Jackson Park Watch Update – December 15, 2018

Greetings, all.

LOOKING AHEAD: As 2018 comes to a close, we offer an overview of key issues related to the increasingly controversial Obama Presidential Center proposals, as well as other relevant points. This admittedly lengthy Update will cover:

  • OPC process problems
  • Substantive problems with the OPC proposals
  • The attempted resurrection of the Park District/Mayor Emanuel/President Obama golf course proposal
  • The Friends of the Parks “State of the Park 2018” report

Enjoy reading! HAPPY HOLIDAYS and best wishes for a HAPPY 2019!


★OPC process problems

Community input lacking

Genuine community input about the Obama Presidential Center and related road proposals continues to be lacking. While the Obama Foundation has sent canvassers to some neighborhoods to promote its message and while it has hosted numerous, private and invitation-only meetings, it remains the case the it has convened only two actual community meetings where broad, unfiltered input could be given.

The community drive for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) has been a particularly hot issue. The Obama Foundation and former President Obama himself have been adamant in their opposition to a CBA, even though such agreements have proven elsewhere to be win-win propositions. The endorsement of a CBA by six mayoral candidates in a recent forum and the recent overview in the Hyde Park Herald demonstrate that the issue is live and gaining support, as does the recent CBA Coalition success in getting the issue on the ballot as a referendum in key precincts.

Problems with mandatory federal reviews

Because the OPC and its related road proposals would have major impacts on the Olmsted-designed historic Jackson Park, federal reviews under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy act of 1969.

The City and two city agencies – the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) – have major roles as day-to-day managers of these federal review processes.   Unfortunately, these agencies along with the Chicago Park District have not always been timely in communications, have not always been fully forth-coming with the information they share, and have not always honored the requirements of the federal review processes themselves.

For example, although the connections between the plans for the OPC and the required replacement of the existing track/field facility on the planned OPC site were clear, the Park District went ahead with the destruction of 40 largely mature and health trees in preparation for that replacement facility, only to be required to stop work until the federal reviews are complete.

As another example, although preliminary discussions between the National Park Service (NPS) and the City on the required replacement “UPAAR” parkland were still underway, the City’s DPD began a series of so-called “community consultations” targeting the east end of the Midway as the replacement land based on a misrepresentation of what had been decided. Fortunately, that effort appears to stopped after several parties called it to NPS attention.

The federal reviews process has been extended repeatedly and the original timelines for the OPC have likewise been repeatedly extended. At this point, the timeline for the next Section 106 meeting, originally scheduled for late spring 2018, is set for “early 2019.” It is unclear when the review process will be complete.

The related POP lawsuit

Much attention has been given to the federal lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks, a not-for-profit organization, charging that for a variety of public trust and public interest reasons construction of the OPC in historic Jackson Park should not be permitted.   (Note: POP does support construction of the OPC on Chicago’s South Side, just not in a public park.)

The lawsuit is ongoing. In the most recent hearing on Nov. 29, the City’s motion to dismiss the suit was pushed back until a hearing on Feb. 14. At the same time, the City’s motion to end the Court’s previously mandated discovery process, allowing POP to subpoena relevant documents, was denied. (Note: it was a POP subpoena that was responsible for the release of the University of Chicago OPC bid package). The judge did allow the filing of several amicus briefs in support of the City. Other amicus briefs might be forthcoming.

★Substantive problems with OPC plans

Demands for discretionary, tax-payer funded road closures/realignments

On June 21, 2017, the Park District hosted an event featuring the new OPC plan and a radical new road plan developed by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to “accommodate new traffic and parking demands of the OPC”. The CDOT road plan, to be implemented at taxpayer expense ($175 million or likely more), would have a major impact on Jackson Park:

  • It would dramatically impact local and commuter traffic patterns, raising major concerns about traffic delays and pedestrian safety.
  • It would chop off strips of existing parkland west of Lake Shore Drive and east of Stony Island Avenue.
  • It would reduce available street parking throughout the park, limiting ready access to central areas and the beach.
  • It would destroy key elements of the Olmsted design for the Park by eliminating Cornell Drive between 59th St and 63rd St., laid out by Olmsted in 1895 as a 40’ wide carriage pathway; it would also destroy the Olmsted design at the juncture of the Midway Plaisance and the Park.
  • It would eliminate the current Perennial Garden at the east end of the Midway Plaisance and replace it with a “Woman’s Garden” whose primary actual purpose would be storm water management.
  • It would convert Hayes Drive, now a moderately busy road with parking along both sides to serve users of local playing fields and the 63rd Street beach, into a high-speed, high-capacity roadway.  It would ban parking on the street and erect a permanent concrete media, thus establishing Hayes as a barrier between the north and south portions of the Park.

Despite these concerns and others, and despite the fact that Obama Foundation officials have acknowledged to JPW that the OPC could and would be built in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive were to be kept open, the Obama Foundation has been adamant in its refusal to reconsider its demands for these road changes. The Obama Foundation demands for road closures/realignments are a major focus of the federal reviews now underway.


There have been major concerns about the displacement of long-term, low and moderate income residents as property values and property taxes increase pursuant to the construction of the OPC. The dramatic gentrification and displacement that accompanied the construction of the “606” elsewhere in Chicago has only fueled this concern. While savvy, persistent organizing by the CBA Coalition is making good headway in forcing attention to this important issue, the Obama Foundation continues to oppose any CBA and the City has promised only to “monitor” the situation.

What about economic development?

The Obama Foundation and former President Obama himself as well as various City politicians have made extravagant claims about the economic development benefits that will accrue to the Chicago’s South Side as a result of the OPC. There are reasons to doubt that any such benefits will develop. Review of the site chosen by President Obama himself, close to the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, shows a dearth of adjacent open land on which restaurants or shops could be constructed. Had President Obama chosen to locate the OPC close to 63rd Street or on the west edge of Washington Park, available adjacent open land within walking distance could well have become prime development sites. As it is, there are concerns that the OPC will have the same de minimus impact on the neighborhood as the Museum of Science Industry: people drive in and park, view exhibits, buy some food and souvenirs, get in their cars, and leave.

Plans for the building and site

Less attention has been given to the Obama Foundation’s plans for the buildings and site, thought by many to be inappropriate for an historic public park. At the personal behest of former President Obama, his Obama Museum building will be 235’ high, the equivalent of 23 stories. The site will be clear-cut, taking out close to 400 trees, the vast majority of which are mature and healthy according to the professional inventory the Obama Foundation itself commissioned. Replacement trees will be provided, but it will take decades for them to provide the same benefits as those that will be destroyed. The Olmsted-designed berms too will be leveled, and in its place there will be a Maggie-Daley-style park; all traces of the current park with its open spaces and natural character will be gone.

★Golf course resurrected?

After languishing for months, the proposal for the merged/expanded PGA style golf course originally promoted by Mayor Emanuel and Park District CEO Mike Kelly with encouragement from former President Obama suddenly appeared on the Park District Board meeting agenda on December 12. It took the form of a proposal, passed without discussion or dissent, to “modify” a much smaller prior contract with Smithgroup JJR to a new total of $3.9 million for further design work on the proposed remake of the existing golf courses.

Follow up discussion with a key Park District Board staff member emphasized that this new contract is for design only and that there is no funding to actually redo the golf courses or related projects. This appears to JPW to be a part of the not-so-lame-duck Mayor Emanuel’s attempt to lock in as many of his plans as possible even as he is about to leave office. Note that Park District CEO Mike Kelly and the Park District Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor and are not accountable to the public.

★Must read: FOTP State of the Parks 2018  

At that same December 12 Park District Board meeting, Friends of the Park’s Executive Director Juanita Irizarry described the highlights of the FOTP’s just-released State of the Parks 2018 report. (Coverage in Crain’s and the Sun-Times) Based largely on data provided by the Park District itself, and echoing complaints of disparate treatment often heard on Chicago’s South Side, the report documents park disparities based on local residents’ income and color in a wide variety of areas, including programming, safety, facilities, budgets, capital projects, and maintenance. If the indignant reactions of Park District CEO Kelly, Board president Jesse Ruiz, and vice-president Avis Lavell are any gauge, the report seems to have hit home. We encourage everyone to read the executive summary if not the full report.

★2019 will be eventful – with your help, we will carry on!

You may want to remember JPW in your-end-of-year giving. Contributions to JPW are tax deductible.

Long-time JPW participants will remember that JPW started back in early 2016 with questions about the Project 120 proposals to build a pavilion and outdoor music venue in Jackson Park near the “music court.” Now – amazingly – we are entering into our fourth year.

Your tax-deductible financial support helps us obtain the professional expertise we need to continue to raise essential questions and help ensure that the public’s interest in historic Jackson Park is protected.   Checks made out to Jackson Park Watch can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

Jackson Park Watch Update – November 20, 2018

Greetings, all.

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving. We give thanks for family, friends, and neighbors and the many things that enrich our lives and bring us pleasure. On this Thanksgiving day we can also give special thanks for all of the natural beauty we enjoy in and around Jackson Park – the Park itself, the Wooded Island, Bobolink Meadow, Jackson Bark, the Nature Sanctuary at the South Shore Cultural Center, the mature trees on the designated Obama Presidential Center site, the Perennial Garden, the playing fields, and all the open natural spaces that we cherish. Please join in.

Jackson Park Watch website expanded and improved

We have just finished a major update of the Jackson Park Watch website. You can find it at (www.jacksonparkwatch.org). Among other things, it now includes:

  • the latest information on the federal reviews and what comes next;
  • details on the Mayor’s Obama Presidential Center Ordinance passed 10/31 and what it does and doesn’t accomplish;
  • answers to the question of what has to happen before construction of the OPC can begin including the latest on the Protect Our Park lawsuit;
  • information about the taxpayer-funded subsidies for OPC.

We want to flag this improved website in the event that you want to review the latest information or want to share it with friends, neighbors, organizations you belong to, or anyone who has been following the OPC saga.  As we all know, this saga is NOT over!

Emanuel’s Legacy: Disregard of public parks

Although now officially a lame duck, Mayor Emanuel is continuing to prioritize private interests over public parks. The City’s actions vis-à-vis the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park continue as current Exhibit Number One. A new example is his administration’s refusal to support community demands for significant new public parkland as a part of the massive Lincoln Yards development proposed for the North Branch of the Chicago River. The Mayor’s disregard for parks has even drawn an editorial rebuke in the Tribune. One hopes the candidates seeking to succeed him will take note.

Also in the news

The Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition continues its spirited and determined push for an agreement that will address concerns about residential displacement and jobs. Its recent protests drew wide coverage including by the Sun-Times and Hyde Park Herald.

At a recent meeting of the 1Woodlawn community organization, reported in the Herald, Dr. Byron T. Brazier, its convener and pastor of the Apostolic Church of God, discussed plans for development in Woodlawn, stating that 1Woodlawn’s efforts will continue whether or not the OPC comes to Jackson Park. Beyond assertions of massive OPC-related economic benefits, neither the Obama Foundation nor its spin-off Emerald South have publicized specific development plans for the area to date.

A recent Letter to the Editor in the Tribune raised the possibility of a compromise to move the Obama Presidential Center forward. As many have observed, if the Obama Foundation had picked a different site (or just limited its design to its original site), construction could be well underway. Is anyone listening?

Another letter to the Tribune noted the irony of public funds being used to support roadwork for the OPC while the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield goes wanting.


We previously reported on the October 31 City Council meeting where the Mayor’s ordinances authorizing land and road changes in Jackson Park for the OPC were adopted. We think you might enjoy the Reader’s coverage of that session, which captures the full flavor of the Council’s Halloween charade: “[T]he mayor announced that it was time to turn the council’s attention to the Obama Center, ‘the only presidential library with a public library inside of it’. Whereupon—like a bolt of lightning on a dark and stormy night—rules were suspended, a roll-call vote was taken, and both OPC ordinances were resoundingly passed, 48 to zero.” Read on.

This saga is not over!

As noted above, although the City Ordinance has now passed, the federal reviews of the proposed OPC and related road changes are far from over. Your tax-deductible financial support helps us obtain the professional expertise we need to continue to raise essential questions and ensure that the public interest is served.   Checks made out to Jackson Park Watch can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch


Greetings, all.

Along with all of the frenetic news about the midterm elections and the tragic violence around the country there has been a confusing blizzard of reports related to the Obama Presidential Center. In this Update, we hope to sort it out for you.


No one was surprised when the compliant City Council passed the Mayor’s proposed OPC Ordinance on October 31 without questioning or dissent. Passage of the City’s enabling Ordinance was reported in the Tribune, Sun-Times and Herald (with additional commentary in the Herald). JPW recently wrote to City Council members to raise questions about outstanding problems – costs to taxpayers, displacement of local residents, loss of public parkland, traffic problems likely to result from road closures and realignments – and to observe that the City Council will be held accountable for whatever problems these unresolved issues create. (JPW’s letter to the City Council is attached.)

What was actually passed? Will construction start anytime soon?

The actual Ordinance passed by the City Council included a long list of more or less factual “WHEREAS” recitals, along with nine substantive sections. The text that was adopted authorizes the City to take the following key steps BUT only after the federal reviews are completed:

  • revise the 2015 site footprint to accommodate the different plan that was unveiled by the Obama Foundation on May 3, 2017;
  • acquire the land from the Park District;
  • approve the closure of streets within the newly reconfigured site (Cornell Drive, the eastbound end of Midway Plaisance);
  • grant the “right of use” to the Obama Foundation so the Foundation can construct the OPC, in other words, turn the land over to the Obama Foundation;
  • accept ownership back from the Foundation of “improvements” to the site once the OPC has been constructed;
  • execute, after the federal reviews are completed, agreements with the Obama Foundation that will give it effective control over the site once again. Drafts of these Transaction Documents (Use Agreement, Master Agreement, Environmental Remediation Agreement, UPARR Grant Agreement Amendments, and Mitigation Agreements) were circulated with the text of the Ordinance, but were not part of the actual Ordinance adopted on Halloween;
  • appropriate “amounts sufficient to pay the obligation of the City pursuant to the Environmental Agreement,” an open-ended, uncapped commitment.

BOTTOM LINE: Construction is NOT about to begin, so what happens now?

As claimed by proponents, passage of the City’s enabling Ordinance does indeed constitute a step forward. But as was also noted, work on the project cannot begin until at least these steps are completed:

  1. Settlement or dismissal of the Protect Our Parks lawsuit. If POP prevails, the OPC would not be able to be built in Jackson Park, but the OPC could be constructed elsewhere on the South Side (or anywhere).

U.S. Federal District Court Judge John Robert Blakey has scheduled a POP lawsuit case-management conference for December 5 and indicated he would then set a date for a trial. While Mayor Emanuel publicly dismissed the POP suit as “frivolous,” the City and Obama Foundation have been taking the suit very seriously. In response to the suit, the City has restructured the land swap transactions between the Park District, City, and Obama Foundation to ensure that the City will be the technical owner of the OPC site after the OPC is constructed even though the Obama Foundation will maintain and secure the site, manage programming, rentals, and permitting, and otherwise control what occurs in the area. The Foundation has firmed up its relationship with the National Archives and Research Administration (the custodian of the Obama presidential records). The Park District ceased work on the new track/field facility pending conclusion of the federal review. In response to a POP subpoena, the Obama Foundation released the University of Chicago bid package. Because of these actions and with the passage of the new Ordinance, some expect the City to ask Judge Blakey to dismiss the POP suit prior to the next court date. That is a distinct possibility, but it is unclear what the City’s motion will look like and, in any case, POP will have the opportunity to address and respond to such a motion.

  1. Completion of the federal reviews. We are currently experiencing a lengthy pause in the federal review process. The next “Section 106” meeting, already pushed back numerous times, will focus on potential adverse effects of the OPC design on the historic site in Jackson Park. No date has yet been set although the meeting may occur in November or December. The National Park Service (NPS) has taken over as the lead agency for the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review; while we believe discussions between the City, Obama Foundation, Park District, and federal agencies are occurring, there is no definite information on the NEPA process and no information on the scheduling of the required public meeting. We do know that, contrary to some City representations, the NPS has not signed off on the City’s desire to use the east end of the Midway between the Metra tracks and Stony Island Avenue as the UPARR replacement land. We also know that NPS considers new parkland to be a suitable UPARR replacement option provided that it is in reasonable proximity to Jackson Park.
  2. Settlement of other potential lawsuits. We are aware that complex, contentious federal reviews with the kind of great public significance that attaches to this project can sometime lead to lawsuits alleging that the reviews themselves were incomplete or improperly conducted. Since these reviews are not complete, it is unclear whether any such suits might be in the works.

SPECIAL FOCUS: costs to taxpayers

One of the issues JPW has focused on is the costs of the OPC project to Chicago taxpayers. News about the major new costs coming down the pike for Chicago taxpayers underscores the recklessness of the Mayor and City Council committing to millions of dollars for OPC-related spending at this point. Consider these two big ticket items:

Spending for discretionary road changes. The $172 (plus) million in spending for the road changes the Obama Foundation has demanded in Jackson Park is unnecessary: Obama Foundation officials told us in an April 5. While the City succeeded in getting a state appropriation of $172 million for the Jackson Park work, and while this is at least in part federal funding funneled through the state, Chicago taxpayers have contributed to all of this. This potential federal funding is not tied explicitly to the OPC and could be used more productively for much-needed road work elsewhere in the City and state.

Blank check for uncapped obligations for unknown environmental remediation at the OPC site. The Ordinance passed yesterday included this in Section 6: “….with respect to the Environmental Agreement, the City shall appropriate amounts sufficient to pay the obligations of the City pursuant to the Environmental Agreement, and the City hereby covenants to take timely action as required by law to carry out the appropriation provisions of this sentence.” In making this commitment, the City Council has signed a blank check. The draft Environmental Remediation and Indemnity Agreement [Sections 4 and 8], ready to be finalized after the federal reviews are complete, provides that the City will cover a wide range of “incremental costs” due to the pre-existing environmental condition of OPC site in Jackson Park, known to have a high water table and potentially contaminated soil.


Great expectations

Amidst all of this uproar, we want to share a cautionary letter that appeared in the Tribune.

“Empty Promises” comments astutely on the deceptive promises of economic benefits for the community near the planned OPC. Those who have read the University of Chicago bid package will have noted that the University itself believed that the Washington Park site would have superior economic development benefits for the community.

CBA Coalition launched referendum campaign

From a recent Hyde Park Herald, we share this:

“….On Oct. 23, the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition officially launched its referendum campaign on its proposed ordinance covering the relationship between Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and other University of Chicago-related development south of the Midway Plaisance.

The alliance of community organizations is gathering signatures from voters in four precincts near the OPC: one in the Fifth Ward and three in the 20th Ward….

The coalition set a Nov. 10 deadline to file petitions, and it must collect signatures from eight percent of the total ballots cast in the November midterm election for the proposed ordinance to be included on the February municipal ballot. The last day to file petitions in Chicago is Nov. 26.”


Although the City Ordinance has now passed, this process is far from over. Your financial support helps us obtain the professional expertise we need.   Checks made out to Jackson Park Watch can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch


Greetings, all.  

Once again, there is news, this time the release of the previously secret University of Chicago’s bid for the Obama Presidential Library (sic). As reported first in the Sun-Times, the Obama Foundation’s release of this document was prompted by the Protect Our Parks lawsuit, which had subpoenaed the bid package. The bid document can be found as an attachment to the Obama Foundation press release (scroll to the bottom).

The release prompts us to say once again that JPW welcomes the OPC to Chicago’s South Side as a vital historic tribute to the nation’s first African-American President.   We do wish, however, that the University had recommended and the former President chosen a less controversial plan; in that event, construction of the OPC would already be well under way.

What do we know now that we didn’t know prior to the release of the bid?

  • From the beginning the University bid included a new master plan for all of Jackson Park, reaching much beyond what would have been needed for the Obama Presidential Library itself.
  • The University was a key driver of the initial proposals. However, its plans were developed in close collaboration with the City and the Chicago Park District, both of which agreed to the transfer of public parkland for this project well before there was any public discussion or authorization by either the City Council or the Park District board.
  • The plan was to include an actual Presidential Library, now replaced by a Chicago Public Library branch, and an academic component, since removed.
  • The University was also behind the proposal to expand and merge the existing Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses, which was included as part of the plan from the start, denials by the Mayor, the Park District and the Obama Foundation notwithstanding.
  • The University proposal asserted that the new master plan would help “spur the development of the 63rd Street corridor.” With the proposed location of the OPC at 60th and Stony Island, any emphasis on developing 63rd Street has disappeared.
  • The Sam Schwartz traffic study commissioned by the University for its bid plan proposed to block off Cornell Drive at 60th Street in order to dedicate a narrowed version of the roadway for vehicular access to the Obama Library. But the study did not propose the closure of eastbound Midway Plaisance, nor require the sacrifice of parkland to widen Stony Island Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, nor propose to turn Hayes Drive into a new east-west highway.
  • Apparently unaware of the requirements for federal reviews of the proposed changes to Jackson Park or of the level of community concern that would greet the plans, the University envisioned securing all necessary approvals of the project within 60 days.

What big questions remain unanswered?


While the original University proposal was publicly touted as totally privately funded, the proposal hinted at multiple lines of taxpayer support via the City, County and State. At present, the ultimate costs to the taxpayers, while unclear, are increasing. For example:

  • The road changes the Obama Foundation is demanding would cost at least $175 million, funds that could be used more productively for road work throughout Chicago.
  • The proposed User Agreement between the City and the Obama Foundation includes an uncapped provision that the City would pay for undefined “environmental remediation” work.       Since the site has a very high water table and since the OPC plans include both an underground parking garage and a 235’ tall building (think 23 stories), this could be considerable.
  • The City (again, think taxpayers) would pay all of the utility connections required for the OPC.
  • A 2016 amendment to state legislation passed to accommodate the Obama Presidential Library project provides that the Chicago Park District could levy a new 0.15% tax equal to the “full fair cash value” of taxable property in the City. This tax remains on the books.

This increasing cost shift to taxpayers is occurring at the same time that Chicago taxpayers, already burdened by recent fee increases and property tax hikes, face pressure to come up with more money for public pensions and pay hikes for police and firemen, as well as other things needed to maintain life in the city.


The University proposal asserted that “The University is in active discussions with the City and Chicago Park District to establish a park-positive plan for each site that would generate new parkland to more than compensate for park space occupied by the Presidential Center.” The reality today is quite the opposite. At present the City, Park District, and Obama Foundation continue to insist:

  • that the 19.3-acre OPC “campus” would be the same as parkland;
  • that closing Cornell Drive and Midway Plaisance would yield an increase in parkland even though the roadways are already included in the park’s acreage;
  • that only one acre of replacement land will be needed to fulfill the mandate of the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR), and that the one acre should be located on the Midway, itself already parkland, making short shrift of the idea that this would be “replacement.”

All of these assertions are dubious. What is clear, however, is that the OPC site would be operated, maintained, secured and directed by the Obama Foundation, not by the Chicago Park District, and that public accountability would be lacking.


The University proposal included various assurances of significant economic benefits to the Woodlawn area including the statement that “An aggressive residential infill program led by the City can expand housing in the area and bring new residents to the neighborhood. Given the abundant vacant land, economic development in Woodlawn will be unlikely to displace current residents.”

