Section 106 ending with a whimper
JPW had no expectations that the July 16 webinar run
by the FHWA and the City as part of the Section 106 review would result in any substantive
change in the trajectory to rubber stamp the proposed plan for the Obama
Presidential Center, and those low expectations were fully realized.
Memorandum of Agreement presented to consulting parties at the webinar
does absolutely nothing to address the well-documented adverse effects on
Jackson Park of the current plan for the OPC and the road changes it requires.
It does nothing to preserve a central portion of Jackson Park as it has stood
for over a century, defined by its Olmstedian vision of open spaces and natural
areas. The Women’s Garden would be dismembered, and the distinctive Olmsted
circulation pattern would be eradicated. There would be no provision for new
parkland to replace the 19.3 acres that would be lost despite how much COVID
has heightened our awareness of the importance of outdoor space and public
parkland. Instead this improperly manipulated review has skipped over mandatory
consideration of measures to avoid or minimize these adverse impacts, and
recommends only meaningless “mitigation” steps that are in fact a slap in the
face of those who treasure the Park as it is. The
Cultural Landscape Foundation characterized the MOA terms as a swap of invaluable,
historic parkland for “signage” –
abandoning the real for the virtual — and highlighted, with disappointment, the
unexplained decision by the Illinois
State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) to endorse the draft MOA, in a complete
reversal of its previous assessment.
Comments on the draft MOA may be submitted until
August 10. Some additional, as yet
undefined review of a final MOA will follow, but our expectations are again
As previously stated, JPW will not be a signatory to
the MOA as it now stands. Beyond
recognizing the gross inadequacies of the draft MOA, we have also come to recognize
that the whole context for evaluation of the proposed OPC has now changed.
Time to rethink the plan for the OPC
Along with issues of transparency, survey ethics,
openness to public input and badly flawed review procedures, the Section 106
process has failed because it is being conducted as if the social, cultural,
and economic landscapes that existed when the OPC was first proposed six years
ago are still intact. Chicago, along with the rest of the U.S., has been
radically changed by the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the
sudden onset of a severe economic recession. We don’t know what the future will
look like, but we can be sure that it won’t look like it did in 2014. With that
in mind, we strongly recommend that there be a fundamental rethinking
of the entire OPC project in order to assure its full success.
we urgently hope that we will conquer the coronavirus sooner rather
than later, we don’t know how the practices that we’ve all taken for granted
will carry over into the future. In particular, will large-scale tourism
and packed public venues such as museums be common again? Remember, the large
economic benefits that are attributed to the OPC depend upon the very
optimistic attendance estimates prepared by the Obama Foundation’s consultants.
The pandemic experience casts doubt that there would be 625,000-760,000
visitors annually (a projection that was already more than twice the attendance
recorded at any other presidential library or museum over the past forty
years). If more people explore the OPC digitally rather than
in-person, the economic benefits are, by definition, reduced accordingly.
Most critically, the pandemic has exposed the crucial
need for health and social services in Black communities around Chicago, and at
the same time has delivered a body blow to the finances of both the City and
its residents. At a time when the City’s
budget resources are stretched very thin and will be for the foreseeable
future, should the City spend over $200 million to close Cornell Drive,
reconfigure other roadways, and commit to the greater unquantified costs for
environmental remediation and mitigation measures to accommodate the current
plan for the OPC? In a time of severe
financial strain, when the City projects a $700 million deficit, attention
should be given to identifying the significant expenses that could be minimized
or avoided by rethinking the siting of the OPC.
Reducing the cost of the project by moving it could also accelerate the
date by which the Center can open.
In addition to the new economic realities, the
lockdowns undertaken during the pandemic have made all of us more aware of the
critical value of our public parks as safe and essential spaces to explore
natural settings and promote our individual and civic health. Given that new
awareness, is it wise to sacrifice a core portion of Jackson Park,
when we could have both the park and the OPC if its site were modified or
moved? Mayor Lightfoot has called for new (and very needed) investments in
underserved communities on the South and West
Side. Preserving Jackson Park, by reducing the OPC footprint or
rebuilding it on a non-parkland site will multiply the investment in our South
the immediate and lingering social and economic
impact of the pandemic, the current OPC plan should be reassessed also
in the context of the environmental changes that have now
become so evident. Record high levels in Lake Michigan, with predictions
higher levels to come, call into question the practicality of removing
Drive as a major traffic connector for the South Side and beyond. In
particular, the proposed expansion of Lake
Shore Drive to accommodate the significantly increased traffic resulting
the closure of Cornell Drive would take place directly adjacent to the
lake itself, raising the prospect of regular traffic disruptions as
levels combine with the increased frequency of heavy storms. Climate
change does not seem to have been
part of the assessment when the OPC roadway plans were developed; it
considered now. Similarly, the rising
lake levels and the higher water table that follows in tandem have
questions concerning the wisdom of constructing a massive 235’ museum
an underground parking garage immediately adjacent to the West Lagoon
in Jackson Park, originally
itself a marshy area, or the feasibility of draining the wetland on the
tip of the Midway Plaisance.
Given the convergence of these new challenges –
financial, social, environmental, we believe now is the time for a reevaluation
of the current plan for the Obama Presidential Center, just as other
development plans, private and public, are being reexamined in light of the
current crises. The urgency of these challenges cannot be ignored. The cost to demilitarize the police system,
to strengthen the public schools, and to expand public health programs to
eliminate racial injustices will be staggering, but it must be paid. Similarly, the problem of lakefront erosion
must be addressed without delay and before other investments can be made.
Support for the OPC on the South Side is almost universal and community
expectations are high. But to fully
realize those expectations, the City and the Obama Foundation must remove their
blinkers and rethink the plan for the OPC within the context of this new era.
Given that the Section
106 federal review of the OPC is nearly at an end, and in keeping with her move
to Michigan, Margaret Schmid is stepping
back from her active role in JPW. As she does so, she wants to offer
heartfelt thanks to all who have worked with and contributed to JPW in these
recent years. She of course will continue to follow further developments
with great interest.
To try to fill
Margaret’s big shoes, Ray Lodato and Jack Spicer have joined the JPW board of
directors and will work with Brenda Nelms to monitor the many proposals for
Jackson Park. JPW’s guiding principles
in decision-making about the Park – no backroom deals
community input on major changes to the Park – no top-down decisions
of the Park as a democratic public space – priority
to local uses and local users, with maximum grass, trees, and open space
of one comprehensive plan for the entire Park – forestall its division into unrelated segments
YOU FOR YOUR DONATIONS!
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always, we thank you.
Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch