Rush to dig
Since mid-April, the Obama Foundation has made an increasingly urgent push to raise more money for the Obama Presidential Center and, in support of that effort, to put shovels in the ground of Jackson Park as a green-light signal to potential donors and perhaps also to members of the judiciary.
It was on April 14 that a group of plaintiffs – Protect Our Parks and six individuals – filed a complaint in the federal district court challenging the procedures used in the federal reviews of the changes to the park that would be necessary to accommodate the Obama Presidential Center. On that same day the Foundation announced its “Road To Groundbreaking” campaign, aimed at getting evidently much-needed donations from local corporations. Combatting the parallel lawsuit and the related negative publicity has been a major focus of the Foundation ever since. As the proceedings for the complaint dragged on, the POP team filed a request for a temporary injunction prohibiting any construction until the issue was decided. A week later, on June 23, the Obama Foundation announced that it would begin construction work in Jackson Park on August16, with the City beginning to re-route traffic around Jackson Park on Friday the 13th of August, an ironically appropriate date for those of us opposed to the OPC plan.
This past week, Judge John Robert Blakey ruled against the request for a temporary injunction against any construction . While the judge’s decision has been announced, the written opinion that explains the decision has yet to be issued. The POP team is expected to appeal the injunction ruling right away.
The Tribune editorialized today that “the court has spoken” and the OPC project should proceed. We think that is not correct. The Court has spoken only about the motion for an injunction to pause construction. But it has not yet ruled on the substantive complaint about the faulty process of the federal reviews of the OPC site plan. The Tribune’s wink-wink suggestion that the digging should begin immediately because it would then be harder for a court to stop the project shows a lamentable and inappropriate disregard for the legal process. The OPC project, however worthy in its aims, has been a sweetheart deal from the beginning. It would have received a better reception had proper procedures been followed throughout; they should be followed now.
The Tribune editorial concludes “Time now for everyone to move forward together. And for the Obamas and their supporters to live up to their ask.” We suggest that the Obama Foundation begin by abiding by the terms of the Master Agreement.
Where’s the money?
Has the Obama Foundation met all of the stipulations required by the 2018 Ordinance authorizing the City’s handover of 19.2 acres of Jackson Park? The Master Agreement, drafted by the City and the Foundation and signed on May17, 2019 (one of the final acts of Rahm Emanuel’s administration), specifies deliverables that must be provided before the City and the Foundation can sign the Use Agreement that would turn over the park site to the Foundation. It remains unclear if the Obama Foundation has yet met all of the requirements stipulated.
JPW has submitted multiple FOIA requests to the City’s Department of Planning and Development to try to determine if all the conditions were being met in full or if they were being side-stepped in the same way that the federal review regulations were. Has the City done its due diligence or has it waived certain requirements waivers?
Most troublesome is the indication that the Obama Foundation has not fulfilled its obligations to submit both a final budget for construction of the OPC and a certification that the Foundation has in hand funds to cover fully that cost
∙ On March 12 the Foundation submitted what was then labeled a total final construction budget of $482M and an accountant’s certification that it had $485M in hand to cover that cost.
∙ On June 4, however, Foundation president Valerie Jarret announced to the Economic Club of Chicago that instead the cost of building the OPC would be close to $700M, blowing away the long-standing prior estimate of close to $500M. No explanation was given then or since for that sudden, large jump.
∙ As of July 28, the City Department of Planning and Development responded to a FOIA request that it did not have a revised construction budget or a revised certification of funds reflecting that new $700M figure.
∙ Adding to the confusion is a declaration submitted to the federal court on July 15 as part of the Obama Foundation’s defense against the request for an injunction against construction. There Robbin Cohen, Executive Vice President of the Foundation, provided a much different, much smaller figure for gifts and pledges dedicated to the construction of the OPC – only something over $200 million.
Another requirement specified in the Master Agreement — that the Obama Foundation must establish an endowment dedicated to paying the operating and maintenance costs of the OPC when needed — has also prompted questions and confusion. JPW submitted several FOIA requests for certification of that obligation being met. Finally, last week, we received a copy of a letter from Robbin Cohen to DPD Commissioner Maurice Cox, dated August 3, stating that the Foundation had established and funded an endowment account of $1 million as of June 22. That dollar number is not a typo, so it should be noted that an endowment of that size would yield only about $50,000 per year, very far from the millions that would be needed to sustain the OPC. And is it a coincidence that the City received formal notification of the endowment only after a FOIA inquiry was made?
The City’s due diligence and the Foundation’s compliance look decidedly sketchy. The taxpayers of Chicago have the right to know if there is secure and sufficient private funding for the OPC before ground is broken.
Both sides now
The legal challenges and counter maneuvers have focused new attention on the many troublesome issues raised by the proposal for the OPC – e.g., the gift of public parkland to a private organization, the destruction of the historic Olmsted design, the environmental impact of the loss of hundreds of mature trees. Local commentator Leonard Goodman offered a summary of issues not fully covered by mainstream media. Politico highlighted the difficulties of penetrating the protective shield around the Obama project, no matter how substantive the legal issues. W.J.T. Mitchell, one of the plaintiffs in the challenge to the federal reviews, presented a particularly poignant statement of the dilemma now facing us all.
Want to take action?
Area residents frustrated or confused by the planned road work and the lack of timely information about its details or by the incomplete information about funding for the OPC or by any other aspect of the OPC project may want to contact the Alderman or City officials.
- Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, 773-324-555.
- Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at firstname.lastname@example.org, (include a cc to her Chief of Staff, Sybil Madison at email@example.com), 312-744-3300.
- City Commissioner for Planning and Development, Maurice Cox at Maurice.Cox@cityofchicago.org, 312-744-9476.
- City Commissioner for Transportation, Gia Biagi at Gia.Biagi@cityofchicago.org, 312-744-3600.
- Obama Foundation Vice-President for Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis at firstname.lastname@example.org, 773-420-1700.
Links to local media outlets are available at http://jacksonparkwatch.org/take-action-2/.
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Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch