JACKSON PARK WATCH UPDATE, May 15, 2022

Greetings, All:

Midway Plaisance East End “Improvement” 

On May 3 the Park District hosted the second community meeting about its plan to use the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance as replacement for recreational space in Jackson Park that is being obliterated by the Obama Presidential Center.  Park District staff also attended the May 11 meeting of the Midway Park Advisory Council.  In both meetings, the full  CPD plan was briefly outlined, but feedback was requested for only one feature –  the universally inclusive play space – that is proposed for the center of the site just east of the Cheney-Goode bench.

It was noted at the MPAC meeting that when the community was first  informed of the possible designation of the Midway as “replacement” park land  — in Spring 2017 – community members  responded with concern and questions.  The City stated then and repeated again and again that any final decision would have to be approved by the community after extensive public discussion and meetings. Those promises of public engagement were not kept and the community now is being shown a plan codified in the agreements that concluded the federal reviews of the plans for the OPC in Jackson Park.  The City and Park District claim that their hands are tied and that they have no choice but to execute the terms that they helped define without full public discussion or review. 

Yet, concerns and questions that were posed in 2017 and  in 2018 and in 2019, have had to be asked yet again in 2022 and still await answers:

  • Will the iconic space envisioned by Olmsted as the link to Jackson Park be respected? In that spirit, the 2000 Midway Framework Plan proposed a large fountain. The current plan will restore historic plantings, tree alleys and walkways.  However, the ambitious play facility at its center is at odds with Olmsted’s design in tone, palette and scale, as would surely have been determined if the design have been available for inclusion in the Section 106 review process.   
  • How will the half-acre wetland be handled?  The Herald quoted DPD Associate Director Eleanor Gorski on a visit to MPAC in 2018: “because an  underground stream flows down the Midway, it has been prone to chronic flooding issues that two engineering projects in recent memory have failed to fix.”   Now the City, perhaps looking for a  cheaper option, seems to have forgotten that history.  The only recent response to the “how” question has been “regrading,” which seems inadequate and would also represent another variation from Olmsted’s horizontal vision.   
  • How will the space be made more safely accessible amid the increased traffic congestion brought on by the OPC?  Visitors to the space have to cross at least two busy roadways, with little or no parking adjacent or close by.  The Park District has said it will have CDOT input at its next meeting.
  • How can an active recreational facility be safe and enjoyable for young children and for people with various impairments?   The site is surrounded on three sides by fast-moving, exhaust-spewing cars and on the fourth side by loud freight and passenger trains, and seems to require protective features.

The design images presented at the meetings and an audio recording of the May 3 session (including Q&As) are available on the Featured Capital Projects page of the Park District website [select “Midway Plaisance East End Improvement,” scroll down to “Meetings” and select “Video” for May 3].

Comments on the proposals for the play space and the other proposed changes to the Midway site should be submitted by May 20 via the Park District’s  Capital Project Feedback Form in order for them to be addressed at the subsequent public meeting on June 21.   That third community meeting will be another virtual session via Zoom.  Including your email address on the Feedback Form will ensure that you receive notices about that and subsequent meetings.

Remembering what is lost

Also included in the Park District’s May 3 meeting was a brief introduction to another mitigation initiative prescribed by the Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement – the Jackson Park Plan for Interpretive Materials.   It is listed as a separate Featured Capital Project, but to view the slide presentation and remarks made on May 3 look at the video listed above for the Midway Plaisance project.

This project too is on a tight schedule.  There is the promise of meeting and feedback opportunities throughout the summer, but no specifics yet.  The plan is to be finalized in October 2022 and implemented by February 2023.  So, if you have comments or suggestions about themes or specific people or events to be celebrated or about the mode(s) of presentation, don’t delay.  Be sure to use the Feedback Form associated with this specific project. 

Long, hot summers ahead? 

With the beginning of road work in Jackson Park in mid-April to accommodate the construction of the OPC, South Side residents (and those far beyond) have been subjected to tortuous delays, not only during rush hours. Signage to redirect southbound drivers approaching 57th Drive through or around the maze has been more confusing than helpful.  Accidents have occurred and  on occasion back-ups have extended to Oakwood Blvd.  This past Friday a multivehicle crash at  the 57th Drive intersection during peak rush hour reportedly brought southbound cars and city buses to a standstill for some 90 minutes. Now an additional, life-threatening concern has been exposed by the tragic shooting around the Golden Lady on Tuesday night. Ambulances dispatched to the scene – where six were critically wounded – reported difficulties navigating the jumble of parked cars and street/lane closures.   That’s an ominous start to a summer of hot nights and crowded parks and likely for years ahead.

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, April 30, 2022

Greetings, All:

While we are still waiting for spring, Jackson Park remains a hub of park activities and concerns.

Midway Plaisance East End Improvement Community Meeting #2

The Park District will host its second community meeting about proposed changes to the eastern tip of the Midway on Tuesday, May 3, 5:30 pm, at South Shore Cultural Center.  

This will be an in-person meeting.  A presentation by CPD staff and consultants is to include an overview of community feedback since the initial meeting on March 29,  a report on the historically significant  landscape elements to be restored, and preliminary design ideas for a “universally accessible play space.”  The CPD presentation will be available on-line after the meeting, posted on the “Featured Capital Projects” page of the Park District website.  

As explained in prior Updates and in a recent letter to the Hyde Park Herald, we have been  unimpressed by CPD’s “community engagement” charade and continue to regard its plans for the Midway tip as inappropriate, unsafe, costly, and unlikely to succeed. We submitted our comments and questions to the Park District via its Capital Project Feedback Form, and encourage you to do the same.  We hope that these issues will be addressed in the May 3 meeting, either directly or through questions.

There is to be a Q&A session on the Midway project though it is not clear how much time will be allowed as this same meeting is to include also a second presentation, though that is not mentioned on the meeting flyer.

The second topic – “Project Introduction” for the “Jackson Park Plan for Interpretive Materials” – is described on the CPD website. The federal review of plans for the Obama Presidential Center and other changes to Jackson Park that yielded the plan to provide replacement parkland on the Midway tip also provided for mitigation of adverse effects to Jackson Park through the development of a plan for interpretive materials within the park. (Remember that those “adverse effects” are the destruction of the comprehensive Olmsted design for Jackson Park and the loss of approximately 20 acres of public parkland.)   Accordingly, the Park District has engaged a consultant team led by Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM) to help develop materials and programs “to commemorate the cultural and natural historical contributions of Jackson Park and its use by South Side residents.”  Presumably the meeting will provide more details.

Park advocates should pay attention to both of these initiatives and try to attend the Tuesday meeting if possible.

Fake news vs. real news  

On March 29,  U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey dismissed portions of the lawsuit initially filed in April 2021 by Protect Our Parks and six joint plaintiffs in opposition to the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.  The ruling was widely mis-reported as a complete dismissal of the POP complaint in its entirety.   

The Hyde Park Herald got it right, however.  The dismissal applied only to state law claims relating to public trust and public land issues.  Still pending on the dockets of both the U.S. District Court and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeal are POP’s federal law claims relating to the evaluations of the OPC project by federal agencies with respect to its environmental and historical preservation impacts.

Judge Blakey’s recent ruling allowed the discovery process on POP’s federal claims to resume, although all parties believe it would be helpful to learn first what the Seventh Circuit has to say in regards to the current appeal there.  As to the dismissal of the state law claims, the Plaintiffs have asked the District Court to allow the rulings to be appealed, and written arguments on that motion now being submitted for consideration.   

Stay tuned.

A day to celebrate or mourn?

April 26 was Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday, an occasion celebrated by the New York Times with a special insert “Olmsted’s Enduring Legacy.”  Olmsted deserves high honor as  America’s pioneering and still premier landscape architect, but little attention was given to the date or to Chicago’s historic Olmsted parks by local media nor was there any mention of Chicago in the special insert.  Such omissions are tacit recognition of the drastic changes now underway to Olmsted’s design for Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance. Olmsted’s legacy does not endure in Chicago and we wrote the Tribune to lament that loss.  

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 24, 2022

Greetings, All:

Jackson Park and the surrounding circle of public parks are a hotbed of activity.  Historic Jackson Park is being disrupted (which is to say, destructed and totally remade by the imprint of the Obama Presidential Center and attending road work), but there are challenges all around that also require attention and engagement.

Jackson Park

  • The Obama Foundation and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) are busy levelling trees, digging deep holes, and preparing to slice off wide swaths of Jackson Park to expand DuSable Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue.  Their presentations to the 5th Ward’s monthly meeting in February and March placed great emphasis on the worthy but short-term positive effect on local employment during the construction phase and ignored the long-term consequences for park users of removing playing fields and denuding the landscape of mature trees for the coming decades.
  • The lawsuit and related motions filed by Protect Our Parks and its co-plaintiffs to challenge the federal review process that allowed the work to begin in Jackson Park remain in limbo at both the district and appellate levels, even though the suit was filed before the City had handed over Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation. 
  • Speaking up for the trees is SaveJacksonPark.org, which is sponsoring a petition for an advisory referendum on the June primary ballot to stop tree removal in Jackson Park and South Shore Cultural Center Park with particular focus on the damage to be done by the proposed Tiger Woods golf course.  
  • Meanwhile, at its March meeting, Jackson Park Advisory Council leaders avoided consideration of issues confronting current park users by proposing to limit discussion of  “Old Business” and “New Business” to 3 minutes each and then summarily adjourning the meeting before even reaching that point on the agenda.  Henry Martyn Robert must be spinning in his grave.

Park District to present planned changes to Midway Plaisance at Community Meeting

The Park District has scheduled a “Community Meeting” for Tuesday, March 29, 5:30-7:00 pm, to present its plan for “Midway Plaisance East End Improvements.”  The plan results from the decision by the City to designate the eastern tip of the Midway (between the Metra tracks and Stony Island) to “replace” some of the parkland in Jackson Park that is being lost to the Obama Presidential Center.

The posting on the Park District website for the Midway Plaisance implies that the meeting will be at the Midway field house, but it will actually be an on-line webinar via Zoom, and advance registration is required to receive the log-in instructions  and other information. There will be an initial slide-show presentation followed by a Q&A session.  We are told that the Q&A will be managed primarily through the chat function, but there will be an opportunity for direct oral questions or comments by participants unable to use the chat function. Comments on the project can also be submitted directly to the Park District on the Capital Project Feedback Form for Midway Plaisance East End Improvements

The CPD plan was already presented at Alderman Hairston’s 5th Ward meetings in February and again in March, and that presentation is available for viewing. The segment on the Midway project is found at minutes 43:30-55:00.

In the previous Update we addressed the nonsensical and controversial plan and its development in opposition to the expressed wishes of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council.  To those concerns and criticism we should add the issue of a timetable that  does not take into account either the pending renovation of the adjacent 59-60th St. Metra Station or the adjacent roadwork being undertaken by CDOT to accommodate the OPC.  Comprehensive planning and coordination are needed, not blinkered project management with a slice and dice approach. 

We urge you to participate in the Community Meeting to voice your own concerns, questions, and suggestions.  After the meeting,  you may want to submit additional and more complete comments on the Capital Project Feedback Form.

Limestone Rocks   

Preservation Chicago recently selected  Promontory Point as one of the Chicago’s most endangered historic sites for 2022  because of the continued threat to the Point’s historic limestone revetment and landscape, which was designed by Alfred Caldwell, one of the greatest of Prairie School landscape designers.  The City and Park District–ignoring the Point’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places–aim to replace (rather than repair) the still solid, still usable and still cost-effective limestone rocks with the uninviting and less-durable textured concrete steps that now line much of the lakefront.   At the 5th Ward meeting on March 22, Alderman Leslie Hairston criticized the City’s failure to listen to the people in the community and restated her strong support for preservation of the limestone revetment.  U.S. Representative Robin Kelly and State Senator Robert Peters have also expressed their support for preservation.  More on the threat to this popular destination can be found on the Promontory Point Conservancy website.

A Respite for All

Supporters of the South Shore Nature Sanctuary,  soon to celebrate its 20th anniversary at the South Shore Cultural Center, have established a useful website to share information about its history, flora and fauna, events, and volunteer stewardship opportunities.

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, January 29, 2022

Greetings, All:

The new year is off to a busy start with issues relating to Jackson Park and adjacent parks. Here is a brief report.

JPAC —  Exclusive Club or Community Forum?

There has been considerable attention given to the internal workings of the Jackson Park Advisory Council in recent months, prompted partially by the installation of wrought iron gates on the bridges leading to Wooded Island.  Although the gates are not being locked at this time, to many they represent an ominous image of exclusion and inequity, while to the current JPAC leadership they represent a necessary protection against vandalism.

These conflicting views are now playing out in an effort by the JPAC officers/board to  revise the by-laws of the organization to institute additional attendance and volunteer requirements for voting members.   Presently, individuals who have attended the monthly meetings of JPAC twice in the previous year may vote on issues and in elections.  The proposed change would require attendance at four monthly meetings and also participation in three volunteer activities (unspecified and undefined) before being eligible to vote.  The disagreement and challenges to the proposal have been covered in the Herald and BlockClubChicago and most recently WTTW.

It is instructive to recall a similar brouhaha over voting requirements that occurred in 2016.  At that time individuals could vote after attending just one prior meeting during a 12-month period.  Without any prelude, the JPAC board proposed amending the by-laws to increase the requirement for prior attendance from one to  three meetings.  Strong objections resulted in a compromise – the two-meeting requirement that exists today.  

What had prompted that board initiative in May 2016? It would seem to have been the widespread public concern about and pushback against the proposal by Project 120 to erect a music pavilion/visitor center on a site adjacent to Wooded Island, a project that JPAC (or at least its board) supported and promoted, though had never discussed or probed in depth during its monthly public meetings.  The defensive response was to establish new obstacles to the participation of other voices in park matters.  

It was frustration with JPAC’s failure to function as a true forum for public discussion of the big changes being proposed for Jackson Park that sparked the organization of Jackson Park Watch and informed the definition of its goals of promoting transparency in decision-making and meaningful community input on major changes to the Park. The problems observed in 2016 are still prevalent today; JPAC is still more monologue than dialogue.  The current controversy over by-laws is an opportunity for change in the direction of transparency and inclusivity. 

Proposed changes to Midway Plaisance require community input

The 5th Ward monthly meeting on January 25 included a presentation by representatives of the City and Park District on the state of plans to reconfigure the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance (between Stony Island and the Metra tracks) to serve as “replacement active parkland” to compensate for space in Jackson Park commandeered for the OPC.  The plan developed by the City is prompted by the  terms of long-ago federal funding for enhancements in Jackson Park under the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR) of 1978 and codified in the Memorandum of Agreement signed with federal agencies in December 2020.  

Stressing that “we are just at the beginning of this process,” Park District staff laid out a 30-month schedule that began last fall, touting the selection and hiring of Site Design Group –  a local, MBE/WBE-certified firm with a distinguished record —  develop a design plan. 

The schedule going forward now:

2022: January-March — Site Design Group will prepare an early design for presentation to the community for feedback at one or more public meetings in March (exact meeting arrangements a little hazy). 

April-June – A refined but still preliminary design plan will be shared with the 90+ consulting parties that participated in the federal review process and feedback accepted during a 45-day comment period. [The presentation left unclear if participation in this step is limited to those who signed or concurred with the MOA, excluding groups such as JPW that refused to endorse the outcome of the improperly conducted federal review process.] The community will be updated on the results of the comment period.

July-September – A final plan with construction documentation will be prepared and shared with the community, and submitted to the Illinois State Historical Preservation Office for its approval.

October-December — Permitting and bidding processes completed.

2023:  Construction to start in Quarter 1 and be completed by the end of the year.

It should be noted that the Midway Park Advisory Council has, since 2018, expressed its concerns about specific aspects of the City plan and its opposition to the use of the eastern portion of the Midway as “replacement” parkland, but its repeated requests for a public and transparent process to address the issue have been ignored and without response.  It remains to be seen whether the  schedule outlined above will allow the much-needed community input that has been absent to date.

The proposal outlined by the City and Park District includes two elements in particular that should be fully addressed during the promised community meetings and reviews:   the removal of the existing half-acre of wetland on the eastern edge of the site and the installation of a new play area in its center. 

Overall, the plan is nonsensical and controversial.  

  • Nonsensical because it proposes to resolve drainage issues that have long characterized that spot and have resisted all previous attempts at control due to a natural underground water channel.  The City representatives  did not attach a price to the engineering effort to permanently drain the .43 acre , but one can predict it will be a substantial expenditure with a high probability of failure. A better option would be to enhance the wetland as a valuable natural resource in mitigating climate change.
  • Nonsensical also because it plops a children’s playground in a spot surrounded on three sides by fast-moving, high-volume traffic and on the fourth side by railroad tracks serving both commuter trains and freight trains.  It will not be an inviting space for uninhibited play and relaxation, but rather a place for parents to worry about air pollution from speeding cars, noise pollution from the Metra station announcements and rumbling trains, and fraught access across major thoroughfares.  The proximity of other playgrounds, including one to be built on the OPC site across the street, adds to the confounding lack of rational thought underlying the plan.
  • Controversial because the City has insisted on converting the tip of the Midway to a UPARR replacement site rather than developing new and additional parkland in western Woodlawn where such space is scarce and residents of all ages are in need of more green space and opportunities for active recreation.  The City points to the need and value of maintaining proximity to Olmsted’s park, but that is not  required by the federal agreement and, it should be emphasized, deference for Olmsted is hypocritical at this point as his iconic design and distinctive vision for the park will be no more.  

We urge continued attention to this initiative and active participation in  the community meetings and comment periods to try to achieve a more rational and appropriate design for such an important space.  The first opportunity may be the  next 5th Ward meeting on February 22 as  Alderman Hairston has asked the City and Park District representatives to return for a more extensive presentation and Q&A then.

Glacial pace on the legal front 

There has been little public action over the last month on either of the suits filed in 2021 by Protect Our Parks and six individual plaintiffs against the City, Park District and the Obama Foundation challenging the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park. 

On last report, the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to rule on the District Court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to halt construction work in Jackson Park.  And it seems that the District Court is waiting on that appellate decision before it proceeds with the hearing of the primary suit, filed in April.  That complaint challenges the conduct of the federal reviews required to assess the impact on the environmental and historical resources of Jackson Park of the federally-funded infrastructure work needed for the Obama Presidential Center.

The only activity this month involved the POP team’s request to amend that original complaint to include the failure of the City to hold the Obama Foundation accountable to the terms of the Master Agreement.  The agreement, signed in 2019, specified that before the Foundation took control of the site it was to have in hand funds to cover the full construction cost of the OPC and establish an endowment to sustain the OPC for the coming century.  Neither of those conditions was met.  Judge Blakey accepted the Defendants’ assertion that the Plaintiffs did not have standing to file such a complaint, even though all are residents of the City of Chicago.  Such a ruling is inaccurate and senseless on its face and may be subject to appeal. 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR DONATIONS!

Thanks to all who have supported us financially.  As always, we will welcome your contributions.  If you have any questions about contributing, please contact us at 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, December 15, 2021

Greetings, all, 

Park District plans for “improvements” 

As recently reported in the Hyde Park Herald,  the Chicago Park District and Alderman Leslie Hairston hosted a virtual meeting on November 29 to present plans for three construction projects to begin in Jackson Park in Spring 2022:  renovation of the Iowa Building, a new Dog- Friendly Area (DFA), and a senior-sized baseball field.

We applaud the renovation of  the Iowa Building — finally! – after decades of negligence and years of prodding by the Jackson Park Advisory Council, and we appreciate the work of Senator Robert Peters in securing state funding last year for this much-needed work.  However, the other two projects raise continuing concerns and questions prompted by the loss of parkland to the Obama Presidential Center and the Park District’s plan to expand the already-large OPC footprint for the dubious public benefit of building a PGA-level golf course in Jackson Park.

The plan to construct a new DFA on a barren and exposed stretch south of Hayes Drive and adjacent to DuSable Lake Shore Drive is meant to replace the well-established and well-loved Jackson Bark to the north.  Unlike the long-overdue Iowa Building project, it is not clear why this is essential or an improvement.  The new DFA project did not arise from community requests and, as was made clear in the Herald coverage, does not reflect support from patrons of Jackson Bark.  Rather, the new DFA is a key element in the controversial plan for a new Tiger Woods-designed golf course,  a plan that – like the related one for the OPC – was prebaked into the South Lakefront Framework Plan before community discussions began.  The eradication of Jackson Bark is “necessary” because that space can then be used to extend the golf driving range northward.  That trade-off should be considered in assessing the DFA plan.  Would it not be a better use of public funds (and likely at less cost) to renovate rather than erase Jackson Bark?  Would it not be better to move the driving range into closer proximity with the actual golf course as is standard placement in PGA-level courses?

Meanwhile, the new baseball field to be added north of Hayes Drive is the result of the relocation of one of the playing fields already displaced by the construction of the Obama Presidential Center along the west side of the park.   The Park District is choosing to build a replacement field in an already congested recreational site, rather than develop new public parkland elsewhere in the Woodlawn area to replace the 19.6 acres lost to the OPC – a mitigation promised by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 ordinance approving use of Jackson Park for the OPC.  The plan to squeeze three ball fields and two multi-sports fields into a tight “pinwheel” configuration may be a marvel of spatial design, but it will require careful scheduling for safe use and may offer a less than optimal experience for the local athletes who need and deserve more rather than less athletic space.  

Further, if these plans are realized, both dog-walkers and ball-players will be challenged by expected traffic problems relating to the transformation of Hayes Drive into the default pass-through speedway for north-south traffic (replacing Cornell Drive) and the removal of all of the parking spaces now available along Hayes. Citizens from all parts of the South Side use these public Jackson Park facilities because they are accessible and safe.  Is crowding average people out of the parks the real price of the OPC?  

The virtual meeting on Nov. 29 had only a few participants.  We urge regular users of Jackson Park to take a careful look at what is being proposed by the Park District and to submit your comments to the Park District.  

Legal process inches along while bulldozers move swiftly

In August, just before the Obama Foundation took control of 19+ acres of Jackson Park, Protect Our Parks and its six co-plaintiffs asked the US Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit to review its request for an injunction to halt all work on the OPC until POP’s suit challenging the federal review process of the OPC project is concluded.  The request for such an injunction had been denied at the district court level by Judge Robert Blakey, who is presiding over the federal review case 

On November 30, POP’s appeal was finally heard by a three-member panel of judges. Richard Epstein, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, argued that the City, the Obama Foundation and the federal agencies charged with reviewing the project used an improperly narrow definition of the project that divided it in a fashion which improperly precluded consideration of environmental, historical and other relevant impacts and avoided evaluation of alternative locations that would not have impacted parkland at all, even though such considerations are statutorily mandated. Until those issues are resolved, Epstein argued, further disruption and destruction of Jackson Park should be paused.  The judges pressed Epstein on those issues, but did not make a determination and did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.    

Still pending also is the  initial complaint filed by the Plaintiffs in the US District Court in April (months before the City turned over the site in Jackson Park to the Foundation). That suit focuses on specific lapses in the conduct of the federal reviews of the proposed changes to Jackson Park and in particular the failure to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement as would usually be standard for a project of this scale.  Recently the plaintiffs have also requested that they be allowed to file an amended complaint that would add two causes of action associated with an alleged failure to comply with the Master Agreement between the Obama Foundation and the City.  That Agreement requires that certain financial thresholds be met by the Foundation in regards to the cost of the OPC construction (a cost that continues to be revised upward, now $700 million) and to the funding of an endowment for long-term maintenance and operation of the OPC.  The district court has set a briefing schedule on that request which stretches into January 2022.

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, October 26, 2021

Greetings, all, 

Jackson Park and Chicago’s parks generally have been much in the news over the last month.  Here is our attempt to summarize and prioritize.

Mixed reactions to saws and shovels

The ceremonial groundbreaking for the OPC  on September 28 – on a bare site newly clear-cut and leveled – was mainly a virtual event, closed to all but a few invited dignitaries due to COVID-19 restrictions  and perhaps also to concerns about possible demonstrations by those opposed to the siting of the OPC in the park.  The event was buzzed by a plane pulling a banner sponsored by Save Jackson Park: Stop cutting our trees.  Move OPC.”

In the days before and since there have  been many public ruminations reflecting the ambivalence that so many feel about the OPC – the tension between honoring Barack Obama and destroying Jackson Park. 

  • In the Sun-Times Lynn Sweet recounted the many lingering controversies relating to the development of the plans for the OPC.   
  • Local photographer Eric Allix Rogers documented the destruction of the landscape with before and after pictures of the site designated for the OPC.
  • The  editor of The South Side Weekly prepared a photo essay to remember the Jackson Park trees, noting that until the trees were cut many residents of the community did not comprehend the scope or implications of the transformation of the park from a protected space under public oversight to a space controlled by private hands. Now, with community input having been blocked and no comprehensive community benefits agreement, they fear that all will be lost.
  • Ron Grossman of the Tribune  weighed the value of the OPC against the loss of precious urban green space and with some ambivalent logic accepted that clout and hubris and personal feelings had tipped the scales against consideration of the broad public good
  • Across the spectrum there was concern about the OPC’s impact on a critical public issue for Chicago:  affordable housing.   The head of the Better Government Association criticized the Obama Foundation’s refusal to sign a community benefits agreement and called for the Foundation to finally do right by the South Side now in order to clear its reputation for the future.  The issue of displacement also mobilized African American critics of the OPC from the progressive left to the Nation of Islam.

Even if they had doubts about the wisdom or justness of the outcome, many commentators assumed that it is a foregone conclusion that the OPC will be built as now planned and Jackson Park will be remade in its shadow.  But given the continuing legal challenges, that dire scenario is not inevitable. The OPC could still be moved to another non-park site or, at the least, its footprint in Jackson Park could be modified to avoid further destruction.  

Legal challenges to OPC continue

Protect Our Parks and its six co-plaintiffs have active cases at various levels of the federal court system and other under consideration:

  • U.S. District Court for Northern District of Illinois —

In April POP filed a complaint to challenge the improper conduct and legitimacy of the federal reviews of the OPC plan required of the Federal Highway Administration, National Park Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That complaint is still pending, with no schedule set yet to hear the merits in that suit.  Some of the defendants  (City, Park District, Obama Foundation) filed a motion to dismiss the portion of the suit dealing with the City’s public trust obligations, and that motion may be considered this month, but the core of the case challenging the federal review process would not be affected.   

  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit  —
    Also still pending is POP’s appeal, filed in August,  for the reversal of an earlier decision denying a preliminary injunction to halt work on the OPC until the POP case challenging the federal review process is completed.   

    Jackson Park Watch joined with Preservation Chicago in September to file an amicus brief in support of the POP appeal for an injunction.  The brief stressed the widespread interest by local residents in the preservation of  Jackson Park and the widespread concern that any and all legally required reviews be conducted accurately and fairly in recognition of the potential of the OPC project to set a precedent  for future historic and environmental preservation cases.  The joint brief also argued that further delay in construction work would not harm or reduce the  projected long-term benefits of the OPC but would avert potentially unnecessary damage to historic and environmental resources.   

    Two other amicus briefs were also submitted in support of the POP appeal:  The National Association of Olmsted Parks in its brief stressed the importance of parks as public open spaces to be protected from privatization.  The NAOP brief is described in a special statement entitled “Requiem for Jackson Park”.   Teresa Horton, an Associate Professor of Research at Northwestern University whose work has examined the impact of urban greenspace on the psychological and physiological health of humans, submitted a brief highlighting the positive effects that access to mature trees and complex landscapes has on both individual health measures and societal ills such as domestic and community violence. With aerial  photos she demonstrated the dramatic  contrast between densely canopied Hyde Park and sparsely covered Woodlawn, and expressed great concern about the negative impact of the 50-year gap before there would again be mature trees on the OPC site.  

    The Court denied, without explanation, each of these motions to file a brief.   While the texts of the briefs are recorded in the official record, it is disappointing that they will not be considered by the judges as part of the testimony supporting the request for a preliminary injunction. One would think that the Court would want to gather as much information and consider as many viewpoints as possible in a case where the public interest is itself the central issue under review. 
  • U.S. Supreme Court —
    POP’s special emergency request to the Supreme Court for an injunction to stop OPC construction work was recently denied without comment.  The denial was not unexpected given the huge number of appeals received by SCOTUS. This ruling has no effect on either the appeal to the 7th Circuit noted above or on the original case before in the District Court as there was no consideration of the legal merits of either case. 

Jackson Park beyond the OPC

In addition to the continuing saga of the OPC, there are questions and controversies bubbling throughout Jackson Park and its adjoining parks that deserve and require close attention and action.  The vision of making Jackson Park into a Millennium Park South, as President Obama said when unveiling the OPC plans in 2017 and as was reiterated at the recent groundbreaking, would transform the park and the mid-south lakefront into a playground for passing tourists and upscale golfers and boaters while diminishing its importance as a community asset available to the public at large and depriving local residents of ready access to favorite activities and nature’s respites.  It is important then to keep the entire park area in mind, even as the OPC continues to hog the spotlight.  

Hug a photo?

The federal reviews of the plans for the OPC that are the subject of the lawsuit filed by POP concluded with a Section 106 Memorandum of Agreement outlining the steps to be taken to “mitigate” the admittedly severe adverse effects of the OPC on the historic resources of Jackson Park.  The City just submitted its first annual report on those steps to the Federal Highway Administration.  Most actions are marked as pending.  The one completed action was the documentation through photographs and drawings of the areas of the park to be altered to accommodate the OPC – good for archivists perhaps, but a meaningless action for active park users.

A redesign for Midway Plaisance?

The only other action step reported to the FHWA was the Park District’s initiative to hire a suitable landscape firm to redesign the eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance.  Because Jackson Park is “protected” by a recreational preservation agreement with the National Park Service (due to funding provided in the1980s), the transfer of a portion of Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation required the designation of a new recreational space for NPS protection.  Rather than develop new parkland to serve the community and compensate for the loss of acreage in Jackson Park, the Park District and City designated the Midway’s eastern tip as the replacement site.  When the plan was first broached in 2018, the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council stated its opposition, judging the site inappropriate for active recreation uses, especially for children.  MPAC has recently reaffirmed its opposition to the CPD plan. Even so, as reported in the Hyde Park Herald, on October 13, the Park District Board approved  a contract with Site Design Group for this project (1-year @ $329,360 with extensions possible). A schedule for the work has not been issued, although community meetings are promised.  It is noteworthy that Site Design is part of the landscape architecture team for the OPC, and thus the Midway redesign project might well be seen as an extension of those plans.   

A gated community? 

Public discussion continues about the installation of large gates on the two bridges leading to Wooded Island.  Are they necessary?  Who do they exclude?  What message do they convey about park usage?  The ominous gates are not currently being closed and locked nightly, thanks to public outcry, but there remains confusion and concern about access to the island between dusk and dawn.  The controversy has sparked lively exchanges at chaotic meetings of the Jackson Park Advisory Council.  Critics of the installation have organized as South Side Parks to address multiple concerns about park leadership and management; anyone who wants to learn more should send an email to jacksonparkgates@gmail.com.

Clubs at the ready?

The proposed merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses to create a single PGA-level course has taken a lot of hits lately, particularly from the Sun-Times (see link below), but the ball is still lurking behind the bushes.  We agree with media critiques that it is a bad plan in every way – for local golfers, for frequenters of the SS Nature Sanctuary, for ball players, for equestrians, for dog lovers, for community users of the South Shore Cultural Center, for taxpayers. The youth programs often touted to justify the “Tiger Woods” plan can be (and already have been) effective without any radical redesign.  But we are all too aware of the clout and backroom agreements that have brought the OPC shovels to Jackson Park, and recognize that continued vigilance is needed. 

Limestone or concrete?

Promontory Point has become another public park requiring renewed community attention.  Storms last year that threatened Lake Shore Drive at Morgan Shoal (at 43rd-53rd Sts.) made the reinforcement of the lakeshore an urgent necessity.  Current presentations by the Army Corps of Engineers, CDOT, and the Park District have indicated a preference for extending generic steel and concrete steps all along the south lakefront, including around the Point.  This plan ignores the fact that there is no danger to LSD from storm waves at the Point and also completely disregards prior designs and signed agreements for restoring the historic limestone revetement at the Point. Those prior designs were the result of extensive community discussions and negotiations with city and federal agencies brokered by the Promontory Point Conservancy.  The current governmental preference for concrete would also threaten the Point’s recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a milestone that was supported by a large segment of the community and guided by Alderman Hairston.   In the face of this new threat, the PPC is organizing again to promote community awareness of and support for preservation and restoration of the historic limestone revetment at Promontory Point.  Stay tuned.

Time to pay attention, stay involved

All of these current issues and controversies in Jackson Park and neighboring parks are related to and will be affected by the upheaval in the leadership of the Chicago Park District.  With the forced resignation of CEO Michael Kelly due to a sexual abuse scandal, there has been a torrent of additional complaints about CPD’s long record of poor judgement, bad management,  lack of transparency, and lack of attention to community needs and wishes.  It is not clear yet to what extent there will be big changes beyond the selection of a new superintendent – e.g., a new Board of Commissioners? a clean sweep of department directors? – or how long it will take to implement the changes.  But one can hope and one should participate in discussions to promote a Park District that serves the community rather than special interests. 

Friends of the Parks is taking a leading role, and deserves support. But the discussions and actions in the local park advisory councils – JPAC, MPAC, SSPAC – will also be important, as will the work of the Promontory Point Conservancy.  Let your voice be heard.

Jackson Park Advisory Council –
https://www.jacksonparkadvisorycouncil.org/
next meeting November 8, 7:00 pm,   JP field house
(Note:  Contrary to the website, you do not have to donate to be a member)

Midway Plaisance Advisory Council
http://midwaypac.org/
next meeting October 27, 6:30 pm, Midway field house  (special date)

South Shore Cultural Center Advisory Council – https://www.facebook.com/SouthShoreCulturalCenterAdvisoryCouncil/
next meeting November 13, 10:30 am, SSCC Oak Room

Promontory Park Conservancy
https://www.promontorypoint.org/

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, September 22, 2021

Greetings, all, 

The Obama Foundation pushed the City to let it begin  work on the Obama Presidential Center site in August in the hope that it would inspire big-ticket donors to fill the huge gap in funding needed to complete  the project.  While the impact on potential donors is unknown, it is clear that the cutting of most of the trees on the 19.3 acre site and the complete obliteration of the Women’s Garden have shocked and mobilized critics of the current OPC plan.  There are new voices speaking out and new groups forming to address not only the imposition of the OPC on Jackson Park, but also other park changes.  

Here’s a “brief” survey of the past month. Intertwined in all of these activities are the core issues of environmental degradation and equity, preservation of historical resources, public costs, and public goods. We expect more action on many fronts.  Stay tuned.

Trees and Natural Spaces

The clear-cutting of the OPC site has brought new attention to the broad environmental consequences of the loss of so many mature trees.   As covered in  Environmental Health News,  replacing mature trees with young saplings is not an equal exchange – “one tree does not equal one tree” – and it will take decades to recover, a trajectory complicated by climate change.

That same theme was sounded by Openlands, an organization renowned for promoting tree planting and tree care in the region.  It issued a statement lamenting the loss of tree canopy and calling for extensive new plantings and financial payments by the Obama Foundation as a minimal compensation to  help mitigate the environmental damage.  Given the Foundation’s financial straits that response seems unlikely.

The environmental degradation of Jackson Park is being extensively and thoughtfully documented on a  new website and accompanying Facebook page by Save Jackson Park, which calls for moving the OPC to a site adjacent to Washington Park.  

The sense of loss and of frustration felt by many South Siders and others as the OPC site was bulldozed was eloquently captured by Woodlawn resident Lyletta Robinson in an opinion article in the Sun-Times She pointed to the flawed decision-making process that allowed such destruction – top-down, premised on park space as something to be developed for economic purposes rather than preserved for the public good, with disregard for community concerns about the use of Jackson Park for this project and about basic issues such as traffic congestion. And she sounded the alarm about the threat to other treasured features such as the Nature Area at the South Shore Cultural Center.

Golf – ifs and buts

The OPC work in Jackson Park has reignited talk of the proposed merger of the golf courses in Jackson Park and SSCC into one PGA-level course.  Coverage in Crain’s (Sept. 2 and 6) and the Tribune  has been ambivalent, noting that there are many issues still to be resolved  (private funding, fees for local golfers, community support), but representing primarily the perspective of a subset of gung-ho golfers.  The many other users of the park who would be deprived of recreational spaces if the project moved forward are generally not represented in such coverage except by the Sun-Times.  Lyletta Robinson’s comments about the South Shore Nature Sanctuary reflect those concerns, and the Sun-Times editors have explicitly lumped the project into the overflowing bucket of bad decisions by the Park District.

Trying to focus on the costs and benefits of the golf project,  JPW submitted the following comment to Crain’s, where it  was published on 9/9.  (In our haste, we neglected to mention a most important cost of the proposed design for the golf courses merger:  the destruction of  some two thousand additional trees, exacerbating the environmental degradation already inflicted by the Obama Foundation.)

Regarding the proposal to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into one PGA-level facility, we pose some questions in terms that are most familiar to Crain’s readers:

Who benefits?  It is important to remember that this proposal originated not with community residents or regular park users or even golfers, but with the University of Chicago as part of its 2014 private proposal to the Obama Foundation to locate in Jackson Park. . . .  Though touted as separate projects, they emerged from the same womb.  The University stands to be the main beneficiary of both projects by elevating Hyde Park and its adjacent lakefront neigborhoods as attractive destinations for affluent residents. 

Who loses? Regular users of the park.  For local golfers who can now play an affordable round whenever they want, there has been no satisfactory guarantee that such easy access will continue.    For non-golfers  (and also the many golfers who use the parks in other ways) there will be a loss of access to well-used, treasured recreational spaces – the Nature Sanctuary and the riding rink at the South Shore Cultural Center, the ball fields and picnic areas squeezed out first by the OPC and then the golf course expansion, the popular dog park displaced by an enlarged golf driving range.

Who pays? As with the OPC, the golf project has been represented as a gift to the City, with private donations of $25 million to pay for construction as well as for youth programming.  In fact, however, the plan calls for the Park District to contribute $5 million and, rarely mentioned, requires the construction of two expensive underpasses and extensive shoreline stabilization work estimated in 2018 to cost around $58 million.   So, taxpayers will be on the hook to pay some $63 million for this freebie.

Beyond the upfront costs to taxpayers, there are also potential liabilities down the line. The long-term sustainability of the golf project has never been determined.  In spite of repeated requests beginning in 2017, there has been no business plan that explains how all the elements and interests will fit together in one financially sustainable package.  Golf is after all a declining industry (in spite of an uptick in the pandemic as a safe recreation). The risk is that, in a couple of years, after the glossy newness wears off, the expensively restructured golf course will be recognized as still flat, still squeezed in, with a still inconveniently located driving range, and attendance will decline.  That might be good for local golfers, but not for the  bottom line or for taxpayers.

There are alternatives to Jackson Park 

JPW and other critics have emphasized that the destruction of Jackson Park is unnecessary because  there are alternative South Side sites that meet the Obama Foundation’s goals while yielding greater economic impact and without the destruction of any park land.  

One of the most discussed alternative sites is adjacent to Washington Park, at the intersection of Garfield Boulevard and King Drive.   An imaginative and fully developed proposal  for that site has been prepared by architect and urban planner Grahm Balkany.  The comprehensive plan is attentive not just to the focused needs of the OPC, but to the opportunities it would present for the surrounding community, the greater South Side and Chicago generally. Such an inclusive, outward-looking approach has not been so evident in the plan for the OPC in Jackson Park.   Balkany’s proposal has just been recognized by the Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects with its 2021 Honor Award for Excellence in Master Planning.   It deserves careful consideration by you, by the City, and by the Obama Foundation.

Legal remedies remain in play

The failure to consider alternatives to the current OPC plan and the failure to consider the complete context of the project,  to view it as a single whole, are central to the still pending lawsuit that challenges the conduct of the federal reviews of the proposed changes for Jackson Park. The legal issues and the oddity of the Obama Foundation deciding to break ground before the suit is settled are well covered by The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

The outcome of the lawsuit will determine what’s next, and it is important to remember that many of the environmental and historic resources of Jackson Park remain as yet undisturbed.  Yes, the bulldozers have destroyed the Women’s Garden and removed all of the vegetation  on the OPC site.  But the east and west sides of Jackson Park have not yet been sliced off (with additional tree loss) to widen DuSable Lake Shore Drive or Stony Island Avenue.   Olmsted’s classic circulation pattern for the park yet remains and Cornell Drive remains as a major thoroughfare from the South Side to downtown.  The eastern tip of the Midway Plaisance has not yet been converted into an active children’s play area to “replace” park spaces lost to the OPC, and  in fact, the Midway Park Advisory Council just reaffirmed its opposition to the Park District plans at its September meeting.  

The legal team for the seven plaintiffs challenging the conduct of the federal reviews is now juggling three interrelated court cases, even as it considers other issues to be addressed: 

  • The initial suit filed in April is still pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.  No schedule has been set yet to hear the arguments in that suit.  Some defendants in the case (City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, Obama Foundation) have filed a motion to dismiss a portion of the suit that charges the City breached its public trust obligations by delegating decision-making authority  to the Obama Foundation and failing to conduct adequate due diligence. That motion will likely be considered in October, but regardless of the ruling, the core of the case challenging the federal review process would not be affected. 
  • Also being pursued is a challenge to the Supreme Court ruling dismissing a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop all construction work in Jackson Park while the initial suit to the federal review process was being reviewed.  Lower court rulings against the motion had been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Amy Coney Barrett, serving as the justice overseeing this Midwest region, dismissed  the motion without comment in August.  Arguing that Barrett should have recused herself because her prior  involvement in an earlier suit involving Protect Our Parks, one of the current plaintiffs,  lawyers  Michael Rachlis and Richard Epstein refiled the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  That has been accepted for review by Chief Justice John Roberts, but no schedule has been set.  
  • While the issue of Barrett’s recusal is being considered, the plaintiffs have also filed, on an expedited schedule,  an appeal of the  District Court’s denial of the motion for a preliminary injunction.  Initial briefs were filed this week, and a court hearing is scheduled for November 30.   

Affordable Housing 

Looking beyond park boundaries, affordable housing remains a major issue in the communities adjacent to Jackson Park.  The Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition is continuing its work to preserve and expand affordable housing in the neighborhoods affected by the construction of the OPC.  While the City claims to have resolved this issue by passing the Woodlawn Housing Ordinance in 2019, the implementation of that ordinance is a work in progress, with its geographic reach limited, and, as always, the devil is in the details.

The CBA Coalition has three major initiatives now:

  • Asking the City to set aside all of the city-owned lots on 63rd Street east of Cottage Grove for affordable housing.   The ordinance specifies that 52 of the 208 lots it controls in the area will be so designated;  
  • Organizing to secure a comparable ordinance for residents of South Shore to address displacement and gentrification there;
  • Developing a CBA for the University of Chicago that would bring its investment in affordable housing.

New point of contention in Jackson Park

Many of you may already be aware of the controversy prompted by the Park District’s installation of tall, ominous gates at the north and south ends of Wooded Island with the intent (not yet implemented) to prevent access between dusk and dawn.  The installation, coinciding with the beginning of site preparation for the OPC, has alarmed and mobilized many park users.  The gates are regarded as just one more symptom of the overall mismanagement and misuse of public land and natural resources by the Park District and the City.

The Sun-Times cited the action as yet another example of poor judgment by the CPD and called for an alternative solution that would uphold the ideal of open public spaces.

Local park users have organized as Jackson Park Gates and, among other efforts, have launched a petition  and are encouraging communication with officials to express concern about the gates and other park issues   Anyone who wants to join the conversation should send an email to jacksonparkgates@gmail.com.

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, August 9, 2021

Greetings, all, 

Rush to dig

Since mid-April, the Obama Foundation has made an increasingly urgent push to raise more money for the Obama Presidential Center and, in support of that effort, to put shovels in the ground of Jackson Park as a green-light signal to potential donors and perhaps also to members of the judiciary.  

It was on April 14 that a group of plaintiffs – Protect Our Parks and six individuals – filed a complaint in the federal district court challenging the procedures used in the federal reviews of the changes to the park that would be necessary to accommodate the Obama Presidential Center.  On that same day the Foundation announced its “Road To Groundbreaking” campaign, aimed at getting evidently much-needed donations from local corporations.  Combatting the parallel lawsuit and the related negative publicity has been a major focus of the Foundation ever since. As the proceedings for the complaint dragged on, the POP team filed a request for a temporary injunction prohibiting any construction until the issue was decided.  A week later, on June 23,  the Obama Foundation announced that it would begin construction work in Jackson Park on August16, with the City beginning to re-route traffic around Jackson Park on Friday the 13th of August, an ironically appropriate date for those of us opposed to the OPC plan.  

This past week,  Judge John Robert Blakey ruled against the request for a temporary injunction against any construction .  While the judge’s decision has been announced, the written opinion that explains the decision has yet to be issued. The POP team is expected to appeal the injunction ruling right away.

The Tribune editorialized today that “the court has spoken” and the OPC project should proceed.  We think that is not correct.  The Court has spoken only about the motion for an injunction to pause construction.  But it has not yet ruled on the substantive complaint about the faulty process of the federal reviews of the OPC site plan.  The Tribune’s wink-wink suggestion that the digging should begin immediately because it would then be harder for a court to stop the project shows a lamentable and inappropriate disregard for the legal process.  The OPC project, however worthy in its aims, has been a sweetheart deal from the beginning.  It would have received a better reception had proper procedures been followed throughout; they should be followed now.

The Tribune editorial concludes “Time now for everyone to move forward together. And for the Obamas and their supporters to live up to their ask.”   We suggest that the Obama Foundation begin by abiding by the terms of the Master Agreement.  

Where’s the money?

Has the Obama Foundation  met all of the stipulations required by the 2018 Ordinance authorizing the City’s handover of 19.2 acres of Jackson Park?  The Master Agreement, drafted by the City and the Foundation and signed on May17, 2019 (one of the final acts of Rahm Emanuel’s administration),  specifies deliverables that must be provided before the City and the Foundation can sign the Use Agreement that would turn over the park site to the Foundation. It remains unclear if the Obama Foundation has yet met all of the requirements stipulated.

JPW has submitted multiple FOIA requests to the City’s Department of Planning and Development to try to determine if all the conditions were being met in full or if they were being side-stepped in the same way that the federal review regulations were.  Has the City done its due diligence or has it waived certain requirements waivers?  

Most troublesome is the indication that the Obama Foundation has not fulfilled its obligations to submit both a final budget for construction of the OPC and a certification that the Foundation has in hand funds to  cover fully that cost

∙         On March 12 the Foundation submitted what was then labeled a total final construction budget of $482M and an accountant’s certification that it had $485M in hand to cover that cost.

∙         On June 4, however, Foundation president Valerie Jarret announced to the Economic Club of Chicago that instead the cost of building the OPC would be close to $700M, blowing away the long-standing prior estimate of close to $500M.   No explanation was given then or since for that sudden, large jump.  

∙         As of July 28, the City Department of Planning and Development responded to a FOIA request that it did not have a revised construction budget or a revised certification of funds reflecting that new $700M figure.

∙         Adding to the confusion is a declaration submitted to the federal court on July 15 as part of the Obama Foundation’s defense against the request for an injunction against construction. There  Robbin Cohen, Executive Vice President of the Foundation, provided a much different, much smaller figure for gifts and pledges dedicated to the construction of the OPC – only something over $200 million. 

Another requirement specified in the Master Agreement — that the Obama Foundation must establish an endowment  dedicated to paying the operating and maintenance costs of the OPC when needed  — has also prompted questions and confusion.  JPW submitted several FOIA requests for certification of that obligation being met.  Finally, last week, we received a copy of a letter from Robbin Cohen to DPD Commissioner Maurice Cox, dated August 3, stating that the Foundation had established and funded an endowment account of $1 million as of June 22. That dollar number is not a typo, so it should be noted that an endowment of that size would yield only about $50,000 per year, very far from the millions that would be needed to sustain the OPC.   And is it a coincidence that the City received formal notification of the endowment only after a FOIA inquiry was made?

The City’s due diligence and the Foundation’s compliance look decidedly sketchy.  The taxpayers of Chicago have the right to know if there is secure and sufficient private funding for the OPC before ground is broken

Both sides now

The legal challenges and counter maneuvers have focused new attention on the many troublesome issues raised by the proposal for the OPC – e.g., the gift of public parkland to a private organization, the destruction of the historic Olmsted design, the environmental impact of the loss of hundreds of mature trees.   Local commentator Leonard Goodman offered a summary of issues not fully covered by mainstream media.  Politico highlighted the difficulties of penetrating the protective shield around the Obama project, no matter how substantive the legal issues. W.J.T. Mitchell, one of the plaintiffs in the challenge to the federal reviews, presented a particularly poignant statement of the dilemma now facing us all.

Want to take action?

Area residents frustrated or confused by the planned road work and the lack of timely information about its details or by the incomplete information about funding for the OPC or by any other aspect of the OPC project may want to contact the Alderman or City officials.  

Links to local media outlets are available at http://jacksonparkwatch.org/take-action-2/.     

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, August 29, 2021

Greetings, all, 

The City and the Obama Foundation signed the final legal agreements turning over 19.3 acres of Jackson Park to the Foundation on August 13 and preparatory site work for the Obama Presidential Center began on August 16.  It is a sad time for those who believe, first and foremost, in the rule of law and process.  

A reminder of how we got to this point

The saga of the OPC has been something of  shell game from the beginning, focused on the glitter rather than the gritty details:

  • In 2014 the University of Chicago competed for the Barack Obama Presidential Library by submitting designs for sites that it did not control, in public parks near the campus.  (None of the designs or terms offered by the University were made public until 2018, when a law suit filed by Protect Our Parks prompted their release.)  
  • In 2015 the City Council, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, responding to a request by the Obama Foundation, adopted an ordinance defining very specific sites in Jackson Park and Washington Park that would be used for the Presidential Library if one of the University’s proposals was selected by the Obamas.  In 2016 the Obama Foundation designated Jackson Park as its choice.
  • In 2017, the Obama Foundation unveiled the design it had commissioned, revealing,  without any advance public notice, that the boundaries of the site codified by the 2015 ordinance had been modified to take over parts of Cornell Drive and Midway Plaisance.  In addition, the enterprise was now identified not as a Presidential Library, but as a Presidential Center,  disconnected from the National Archives and Records Administration and the standard financial requirements and guarantees that that relationship would have provided.
  • Beginning in 2017 the City stressed that the proposal for Jackson Park would be thoroughly vetted by a series of required federal reviews to assure that the historical and environmental integrity of Jackson Park would not be compromised.  But the City also decreed that it had sole authority to decide what happened in Jackson Park and therefore the reviews would be directed not at the OPC project itself, but only at proposed changes in other areas of the park.
  • In 2018 Mayor Emanuel orchestrated adoption a new ordinance to approve the revised site plan for the OPC.  City officials and staff touted a series of legal agreements attached to the ordinance that would  guarantee its success as a privately funded gift to the City. The first of those documents – the Master Agreement – was signed on May 17, 2019,  three days before Mayor Emanuel left office.
  • In 2020, the federal reviews ended with the determination that the project could proceed as proposed   This conclusion was reached even though the Assessment of Effects to Historical Properties had determined that the OPC along with the proposed road changes and other changes to accommodate the OPC would have an adverse effect on Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance, and even though the review process had failed to consider any alternative designs as required by both the historical and environmental review regulations.
  • On August 13, 2021,  the City signed the legal agreements transferring the park site to the Obama Foundation, as reported by Lynn Sweet in the Sun-Times, even though the Foundation had failed to comply with all of the terms of the Master Agreement, particularly the requirements to provide a final, accurate construction budget and certification that the Foundation had in hand sufficient funds to cover that budget.  And the land transfer proceeded in spite of an ongoing lawsuit challenging the federal review process and seeking an injunction against construction work. 

So where are we now?

Site preparations are proceeding in Jackson Park.
Tree-cutting on the OPC site is scheduled to begin the week of August 30.  Based on 2018 tree studies, there are approximately 400 trees on the OPC site.  In an effort to “green wash” this destruction,  about 200 of the tree trunks will be saved and used in various ways – furniture for the OPC, art installations, ornamentation in the buildings – though exact plans have not yet been made.  This number does not include an additional 400 trees to be removed elsewhere in the park by CDOT as part of the road work.  At the July 20 court hearing, one of the defendants’ lawyers put the total  number of  trees to be removed for the project at 789, to which Judge Blakey commented “that’s a large number.”

Legal challenges continue

  • The primary suit filed in April by Protect Our Parks and six individual plaintiffs to challenge the federal review process and also advance state law claims  continues in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
  • In addition, the POP+ legal team has filed in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals an appeal from the District Court’s denial of the motion for a preliminary injunction to stop further construction while the initial case is concluded.  The appellate court has agreed to hear the appeal on an expedited schedule that calls for opening briefs by September 20 and for oral argument later in the fall.  

    Even though construction work has begun, an injunction for a stoppage remains a possibility that could preserve many (though, alas, not all) of the historic and environmental resources in Jackson Park.
  • Also, the Obama Foundation’s failure to meet all of the terms of the Master Agreement that gave it control of the  park land requires more scrutiny and presents a possible new avenue for legal challenge.   Other areas of concern are being examined as well. 

Obama Foundation financial problems multiply
The financial straits and strategies of the Obama Foundation, as detailed in the Sun-Times and also in the Tribune, are receiving increasing scrutiny.   The imbalance between the now-announced  cost of construction and outfitting of the OPC to open in 2025 ($830 million) and the declared funds in the Foundation’s hands now (maybe $485 million, maybe $200 million)  is worrisome to say the least. 

Two days after it took control of the site, the Foundation released its annual report for 2020 and announced a fundraising goal of $1.6 billion over the next five years in order to complete the funding for the OPC as well as to support its global programming and provide an endowment to maintain the OPC going forward.  To put that ambitious goal in perspective, it requires the Foundation to secure $320 million in new contributions each year.  That’s about double the Foundation’s total receipts for 2020.  For comparison, it is also 25% more than a much larger institution – the University of Chicago – received in private gifts in 2020. So the challenge is huge and the risks are great.  And if the fundraising goal is not met, what happens?  Well, the property – disrupted and damaged – should revert back to the City, a potential financial burden for a perennially stretched City budget.  

Park District’s hidden moves 

  • The Park District’s ill-conceived and unpublicized plan to let Amazon rent space in public parks for its lockers had targeted Jackson Park as well as Midway Plaisance and South Shore Cultural Center for the installations.  Thanks to the outpouring of opposition and the quick response of surprised Alderman Leslie Hairston,  there will be no lockers in 5th Ward parks, but the episode shines a bright light on the Park District’s lack of transparency and its strategy to monetize parkland instead of protecting it as a public good.
  • The Park District, with only one day’s notice, installed gates on the bridges leading to Wooded Island, ending all access to the island between dusk and dawn. Security issues on the Island have been discussed for some time, prompted by recurring vandalism of the Japanese Garden, but the timing of the sudden installation – just as construction work began on the OPC site adjacent to Wooded Island – has led many residents to fear the imposition of additional restrictions on free access to Jackson Park in the future.  Conflicting explanations and claims about park usage and security plans by the Park District, Alderman Hairston, and the Obama Foundation have not reassured regular park users.
  • The Park District seems to have jumped the gun also regarding plans to install a children’s play area on the eastern tip of Midway Plaisance (between the Metra tracks and Stony Island) to replace recreational space  in Jackson Park lost to the OPC’s  buildings and paved plaza.  The substitution was part of the Memorandum of Agreement  signed in late 2020 as part of the conclusion of federal reviews.   The MOA specified that there was to be a 45-day period for public review and comment on that proposal before a final decision was made about the design for the space  As far as we and others who focus on the Midway Plaisance know, no such review period has been announced and none of the promised consultations with Park District staff have been scheduled.  Yet on July 30 the Park District posted on its Procurement Portal a Request for Proposal P-21010  Midway Plaisance East End Improvements, with a submission deadline of September 1; that seems to indicate that the plans are set in ink if not in stone.  So much for public review and comment.

Pause Mode for the Golf Course Merger
The bursts of activity by the Obama Foundation and City for the OPC have brought some renewed focus on the linked proposal to develop a PGA-level golf course in Jackson Park.  As David Roeder of the Sun-Times put it, “whatever happened to the golf course idea?”  He reviewed the 5-year saga of that half-baked idea – another top-down plan from Mayor Emanuel – and concluded that fundraising and political problems have put it on hold, “stuck in the rough,” at least for the moment.  We note that the very expensive road underpasses that are essential to the current golf plan are isolated in the CDOT plans as “Phase 3, Post-2025,” to be addressed after the OPC road work is completed.  We expect that the available federal highway funding, approved in 2018, would be long exhausted by then, but we will keep watch.

Make your voice heard

Links to local media outlets are available at http://jacksonparkwatch.org/take-action-2/.     

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, July 26, 2021

Tracking  the OPC

There has been much activity this month, but it’s hard to tell in what direction it is heading.

In the Courts

On July 20 there was a hearing in the U.S. District Court on the Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed last month by attorneys for Protect Our Parks and its six co-plaintiffs  related to construction work for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.  The injunction would prohibit any construction work for the OPC until the resolution of POP’s Complaint (filed in April) charging that the federal reviews of the OPC were fundamentally flawed and that they must be re-done.  Consideration of that Complaint has been stymied by the Defendants, who are looking to stall that legal review as long as possible.

The central focus of the POP Complaint – that the federal reviews of the OPC project ignored  statutory requirements to include consideration of “all feasible and prudent alternatives” and to prohibit segmentation of the project – was generally side-stepped or avoided entirely in the oral statements by the Defendants’ legal team.

∙         The lawyer for the federal agencies mentioned that alternative locations had already been looked at by the City before it had approved the choice of Jackson Park.  But there is absolutely no evidence of such due diligence and ample evidence that the City deferred completely to the Obama Foundation. 

∙         The lawyers for the City and Park District stressed that the OPC had been approved by the City Council, the Planning Commission, and the Park District Board, and that was all that was needed.

∙         The lawyer for the Obama Foundation went even farther afield, arguing that the Plaintiffs would not suffer “irreparable harm” as claimed if construction began because any changes made during construction (we would point to the cutting of some 800-1000 trees) would have only a temporary negative  impact.  Instead, the Foundation lawyer asserted that any delay in the construction schedule would cause irreparable, devastating harm to the contractors hired to build the OPC and to the  Obama Foundation itself, endangering its financial status and its fundraising efforts. 

The Foundation’s alarmist argument points to the still open question of whether it has securely in hand, as required, sufficient funds for construction costs that have risen to around $700 million. The Foundation’s court filing reported that it had some $200 million in donations and pledges restricted specifically for the construction of the OPC as planned and expressed great concern that further delay and uncertainty would put it at risk of losing some of those funds. There seems to be little financial cushion there.

Judge Blakey has not set a schedule for a final ruling on the Motion for Preliminary Injunction.  That will come sometime after the  POP legal team has filed an additional brief (due by the end of this week) and after the submission of any additional material by the Defendants.

For those wanting more detail about the hearing, the texts of the POP motion and the responses filed by the  Defendants (Federal agencies, City and Chicago Park District, and Obama Foundation) have been usefully posted or reported on by the Hyde Park Herald  A broader perspective on the legal issues and history of the OPC saga is provided in the Chicago Reader.

In the media

Meanwhile, the Obama Foundation, with the support of the City, has been waging a  major marketing campaign for several months now to cultivate support for the OPC by Chicago residents and, most especially,  potential donors.

Most recently, Valerie Jarrett, President of the Foundation, published an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, proclaiming that the OPC is coming and the South Side will reap the benefits and repeating unsubstantiated promises for high numbers of annual visitors yielding large economic benefits.  Jarrett dismissed those challenging the OPC plans as “a few voices from outside the community.”

That mischaracterization prompted a strong response — Right project, wrong location — from Hyde Parker Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute and a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the federal review process.  Kalven pointed to the specific legal basis for the suit and extended an invitation to the Obama Foundation to engage, at long last, in an open discussion of “feasible and prudent alternatives.”

Expressions of concern about the location of the OPC in Jackson Park continue steadily, with some recent letters to the Tribune catching attention. One challenged the claim that the OPC will fail to attract visitors unless it is in Jackson Park, a fear, the writer noted, that only perpetuates the underselling of the South Side and deprives the area of a powerful catalyst for development in a non-park location. Another proclaimed that Jackson Park belongs not just to the South Side but to the entire city, and asked why parkland must be destroyed when there are other viable site options that would assure the success of the OPC in redeveloping the South Side without the destruction of the park.

Earlier in July the Tribune  offered, at least indirectly, yet another commentary on the OPC plan when it editorialized about the tawdry saga of the City’s capitulation to the Bears in disfiguring Soldier Field twenty years ago.  Now, it concluded, “Chicago has a lakefront eyesore and the Bears have an inadequate stadium” that they may soon abandon.   Commonalities between the Soldier Field debacle and the looming shadow of the OPC had already been presented in late June in a cautionary op-ed by Michael Rachlis and Richard Epstein, lawyers for the POP lawsuits.  They warned about the unanticipated burden on taxpayers as a result of such sweetheart deals pushed through without full review or consideration of long-term consequences.

It seems all too likely that twenty years from now there could be a similar reevaluation of the OPC if it is constructed in Jackson Park as now proposed.  

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