Jackson Park Watch Update – February 27, 2019

Greetings, all.   

Today’s Protect Our Parks federal court hearing – City drags feet again, Judge to “micro-manage” the discovery process as a result

Today was the latest federal court hearing in the David v. Goliath saga of the small non-profit Protect Our Parks’ lawsuit against the City and Park District.  The lawsuit challenges the siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

Today’s hearing focused on issues related to discovery, that is, the kinds and amounts of information that the City and the Obama Foundation will have to turn over to POP as a part of the case.  This is a key issue: back-room decision making and the absence of meaningful community input have been hallmarks of the process of siting the OPC in Jackson Park from the beginning.  This includes the related plans to close and realign roads at taxpayer expense, construct a 235-foot  museum tower, clear-cut the site, and obliterate all traces of the current Olmsted design.  The discovery process in the POP lawsuit is an important chance for the public to get information on just what has occurred.

Judge John R. Blakey began by questioning both POP and the City attorneys about the status of discovery.  It was readily apparent that the City, which has not yet produced any documents beyond those that are already publicly available, was once again dragging its feet.  Saying “We will have discovery,” Judge Blakey ultimately directed the City to produce a variety of documents including those concerning projected costs to the city and state of the proposed OPC plans and road changes; traffic and environmental analyses; and an analysis of the financial benefits to the Obama Foundation of the proposed OPC plans. He directed the City to identify an official  to be deposed by POP concerning those documents, leaving open the possibility of additional depositions later on.

Judge Blakey concluded this section of the hearing by setting April 19 as the close of discovery, a very tight timeline.  He went on to set an equally demanding schedule for the next steps in this case:

  • May 3 as the date for the parties to submit motions for summary judgment, each asking the Judge to rule in its favor
  • May 17 as the date for the responses to these motions;
  • May 24 for the replies to those responses; and
  • May 30 for a hearing on the motions.

As the hearing seemed to be drawing to a close, the City’s outside attorney from the firm Mayer Brown raised a new round of questions as to what documents the City was to produce.  After a brief exchange with the attorney, Judge Blakey announced “I will have to micro-manage your discovery,” and set another hearing for next Thursday, March 7, at 11 a.m. to review progress on discovery.

Other top news:

Also today, Preservation Chicago released its 2019 Chicago 7 Most Endangered List, identifying the most threatened historic buildings and sites in the city.

For the third year in a row, Jackson Park, the South Shore Cultural Center, and the Midway Plaisance were ranked in first place, with plans for the Obama Presidential Center and a PGA-style golf course judged to be the current most significant threat to historic buildings and landscapes in Chicago.  Presentation Chicago specifically noted that parceling off these public lands for private use would have devastating impacts on these historic sites and landscapes and would establish extremely negative precedents.


Thanks to all who have recently offered financial support.  We continue to welcome your donations.  Checks made out to Jackson Park Watch can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.  Donations that need to be funneled through our fiscal sponsor Friends of the Parks can be sent to FOTP, 17 N. State St., Suite 1450, Chicago 60602, with a note indicating they are intended for Jackson Park Watch.

We thank you.

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

Jackson Park Watch – February 25, 2019

Greetings, all.  

Another POP hearing this Wednesday- stay tuned!

This Wednesday, February 27, at 10:30 a.m., Federal Judge John R. Blakey will preside over another hearing in the Protect Our Parks lawsuit against the City and Park District. The suit challenges the siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

Why is this Wednesday’s hearing important? Following Judge Blakey’s ruling last week that POP has standing and is entitled to bring its case to federal court, the next key issue is how much information the City will be forced to reveal to POP in order for POP to make its case. The City has consistently argued against being required to share such internal information, and in fact not long ago argued that the Judge should make his decision based solely on three public documents – the Planned Development Ordinance adopted in May 2018, the OPC Ordinance in October 2018, and the yet-to-signed Use Agreement appended to the OPC Ordinance. While Judge Blakey did not buy the City’s argument, his decision on the contested issue of “discovery” this Wednesday will determine how much information on a host of issues the City will be required to share.

The extremely contentious nature of the “discovery” issue, one that continues to be rooted in the City’s habits of secrecy and opaqueness, has been demonstrated once again. The parties were directed by Judge Blakey to confer and submit a single joint report on what information the City would provide to POP. POP had streamlined its requests for information, but the City remained adamant. As a result, separate reports were submitted to the Judge. The Judge has now rejected them both, directing the parties to submit a single joint report by 5 pm tomorrow.

