Jackson Park and Chicago’s parks generally have been much in the news over the last month. Here is our attempt to summarize and prioritize.
Mixed reactions to saws and shovels
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the OPC on September 28 – on a bare site newly clear-cut and leveled – was mainly a virtual event, closed to all but a few invited dignitaries due to COVID-19 restrictions and perhaps also to concerns about possible demonstrations by those opposed to the siting of the OPC in the park. The event was buzzed by a plane pulling a banner sponsored by Save Jackson Park: “Stop cutting our trees. Move OPC.”
In the days before and since there have been many public ruminations reflecting the ambivalence that so many feel about the OPC – the tension between honoring Barack Obama and destroying Jackson Park.
- In the Sun-Times Lynn Sweet recounted the many lingering controversies relating to the development of the plans for the OPC.
- Local photographer Eric Allix Rogers documented the destruction of the landscape with before and after pictures of the site designated for the OPC.
- The editor of The South Side Weekly prepared a photo essay to remember the Jackson Park trees, noting that until the trees were cut many residents of the community did not comprehend the scope or implications of the transformation of the park from a protected space under public oversight to a space controlled by private hands. Now, with community input having been blocked and no comprehensive community benefits agreement, they fear that all will be lost.
- Ron Grossman of the Tribune weighed the value of the OPC against the loss of precious urban green space and with some ambivalent logic accepted that clout and hubris and personal feelings had tipped the scales against consideration of the broad public good.
- Across the spectrum there was concern about the OPC’s impact on a critical public issue for Chicago: affordable housing. The head of the Better Government Association criticized the Obama Foundation’s refusal to sign a community benefits agreement and called for the Foundation to finally do right by the South Side now in order to clear its reputation for the future. The issue of displacement also mobilized African American critics of the OPC from the progressive left to the Nation of Islam.
Even if they had doubts about the wisdom or justness of the outcome, many commentators assumed that it is a foregone conclusion that the OPC will be built as now planned and Jackson Park will be remade in its shadow. But given the continuing legal challenges, that dire scenario is not inevitable. The OPC could still be moved to another non-park site or, at the least, its footprint in Jackson Park could be modified to avoid further destruction.
Legal challenges to OPC continue
Protect Our Parks and its six co-plaintiffs have active cases at various levels of the federal court system and other under consideration:
- U.S. District Court for Northern District of Illinois —
In April POP filed a complaint to challenge the improper conduct and legitimacy of the federal reviews of the OPC plan required of the Federal Highway Administration, National Park Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That complaint is still pending, with no schedule set yet to hear the merits in that suit. Some of the defendants (City, Park District, Obama Foundation) filed a motion to dismiss the portion of the suit dealing with the City’s public trust obligations, and that motion may be considered this month, but the core of the case challenging the federal review process would not be affected.
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit —
Also still pending is POP’s appeal, filed in August, for the reversal of an earlier decision denying a preliminary injunction to halt work on the OPC until the POP case challenging the federal review process is completed.
Jackson Park Watch joined with Preservation Chicago in September to file an amicus brief in support of the POP appeal for an injunction. The brief stressed the widespread interest by local residents in the preservation of Jackson Park and the widespread concern that any and all legally required reviews be conducted accurately and fairly in recognition of the potential of the OPC project to set a precedent for future historic and environmental preservation cases. The joint brief also argued that further delay in construction work would not harm or reduce the projected long-term benefits of the OPC but would avert potentially unnecessary damage to historic and environmental resources.
Two other amicus briefs were also submitted in support of the POP appeal: The National Association of Olmsted Parks in its brief stressed the importance of parks as public open spaces to be protected from privatization. The NAOP brief is described in a special statement entitled “Requiem for Jackson Park”. Teresa Horton, an Associate Professor of Research at Northwestern University whose work has examined the impact of urban greenspace on the psychological and physiological health of humans, submitted a brief highlighting the positive effects that access to mature trees and complex landscapes has on both individual health measures and societal ills such as domestic and community violence. With aerial photos she demonstrated the dramatic contrast between densely canopied Hyde Park and sparsely covered Woodlawn, and expressed great concern about the negative impact of the 50-year gap before there would again be mature trees on the OPC site.
The Court denied, without explanation, each of these motions to file a brief. While the texts of the briefs are recorded in the official record, it is disappointing that they will not be considered by the judges as part of the testimony supporting the request for a preliminary injunction. One would think that the Court would want to gather as much information and consider as many viewpoints as possible in a case where the public interest is itself the central issue under review.
- U.S. Supreme Court —
POP’s special emergency request to the Supreme Court for an injunction to stop OPC construction work was recently denied without comment. The denial was not unexpected given the huge number of appeals received by SCOTUS. This ruling has no effect on either the appeal to the 7th Circuit noted above or on the original case before in the District Court as there was no consideration of the legal merits of either case.
Jackson Park beyond the OPC
In addition to the continuing saga of the OPC, there are questions and controversies bubbling throughout Jackson Park and its adjoining parks that deserve and require close attention and action. The vision of making Jackson Park into a Millennium Park South, as President Obama said when unveiling the OPC plans in 2017 and as was reiterated at the recent groundbreaking, would transform the park and the mid-south lakefront into a playground for passing tourists and upscale golfers and boaters while diminishing its importance as a community asset available to the public at large and depriving local residents of ready access to favorite activities and nature’s respites. It is important then to keep the entire park area in mind, even as the OPC continues to hog the spotlight.
Hug a photo?
The federal reviews of the plans for the OPC that are the subject of the lawsuit filed by POP concluded with a Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement outlining the steps to be taken to “mitigate” the admittedly severe adverse effects of the OPC on the historic resources of Jackson Park. The City just submitted its first annual report on those steps to the Federal Highway Administration. Most actions are marked as pending. The one completed action was the documentation through photographs and drawings of the areas of the park to be altered to accommodate the OPC – good for archivists perhaps, but a meaningless action for active park users.
A redesign for Midway Plaisance?
The only other action step reported to the FHWA was the Park District’s initiative to hire a suitable landscape firm to redesign the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance. Because Jackson Park is “protected” by a recreational preservation agreement with the National Park Service (due to funding provided in the1980s), the transfer of a portion of Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation required the designation of a new recreational space for NPS protection. Rather than develop new parkland to serve the community and compensate for the loss of acreage in Jackson Park, the Park District and City designated the Midway’s eastern tip as the replacement site. When the plan was first broached in 2018, the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council stated its opposition, judging the site inappropriate for active recreation uses, especially for children. MPAC has recently reaffirmed its opposition to the CPD plan. Even so, as reported in the Hyde Park Herald, on October 13, the Park District Board approved a contract with Site Design Group for this project (1-year @ $329,360 with extensions possible). A schedule for the work has not been issued, although community meetings are promised. It is noteworthy that Site Design is part of the landscape architecture team for the OPC, and thus the Midway redesign project might well be seen as an extension of those plans.
A gated community?
Public discussion continues about the installation of large gates on the two bridges leading to Wooded Island. Are they necessary? Who do they exclude? What message do they convey about park usage? The ominous gates are not currently being closed and locked nightly, thanks to public outcry, but there remains confusion and concern about access to the island between dusk and dawn. The controversy has sparked lively exchanges at chaotic meetings of the Jackson Park Advisory Council. Critics of the installation have organized as South Side Parks to address multiple concerns about park leadership and management; anyone who wants to learn more should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clubs at the ready?
The proposed merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses to create a single PGA-level course has taken a lot of hits lately, particularly from the Sun-Times (see link below), but the ball is still lurking behind the bushes. We agree with media critiques that it is a bad plan in every way – for local golfers, for frequenters of the SS Nature Sanctuary, for ball players, for equestrians, for dog lovers, for community users of the South Shore Cultural Center, for taxpayers. The youth programs often touted to justify the “Tiger Woods” plan can be (and already have been) effective without any radical redesign. But we are all too aware of the clout and backroom agreements that have brought the OPC shovels to Jackson Park, and recognize that continued vigilance is needed.
Limestone or concrete?
Promontory Point has become another public park requiring renewed community attention. Storms last year that threatened Lake Shore Drive at Morgan Shoal (at 43rd-53rd Sts.) made the reinforcement of the lakeshore an urgent necessity. Current presentations by the Army Corps of Engineers, CDOT, and the Park District have indicated a preference for extending generic steel and concrete steps all along the south lakefront, including around the Point. This plan ignores the fact that there is no danger to LSD from storm waves at the Point and also completely disregards prior designs and signed agreements for restoring the historic limestone revetement at the Point. Those prior designs were the result of extensive community discussions and negotiations with city and federal agencies brokered by the Promontory Point Conservancy. The current governmental preference for concrete would also threaten the Point’s recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a milestone that was supported by a large segment of the community and guided by Alderman Hairston. In the face of this new threat, the PPC is organizing again to promote community awareness of and support for preservation and restoration of the historic limestone revetment at Promontory Point. Stay tuned.
Time to pay attention, stay involved
All of these current issues and controversies in Jackson Park and neighboring parks are related to and will be affected by the upheaval in the leadership of the Chicago Park District. With the forced resignation of CEO Michael Kelly due to a sexual abuse scandal, there has been a torrent of additional complaints about CPD’s long record of poor judgement, bad management, lack of transparency, and lack of attention to community needs and wishes. It is not clear yet to what extent there will be big changes beyond the selection of a new superintendent – e.g., a new Board of Commissioners? a clean sweep of department directors? – or how long it will take to implement the changes. But one can hope and one should participate in discussions to promote a Park District that serves the community rather than special interests.
Friends of the Parks is taking a leading role, and deserves support. But the discussions and actions in the local park advisory councils – JPAC, MPAC, SSPAC – will also be important, as will the work of the Promontory Point Conservancy. Let your voice be heard.
Jackson Park Advisory Council –
next meeting November 8, 7:00 pm, JP field house
(Note: Contrary to the website, you do not have to donate to be a member)
Midway Plaisance Advisory Council
next meeting October 27, 6:30 pm, Midway field house (special date)
South Shore Cultural Center Advisory Council – https://www.facebook.com/SouthShoreCulturalCenterAdvisoryCouncil/
next meeting November 13, 10:30 am, SSCC Oak Room
Promontory Park Conservancy
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