The City and the Obama Foundation signed the final legal agreements turning over 19.3 acres of Jackson Park to the Foundation on August 13 and preparatory site work for the Obama Presidential Center began on August 16. It is a sad time for those who believe, first and foremost, in the rule of law and process.
A reminder of how we got to this point
The saga of the OPC has been something of shell game from the beginning, focused on the glitter rather than the gritty details:
- In 2014 the University of Chicago competed for the Barack Obama Presidential Library by submitting designs for sites that it did not control, in public parks near the campus. (None of the designs or terms offered by the University were made public until 2018, when a law suit filed by Protect Our Parks prompted their release.)
- In 2015 the City Council, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, responding to a request by the Obama Foundation, adopted an ordinance defining very specific sites in Jackson Park and Washington Park that would be used for the Presidential Library if one of the University’s proposals was selected by the Obamas. In 2016 the Obama Foundation designated Jackson Park as its choice.
- In 2017, the Obama Foundation unveiled the design it had commissioned, revealing, without any advance public notice, that the boundaries of the site codified by the 2015 ordinance had been modified to take over parts of Cornell Drive and Midway Plaisance. In addition, the enterprise was now identified not as a Presidential Library, but as a Presidential Center, disconnected from the National Archives and Records Administration and the standard financial requirements and guarantees that that relationship would have provided.
- Beginning in 2017 the City stressed that the proposal for Jackson Park would be thoroughly vetted by a series of required federal reviews to assure that the historical and environmental integrity of Jackson Park would not be compromised. But the City also decreed that it had sole authority to decide what happened in Jackson Park and therefore the reviews would be directed not at the OPC project itself, but only at proposed changes in other areas of the park.
- In 2018 Mayor Emanuel orchestrated adoption a new ordinance to approve the revised site plan for the OPC. City officials and staff touted a series of legal agreements attached to the ordinance that would guarantee its success as a privately funded gift to the City. The first of those documents – the Master Agreement – was signed on May 17, 2019, three days before Mayor Emanuel left office.
- In 2020, the federal reviews ended with the determination that the project could proceed as proposed This conclusion was reached even though the Assessment of Effects to Historical Properties had determined that the OPC along with the proposed road changes and other changes to accommodate the OPC would have an adverse effect on Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance, and even though the review process had failed to consider any alternative designs as required by both the historical and environmental review regulations.
- On August 13, 2021, the City signed the legal agreements transferring the park site to the Obama Foundation, as reported by Lynn Sweet in the Sun-Times, even though the Foundation had failed to comply with all of the terms of the Master Agreement, particularly the requirements to provide a final, accurate construction budget and certification that the Foundation had in hand sufficient funds to cover that budget. And the land transfer proceeded in spite of an ongoing lawsuit challenging the federal review process and seeking an injunction against construction work.
So where are we now?
Site preparations are proceeding in Jackson Park.
Tree-cutting on the OPC site is scheduled to begin the week of August 30. Based on 2018 tree studies, there are approximately 400 trees on the OPC site. In an effort to “green wash” this destruction, about 200 of the tree trunks will be saved and used in various ways – furniture for the OPC, art installations, ornamentation in the buildings – though exact plans have not yet been made. This number does not include an additional 400 trees to be removed elsewhere in the park by CDOT as part of the road work. At the July 20 court hearing, one of the defendants’ lawyers put the total number of trees to be removed for the project at 789, to which Judge Blakey commented “that’s a large number.”
Legal challenges continue
- The primary suit filed in April by Protect Our Parks and six individual plaintiffs to challenge the federal review process and also advance state law claims continues in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
- In addition, the POP+ legal team has filed in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals an appeal from the District Court’s denial of the motion for a preliminary injunction to stop further construction while the initial case is concluded. The appellate court has agreed to hear the appeal on an expedited schedule that calls for opening briefs by September 20 and for oral argument later in the fall.
Even though construction work has begun, an injunction for a stoppage remains a possibility that could preserve many (though, alas, not all) of the historic and environmental resources in Jackson Park.
