JACKSON PARK WATCH UPDATE, June 11, 2021

Greetings, all,  
 
The saga of the OPC gets curiouser and curiouser
 
In a presentation to the Economic Club of Chicago on June 4, President Obama made an impassioned plea for local business leaders to take “ownership” of  the OPC to assure its completion and future success.  In follow-up to that sales pitch, Valerie Jarrett, president of the Obama Foundation, revealed – without comment – that the bricks-and-mortar construction cost of the OPC would be “a little less” than $700 million  instead of the $500 million estimate that had been used since plans were first unveiled in  2017.   At the same time, Jarrett noted that the Foundation had raised almost $900 million for the OPC, for construction as well as for programming and an endowment.   

Those large numbers, presumably meant to inspire new donations, also inspire closer examination.  First of all, while it is reasonable to expect that early estimates would be adjusted upward, how could the construction cost increase by 40% all of a sudden, at this late date?  Only three months ago (on March 12), the Obama Foundation certified to the City that the Total Construction Budget for the OPC was $482 million and also certified that the Foundation had cash and commitments in hand totaling  $485 million, enough (just barely in our estimation) to cover the construction.  This certification is a requirement of the City ordinance approving the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park.   Those same figures were repeated to the Sun-Times editorial board on April 1, when the Foundation predicted that ground-breaking would be in September.

Was that an April Fool’s joke?  How else can you explain such a huge cost increase so late in the planning for the OPC?  What has changed since March 12?  Did the architects modify some key design (perhaps doubling the height of the already problematic  museum tower)? Did the construction firms realize they had misplaced some decimals in their initial estimates?  Did the fiscally-challenged City suddenly determine that, having already committed some $200 million in public funds to subsidizing the OPC, it could not also help with the site remediation for a costly underground garage to be built in the marshy soil of Jackson Park?  Whatever the explanation, we think clarification is needed to restore public confidence in the Foundation’s management of the project and in its communications with its donors and with Chicago taxpayers.
 
Further clarification is also needed regarding the requirement to have actual funds and reliable pledges in-hand before construction begins.  The impressive fundraising cited by Jarrett – almost $900 million – is the grand total of all donations to the Foundation since it was established in 2014. Much of that has been spent already or earmarked for non-construction uses – youth programming, leadership mentoring and other worthy Foundation initiatives that have already been launched.  In 2019, for instance,  the Foundation spent some $40 million on staff and programmatic expenses aside from its preparations for the OPC. Comparing the now outdated March 12 certification and the new cost announcement, it is unclear if the Foundation will have $700 million available for a fall ground-breaking.
 
Also requiring further explanation is the issue of the endowment.  The 2018 ordinance specifies that, before construction begins, “The Foundation shall have established an endowment having as its sole purpose paying, as and when necessary, the costs to operate, enhance and maintain the Presidential Center and the other Project Improvements during the [99-year] term of the Use Agreement.”  Yet the Foundation told the Sun-Times board in April only that it had  “recently voted to establish an endowment which we will look to fund in the coming months and years.” That statement does not seem consistent with the terms of the ordinance, so it was particularly comforting to hear that Jarrett had at least mentioned the endowment in her remarks to the Economic Club.  She should be prepared to offer more information about goals and schedule.
 
As we have said before, the Obama Presidential Center should be built on the South Side to honor President Obama and his achievements. We hope it will be as successful programmatically and as catalytic economically as promised, though we are skeptical of many of the hyperbolic claims (e.g., 750,000 visitors per year).  We continue to oppose the current plan for the OPC in Jackson Park: there are less expensive, less disruptive, more park-friendly and economically impactful designs and sites available.  But it seems particularly important in a time of great fiscal strain and of widespread distrust of politicians for putting favoritism ahead of due diligence and good management practices that, regardless of the location, the City and the Obama Foundation adhere to established guidelines rather than adopt rhetoric and practices more suitable for Alice’s Wonderland.  Transparency and accountability are necessary.


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 jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com 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
www.jacksonparkwatch.org

jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com

Jackson Park Watch Update, May 3, 2021

Greetings, all,  

The past month has seen bursts of activity by the City, by the Obama Foundation and by Protect Our Parks regarding the proposed construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.  The media has a hard time keeping track of so many strands.  Here’s our take.

New lawsuit focuses on flawed federal reviews

On April 14, Protect Our Parks, joined by six co-plaintiffs, filed a new lawsuit in the US District Court of the Northern District of Illinois regarding the proposal to construct the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.  The complaint asserts that the recently concluded federal reviews of the OPC project were improperly structured and asks that proper reviews be conducted before any construction-related activity can begin.   

Specifically, the complaint notes that long-established federal laws enacted to protect public parkland and historic places require a diligent consideration of viable, less-harmful alternatives prior to approval of any project that would adversely impact such spaces, and it charges that such due diligence was completely lacking in the various reviews of the OPC project.  Instead, following the lead of the City, the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service sliced and diced the proposal for radical changes to Jackson Park into artificial pieces to be considered separately instead of being evaluated as the unitary undertaking that it so obviously is. By such segmentation, which is prohibited by law, the federal agencies failed to fulfill the statutory mandates and failed their responsibilities to concerned citizens and the public interest. 

An executive summary and the full text of the lawsuit are available on the POP website.  While the complaint is lengthy, it is very readable and recounts in plain language the many flaws and inconsistencies in the federal review process that have been noted by so many who participated in the review sessions.   Reports on the lawsuit appeared in the Sun-TimesHyde Park Herald, BlockClubChicago and Crain’s.   The schedule for consideration of the complaint has not yet been set.

Separately, on April 26, the US Supreme Court declined to hear a petition seeking the reversal of a ruling by the 7th Circuit Appeals Court in the initial challenge by Protect Our Parks to the City’s transfer of Jackson Park land to the Obama Foundation.  Herb Caplan, president of POP, said the decision was disappointing but not unexpected. The Supreme Court hears fewer than 2% of the appeals it receives annually. 

Much ado about nothing new

Coincidentally, on the same date that the new lawsuit was filed,  the City staged a press conference at the Museum of Science and Industry so that Mayor Lori Lightfoot could proclaim again that utility work in Jackson Park was about to begin in preparation for the OPC and other previously announced city and state commitments could also be repeated. There was no new news. The event, which also drew Governor J.B. Pritzker and Obama Foundation Board Chair Martin Nesbitt, seemed mostly designed as a photo-op for politicians to tout economic development efforts for the South Side and perhaps also to try to counter negative publicity regarding police shootings, school openings and vaccine distribution.  Notably absent were local Aldermen Leslie Hairston and Jeanette Taylor, reportedly reflecting their continuing concerns about unfulfilled promises regarding community input, affordable housing and the hiring of local minority-owned firms and workers for the pre-construction work as well as for work on the OPC.  

Obama Foundation still beating the bushes for money

The Obama Foundation used the April 14 event to kick-off the “Road to Groundbreaking,” its new branding for various programs and promised new initiatives intended to promote the Foundation’s role in workforce training and youth programming for South and West Side residents and, also it seems, to boost the Foundation’s lagging fundraising efforts. 

Less than a week later, the Obama Foundation announced a new “Road to Groundbreaking” initiative – the “Hometown Fund” – to entice $400 million in donations from local corporate, philanthropic  and individual leaders over the next five years.   The announcement  spotlighted the plan to designate $75 million of the Hometown Fund for “strengthening economic opportunities for residents on the South and West sides of Chicago and supporting youth.”  However, the purpose of the remaining $325 million to be raised for the Hometown Fund was mentioned with only vague references to helping “bring the Obama Presidential Center to the South Side” or “bring the Obama Presidential Center to life.”  As the Tribune reported, “Most of the ‘Hometown Fund’ campaign will go toward workforce and building costs for the presidential center.” 

The clear and alarming implication is that the Obama Foundation does not yet have sufficient funds to support its expansive plans, even though that is a specific requirement of the 2018 ordinance authorizing the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park, and even though, only three weeks earlier, Valerie Jarrett, as the new president of the Foundation, made the round of newspaper editorial boards to proclaim that groundbreaking was imminent, in September.

The Sun-Times board, to its credit, probed for detailed information about the Foundation’s finances, remembering the requirements of the ordinance to have full construction funding in hand and to establish an endowment  for maintenance and operation of the OPC post-construction.  They were told that the Foundation had recently provided certification to the City that it has in hand approximately $485 million to cover $482 million of hard construction costs.  As for the endowment obligation, the Sun-Times was told that the Foundation board “recently voted to establish an endowment which we will look to fund in the coming months and years.”

Financial accountability and stability in jeopardy

The Sun-Times reporting and the stream of recent announcements from the Obama Foundation prompt several observations:

∙        First,  $3 million is not much of a cushion for a construction project of this scale and complexity, particularly given the potential for cost overruns because of the high-water table in Jackson Park.

∙        Second, voting to set up an endowment is a very long step from having a payout-producing endowment fund.  For the City to accept a promise to fund an endowment in the coming years – if that is what the Hometown Fund is about – would be risky, to say the least.  A trust-us, pay-as-you-go business plan for a private project of this scale is really no plan at all and makes it likely that at some point the City would have to assume additional costs for the OPC beyond the very large outlay of public funds for road changes ($200 million) that is already known.

∙         Third, the ambitious goals of the Obama Foundation – to establish the OPC as a beacon and catalyst for Chicago’s underserved communities and to develop and empower a new generation of community leaders around the world – are admirable but also very expensive.  Even before the construction and future maintenance costs of the OPC, even before building an endowment for maintenance and operations, the Foundation has  launched national and international programs that already require an annual budget of some $40 million, based on 2019 reports.  

∙         Fourth, raising new funding in that amount (plus more for facility maintenance post-construction) each year may be possible for a time, while President Obama is still an active public figure, but what about the other eight decades of the Use Agreement and, one hopes, beyond?  That is why an endowment is a necessary investment now, not as an afterthought.  To fully support just the current $40 million annual budget would require an endowment of $800 million; yet at the moment that bucket is empty.  

In these circumstances,  we believe it is time for the Obama Foundation and the City to delay  the construction of the OPC until sufficient funding for construction and for a sustaining endowment is secured, through the Hometown Fund or otherwise. Due diligence and common sense require nothing less.  The challenges of the pandemic and economic crisis accentuate the need for prudence and full accountability.  

There is no question that the Obama Presidential Center should be built on the South Side to honor President Obama and his achievements.  We continue to oppose the current plan for the OPC in Jackson Park – there are less expensive, less destructive, more economically impactful sites available.  But wherever the OPC is located, it is imperative that there be sufficient and stable resources to assure its long-term success.  

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 jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com 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
www.jacksonparkwatch.org
jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com

Jackson Park Watch Update, March 23, 2021

Greetings, all,  

The dire threat of “just one more exception”

On February 24, Preservation Chicago announced its 2021 list of Chicago’s 7 Most Endangered Historic Spaces, putting the Chicago Lakefront, all 26 miles, at the top of its list.  Pointing to the steady drip of proposals to privatize and monetize lakefront parkland, including the current threat posed by the proposal for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, Preservation Chicago put forth a radical idea:  protect Chicago’s lakefront by transforming it into a national park, which would put it beyond the reach of the whims of local politicians and offer access to much-needed resources.

In an amazing editorial on March 13 – “Defending the lakefront for centuries of Chicagoans” –the Chicago Tribune took the baton from Preservation Chicago and proclaimed the preservation of the  lakefront parkland, open and free, as essential for Chicago’s existence as a livable city, a necessity made clear by the pandemic.   While  reserving  judgment on the issue of establishing a national park, the editorial board did call out local political leaders for treating the lakefront as real estate for sale:  “The [politicians] often cave to the sales pitch that ‘just this one more exception’ won’t harm the lakefront. But to look at all the construction already permitted there is to realize an unpleasant truth:  Obstructions accumulate. . . . The lakefront is an irreplaceable gift. If Chicago squanders it, that diabolical phrase — ‘just one more exception’ — will be its epitaph.”

Just a month ago the Tribune expressed its unease with the extravagant claims for the economic benefits of the OPC,  with the already very real displacement of lower income residents in Woodlawn, and with the very costly roadwork required  by the OPC plan.   Let us now add the concern about “just one more exception” to  this list of reasons as to why the current proposal for the OPC must be reexamined and modified.

Another potential threat to the South Side lakefront

Preservation Chicago’s survey of potential threats to Chicago’s lakefront included not only Jackson Park but also Promontory Point.  With the rising water levels of Lake Michigan and additional erosion threatening Lake Shore Drive there is danger that government agencies will declare a  “crisis” and reintroduce their concrete plan for repairing the historic limestone revetment at Promontory Point, even though the Point is well away from the Drive and is still in functionally good shape.  

The Point does need sensitive rehabilitation, however. The Promontory Point Conservancy, with the support of Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois, and 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, will continue to work with government agencies to ensure that the limestone revetment is restored to its historic character and function following the Secretary of Interior Standards for Preservation, while also working closely and openly with the community.

Community fears of more broken promises 

The City and the Obama Foundation are now trying to focus public conversation away from the still unresolved issues relating to the location of the OPC in Jackson Park – loss of public parkland, destruction of an historic landmark space, and the high cost to taxpayers of public subsidies for the OPC – by touting the economic benefits that will flow from the construction of the OPC.  However, these promised benefits are based on unrealistic and now outdated, pre-pandemic projections, and residents are rightly skeptical and pushing for more details and for real action. 

The Tribune is far from alone in its concern about the negative effect of the OPC on affordable housing in nearby communities.  This urgent issue is not driven by opposition to the OPC or to President Obama, but rather by the realities of the real estate market, and would apply regardless of the location of the  OPC campus.   A recent article in the South Side Weekly  offers a telling chronicle of Chicago’s long, sad history of broken promises about affordable housing.  As a current  resident observes the rapid displacement of Black, low-income households from Woodlawn, to her the impact of the OPC is clear: “To me, it’s not for the community.” 

Concerns about displacement of residents and other impact issues were evident during a virtual OPC Community Engagement Session orchestrated by the City on March 2.   The session featured presentations by the Mayor and other City officials and by representatives of the Obama Foundation, reiterating information already announced and repeating unsubstantiated claims for economic benefits from the OPC. Comments focused mostly on the lack of specifics and demanded more information about how the affordable housing issues would actually be addressed, about how to apply for the promised construction jobs, and about why the South Shore and Washington Park communities were seemingly being left out of the City’s plans for rejuvenation and development based on the OPC.  

The focus of South Side residents on the economic impacts of the OPC, both the negative and the positive, is understandable, and their concerns and questions must be addressed.  But public attention must still be directed also to the issue of the location of the OPC in Jackson Park, with its attendant high costs – public subsidies of some $200 million for this private project and the unquantifiable value of lost public parkland – and keeping in mind the fact that the economic benefits of the OPC (and there will be some, though not nearly as much as promised) would flow regardless of where the OPC is situated on the South Side.  

Protect Our Parks legal challenges continue

Protect Our Parks continues to pursue various paths to challenge the legality of the City’s agreement with the Obama Foundation. As anticipated, it recently submitted a petition to the US Supreme Court, asking for review and reversal of the ruling of the 7th Circuit Appeals Court on the issues of standing and due process.   

While that appeal is pending, POP is also protesting  the improper conduct of the reviews that assessed the federally-funded changes to Jackson Park proposed to accommodate the construction of the OPC.  On February 16,  POP submitted a statement outlining specific flaws in the conduct of the Section 4(f) and NEPA reviews to the Secretaries of the US Departments of Transportation and Interior, which oversee, respectively, the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service, and to the City.  Further action is under consideration.

As part of that statement of protest, POP noted that regulations require that such assessments “properly review all feasible and prudent alternatives” that could avoid the loss of the protected spaces threatened by the federal action, a necessary step that POP asserts was not taken for Jackson Park even though it could be easily satisfied.  As proof, POP appended to its statement a plan  to locate the OPC adjacent to Washington Park.  A fuller statement of that alternative concept is now posted on the POP website, with more details soon to come.  

***

POP’s efforts are all directed to the goal of relocating the OPC to a South Side site outside of public parkland.  Such an option has never been given full consideration or public review, as the  saga of the current OPC plan demonstrates:  It began as a concept developed in private by the University of Chicago, without any public discussion; it was unveiled as a fully developed design by the Obama Foundation in 2017; that same design was incorporated into the staged South Lakefront Framework Plan discussions as written in indelible ink; community input and open discussion of alternative options were thwarted at every stage.  Let us hope that the concept being presented by Protect Our Parks will spark such public discussion now. 

There is widespread concern – among the editorial boards of the Tribune and Sun-Times and among many residents of the South Lakefront – with many aspects and effects of the current plan to construct the OPC in Jackson Park. Yet there are any number of alternative sites that could keep the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side, where it certainly should be, with less public cost, with less disruption and with more economic impact than the current Jackson Park plan.  Now is the time to address these concerns directly – before any more taxpayer money is spent, before any trees are cut, before any more residents are displaced.

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 jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com 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
www.jacksonparkwatch.org
jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com

Jackson Park Watch Update, February 15, 2021

Greetings, all,  

Time for scrutiny and accountability

In its Feb. 11 editorial concerning the Obama Presidential Center, the Chicago Tribune pointed to unresolved OPC issues related to economic growth, gentrification, and traffic flow even while interpreting the City’s announcement of the near conclusion of the federal reviews as a green light for the OPC’s construction in Jackson Park.  We strongly agree that key issues remain to be resolved before construction begins.

Echoing assessments by the Sun-Times editorial board and reports in Crain’s Chicago Business, the Tribune board  stated, “there’s still much to do to ensure the center . . . lives up to the pledges it made. . . . [M]any times on these pages, we have asked Obama’s team and City Hall for a more specific road map for that $3 billion in [projected] economic growth. Four years after Obama first announced Jackson Park as the site for his presidential center, we and the rest of the city are still waiting for it.  It’s vital that the [Obama]foundation and City Hall work [to] hit their projections of 700,000 visitors annually, and a robust infusion of retail, dining and lodging revenue for the South Side.”  

As JPW has noted (most recently in the Jan. 24 Update), the taxpayer costs of the current plan for the OPC are high and the promises of extraordinary economic benefits are wishful thinking. The Obama Foundation envisions 700,000 visitors per year for the next decade.  That number was unrealistic when developed in 2017 – 75% greater than any other presidential center has ever realized – and is even more suspect now when the pandemic has totally disrupted tourism and museum attendance for the foreseeable future and when the path to economic recovery is uncertain. With fewer visitors, the economic impact of the OPC on the South Side will be much less, a downsizing exacerbated by the fact that the planned site in Jackson Park is distant from any retail district or space available for new commercial development. The additional reality of the pandemic is its dire impact on the City’s financial straits for years to come.

Given this double whammy, it is necessary to assess and adjust the public costs of the OPC to the City.  There has been no public accounting of the City’s total financial commitment to the Obama Foundation. The tip of the iceberg is the $174 million in federal transportation funds that has been allocated to the City by the State for the extensive road work designed specifically to accommodate the current OPC plan.  Yet the OPC could be built in Jackson Park, on the original site provided for that purpose in 2015, without the disruptive closure of Cornell Drive or east-bound Midway Plaisance and without the costly widening of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue.  A large portion of the funds from the Federal-Aid Highway Program could then be re-directed to other more urgent transportation needs in the City.  Or, without the loss of any public parkland, the OPC could be moved to another location on the South Side more suitable for commercial development, where such costly public infrastructure work would not be needed.  We note that the taxpayer funds committed just for the OPC-related roadwork constitute a 35% public subsidy for a private development estimated to cost $500 million.  In comparison, the controversial and much debated  public funding offered for the Lincoln Yards development via TIF funds constitutes only a 22% public subsidy.  Such an investment, by a City in a budgetary crisis, deserves closer scrutiny.

JPW shares the Tribune’s hope that the Obama Center will promote prosperity on the South Side as well as recognize the historic achievements of President Obama.  But we also agree wholeheartedly with the Tribune that there are lingering issues to be resolved about the current plan for the OPC.  Having learned the lessons of the City’s parking meter and Skyway agreements, we believe the issues should be resolved now, before ground is broken.  The City and the Obama Foundation must be held accountable for their lofty promises, and that should start with a re-consideration of the current plan.

If you are concerned about these or other unresolved issues about the OPC, we encourage you to speak up and speak out.  See TAKE ACTION on the JPW website.

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 jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com 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 to 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
www.jacksonparkwatch.org
jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com

(To be removed from this e-mailing list, simply respond with “please remove my name.”)

Jackson Park Watch Update, January 24, 2021

Greetings, all,  

We survived the election.  We survived the assault on our country’s Capitol.  We made it through January 20 (whew!).

JPW is alive and well.  Ground-breaking for the OPC is still not going to happen any time soon.  As so we carry on.

Our New Year’s Resolution is to take a hard look at the OPC:  Can the City afford the current plan for the OPC?  And what about all of those promised economic benefits?

Time for a hard look at the OPC’s costs and benefits

2021 has opened with reports in the Chicago Sun-Times and Crain’s Chicago Business pointing to the need for a fresh and detailed examination of the current plan for the Obama Presidential Center.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ recent editorial, while expressing high hopes that the OPC will provide a much needed boost to Chicago and the South Side specifically, also identified lingering questions about the project that must be addressed before it can move forward.  First and foremost is the need to reexamine the public cost of the project, especially the wisdom of allocating $175 million of City-controlled funds for the extensive and expensive roadwork required by the specific footprint of the OPC at a time of a pandemic-fueled fiscal crisis for the City.  The editors also lamented the intrusive impact of the 235-foot museum tower on the landscape of the park and neighborhood and expressed their hope for a re-visioning of that structure 

A lengthy analysis in Crain’s Chicago Business by reporter A.D. Quig focused also on the high cost of the OPC – especially the public cost to be borne by the City, but also the very large amount that must be raised  by the Obama Foundation to meet its obligations (some $500 million for construction and perhaps another $1.5 billion for a sustaining endowment). Additionally, she examined the frequent claims that the OPC would bring exceptionally large economic benefits to adjacent communities and to the City and Cook County generally. As documented in the article, these claims are based on very optimistic projections for numbers of annual visitors in the coming decade, projections that do not reflect visitor numbers or economic impact at other presidential libraries and projections that were made long before the pandemic disrupted tourism and other social activities.   Quig elaborated on her findings in a Crain’s Daily Gist  podcast , so be sure to listen to that discussion if you are not able to read the article online.

JPW’s assessments of costs and benefits

JPW has long been trying to assess the public costs and benefits of the OPC as currently proposed.  That effort has been hampered by the lack of transparency by the City and its failure to give a complete accounting of its financial liabilities and other promises it has made to the Obama Foundation.  We have developed two succinct documents presenting key points, both linked below

  • Appendix 1Will the Obama Presidential Center bring promised economic benefits to the South Side and the City of Chicago? examines whether the projected attendance figures are likely to be realized, the relationship between attendance and claimed benefits for the area, and whether the proposed Jackson Park location will spark new commercial and business development in adjacent areas.
  • Appendix 2: Can the City of Chicago afford the Obama Presidential Center as currently planned? shows in tabular form the costs to and responsibilities of the City and the Obama Foundation for implementation of the current OPC plan, including related road reconfigurations, as defined in the City Ordinance passed on Halloween, 2018.

You will note that these summaries do not attempt to address or quantify the non-economic costs of the OPC (e.g., loss of public parkland, documented adverse impact on cultural landscape, destruction of iconic Olmsted design,  clear-cutting of trees, implementation of the City’s climate action plan, etc.).  That’s another discussion.

The question we raise in common with the Sun-Times and the Crain’s report is not whether the OPC should be built on Chicago’s South Side – which it most certainly should be –  but whether the current plan for the OPC is necessary or even feasible given its high cost and given the current disruptions and unknown future impacts of the pandemic and of climate change on our society and economy.  Now is the time for a hard look at the plan and claims for the OPC.

Please feel free to share these documents widely.  JPW co-presidents Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer would be happy to discuss these issues with media representatives and with interested groups and organizations via zoom.

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 jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com 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 to 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, 17 N. State St., Suite 1450, Chicago 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
www.jacksonparkwatch.org
jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com

Jackson Park Watch Update, November 30, 2020

Greetings, all, 

While the national political scene continues to command attention, here is  a reminder of where things stand with regard to the proposal for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. 

Federal Regulatory Reviews Are Still in Process

National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106)

November 24 was the deadline for consulting parties to provide signed approval of the Memorandum of Agreement that will conclude the Section 106 review of the proposal for the OPC.  As previously  noted, JPW (and many other organizations) found the mitigation measures codified by the MOA to be woefully deficient and refused to sign.  The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) rebuffed all objections and suggestions for  modifications. The final MOA has not yet been issued.

National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA)

October 30 was the deadline for public comments on the Environmental Assessment (EA) prepared by the National Park Service (NPS).  Bundled with the NEPA review is the proposal to use the eastern tip of the Midway to replace recreational features in Jackson Park that will be lost to the OPC in order to fulfill the requirements of the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act  (UPARR).  JPW argued strongly that the initial EA is inadequate and flawed and that an additional, more substantive examination – an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – is necessary to fully and accurately evaluate the massive effect of the proposed Obama Presidential Center on Jackson Park and its surroundings.  JPW’s statement on the EA and those of other organizations are available on the JPW website.   After reviewing the written and oral statements it has received, the NPS will either issue a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) or call for the more detailed investigation of an EIS.

Also pending:

  • Under Section 4(f) of the US Department of Transportation Act, FHWA must complete a review to determine if there is any feasible or prudent alternative plan that would avoid or minimize the harm done to Jackson Park by the proposed road changes – changes that would, among other actions,  slice off strips on the east and west sides of the park in order to widen Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue to compensate for the closure of Cornell Drive. While no public comment is required for this review, JPW and other organizations did comment on the draft document that was posted in April.
  • A Section 408 review is required for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to authorize the discharge of road construction debris into Lake Michigan and also to authorize alterations to the just-completed, five-year-long, federally-funded Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration Project that focused on rehabilitating the lagoons and areas around Wooded Island. While no public comment is required for this review, JPW and other organizations did comment when USACE posted a public notice in April.

Schedule for Concluding Federal Reviews Uncertain

We presume that the FHWA will soon distribute the finalized MOA, ending the Section 106 portion of the federal reviews without seriously addressing the identified adverse effects on Jackson Park. 

The schedule for the NEPA determination by the National Park Service is uncertain. The Cultural Landscape Foundation, in a recent summary of the Section 106 and NEPA reviews, predicted NPS would report “in the next few months.”  That assumes the NPS will follow a standard process.  In contrast, the City’s website gives “Fall and Winter 2020” as the timeframe for making that NEPA decision as well as for finalizing the Section 4(f) review and beginning the development of plans for UPARR replacement space on the Midway.  The implication is that, whereas a thorough historic resources review took three years, all of the interrelated environmental reviews will be squeezed into a few months rather than accorded the appropriate attention and community engagement required for a project of this scale. 

The Section 4(f) and Section 408 reviews are closely tied to the NEPA review and presumably all will be concluded in rapid sequence, but when the dominoes will fall is unknown.

What does this mean for the construction of the OPC?

The Obama Foundation has recently announced the hiring of a new construction overseer and its aspirational goal of opening the OPC facilities and campus in 2023. It is important to remember, however, that there are certain conditions that must be met before any construction work can begin:

All of the federal reviews must be completed.  Only then can the City and the Obama Foundation conclude the enabling agreements – Master Agreement, Use Agreement, Environmental Remediation and Indemnity Agreement – that were appended as exhibits to the City Ordinance approved on October 31, 2018.  

As with any property transfer, there are due diligence requirements before execution.  Before the City can sign the Master Agreement, the Obama  Foundation must submit a budget with Projected Total Construction Costs for the OPC and must certify that it has in hand actual funds or legally binding commitments for funds equaling or exceeding those costs.  The Foundation must also certify that it has established an endowment dedicated solely to maintaining and operating the OPC for the 99-year term of the agreement.  It was recently reported that the Obama Foundation has raised a little more than half of the construction costs (estimated earlier at $500M).  There has been no information about the establishment of the endowment fund for the OPC or the estimated annual operating budget it must be able to support.  The Foundation is also dependent on fundraising for the salaries of its staff and the Obama Fellows programming it has already begun.

The City also faces funding challenges involving  its infrastructure commitments for the OPC project.  At a time when the City is in a precarious  fiscal state, the total cost of these commitments has not been made public and their place in the City’s budget is not clear. 

Ongoing legal challenges to the OPC

Beyond the financial requirements facing the Obama Foundation and the City as detailed in the city ordinance, the lawsuit by Protect Our Parks challenging the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park continues to cast a shadow over the project.  POP is appealing the ruling of the appellate court and has said it is prepared to utilize any and all appropriate forums, federal and state, to present its argument that the City has violated its public trust fiduciary responsibilities.  While the court actions do not prohibit the start of construction work, they do give potential donors pause.  

Looming also is the possibility of legal action regarding the to-date flawed federal reviews.

What you can do

As the above notes indicate, the OPC train is chugging along, even gaining momentum in the wake of the election and the publication of President Obama’s memoir, but it has not yet reached its destination. The OPC is still a proposal, not yet a reality.   Still to be done:  the federal review process must be conducted properly, and the requirements of the city ordinance must be fulfilled.  

If you remain concerned about the current proposal – its potential impact on Jackson Park and the surrounding communities, its cost to taxpayers, its environmental consequences, its ill-considered traffic plan, or any other aspect of the project – you should continue to make your thoughts and suggestions known to local media outlets and to the City officials who should be held accountable – Mayor,  Aldermen, Commissioners of Transportation and of  Planning and Development.  Contact information is available at Take Action on  the JPW website.

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 jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com 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 to 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, 17 N. State St., Suite 1450, Chicago 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
www.jacksonparkwatch.org
jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com

Jackson Park Watch Update- October 27, 2020

Greetings, all,

Flawed Process #1 – NEPA review and its Environmental Assessment

As was noted in the October 12 Updatethe National Park Service initiated a public comment period for an Environmental Assessment of the impact of the proposed construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on Jackson Park as part of the review mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  The comment period ends October 30.

While JPW is still preparing its comment on the Environmental Assessment, it is clear that, as expected, the review process is designed to short-circuit standard procedures and ensure quick approval of the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes precisely as proposed.  

A few key points: 

  • A massive project like this would normally require a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement, based on analyses prepared by the federal agencies involved, but the federal agencies and the City (which is the applicant for approval) are insisting that this EA will suffice. 
  • The EA falsely relies on the South Lakefront Framework Plan as the validation for the proposed changes to the park, even though the SLFP review and plan came after the OPC and related road changes were announced.  It also deceptively implies that the SLFP is a solid commitment by the Chicago Park District for improvements (.e.g., parking spaces) rather than an unfunded wish list. 
  • The EA uses an improper baseline for evaluation.  In fact, it illogically uses two different No-Action Alternative Baselines – a proper one (Jackson Park as it is today) for the National Park Service action and one that defies common sense (Jackson Park as it would be if the OPC had already been constructed and section of Cornell Drive and the Midway Plaisance already closed) for the Federal Highway Administration action.   By so doing, the EA avoids required consideration of all reasonable alternatives.  Instead, considering only variations on the design presented by the City, it then – surprise! –reaches the foregone conclusion that the City’s current plan is the preferred alternative to minimize or mitigate adverse effects on the environmental footprint.
  • The EA’s attention to key categories of the natural environment such as trees, wildlife habitat, migratory birds, water resources is selective and incomplete. For instance, the EA excludes from consideration the impact of the 235-foot museum tower on the flocks of migratory birds that pass through the park each fall and spring.
  • Also inadequate is the EA’s assessment of the impacts of the proposed changes on the human environment, on the communities surrounding the park and beyond.  Of particular concern is its conclusion that traffic congestion problems will be temporary and, once construction is complete, minimal.  The EA does not look beyond the boundaries of Jackson Park, and ignores the impact of the projected traffic diversions on the adjacent neighborhoods — north, south and west — and dismisses the impact of the loss of 233 parking spaces within the park that will likely both discourage current local users of the park and also inflict new traffic congestion and parking problems on residents’ adjacent to the park.  The socio-economic assessment is also weakened by reliance on out-of-date estimates for the economic impact of the OPC on Jackson Park neighborhoods.  The projections in the EA are based on data and analyses prepared several years ago (pre-pandemic, pre-lakeshore disruptions) and in some cases commissioned by the Obama Foundation. Given the current uncertainties about tourism and other economic drivers due to Covid-19 and given already skyrocketing rents,  new, independent assessments are needed.
  • The EA segments Jackson Part into sections and actions that are excluded from environmental impact reviews  (the OPC campus and related road closures) and sections and projects that can be reviewed (selected parts of the rest of the park).  Among the non-OPC projects excluded from review is the golf course merger project, even though it is included in the SLFP and it would have a major impact on the environment of Jackson Park by its cutting of many more hundreds of trees beyond those marked for removal for the OPC.

JPW will submit a comment statement for the record, making these and other points. If JPW Update readers wish to submit statements for the record on these or other particular topics, see the directions below. However, JPW fully expects this deeply flawed EA to be approved.   That will be a sad rejection of Olmsted’s doctrine that this park (or any park) should be treated and assessed as an organic whole when considering any changes or “improvements.”

  • Written statement to be submitted by regular USPS mail service to Todd Wyatt of the City’s Department of Planning and Development. The submission  must be postmarked by October 30, so mail earlier to be safe.  You may use the print version of the NPS comment form, or just send a standard letter.  

Flawed process #2 — The final whimper for the Section 106 review 

The Section 106 review process that began in December 2017 is finally limping to a conclusion  three years later.  Although the Assessment of Effects report determined that the proposed changes to accommodate the OPC would have serious adverse effects on the distinctive and historic character of the park, the Federal Highway Administration that is responsible for the review has ignored both standard procedures and common sense and  acquiesced entirely to Rahm Emanuel’s decision to give full control of 20 acres of Jackson Park to his friend President Obama for the next 99 years.  Efforts to invoke the Section 106 statute’s requirements to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” the adverse effects of the OPC on Olmsted’s historic design have been resisted.  It’s the Chicago way — public policy by fiat.   

In a webinar for consulting parties on October 30 the FHWA will formally present  the final version of the  Memorandum of Agreement that concludes the review process.  In spite of major opposition to the draft MOA in August by JPW and many other organizations and individuals, the final document makes no substantive changes, and the FHWA will entertain no additional comments.  

The meagre mitigation actions proposed to compensate for the takeover of  Jackson Park by the OPC and memorialize its 125-year span as an Olmsted-designed recreational respite for South Siders include:  various written reports with photographs and diagrams of Jackson Park today and some unspecified interpretive materials to be developed (perhaps in  digital format, perhaps as signage); the rehabilitation of two long-neglected structures – the English Stone Comfort Station adjacent to the future OPC campus and the Statue of the Republic on Hayes Drive; and the promise that the public will be granted a 45-day review and comment period to consider the City’s controversial plan to install a children’s playground on the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance as replacement recreational space for the site being taken over by the OPC. 

Needless to say, perhaps, JPW (and many other consulting parties to the Section 106 review) will not be signing the MOA.

Protect Our Parks and the on-going legal record

Protect Our Parks continues to analyze its next steps following a recent federal district court decision that merely affirmed what had previously taken place in the federal circuit court.  Analysis of the proposed Environmental Assessment  (see above) suggests that there may be additional grounds for further legal action.  JPW will continue to follow these various legal threads and keep you posted. 

Prospects for OPC groundbreaking still distant

In the meantime, there are no prospects that construction of the OPC — and the accompanying destruction of key aspects of Jackson Park, including the Women’s Garden, almost 800 trees, and the iconic Olmsted design of Cornell Drive and its intersection with the Midway Plaisance — will begin anytime soon.  Things to watch: City budget problems, rising lake levels, increasing construction costs.

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 jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com 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, 17 N. State St., Suite 1450, Chicago 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
www.jacksonparkwatch.org
jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com