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.
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Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch