Supposedly we are in the lazy dog days of summer, but there is a lot going on in and around Jackson Park.
Amid the noise we would like to focus your attention for the moment on just one controversy – the designation of the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance to “replace” some of the acreage in Jackson Park that has been commandeered for the Obama Presidential Center.
Prior Updates (January through May) have covered the convoluted logic and slippery process behind the City and Park District plan to “improve” the Midway east of the railway embankment in order to meet requirements attached to prior funding (UPARR grants) for Jackson Park from the National Park Service.
Here is where we are now:
On July 8, the Park District posted its draft plan for review during the required 45-day consulting party and public comment period, and invited all interested individuals to submit comments on the proposal by August 22, using a particular portal on the CPD website.
More detailed versions of the draft plan were presented at a virtual community meeting on June 21 and are available on the Park District website – both the PowerPoint slides and a video/audio record of the slide presentation and discussion.
The Hyde Park Herald provided a summary of the meeting and noted that the questions and comments by community members were largely critical of the project. There were objections to the process for selecting the site, to the proposed design for a play space that would dominate the site, and to the eradication of the existing half-acre wetland. None of these objections are addressed in the subsequent draft plan now posted for review.
What you can do before August 22:
We encourage you to review the latest plan for changes to the Midway tip and to submit your own comments and suggestions. Even if you have already provided feedback at earlier stages in this discussion, it would be worthwhile to repeat those comments or offer additional remarks directed specifically to the draft plan. We note that the Park District does not provide a public record of the full comments and suggestions it receives and, we assume, does not carryover comments and suggestions that have been previously ignored. So, repetition is necessary, and the more comments submitted, the better.
In addition to submitting a statement on the Park District comment portal, we suggest that you consider sending a copy of your comments to several other parties, including the signatory agencies to the Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement that authorized this misguided proposal for the Midway:
Federal Highway Administration, Arlene.Kocher@dot.gov
Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, Anthony.Rubano@illinois.gov
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, firstname.lastname@example.org
City of Chicago, Department of Transportation, email@example.com
Illinois Department of Transportation, Anthony.Quigley@Illinois.gov
Chicago Park District, firstname.lastname@example.org
National Park Service, Herbert_Frost@nps.gov
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Chicago District, email@example.com (with subject line: Attn Col. Paul Culberson)
Alderman Leslie Hairston, firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Hyde Park Herald, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jackson Park Watch, email@example.com
Food for thought:
As you make your own assessment of the draft plan, we recommend you read this statement by the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council, which has opposed the use of the Midway tip as UPARR replacement land since that was first proposed in 2018. MPAC is advocating now for a revision of the Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement so that the UPARR designation could be redirected to open space(s) elsewhere in the neighborhood, which would allow for an actual expansion of public parkland.
We also offer here for review JPW’s statement to the Park District.
Jackson Park Watch has previously stated our opposition to the proposed use of the Midway tip to satisfy the UPARR requirements and we summarize our reasons here:
- The process of selecting the Midway as the UPARR replacement site made a mockery of the City’s promises for community engagement in the decision and indeed completely ignored the expressed objections of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council.
- The City’s interpretation of the UPARR requirements was blinkered, seemingly designed to serve primarily the Obama Foundation by combining a solution to the UPARR impediment with a plan to spruce up the Midway’s eastern tip in anticipation of visitors to the OPC from outside the neighborhood. But the City failed miserably to take advantage of a special opportunity to provide new, additional park space to underserved neighborhoods such as West Woodlawn.
- The designated “replacement” site is not a vacant lot in need of development, but rather it is already a public good that, like much of Jackson Park and many other South Side parks, has long been neglected when it should have been maintained and nurtured. The decades of inadequate park maintenance across the area are evident in crumbling pathways and bridges, untended plantings, flooded underpasses, and unplayable tennis courts and athletic fields, features that have been used by the Obama Foundation, media outlets, and even elected officials to claim that the parks are underused and in need of “transformation” when all that is needed is regular care of what is there already.
- The site is inappropriate for the proposed design of which the central feature is a universally accessible play area. The site is difficult and unsafe to access; surrounded by heavy traffic and noisy train tracks, exposing users to air and sensory pollution; lacking in restroom facilities that could be particularly important for the targeted audience (defined as young children and disabled individuals of all ages).
Here we comment on the specific design plan presented by the Park District at a public meeting on June 21 and presented in summary (without any changes to reflect community input at that meeting) for the required 45-day Public Comment period that began on July 8.
- The long-neglected restoration of the Cheney-Goode Memorial is the primary achievement of this plan and to be applauded. It should be the central feature of the site.
- The universally accessible nature play area that is the central feature of the draft plan seems to be a comprehensive assemblage of activities that could serve a wide range of disabled children and adults as well as able children under about age 10. The assemblage of 25 separate stations has the feeling of boxes being checked to meet every need. But it also has the feel of being tightly jammed into a space too small for its worthy ambitions. The maximum capacity was projected by design team staff as 125, but the area would be unusable if anywhere near that many individuals of different ages and needs (plus caregivers) showed up at the same time. The play area as designed requires more space, on a different site, to realize its potential and to be the showcase model that the Park District hopes it will be.
- Beyond its crowded appearance, the expansive play area and the vertical mix of its individual elements clash with Olmsted’s open space design. Also jarring is the introduction of a pastel-roofed outlook amid a maze of wooden structures and planting. A different plan would be needed to be compatible, spatially and aesthetically, with the historic site.
- We are told that the current plan is defined to be responsive to the requirements demands of the National Park Service for active recreation space, but current community use of the space for such activity is ignored. The wide stretch of the playground (north to south) along with the ornamental plantings at each end will create a barrier that effectively eliminates one of the current recreational activities frequently mentioned by community residents – sledding down the railroad embankment to the center of the Midway. This is in spite of design team response to comments at community meetings that “we hear you.” Removing the playground and rethinking the plantings could preserve this pleasant (and active) pastime and also allow for the open space required by NPS without the need to eliminate the wetland.
- The July 8 plan continues to include the CPD’s plan to eradicate the half-acre of wetland at the eastern end of the site by regrading and the installation of new drainage. Many members of the community have spoken in opposition to this eradication on environmental grounds as well as because of the cost and futility of the proposed changes. We support the recommendation that the wetland be retained and featured as an important and natural element of the Midway. We believe that there would still be adequate space for an athletics area as mandated by NPS (though we also believe that it would be an unnecessary feature for the site given the better athletic fields just to the west).
- Many of the features that community members cited as essential if the proposed play area were to be built are either not yet included or not fully illustrated in the draft plan presented on July 8 for review. Chief among these are a safety fence around the play area, a safe drop-off or accessible parking area, and a restroom.
- The outline for a fence is shown on Proposed Design diagram #3, but the fence is not shown in either of the “View” illustrations in which the play area appears entirely open and unprotected. Appearances and details are important. It seems likely that an illustration of the play area surrounded by a fence would further emphasize the intrusiveness of the design for the site. No decision about the design should be made until there is full information about the fencing to be installed.
- The July 8 materials do not include any reference to the repeated community concerns about safe access to the site. There was mention by staff at the June 21 community meeting of discussions with CDOT regarding better crosswalks and a drop-off on the south side of the site and of looking to the parking lot at 60th and Stony (which is owned by the University) for possible accessible parking. We believe that those discussions should be concluded and the results incorporated into the plan presented for public review before any final decision is made about the site or the design. Such features are necessary, not optional, regardless of the final design for the site.
- There is no reference in the July 8 materials to community concerns about access to a restroom for users of the site and particularly for users of the universally accessible play area. Community members suggested that restroom facilities could be developed in collaboration with the to-be-renovated Metra station. Cross-agency collaboration is difficult but not impossible and is especially important in an age of budget tightening, and it should be pursued. No decision about the current design should be made until that important need is resolved.
Given the misguided use of the Midway tip as a UPARR replacement space, given the misfit of the current draft plan for the chosen site, given the many community concerns about the current design, and given the reported lack of final funding, we suggest elements for an alternative plan that would be more appropriate, more effective and, most likely, less costly:
- Transfer the UPARR designation to another space (or spaces) in Woodlawn that would constitute additional parkland and that would be more accommodating, appropriate and accessible for a universally accessible play area.
- Restore the Cheney-Goode Memorial and make it the central feature of the site with an accessible connector path to it across the Midway.
- Maintain and develop the wetland area as a public resource and educational opportunity.
- Develop a design that would be more compatible with long-standing recreational usage of the site (e.g., sledding hill) and would also maintain an open lawn between the wetland area and the Cheney-Goode Memorial for optional recreation.
- Establish permanent safe access routes, drop-off areas and accessible parking.
- Establish an endowed fund to support regular maintenance of the Midway site to avoid continuation of the pattern of neglected maintenance that has been the rule for at least fifty years.
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