TRICK OR TREAT?
Today is the fourth anniversary of the approval by the Chicago City Council of the ordinance siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The Council members approved Mayor Emanuel’s request unanimously with no debate, giving the Obama Foundation effective control of 19.3 acres in the midst of a renowned public park for 99 years.
The ordinance committed the City to direct some $200 million of public funding for road changes and other infrastructure work to facilitate the project. It also required the Obama Foundation to pay the City $10.00 (total) for the use of the park space and to certify that the Foundation had raised full funding for construction of the Center and for an endowment to support its maintenance and operations over the next century.
We assume the $10 lease fee has been paid, but the City (by then headed by Mayor Lightfoot) waived the other financial requirements and allowed the Obama Foundation to begin construction in August 2021 without certifying that it had sufficient funds in hand to build and operate the center. There is still no evidence that those “required” benchmarks have been met, even as trees have been leveled and deep holes dug.
LESSONS FROM OLMSTED
In recognition of 2022 as the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, the Chicago Architecture Center last week sponsored an on-line discussion entitled “Past, Present and Future of Olmsted Landscapes in Chicago.” Presenters were local historian and preservationist Julia Bachrach (author of The City in a Garden: A History of Chicago’s Parks), photographer Duane Savage (long-time resident of Washington Park and a leader of the Washington Park Camera Club), and Patricia O’Donnell (head of Heritage Landscapes and a specialist in Olmsted landscapes who was an advisor for the recent Army Corps’ GLFER project to revitalize Jackson Park lagoons and plantings). The session concluded by asking for their thoughts on the Olmsted legacy in Chicago and on the benefits and drawbacks of the OPC. community.
Some of their observations:
- Locals Duane Savage and Julia Bachrach were direct in lamenting the community’s loss of park space to the OPC. Said Savage, “[With] all the open spaces on the South Side of Chicago, they did not need to build anything inside of a park. . . This idea of placing things right in the park has to stop. What is the use of having these grand spaces if they are going to be chewed away by motorists getting to a tourist location?” Bachrach wished for an opportunity to give President Obama a tour of Jackson Park: “I would tell him I’m a North Sider and I would want to have Jackson Park a thousand times more than Lincoln Park. . . In Washington Park and Jackson Park there is a sense of discovery; you lose yourself in nature. . .This idea that a good park has to have all these bells and whistles like Maggie Daley Park I think misses the point. It’s sad to add this major thing to an existing park and not understand the asset that you have.”
- Patricia O’Donnell was more circumspect, given that she is now advising the Park District on the efforts to mitigate OPC-related damages to the GLFER project. She focused on what we can learn from Olmsted: “I think Olmsted’s legacy is enduring because it is correct. [The goal is] offering nature in the city and welcoming everyone.” Channeling Olmsted’s vision, she stressed that good parks are flexible and have multiple uses; they should not be fenced off for single uses. In Jackson Park, for instance, she noted the continuing problem of the fenced golf driving range blocking the stretch between the Music Court and Hayes Drive. Washington Park has its great meadow; Jackson Park does not.
- Supporting the Olmsted view of parks as inclusive and diverse, Bachrach registered her disappointment that the Park District is still talking about combining the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses. She sees that as a move in the wrong direction that will serve only a very selective, small group.
- Finally, all joined O’Donnell in stressing the need for caretaking and maintenance of parks. Politicians are too dazzled by promises of big money and fancy designs, and we need first to value and maintain the assets we already have. There must be active and persistent advocacy on behalf of parks, generally and individually.
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Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance both exemplify the sad lesson that “benign neglect” can suddenly turn into “destroy to improve.” With that lesson before us, we encourage park lovers to continue to let the powers-that-be know what’s on your mind about Jackson Park and its park neighbors.
SPEAK UP ABOUT THE MIDWAY
It has now been more than three weeks since the Park District held the fourth community meeting on its proposal to “improve” the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance in order to “replace” recreational space lost in Jackson Park to the Obama Presidential Center. In spite of promises that the slide presentation and the video/audio recording of the October 6 meeting would be posted on the CPD website for the project within two weeks, the record is still not available and CPD has not responded to questions about the delay.
We’ll wait no longer to recap the meeting, particularly since it was sparsely attended due to heavy rain and strong winds that evening that amplified the now regular construction traffic jams, the media coverage was also spare and incomplete, and the Park District is still accepting public comments on the proposal.
The Block Club Chicago article on the meeting provides a general overview but glides over details. The meeting was purportedly to report on and respond to the public comments on the design plan that had been presented at the end of June. However, the prepared presentation did little to substantively engage the many criticisms and questions submitted during July and August. A Q&A session allowed for some direct questions, but there were few direct responses. The designs for the site generally and for the accessible play space were basically the same as before, though there were some problematic and confusing additions.
- To criticisms that the decision to use the Midway as the UPARR replacement site was a top-down edict promulgated without proper community input and without concern for equitable distribution of parks, Heather Gleason, Director of CPD’s Division of Planning and Construction, did acknowledge the widespread public dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency in the site selection process. She then asserted that neither the City nor the Park District had legal authority to renegotiate the terms of the Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement that codified the selection.
This position has been challenged by the Midway Park Advisory Council in print and again at the meeting and seems contrary to the language of Section VIII of the MOA. In the face of the Park District’s no-can-do response, an individual community member requested that the Park District’s counsel be present at the next meeting specifically to address the question of amending the MOA, given the widespread support for such action. Preservation Chicago and Friends of the Parks also spoke out at the meeting in support of amending the MOA and relocating the UPARR replacement site, and Openlands and Landmarks Chicago advocated for such a move in their written comments submitted before the meeting.
It is important to note that this particular spot at the border between Hyde Park and Woodlawn is already park rich, and, as Park District officials acknowledged in response to a direct question, there has been no systematic demographic survey of the nearby area to support the site selection. Rather, the immediate beneficiaries of siting the UPARR replacement space on the Midway will be the OPC, just a block south, and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools Early Childhood Center, just a block north. Meanwhile, surrounding South Side neighborhoods, especially West Woodlawn, are chronically park poor and will remain under-served.
- To the many expressions of concern about the safety of the site for any play area and particularly for one aiming to serve children and others with various disabilities, the Park District responded that it had been in discussion with CDOT (which was not represented at the meeting) and showed marks on the map for two proposed crosswalks and drop-off areas on the Midway east and west roadways near the train embankment. There was also reference to plans to coordinate traffic signal patterns and to use the public parking lot at 60th and Stony (controlled by the University). It was, at best, a gesture to recognize a problem, but without evidence of careful analysis or a finalized workable solution.
- To concern about the lack of nearby, accessible public restrooms – a chronic problem throughout Chicago’s parks but again one deemed particularly important given the target audience for the play area – the Park District announced a proposal to install an accessible porta-potty on each side of the central play area and expressed hope that a permanent facility could be built later when funds were available. We believe these unattractive twin towers will be appropriately embarrassing emblems of the inadequate planning for this worthy but woefully mis-located project.
- To the widespread objection to the plan to eradicate a 0.4-acre natural wetland adjacent to Stony Island Avenue, the Park District revealed but did not fully explain a modified plan that would expand and develop the “lowland area” but also would install a stormwater filtration and drainage system (a feature not needed for a natural wetland). Park District officials refused to use the term “wetland” even though the area had been so identified in the Environmental Assessment report (Appendix f) issued by the National Park Service in 2020 and even though Park District staff did volunteer that the City has already paid the mitigation fee to secure replacement wetland in Will County. This additional instance of the Park District’s continuing lack of transparency and Orwellian use of language only fuels more distrust and bears more investigation.
- To the concern that the proposed plan ignored the community’s past usage of the Midway site as a sledding slope, the Park District staff shrugged.
Perhaps the presentation and recording of the Oct. 6 meeting will be posted by the time this reaches your email box. Please check the CPD capital projects website just in case. If they are still missing, look again at the July 8, 2022 Draft Plan for Review in light of this summary and consider submitting new or additional comments on the Midway Plaisance East End Improvements Feedback Form.
SPEAK UP ABOUT TREES
Next week residents in seven precincts adjacent to Jackson Park will be able to vote on an advisory referendum, sponsored by Save Jackson Park, asking that the City and Park District stop cutting more trees in Jackson Park and South Shore Cultural Center. Some 380 trees have already been clear cut in the initial OPC construction work; roadwork could take another 470 and the proposed golf course over 2000 more. That’s quite a loss of oxygen-producing, heat-reducing live trees that would take four decades to replace. The numbers speak for themselves.
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.