The current reality, however, is that residential displacement is rapidly occurring and that the City’s response, via the Mayor’s proposed amended OPC ordinance, is to “recognize the potential for demographic change and displacement” and to commit to “closely monitoring property values and other indicators of neighborhood change and implementing measures to preserve economic diversity, home ownership and affordability for long-term residents in the communities surrounding the OPC.”

Clearly this falls far short of meaningful action to address these critical issues, while completely ignoring the alternatives put forth by the Obama Community Benefits Coalition to address exactly these same issues.


As noted above, the original University of Chicago bid included a professional traffic study by the well-known firm Sam Schwartz that did not call for eliminating Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets or for eliminating the eastbound segment of the Midway Plaisance between Stony Island and Cornell Drive. Subsequently the decision was made to close Cornell completely between 59th and 63rd streets and to remove that segment of the Midway Plaisance. That decision has profound reverberations, requiring extensive, costly roadwork that would change the shape and character of Jackson Park, greatly diminishing the parking spaces available for park users, and, most importantly, establishing road patterns that offer new problems rather than solutions. JPW commissioned a professional review of that final recommendation that identified many unanswered questions as to how well traffic could flow under the conditions demanded by the Obama Foundation. Those questions need to be thoroughly investigated and the results made public before further action is taken.

The bottom line:

Given the new information from the University of Chicago bid, given the credibility and public trust issues that continue to be trouble many observers, and given the City’s pressing financial situation, Jackson Park Watch believes that the City Council should defer a vote on the Mayor’s proposed OPC ordinance until:

  • All of the costs to the public involved are clear and have been made public. If the City Council wishes to impose those costs on the taxpayers, that should be clear.
  • The National Park Service has made its final decisions on parkland conversion and parkland replacement and those decisions have been made public. If the amount of parkland in Jackson Park is going to be reduced without complementary new parkland nearby, the City Council should knowingly vote for that result.
  • “Monitoring” residential displacement as it occurs – while acknowledging that it has “the potential” to occur – is offensive tokenism. If the City Council proceeds to endorse this proposed ordinance, it should be clear that it is endorsing likely residential displacement as a part of the package.
  • A more complete analysis of the predictable results of the road closures and realignments that the Obama Foundation now requires should be conducted and the results should be made public. If the City Council wants to adopt a plan that is likely to cause increased traffic congestion in the Jackson Park neighborhood and beyond, that should too be made clear.

Out-going Mayor Rahm Emanuel is asking the City Council to embrace an important monument to former President Obama. The monument is vital and does indeed belong on Chicago’s South Side. Unfortunately, the project as now defined has some major flaws. If the City Council rubber-stamps the Mayor’s proposed OPC ordinance, the City Council will own those significant problems. JPW is writing the members of the City Council urging them to defer action until all of the these vital issues have been acknowledged and addressed and the answers are available not only to the City Council but to the public at large. We encourage others to do so as well.

Our work continues:

This process is far from over. Your financial support helps us obtain the professional expertise we need.   Checks made out to Jackson Park Watch can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch


Greetings, all.   

OPC ordinance encounters little examination

The substitute  ordinance to authorize the establishment of the OPC in Jackson Park – introduced to the City Council by Mayor Emanuel on September 20 – was reviewed by the Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate on October 11 and approved for consideration by the full Council on October 31.  JPW was unable to attend, but there is coverage in the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Herald.  Thanks to Aldermen Raymond Lopez and Deborah Mell for raising questions about displacement – aka gentrification – driving out long-time neighborhood residents and for questioning the fact that the OPC would not be a presidential library as initially advertised.  But many other important issues were not addressed at all.

In an earlier letter to the Herald, JPW highlighted three key issues that deserve careful scrutiny before there is a final vote on the ordinance:  the lack of community input into the redefinition of the OPC site; the lack of clarity about public control of and access to the OPC campus once it is built; and the lack of transparency about the full cost of the project for Chicago’s taxpayers.  Aldermen should be pushed to conduct a full review rather than provide the usual rubber stamp to the Mayor’s proposal.

City pushing its UPARR replacement land plan with SLFP-like process

Update readers will remember that the South Lakefront Framework Plan planning process did not allow discussion on the most important elements of the Plan: locating the OPC in Jackson Park, making all of the road changes the Obama Foundation plan demanded, and creating a merged/expanded professional-level golf course.  Public discussion and public input on those key elements were always off limits.

Now it appears that the City has launched the same kind of faux planning process in order to advance its choice for the replacement parkland required under the terms of the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR) .  Because the City received UPARR funding for improvements in Jackson Park, the National Park Service must review any proposal to convert parkland from recreational to non-recreational uses, as in the case of the OPC.  To replace the parkland lost to the OPC, the City proposes to use the plot at the east end of the Midway (where the Obama Foundation once planned to build an above-ground parking garage).

In a recent meeting with the Midway Park Advisory Council (MPAC), the City promoted the idea of locating the one acre of UPARR replacement land that the City argues is sufficient on the east end of the Midway and offered four design alternatives for the space.  The City argued that this was the sole appropriate place, strongly implying that the National Park Service (NPS) has all but agreed to the City’s plan.  It has been learned that the City has held at least two other such meetings – one with JPAC –  with the same scenario and that it plans more, all under the guise of gathering information.  Design options are offered for discussion but the City’s preferred location, the one on the east end of the Midway, is the only space ”offered.”

Based on direct conversation with National Park Service staff at the September 17 meeting as well as on other information, JPW strongly doubts that NPS has come to any such conclusions about the amount of UPARR replacement land that will be required or about where it should be located.   MPAC similarly has questions as to the nature of this planning process, and whether all relevant information is being fully shared.  MPAC is going to write to NPS to ask for clarification.  JPW is similarly investigating and will share what we find.

Obama Foundation financials draw attention

The Obama Foundation’s recently released IRS 990 filing for 2017 drew attention in several ways.  The Sun-Times reported that very significant amounts of money were raised; that the names of major donors will now kept secret; and that Foundation officials were making very hefty salaries.    These trends raised eyebrows in some quarters, including in a commentary by the Nonprofit Quarterly.

Concerns about the OPC’s impact show up in more places

Some Update readers may have seen the recent production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at the Court Theatre.  A review of the play likened the proposed gentrification project that is a key part of the “Radio Golf” storyline to the plans for the Obama Presidential Center, saying “Is Wilks’ Grand Hill District development any different than the Obama Presidential Library (sic)?  I don’t think so….”

A long slog

We thank the many people who have contributed to JPW to date!   The federal reviews of the proposed siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park and the related road changes are on-going and the legal expertise your donations made possible have been essential to our effective participation.  This is – and will continue to be – a long slog.  Donation checks should be sent to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch




Jackson Park Watch Update – September 22, 2018

Greetings, all,

The flurry of Jackson Park activity has continued this week.  Here is the latest:

Protect Our Parks lawsuit discovery begins, City’s “no connection” claim dismissed

On Thursday, 9/20, as reported in the Sun-Times and the Herald, there was another hearing in the lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks to prevent the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.  The hearing addressed POP’s recent motion to halt work on the new track in Jackson Park on the grounds that it violated the judge’s stay on construction relating to the Obama Presidential Center until the lawsuit was settled.  (POP’s motion had been filed prior to Monday’s announcement by the Park District that work on the track would be stopped until the federal reviews of the proposed OPC and related changes to the park were complete.)

POP documented the intertwining of the OPC and the track project, citing the language of the “donation agreement” signed in February by which the Obama Foundation agreed to pay for the track relocation because “the site selected for the OPC would necessitate the relocation of an existing multi-use artificial turf field with a running track.”   POP also noted the text of the Chicago Plan Commission resolution of May 17 approving the application for the track project, which included the condition “THAT the final application is subject to continuing review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act….”

In response the City and Park District continued to assert that the OPC and the track construction were “separate” projects even as they acknowledged that the track project was now on hold.  They tried to focus only on the OPC, emphasized that a new ordinance authorizing the OPC was being introduced in the City Council even as the court hearing was in progress, and asked that further action on the POP lawsuit be delayed until that ordinance has been voted on by the City Council at its Oct. 31 meeting.  They emphasized that the new ordinance would create a “user agreement” rather than a “lease agreement.”

The judge expressed disappointment with the City’s arguments and declined to delay further consideration of the POP lawsuit beyond the October 24 hearing date already set.  He also gave POP full authority to commence the discovery process to secure documents relating to the development of plans for the OPC from the City and Park District

Read the fine print

As noted above, Mayor Emanuel introduced an ordinance to City Council on Thursday 9/20 to amend the 2015 Ordinance transferring land from the Park District to the City in order to offer the Obama Foundation space in Jackson Park for the Obama Center.  The new ordinance redefines the site to be used for the OPC – now annexing portions of Cornell Drive and of the Midway Plaisance eastbound drive (both roads to be closed) and enfolding the Perennial Garden into the OPC campus.

The 120-page document requires a lot of study.  We are investigating it with particular attention to the issues of public control of the site and costs to taxpayers when all is said and done.  Look for more information as our review progresses.

Attached to the ordinance are three agreements between the City and the Obama Foundation that are of particular interest.  They would be enacted after the ordinance is approved:

  • Exhibit D:  Use Agreement detailing the restrictions governing the Obama Foundation’s use of the space in Jackson Park.  Details are such as term limit and “consideration” (99 years for $10), admission fees, naming rights, maintenance, insurance, construction commitments, public access, etc.
  • Exhibit E:  Master Agreement detailing City ownership, land title, financing, Foundation endowment, etc.
  • Exhibit F:  Environmental Remediation and Indemnity Agreement detailing responsibility and liability for any environmental hazards on the site.  The City is to pay up to $75,000 for environmental testing.  The City would be liable for the costs of any remediation work.  Since the site has a very high water table, this could be substantial.
  • Also attached are Exhibits G, H-1and H-2, which describe the transportation improvements to be implemented by the Chicago Department of Transportation on behalf of the OPC.  It is notable that the Exhibits include no information about the cost or sources of funding for the road work (estimated to be some $175 million – or more – all to be paid by taxpayers).  Also notable is that the documents relate only to road work, with no reference to public transit improvements.

We encourage interested people to explore the materials first hand. You can find the proposed ordinance via the Legislation database of the Office of the City Clerk:   Open the attachment – O2018-7136.pdf – that is highlighted in blue at the bottom of the form.

The ordinance has been referred to the Committee on Housing and Real Estate, and is expected to be brought up for approval at the City Council meeting on October 31.

NPS solicits community views on recreation, parkland replacement

In the last Update, we encouraged people to write Morgan Elmer of the NPS, now leading the NEPA review of the proposed OPC and related road changes. At the September 17 public information meeting about the NEPA review, Elmer and other NPS staff who were present said that they are very interested in hearing from community members.  We know that she has acknowledged, with thanks, comments that some have already submitted.

We’ve since been asked for some ideas for such letters.  Based on our conversations with NPS staff on 9/17, here are some thoughts:

*  One topic of interest to NPS is how community members currently use Jackson Park, whether for active recreation (soccer, running, biking) or passive recreation (birding, walking, fishing) — and how they would like to use it in the future.

*  Another is community views on whether the east end of the Midway should be used as the replacement site for the baseball diamonds demolished when the Park District jump-started its new track/field project, now on hold  – or not.   (Note that the existing track field is still in good shape and is used daily).  Contrary to City reports, the NPS has not yet made any final determination.

* Another is the question of whether community members believe that the OPC site would be the equivalent of a public park as the City and Obama Foundation assert, and thus that virtually no parkland replacement should be required, or whether replacement parkland for some portion or most of that site should be required.

We repeat our suggestion that letters be sent to both Morgan Elmer (morgan_elmer@nps.gov  and Abby Monroe (abby.monroe@cityofchicago.org).  Sending them to both ensures that they will be entered into the public record.

Your support still needed!

As this information makes clear, consideration of the proposed changes to Jackson Park is entering a critical phase at both the city and federal levels.  Your financial support helps ensure we have the expertise we need.  Please send a donation via check to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

Jackson Park Watch Update – September 19, 2018

Greetings, all,

There has been a tidal wave of Jackson Park activity this week. Here’s a summary starting with the most recent announcement.

For lease: 19.3 acres of prime parkland for 9.9 cents per year for 99 years

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the City has offered the Obama Foundation a very sweet deal in the lease agreement that has been a long time in coming. As discussed in the Sun-Times and Crain’s, the proposed lease agreement does require the Obama Foundation to live up to some very basic standards including delaying any development until the completion of the federal review process, but it also proposes to give the Foundation control over this invaluable piece of historic public park on terms that amount to a quasi-privatization. It also underscores prior City and Obama Foundation assertions that virtually no replacement parkland would be needed even though the OPC site would take over 19.3 acres of Jackson Park now used for a wide variety of recreational activities that might potentially require a UPARR conversion approval.

Also in the works at the same time is a proposed ordinance that would redefine the portion of Jackson Park to be given to the Obama Foundation. This altered site would conform to the Obama Foundation’s plans as revealed in 2017 to move the site north and east, taking over Cornell Drive and the Perennial Garden and eliminating the eastbound segment of the Midway Plaisance Drive between Stony Island and Cornell Drive.

The revised ordinance and proposed lease ordinance will apparently be introduced to the City Council this Thursday, though they do not yet appear on the agenda as of mid-day Wednesday.

Protect Our Parks lawsuit attracts Obama Foundation response

The sudden urgency to introduce new ordinances for City Council approval is perhaps related to the September 20 hearing on the Protect Our Parks (POP) recent motion to require the City to cease work in Jackson Park. (See here for details of the POP motion.) Also timely, representatives of the Obama Foundation just made their first public comments on the POP lawsuit in discussion with the Tribune editorial board on Tuesday.

City and Park District halt work on Jackson Park replacement track

A day earlier, on Monday, Sept. 17, the City released the news that it was ceasing work on the new track/field facility necessitated because the existing track/field would be replaced by the OPC. In the meantime, the existing track/field remains intact and is in daily use. The City has previously denied to the public and in court (in the POP hearing on 8/14) that there was any connection between the OPC project and the new track/field facility. Of particular note are the Sun-Times reports that “[t]he city decision to stop the work came after a Sept. 11 meeting with the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration,” and that, according to the City’s deputy communications direction Shannon Breymaier, construction will not resume until “the federal agencies confirm that resumption of work is appropriate.”

Initial thoughts about the September 17 NEPA review meeting

The public meeting about the NEPA review offered lots of information but no clarity. While we salute the NPS for having this meeting – and for having Morgan Elmer, the NPS lead person on the review, there in person and ready to talk to all who were interested (we saw people lining up to talk with her!) – we are still working to sort it all out.

Our initial thoughts:

* It is very significant that the NPS has determined that the “no-action” baseline for its review of the proposed projects (OPC, road changes) will be the park as it now is. JPW and many others have criticized the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) proposal to use the envisioned completion of all of OPC and road changes as its “baseline” for review.

* Of equal importance, we think, is NPS’s comment that it is very interested in community input on the issues it will be assessing in the NEPA review – recreation, current and future desired uses of the park, traffic, birds, and more. It also was made clear that, despite City representations to the contrary, no NPS decisions have been made about UPARR conversion and parkland replacement issues. Note that NPS’s specific concern with regard to UPARR is the “retention of recreational utility in the area,” with recreation being both active and passive pastimes.

Letter writing encouraged

Because of the NPS interest in community views and because of the new NPS role in the process, we encourage interested people to write Morgan Elmer, the NPS lead on the NEPA review, with questions and concerns about these and other related issues as noted above. In order to be certain that these comments become part of the public records, we recommend that the letters be jointly addressed to Ms. Elmer and Abby Monroe at the City’s Department of Planning and Development, and that the subject line be something like this: public comment re NPS NEPA review of proposed changes in Jackson Park.

Morgan Elmer: morgan_elmer@nps.gov

Abby Monroe: abby.monroe@cityofchicago.org

More information on the NEPA meeting

The City has posted links to the introductory video and the presentation boards from the 9/17 meeting on its federal reviews website (check the timetable box for Sept. 17). We are the first to admit the information is not fully self-evident. We will continue to try to sort it out and to provide more clarity.

Your support still needed!

As this summary again makes clear, the federal review of the proposed changes to Jackson Park is on-going and entering a critical phase.  We continue to be engaged in regulatory and legal consultations, and your financial support helps ensure we have the expertise we need.  Please send a donation check to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

Jackson Park Watch Update – September 14, 2018

Two items:

* Meeting reminder
* New development in Protect Our Parks Lawsuit

Public Information Meeting Reminder!

The National Park Service (NPS) will host a public information meeting regarding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review of the proposed Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and related road changes this coming Monday, September 17.  We urge you to attend the meeting, which will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 South Shore Drive.

This important meeting heralds a new phase in the federal reviews of the OPC and related road change proposals. NPS is now the lead agency for the NEPA review of these proposals.  As was outlined at the kick-off meeting of the federal reviews on Dec. 1, 2017, the NEPA review will assess the environmental effects of these proposed projects including the impacts on noise; traffic; wildlife/habitat; air & water quality; and socioeconomics.  Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration will continue as the lead federal agency for the related reviews required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which is still underway.

JPW has been in contact with Morgan Elmer, who is the NPS lead on this review and will be at the meeting. She explained what will take place at the meeting:

We are going to be available to clarify the NEPA process forward. To supplement the meeting’s primary purpose of describing the newly combined federal NEPA review process, we will be sharing the draft purpose and needs [statement]for the federal agencies.  We will also describe how the NEPA process will rely heavily on associated work on the NHPA Section 106 process.  

At Monday’s informational meeting we are planning on having a film loop to supplement our posters.  We will have staff at the posters to clarify our status.  As you know from my earlier email, we will put the meeting information on the City’s website and a future National Park Service site. This is to ensure those who are not able to attend in person get the same information.  

For those who want to catch up on the review process to date, documents and timelines are available on the website maintained by the City’s Department of Planning and Development.

We hope to see you there!

Important Development in POP Lawsuit

Protect Our Parks has filed a new motion in its on-going lawsuit against the City and Park District documenting the fact that the Park District’s premature track/field work has a direct connection with and was necessitated by plans for the OPC. The Sun-Times has a good piece about the action.  The POP motion points out that the Plan Commission resolution of approval for the track relocation required the Park District to wait until the federal reviews were complete before beginning construction, another important fact that the City and Park District have ignored.

Your support needed!

As the above notes make clear, the federal review of the proposed siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park and the related road changes is on-going.  We continue to be engaged in regulatory and legal consultations, and your financial support helps ensure we have the expertise we need.  Please send a donation check to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch


Jackson Park Watch News Flash – August 31, 2018

Greetings again!

We have just learned that the ongoing federal review process for proposed changes in Jackson Park under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will include a public information meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, at the South Shore Cultural Center (7059 South Shore Drive).   It is our understanding that the meeting will be hosted by the National Park Service, which has just taken over as the lead agency on the NEPA review, and that representatives from multiple local, state and federal agencies will discuss NEPA and answer questions.

The meeting is now announced on the City’s website.


Jackson Park Watch Update – August 31, 2018

Greetings All!

Once again, much is happening. Here are some highlights.

Good golf course news!

We are happy to have some good golf course news to share. Eric Zorn’s recent column in the Tribune shared exciting new ideas about how the Jackson Park course could better serve the neighborhood, the south side, and the city generally without destroying recreational areas and the invaluable Nature Sanctuary adjacent to the South Shore Cultural Center, all at a much lower cost. We look forward to broader discussions about how to improve the existing golf courses in ways that respect the existing natural areas and recreational amenities and that preserve the reasonable fees and tee access that ensure that local golfers can continue to enjoy them.

Important change in the federal reviews

About a month ago, the City notified the consulting parties to the Section 106 review that new documents and information had been added to the website that periodically posts documents related to the federal review of the proposals for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes.

Among the new information shared was the announcement of a change in the federal agency responsible for leading a critical portion of the review. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), initially the agency in charge, will continue to be the lead federal agency for the Section 106 (historic preservation) review.   However, the National Park Service (NPS) will take over as lead agency for the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review, the overarching umbrella review that covers both the historic preservation assessment and the more comprehensive environmental impact assessments to come. The Park Service’s involvement is based on earlier “UPARR” federal funding for recreational facilities in Jackson Park that cannot be changed to non-recreational uses without NPS sign-off.

JPW and other organizations have sought to understand the reason for the switch and its potential implications.   We and others have been critical of the early, City-led efforts to limit the focus of the NEPA review to the state of Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance as it will be after the OPC and the related road changes have been implemented rather to use the parks’ current state as the baseline for measuring impact. We can only think that it would be a good thing for another set of eyes to take a look at the issues that we and others have raised.

We have written the NPS official newly in charge of the NEPA review, attaching letters detailing our NEPA-related concerns and drawing more complete attention to the unresolved issues of proper parkland replacement, not only for now-destroyed baseball diamonds, but for the entire OPC site.

“FAQ” merits a critique

Among the documents newly posted by the City is an FAQ that is meant to respond to some of the many questions JPW and others have raised about the OPC plans. We note that there are many gaps, half-truths and internal contradictions in the City’s assertions.

Some examples:

One key distortion occurs near the end of the document, when it asserts that the proposal for siting the OPC in Jackson Park was fully reviewed and publicly discussed in 2014-15, when the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the City, developed its bid to the Obama Foundation. But the FAQ fails to note that the portion of land in Jackson Park offered to the Obama Foundation in 2015 was not the same plot of land that it now seeks to claim. In 2015 there was no hint in the community or Council meetings that the OPC would demand the closure of Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets as well as the east-bound segment of Midway Plaisance Drive. There was no hint that, because of those undisclosed road closures, the OPC would require some $175 million in public, taxpayer funds for widening Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue, with an attendant loss of parkland. It is unknown whether such possibilities of site creep were raised in the University of Chicago’s proposal to the Obama Foundation, for that bid has continued to be confidential.

Another example is the continuing insistence that the South Lakefront Framework Plan (SLFP) somehow requires that the OPC and its related road changes be put in place whereas in fact the plans for the OPC and the road changes all predate the SLFP and were fully developed before the SLFP community meetings began.

Yet one more: The City states that “We anticipate that the widening of Stony Island will have no effect to the crown of the [historic Olmsted designed] berms” that mark the western edge of the park. In fact, the OPC landscape architects plan to level the site in order to completely rebuild the contours. 

Seen in the neighborhood

Earlier this week former President Obama dropped in on an event scheduled to update supporters about the Obama Foundation’s programs and the status of the OPC, whose construction start date has recently been postponed until 2019.  The event was closed to the media except for President Obama’s brief remarks to thank the group and reaffirm his close ties and commitment to Chicago. As the Sun-Times and other media noted, the construction project faces a revised schedule and structure for federal reviews, a legal challenge by Protect Our Parks, and a continued call for a Community Benefits Agreement.

We need your support!

As is clear from former President Obama’s visit to cheer some core supporters, the struggle over the location of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park is far from over.  We are engaged in an expanding variety of regulatory and legal consultations, and your financial support is vital to ensure we have the expertise we need.  Please send a donation check to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch