitt, seemed mostly designed as a photo-op for politicians to tout economic development efforts for the South Side and perhaps also to try to counter negative publicity regarding police shootings, school openings and vaccine distribution.  Notably absent were local Aldermen Leslie Hairston and Jeanette Taylor, reportedly reflecting their continuing concerns about unfulfilled promises regarding community input, affordable housing and the hiring of local minority-owned firms and workers for the pre-construction work as well as for work on the OPC.  

Obama Foundation still beating the bushes for money

The Obama Foundation used the April 14 event to kick-off the “Road to Groundbreaking,” its new branding for various programs and promised new initiatives intended to promote the Foundation’s role in workforce training and youth programming for South and West Side residents and, also it seems, to boost the Foundation’s lagging fundraising efforts. 

Less than a week later, the Obama Foundation announced a new “Road to Groundbreaking” initiative – the “Hometown Fund” – to entice $400 million in donations from local corporate, philanthropic  and individual leaders over the next five years.   The announcement  spotlighted the plan to designate $75 million of the Hometown Fund for “strengthening economic opportunities for residents on the South and West sides of Chicago and supporting youth.”  However, the purpose of the remaining $325 million to be raised for the Hometown Fund was mentioned with only vague references to helping “bring the Obama Presidential Center to the South Side” or “bring the Obama Presidential Center to life.”  As the Tribune reported, “Most of the ‘Hometown Fund’ campaign will go toward workforce and building costs for the presidential center.” 

The clear and alarming implication is that the Obama Foundation does not yet have sufficient funds to support its expansive plans, even though that is a specific requirement of the 2018 ordinance authorizing the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park, and even though, only three weeks earlier, Valerie Jarrett, as the new president of the Foundation, made the round of newspaper editorial boards to proclaim that groundbreaking was imminent, in September.

The Sun-Times board, to its credit, probed for detailed information about the Foundation’s finances, remembering the requirements of the ordinance to have full construction funding in hand and to establish an endowment  for maintenance and operation of the OPC post-construction.  They were told that the Foundation had recently provided certification to the City that it has in hand approximately $485 million to cover $482 million of hard construction costs.  As for the endowment obligation, the Sun-Times was told that the Foundation board “recently voted to establish an endowment which we will look to fund in the coming months and years.”

Financial accountability and stability in jeopardy

The Sun-Times reporting and the stream of recent announcements from the Obama Foundation prompt several observations:

∙        First,  $3 million is not much of a cushion for a construction project of this scale and complexity, particularly given the potential for cost overruns because of the high-water table in Jackson Park.

∙        Second, voting to set up an endowment is a very long step from having a payout-producing endowment fund.  For the City to accept a promise to fund an endowment in the coming years – if that is what the Hometown Fund is about – would be risky, to say the least.  A trust-us, pay-as-you-go business plan for a private project of this scale is really no plan at all and makes it likely that at some point the City would have to assume additional costs for the OPC beyond the very large outlay of public funds for road changes ($200 million) that is already known.

∙         Third, the ambitious goals of the Obama Foundation – to establish the OPC as a beacon and catalyst for Chicago’s underserved communities and to develop and empower a new generation of community leaders around the world – are admirable but also very expensive.  Even before the construction and future maintenance costs of the OPC, even before building an endowment for maintenance and operations, the Foundation has  launched national and international programs that already require an annual budget of some $40 million, based on 2019 reports.  

∙         Fourth, raising new funding in that amount (plus more for facility maintenance post-construction) each year may be possible for a time, while President Obama is still an active public figure, but what about the other eight decades of the Use Agreement and, one hopes, beyond?  That is why an endowment is a necessary investment now, not as an afterthought.  To fully support just the current $40 million annual budget would require an endowment of $800 million; yet at the moment that bucket is empty.  

In these circumstances,  we believe it is time for the Obama Foundation and the City to delay  the construction of the OPC until sufficient funding for construction and for a sustaining endowment is secured, through the Hometown Fund or otherwise. Due diligence and common sense require nothing less.  The challenges of the pandemic and economic crisis accentuate the need for prudence and full accountability.  

There is no question that the Obama Presidential Center should be built on the South Side to honor President Obama and his achievements.  We continue to oppose the current plan for the OPC in Jackson Park – there are less expensive, less destructive, more economically impactful sites available.  But wherever the OPC is located, it is imperative that there be sufficient and stable resources to assure its long-term success.  


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 directly to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.  

∙         You can contribute via PayPal here(If you encounter difficulties with PayPal, please let us know.)

∙         You can contribute via checks from donor-directed funds sent to our fiscal sponsor Friends of the Parks at FOTP, 67 E. Madison St., Suite 1817, Chicago  IL 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 Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

Jackson Park Watch Update, March 23, 2021

Greetings, all,  

The dire threat of “just one more exception”

On February 24, Preservation Chicago announced its 2021 list of Chicago’s 7 Most Endangered Historic Spaces, putting the Chicago Lakefront, all 26 miles, at the top of its list.  Pointing to the steady drip of proposals to privatize and monetize lakefront parkland, including the current threat posed by the proposal for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, Preservation Chicago put forth a radical idea:  protect Chicago’s lakefront by transforming it into a national park, which would put it beyond the reach of the whims of local politicians and offer access to much-needed resources.

In an amazing editorial on March 13 – “Defending the lakefront for centuries of Chicagoans” –the Chicago Tribune took the baton from Preservation Chicago and proclaimed the preservation of the  lakefront parkland, open and free, as essential for Chicago’s existence as a livable city, a necessity made clear by the pandemic.   While  reserving  judgment on the issue of establishing a national park, the editorial board did call out local political leaders for treating the lakefront as real estate for sale:  “The [politicians] often cave to the sales pitch that ‘just this one more exception’ won’t harm the lakefront. But to look at all the construction already permitted there is to realize an unpleasant truth:  Obstructions accumulate. . . . The lakefront is an irreplaceable gift. If Chicago squanders it, that diabolical phrase — ‘just one more exception’ — will be its epitaph.”

Just a month ago the Tribune expressed its unease with the extravagant claims for the economic benefits of the OPC,  with the already very real displacement of lower income residents in Woodlawn, and with the very costly roadwork required  by the OPC plan.   Let us now add the concern about “just one more exception” to  this list of reasons as to why the current proposal for the OPC must be reexamined and modified.

Another potential threat to the South Side lakefront

Preservation Chicago’s survey of potential threats to Chicago’s lakefront included not only Jackson Park but also Promontory Point.  With the rising water levels of Lake Michigan and additional erosion threatening Lake Shore Drive there is danger that government agencies will declare a  “crisis” and reintroduce their concrete plan for repairing the historic limestone revetment at Promontory Point, even though the Point is well away from the Drive and is still in functionally good shape.  

The Point does need sensitive rehabilitation, however. The Promontory Point Conservancy, with the support of Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois, and 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, will continue to work with government agencies to ensure that the limestone revetment is restored to its historic character and function following the Secretary of Interior Standards for Preservation, while also working closely and openly with the community.

Community fears of more broken promises 

The City and the Obama Foundation are now trying to focus public conversation away from the still unresolved issues relating to the location of the OPC in Jackson Park – loss of public parkland, destruction of an historic landmark space, and the high cost to taxpayers of public subsidies for the OPC – by touting the economic benefits that will flow from the construction of the OPC.  However, these promised benefits are based on unrealistic and now outdated, pre-pandemic projections, and residents are rightly skeptical and pushing for more details and for real action. 

The Tribune is far from alone in its concern about the negative effect of the OPC on affordable housing in nearby communities.  This urgent issue is not driven by opposition to the OPC or to President Obama, but rather by the realities of the real estate market, and would apply regardless of the location of the  OPC campus.   A recent article in the South Side Weekly  offers a telling chronicle of Chicago’s long, sad history of broken promises about affordable housing.  As a current  resident observes the rapid displacement of Black, low-income households from Woodlawn, to her the impact of the OPC is clear: “To me, it’s not for the community.” 

Concerns about displacement of residents and other impact issues were evident during a virtual OPC Community Engagement Session orchestrated by the City on March 2.   The session featured presentations by the Mayor and other City officials and by representatives of the Obama Foundation, reiterating information already announced and repeating unsubstantiated claims for economic benefits from the OPC. Comments focused mostly on the lack of specifics and demanded more information about how the affordable housing issues would actually be addressed, about how to apply for the promised construction jobs, and about why the South Shore and Washington Park communities were seemingly being left out of the City’s plans for rejuvenation and development based on the OPC.  

The focus of South Side residents on the economic impacts of the OPC, both the negative and the positive, is understandable, and their concerns and questions must be addressed.  But public attention must still be directed also to the issue of the location of the OPC in Jackson Park, with its attendant high costs – public subsidies of some $200 million for this private project and the unquantifiable value of lost public parkland – and keeping in mind the fact that the economic benefits of the OPC (and there will be some, though not nearly as much as promised) would flow regardless of where the OPC is situated on the South Side.  

Protect Our Parks legal challenges continue

Protect Our Parks continues to pursue various paths to challenge the legality of the City’s agreement with the Obama Foundation. As anticipated, it recently submitted a petition to the US Supreme Court, asking for review and reversal of the ruling of the 7th Circuit Appeals Court on the issues of standing and due process.   

While that appeal is pending, POP is also protesting  the improper conduct of the reviews that assessed the federally-funded changes to Jackson Park proposed to accommodate the construction of the OPC.  On February 16,  POP submitted a statement outlining specific flaws in the conduct of the Section 4(f) and NEPA reviews to the Secretaries of the US Departments of Transportation and Interior, which oversee, respectively, the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service, and to the City.  Further action is under consideration.

As part of that statement of protest, POP noted that regulations require that such assessments “properly review all feasible and prudent alternatives” that could avoid the loss of the protected spaces threatened by the federal action, a necessary step that POP asserts was not taken for Jackson Park even though it could be easily satisfied.  As proof, POP appended to its statement a plan  to locate the OPC adjacent to Washington Park.  A fuller statement of that alternative concept is now posted on the POP website, with more details soon to come.  


POP’s efforts are all directed to the goal of relocating the OPC to a South Side site outside of public parkland.  Such an option has never been given full consideration or public review, as the  saga of the current OPC plan demonstrates:  It began as a concept developed in private by the University of Chicago, without any public discussion; it was unveiled as a fully developed design by the Obama Foundation in 2017; that same design was incorporated into the staged South Lakefront Framework Plan discussions as written in indelible ink; community input and open discussion of alternative options were thwarted at every stage.  Let us hope that the concept being presented by Protect Our Parks will spark such public discussion now. 

There is widespread concern – among the editorial boards of the Tribune and Sun-Times and among many residents of the South Lakefront – with many aspects and effects of the current plan to construct the OPC in Jackson Park. Yet there are any number of alternative sites that could keep the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side, where it certainly should be, with less public cost, with less disruption and with more economic impact than the current Jackson Park plan.  Now is the time to address these concerns directly – before any more taxpayer money is spent, before any trees are cut, before any more residents are displaced.


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 directly to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.  
  • You can contribute via PayPal here(If you encounter difficulties with PayPal, please let us know.)
  • You can contribute via checks from donor-directed funds sent to our fiscal sponsor Friends of the Parks at FOTP, 67 E. Madison St., Suite 1817, Chicago  IL 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 Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch