The Obama Foundation pushed the City to let it begin work on the Obama Presidential Center site in August in the hope that it would inspire big-ticket donors to fill the huge gap in funding needed to complete the project. While the impact on potential donors is unknown, it is clear that the cutting of most of the trees on the 19.3 acre site and the complete obliteration of the Women’s Garden have shocked and mobilized critics of the current OPC plan. There are new voices speaking out and new groups forming to address not only the imposition of the OPC on Jackson Park, but also other park changes.
Here’s a “brief” survey of the past month. Intertwined in all of these activities are the core issues of environmental degradation and equity, preservation of historical resources, public costs, and public goods. We expect more action on many fronts. Stay tuned.
Trees and Natural Spaces
The clear-cutting of the OPC site has brought new attention to the broad environmental consequences of the loss of so many mature trees. As covered in Environmental Health News, replacing mature trees with young saplings is not an equal exchange – “one tree does not equal one tree” – and it will take decades to recover, a trajectory complicated by climate change.
That same theme was sounded by Openlands, an organization renowned for promoting tree planting and tree care in the region. It issued a statement lamenting the loss of tree canopy and calling for extensive new plantings and financial payments by the Obama Foundation as a minimal compensation to help mitigate the environmental damage. Given the Foundation’s financial straits that response seems unlikely.
The environmental degradation of Jackson Park is being extensively and thoughtfully documented on a new website and accompanying Facebook page by Save Jackson Park, which calls for moving the OPC to a site adjacent to Washington Park.
The sense of loss and of frustration felt by many South Siders and others as the OPC site was bulldozed was eloquently captured by Woodlawn resident Lyletta Robinson in an opinion article in the Sun-Times. She pointed to the flawed decision-making process that allowed such destruction – top-down, premised on park space as something to be developed for economic purposes rather than preserved for the public good, with disregard for community concerns about the use of Jackson Park for this project and about basic issues such as traffic congestion. And she sounded the alarm about the threat to other treasured features such as the Nature Area at the South Shore Cultural Center.
Golf – ifs and buts
The OPC work in Jackson Park has reignited talk of the proposed merger of the golf courses in Jackson Park and SSCC into one PGA-level course. Coverage in Crain’s (Sept. 2 and 6) and the Tribune has been ambivalent, noting that there are many issues still to be resolved (private funding, fees for local golfers, community support), but representing primarily the perspective of a subset of gung-ho golfers. The many other users of the park who would be deprived of recreational spaces if the project moved forward are generally not represented in such coverage except by the Sun-Times. Lyletta Robinson’s comments about the South Shore Nature Sanctuary reflect those concerns, and the Sun-Times editors have explicitly lumped the project into the overflowing bucket of bad decisions by the Park District.
Trying to focus on the costs and benefits of the golf project, JPW submitted the following comment to Crain’s, where it was published on 9/9. (In our haste, we neglected to mention a most important cost of the proposed design for the golf courses merger: the destruction of some two thousand additional trees, exacerbating the environmental degradation already inflicted by the Obama Foundation.)
Regarding the proposal to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into one PGA-level facility, we pose some questions in terms that are most familiar to Crain’s readers:
Who benefits? It is important to remember that this proposal originated not with community residents or regular park users or even golfers, but with the University of Chicago as part of its 2014 private proposal to the Obama Foundation to locate in Jackson Park. . . . Though touted as separate projects, they emerged from the same womb. The University stands to be the main beneficiary of both projects by elevating Hyde Park and its adjacent lakefront neigborhoods as attractive destinations for affluent residents.
Who loses? Regular users of the park. For local golfers who can now play an affordable round whenever they want, there has been no satisfactory guarantee that such easy access will continue. For non-golfers (and also the many golfers who use the parks in other ways) there will be a loss of access to well-used, treasured recreational spaces – the Nature Sanctuary and the riding rink at the South Shore Cultural Center, the ball fields and picnic areas squeezed out first by the OPC and then the golf course expansion, the popular dog park displaced by an enlarged golf driving range.
Who pays? As with the OPC, the golf project has been represented as a gift to the City, with private donations of $25 million to pay for construction as well as for youth programming. In fact, however, the plan calls for the Park District to contribute $5 million and, rarely mentioned, requires the construction of two expensive underpasses and extensive shoreline stabilization work estimated in 2018 to cost around $58 million. So, taxpayers will be on the hook to pay some $63 million for this freebie.
Beyond the upfront costs to taxpayers, there are also potential liabilities down the line. The long-term sustainability of the golf project has never been determined. In spite of repeated requests beginning in 2017, there has been no business plan that explains how all the elements and interests will fit together in one financially sustainable package. Golf is after all a declining industry (in spite of an uptick in the pandemic as a safe recreation). The risk is that, in a couple of years, after the glossy newness wears off, the expensively restructured golf course will be recognized as still flat, still squeezed in, with a still inconveniently located driving range, and attendance will decline. That might be good for local golfers, but not for the bottom line or for taxpayers.
There are alternatives to Jackson Park
JPW and other critics have emphasized that the destruction of Jackson Park is unnecessary because there are alternative South Side sites that meet the Obama Foundation’s goals while yielding greater economic impact and without the destruction of any park land.
One of the most discussed alternative sites is adjacent to Washington Park, at the intersection of Garfield Boulevard and King Drive. An imaginative and fully developed proposal for that site has been prepared by architect and urban planner Grahm Balkany. The comprehensive plan is attentive not just to the focused needs of the OPC, but to the opportunities it would present for the surrounding community, the greater South Side and Chicago generally. Such an inclusive, outward-looking approach has not been so evident in the plan for the OPC in Jackson Park. Balkany’s proposal has just been recognized by the Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects with its 2021 Honor Award for Excellence in Master Planning. It deserves careful consideration by you, by the City, and by the Obama Foundation.
Legal remedies remain in play
The failure to consider alternatives to the current OPC plan and the failure to consider the complete context of the project, to view it as a single whole, are central to the still pending lawsuit that challenges the conduct of the federal reviews of the proposed changes for Jackson Park. The legal issues and the oddity of the Obama Foundation deciding to break ground before the suit is settled are well covered by The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
The outcome of the lawsuit will determine what’s next, and it is important to remember that many of the environmental and historic resources of Jackson Park remain as yet undisturbed. Yes, the bulldozers have destroyed the Women’s Garden and removed all of the vegetation on the OPC site. But the east and west sides of Jackson Park have not yet been sliced off (with additional tree loss) to widen DuSable Lake Shore Drive or Stony Island Avenue. Olmsted’s classic circulation pattern for the park yet remains and Cornell Drive remains as a major thoroughfare from the South Side to downtown. The eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance has not yet been converted into an active children’s play area to “replace” park spaces lost to the OPC, and in fact, the Midway Park Advisory Council just reaffirmed its opposition to the Park District plans at its September meeting.
The legal team for the seven plaintiffs challenging the conduct of the federal reviews is now juggling three interrelated court cases, even as it considers other issues to be addressed:
- The initial suit filed in April is still pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. No schedule has been set yet to hear the arguments in that suit. Some defendants in the case (City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, Obama Foundation) have filed a motion to dismiss a portion of the suit that charges the City breached its public trust obligations by delegating decision-making authority to the Obama Foundation and failing to conduct adequate due diligence. That motion will likely be considered in October, but regardless of the ruling, the core of the case challenging the federal review process would not be affected.
- Also being pursued is a challenge to the Supreme Court ruling dismissing a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop all construction work in Jackson Park while the initial suit to the federal review process was being reviewed. Lower court rulings against the motion had been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Amy Coney Barrett, serving as the justice overseeing this Midwest region, dismissed the motion without comment in August. Arguing that Barrett should have recused herself because her prior involvement in an earlier suit involving Protect Our Parks, one of the current plaintiffs, lawyers Michael Rachlis and Richard Epstein refiled the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That has been accepted for review by Chief Justice John Roberts, but no schedule has been set.
- While the issue of Barrett’s recusal is being considered, the plaintiffs have also filed, on an expedited schedule, an appeal of the District Court’s denial of the motion for a preliminary injunction. Initial briefs were filed this week, and a court hearing is scheduled for November 30.
Looking beyond park boundaries, affordable housing remains a major issue in the communities adjacent to Jackson Park. The Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition is continuing its work to preserve and expand affordable housing in the neighborhoods affected by the construction of the OPC. While the City claims to have resolved this issue by passing the Woodlawn Housing Ordinance in 2019, the implementation of that ordinance is a work in progress, with its geographic reach limited, and, as always, the devil is in the details.
The CBA Coalition has three major initiatives now:
- Asking the City to set aside all of the city-owned lots on 63rd Street east of Cottage Grove for affordable housing. The ordinance specifies that 52 of the 208 lots it controls in the area will be so designated;
- Organizing to secure a comparable ordinance for residents of South Shore to address displacement and gentrification there;
- Developing a CBA for the University of Chicago that would bring its investment in affordable housing.
New point of contention in Jackson Park
Many of you may already be aware of the controversy prompted by the Park District’s installation of tall, ominous gates at the north and south ends of Wooded Island with the intent (not yet implemented) to prevent access between dusk and dawn. The installation, coinciding with the beginning of site preparation for the OPC, has alarmed and mobilized many park users. The gates are regarded as just one more symptom of the overall mismanagement and misuse of public land and natural resources by the Park District and the City.
The Sun-Times cited the action as yet another example of poor judgment by the CPD and called for an alternative solution that would uphold the ideal of open public spaces.
Local park users have organized as Jackson Park Gates and, among other efforts, have launched a petition and are encouraging communication with officials to express concern about the gates and other park issues Anyone who wants to join the conversation should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch