The new year is off to a busy start with issues relating to Jackson Park and adjacent parks. Here is a brief report.
JPAC — Exclusive Club or Community Forum?
There has been considerable attention given to the internal workings of the Jackson Park Advisory Council in recent months, prompted partially by the installation of wrought iron gates on the bridges leading to Wooded Island. Although the gates are not being locked at this time, to many they represent an ominous image of exclusion and inequity, while to the current JPAC leadership they represent a necessary protection against vandalism.
These conflicting views are now playing out in an effort by the JPAC officers/board to revise the by-laws of the organization to institute additional attendance and volunteer requirements for voting members. Presently, individuals who have attended the monthly meetings of JPAC twice in the previous year may vote on issues and in elections. The proposed change would require attendance at four monthly meetings and also participation in three volunteer activities (unspecified and undefined) before being eligible to vote. The disagreement and challenges to the proposal have been covered in the Herald and BlockClubChicago and most recently WTTW.
It is instructive to recall a similar brouhaha over voting requirements that occurred in 2016. At that time individuals could vote after attending just one prior meeting during a 12-month period. Without any prelude, the JPAC board proposed amending the by-laws to increase the requirement for prior attendance from one to three meetings. Strong objections resulted in a compromise – the two-meeting requirement that exists today.
What had prompted that board initiative in May 2016? It would seem to have been the widespread public concern about and pushback against the proposal by Project 120 to erect a music pavilion/visitor center on a site adjacent to Wooded Island, a project that JPAC (or at least its board) supported and promoted, though had never discussed or probed in depth during its monthly public meetings. The defensive response was to establish new obstacles to the participation of other voices in park matters.
It was frustration with JPAC’s failure to function as a true forum for public discussion of the big changes being proposed for Jackson Park that sparked the organization of Jackson Park Watch and informed the definition of its goals of promoting transparency in decision-making and meaningful community input on major changes to the Park. The problems observed in 2016 are still prevalent today; JPAC is still more monologue than dialogue. The current controversy over by-laws is an opportunity for change in the direction of transparency and inclusivity.
Proposed changes to Midway Plaisance require community input
The 5th Ward monthly meeting on January 25 included a presentation by representatives of the City and Park District on the state of plans to reconfigure the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance (between Stony Island and the Metra tracks) to serve as “replacement active parkland” to compensate for space in Jackson Park commandeered for the OPC. The plan developed by the City is prompted by the terms of long-ago federal funding for enhancements in Jackson Park under the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR) of 1978 and codified in the Memorandum of Agreement signed with federal agencies in December 2020.
Stressing that “we are just at the beginning of this process,” Park District staff laid out a 30-month schedule that began last fall, touting the selection and hiring of Site Design Group – a local, MBE/WBE-certified firm with a distinguished record — develop a design plan.
The schedule going forward now:
2022: January-March — Site Design Group will prepare an early design for presentation to the community for feedback at one or more public meetings in March (exact meeting arrangements a little hazy).
April-June – A refined but still preliminary design plan will be shared with the 90+ consulting parties that participated in the federal review process and feedback accepted during a 45-day comment period. [The presentation left unclear if participation in this step is limited to those who signed or concurred with the MOA, excluding groups such as JPW that refused to endorse the outcome of the improperly conducted federal review process.] The community will be updated on the results of the comment period.
July-September – A final plan with construction documentation will be prepared and shared with the community, and submitted to the Illinois State Historical Preservation Office for its approval.
October-December — Permitting and bidding processes completed.
2023: Construction to start in Quarter 1 and be completed by the end of the year.
It should be noted that the Midway Park Advisory Council has, since 2018, expressed its concerns about specific aspects of the City plan and its opposition to the use of the eastern portion of the Midway as “replacement” parkland, but its repeated requests for a public and transparent process to address the issue have been ignored and without response. It remains to be seen whether the schedule outlined above will allow the much-needed community input that has been absent to date.
The proposal outlined by the City and Park District includes two elements in particular that should be fully addressed during the promised community meetings and reviews: the removal of the existing half-acre of wetland on the eastern edge of the site and the installation of a new play area in its center.
Overall, the plan is nonsensical and controversial.
- Nonsensical because it proposes to resolve drainage issues that have long characterized that spot and have resisted all previous attempts at control due to a natural underground water channel. The City representatives did not attach a price to the engineering effort to permanently drain the .43 acre , but one can predict it will be a substantial expenditure with a high probability of failure. A better option would be to enhance the wetland as a valuable natural resource in mitigating climate change.
- Nonsensical also because it plops a children’s playground in a spot surrounded on three sides by fast-moving, high-volume traffic and on the fourth side by railroad tracks serving both commuter trains and freight trains. It will not be an inviting space for uninhibited play and relaxation, but rather a place for parents to worry about air pollution from speeding cars, noise pollution from the Metra station announcements and rumbling trains, and fraught access across major thoroughfares. The proximity of other playgrounds, including one to be built on the OPC site across the street, adds to the confounding lack of rational thought underlying the plan.
- Controversial because the City has insisted on converting the tip of the Midway to a UPARR replacement site rather than developing new and additional parkland in western Woodlawn where such space is scarce and residents of all ages are in need of more green space and opportunities for active recreation. The City points to the need and value of maintaining proximity to Olmsted’s park, but that is not required by the federal agreement and, it should be emphasized, deference for Olmsted is hypocritical at this point as his iconic design and distinctive vision for the park will be no more.
We urge continued attention to this initiative and active participation in the community meetings and comment periods to try to achieve a more rational and appropriate design for such an important space. The first opportunity may be the next 5th Ward meeting on February 22 as Alderman Hairston has asked the City and Park District representatives to return for a more extensive presentation and Q&A then.
Glacial pace on the legal front
There has been little public action over the last month on either of the suits filed in 2021 by Protect Our Parks and six individual plaintiffs against the City, Park District and the Obama Foundation challenging the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park.
On last report, the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to rule on the District Court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to halt construction work in Jackson Park. And it seems that the District Court is waiting on that appellate decision before it proceeds with the hearing of the primary suit, filed in April. That complaint challenges the conduct of the federal reviews required to assess the impact on the environmental and historical resources of Jackson Park of the federally-funded infrastructure work needed for the Obama Presidential Center.
The only activity this month involved the POP team’s request to amend that original complaint to include the failure of the City to hold the Obama Foundation accountable to the terms of the Master Agreement. The agreement, signed in 2019, specified that before the Foundation took control of the site it was to have in hand funds to cover the full construction cost of the OPC and establish an endowment to sustain the OPC for the coming century. Neither of those conditions was met. Judge Blakey accepted the Defendants’ assertion that the Plaintiffs did not have standing to file such a complaint, even though all are residents of the City of Chicago. Such a ruling is inaccurate and senseless on its face and may be subject to appeal.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR DONATIONS!
Thanks to all who have supported us financially. As always, we will welcome your contributions. If you have any questions about contributing, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you.
You can contribute in three ways:
- You can contribute via checks made out to Jackson Park Watch sent directly to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.
- You can contribute via PayPal here. (If you encounter difficulties with PayPal, please let us know.)
- You can contribute via checks from donor-directed funds sent to our fiscal sponsor Friends of the Parks at FOTP, 67 E. Madison St., Suite 1817, Chicago IL 60602, ATTN Kevin Winters. Such checks should be made out to FOTP with a note stating they are intended for Jackson Park Watch.
As always, we thank you.
Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch