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

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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