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