- Also, the Obama Foundation’s failure to meet all of the terms of the Master Agreement that gave it control of the park land requires more scrutiny and presents a possible new avenue for legal challenge. Other areas of concern are being examined as well.
Obama Foundation financial problems multiply
The financial straits and strategies of the Obama Foundation, as detailed in the Sun-Times and also in the Tribune, are receiving increasing scrutiny. The imbalance between the now-announced cost of construction and outfitting of the OPC to open in 2025 ($830 million) and the declared funds in the Foundation’s hands now (maybe $485 million, maybe $200 million) is worrisome to say the least.
Two days after it took control of the site, the Foundation released its annual report for 2020 and announced a fundraising goal of $1.6 billion over the next five years in order to complete the funding for the OPC as well as to support its global programming and provide an endowment to maintain the OPC going forward. To put that ambitious goal in perspective, it requires the Foundation to secure $320 million in new contributions each year. That’s about double the Foundation’s total receipts for 2020. For comparison, it is also 25% more than a much larger institution – the University of Chicago – received in private gifts in 2020. So the challenge is huge and the risks are great. And if the fundraising goal is not met, what happens? Well, the property – disrupted and damaged – should revert back to the City, a potential financial burden for a perennially stretched City budget.
Park District’s hidden moves
- The Park District’s ill-conceived and unpublicized plan to let Amazon rent space in public parks for its lockers had targeted Jackson Park as well as Midway Plaisance and South Shore Cultural Center for the installations. Thanks to the outpouring of opposition and the quick response of surprised Alderman Leslie Hairston, there will be no lockers in 5th Ward parks, but the episode shines a bright light on the Park District’s lack of transparency and its strategy to monetize parkland instead of protecting it as a public good.
- The Park District, with only one day’s notice, installed gates on the bridges leading to Wooded Island, ending all access to the island between dusk and dawn. Security issues on the Island have been discussed for some time, prompted by recurring vandalism of the Japanese Garden, but the timing of the sudden installation – just as construction work began on the OPC site adjacent to Wooded Island – has led many residents to fear the imposition of additional restrictions on free access to Jackson Park in the future. Conflicting explanations and claims about park usage and security plans by the Park District, Alderman Hairston, and the Obama Foundation have not reassured regular park users.
- The Park District seems to have jumped the gun also regarding plans to install a children’s play area on the eastern tip of Midway Plaisance (between the Metra tracks and Stony Island) to replace recreational space in Jackson Park lost to the OPC’s buildings and paved plaza. The substitution was part of the Memorandum of Agreement signed in late 2020 as part of the conclusion of federal reviews. The MOA specified that there was to be a 45-day period for public review and comment on that proposal before a final decision was made about the design for the space As far as we and others who focus on the Midway Plaisance know, no such review period has been announced and none of the promised consultations with Park District staff have been scheduled. Yet on July 30 the Park District posted on its Procurement Portal a Request for Proposal P-21010 Midway Plaisance East End Improvements, with a submission deadline of September 1; that seems to indicate that the plans are set in ink if not in stone. So much for public review and comment.
Pause Mode for the Golf Course Merger
The bursts of activity by the Obama Foundation and City for the OPC have brought some renewed focus on the linked proposal to develop a PGA-level golf course in Jackson Park. As David Roeder of the Sun-Times put it, “whatever happened to the golf course idea?” He reviewed the 5-year saga of that half-baked idea – another top-down plan from Mayor Emanuel – and concluded that fundraising and political problems have put it on hold, “stuck in the rough,” at least for the moment. We note that the very expensive road underpasses that are essential to the current golf plan are isolated in the CDOT plans as “Phase 3, Post-2025,” to be addressed after the OPC road work is completed. We expect that the available federal highway funding, approved in 2018, would be long exhausted by then, but we will keep watch.
Make your voice heard
- 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.
- Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly at Michael.Kelly@chicagoparkdistrict.com, (312) 742-4200.
- 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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