Wednesday’s hearing will be a case management conference. Judge Blakey will rule on the disputes over discovery, will set a 45-day or longer period for finalizing discovery, and will also set a firm six-week schedule for the final briefings and ruling. A trial may follow.

On other matters

Judge Blakey’s ruling that the POP lawsuit could continue was followed by some incisive commentary on various aspects of the dispute:

City Lab, an on-line affilate of the Atlantic that covers urban issues worldwide, put the OPC project in the context of other land-use battles in New York, Toronto and Washington, all grounded in controversies and concern about public trust and the lack of governmental transparency in how economic development decisions are made.

The New York Times explored the background story and import of “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t.”

The Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin noted that the issue of using lakefront parkland is always problematic and that “‘No Drama Obama’ is in a legal box of his own making.”

The Sun-Times, editorializing on “Rahm’s last big favor for the Obama Presidential Center,” noted that “we have never liked this feeling that the fix is in.”


We appreciate all those who have offered financial support in recent weeks. This kind of work is intensive and expensive since it requires frequent consults with our legal counsel, and thus we continue to welcome (and in fact need) additional financial support. 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 – February 19, 2019

Greetings, all.  

Judge rules against City’s motion for dismissal of POP lawsuit

Today was the long-awaited federal court ruling on the motion to dismiss the Protect Our Parks lawsuit against the City and the Chicago Park District. The POP lawsuit challenges the siting of the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park. POP strongly supports a South Side location for the OPC, but opposes a site in a public park.

Federal Judge John R. Blakey, who is hearing the case, had the options of dismissing the suit for lack of subject matter standing, or granting standing to POP on some or all of the charges and allowing the suit to continue with further discovery (that is, court-supervised gathering of evidence for POP’s use).

Fortunately, Judge Blakey chose to grant standing to the majority of the charges filed by Protect Our Parks, meaning that the lawsuit can continue. He also allowed POP to engage in further discovery. At the case management conference already set for February 27, Judge Blakey will rule on any discovery disputes, set a 45-day period for finalizing discovery, and also set a firm six-week schedule for the final briefings and ruling; a trial may follow.

JPW is pleased with Judge Blakey’s ruling today for two major reasons:

  • The rulings will allow the full range of issues included in this complex and controversial case to be aired, including:
    • alleged denial of due process related to this highly controversial grant of invaluable historic public parkland to a private entity;
    • the issues raised in the lawsuit that allege a failure by the Defendants to comply with a host of statutes;
    • the “bait-and switch” involved in converting the Obama Presidential Library to a Presidential Center, altering the site, and insisting on road closures and realignments;
    • the requirement that taxpayers foot an unspecified part of the bill, not only for roadwork, but also for uncapped costs of environmental remediation work related to OPC construction.
  • Importantly, the rulings send the message that public parkland cannot readily be conveyed to a private entity by Chicago City Council legislative fiat without judicial review and scrutiny.

Judge Blakey denied POP standing on two points. First was POP’s claim related to aesthetic and environmental harm to Jackson Park, which Blakey denied on the grounds that POP did not present any plaintiffs who use the Park and alleged such personal harm. Second, Blakey denied POP’s claim that the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights would be violated if municipal funds were used to support possible political activities with which they might disagree, ruling that this claim was “unripe” – i.e., premature – but might be resurrected at a later date.

For more information, you can read Judge Blakey’s ruling and early media coverage in the Tribune .

Looking ahead to other fronts

At some point, the federal Section 106/NEPA reviews of the OPC/road plans will resume. We continue to believe that the current plans negatively affect Jackson Park and the surrounding communities. We look to those federal reviews as another venue to address the adverse impacts of those plans on the historic fabric of the park and on the social, economic, and ecological condition of the park and its surrounding communities, and we will continue to participate actively in the federal reviews to develop solutions to those problems.

We also note that the upcoming City elections will provide an opportunity for a new Mayor and new City Council to revisit the key problematic features embedded in the OPC ordinance proposed by Mayor Emanuel and rubber-stamped by the current City Council.


Yes, we are in need of funds! If you would like to support JPW’s efforts, checks made out to Jackson Park Watch can be sent to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. Checks that need to be funneled through our fiscal sponsor Friends of the Parks can be sent to FOTP, 17 N. State St., suite 1450, Chicago 60602, with a note indicating they are intended for Jackson Park Watch.

We thank you.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – February 15, 2019

Greetings, all.    

POP hearing intense, outcomes as yet unclear

The long-awaited hearing on the Protect Our Parks lawsuit against the City and Park District, challenging the siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, took place Thursday morning, February 14, at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.  The courtroom was full, media representatives were in attendance, and Judge John Robert Blakey devoted a full hour to the case, focused first on the issue of “standing” (that is, do the issues POP has alleged belong in federal court) and second on the issue of “discovery” (that is, what documents does the City have to provide to POP to allow it to build evidence).

On standing

The City brought in outside counsel to argue vigorously that Protect Our Parks should be denied standing on a wide variety of counts and that the case should therefore be dismissed. In response POP reiterated why its charges merit federal review.  Judge Blakely then announced that he will issue a ruling on the issue of standing by Tuesday, February 19.  At that time he could deny standing and dismiss the case; he could grant standing and allow the case to proceed; or he could deny standing on some of the counts but let others stand, thus also allowing the case to proceed. Given the importance of many of the issues central to the case, we are cautiously optimistic that the judge will grant standing on at least some of the counts.

On discovery

As has been true with virtually all things related to the Obama Presidential Center from the beginning, the City is trying to cloak its actions in secrecy.  POP has asked for numerous documents and the City has produced only a very few.  At yesterday’s hearing, Judge Blakey asked POP to list the information it seeks, and asked the City to respond on each request.  In almost every instance, the City’s response was that the information requested is “categorically irrelevant” and “outside of the corners” of the case.  The City’s position is that the only documents that are relevant for deciding the suit are the Planned Development Ordinance, the OPC Ordinance of October 31 drafted by the Mayor and rubber-stamped by the City Council, and the Use Agreement appended to the OPC Ordinance.

(Importantly, the OPC Ordinance noted above consists largely of 93 “Whereas” clauses to justify approval of siting the OPC in Jackson Park. These statements are a mix of fact, fiction, falsehood, and undocumented promotional claims, yet the City’s position is that, because the ordinance was approved by the City Council, these are legislative findings of fact and must be given unfettered judicial deference.)

After this call and non-response, Judge Blakey ordered the parties to confer and try to come to agreement on which of POP’s requests for discovery would be honored, and to report the outcome to him by February 22.  He then set a hearing for February 27, at which point he will rule on the remaining disagreements, set a schedule for final discovery, and move the process forward.

Reports on the hearing have appeared in the Tribune, Hyde Park Herald, Sun-Times, and nationally via Associated Press.

On other matters

Golf Project Status Check

When the plan to merge and expand the South Shore and Jackson Park golf courses into a single PGA-level course was announced by Mayor Emanuel and Park District Superintendent Kelly in December 2016, they projected that construction on the project would begin in 2017.  That didn’t happen, so what is the schedule now?

Craig Bowen, a representative of  the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, the quasi-private entity created by the Park District to make the golf course project a reality, announced at the February  meeting of the Jackson Park Advisory Council that all is well, ground will be broken this spring at the South Shore segment, local golfers will definitely be protected, and more.  The catch?  When asked for documentation of the plans, Bowen responded only that  “they will be available soon.”

To the contrary, however, Park District staff have since indicated that the only ground to be broken at South Shore this year will be for the a long-awaited new beach house  (perhaps in the summer, after plans have been completed and fully vetted by the community – yes, they are promising community input).  Beyond that, construction on the golf course project cannot proceed until the preparatory engineering and planning work by Smith Group JJR is completed, until the current and additional federal reviews are concluded, and until funds (private and public) are obtained for all aspects of the project.

Meanwhile, the key issues about the golf project – local access, loss of non-golf recreational features, high cost, funding sources – are laid out in a recent article in SwingU.com by Bill Daniels, golf industry expert and avid golfer (in Jackson Park as well as everywhere else).    Daniels notes the many financial, logistical and political obstacles that poke holes in the current CPGA plan, and envisions a more realistic possibility of renewing and improving  the courses in their current footprints for a tenth of the cost.  He promises to address that option in future articles.

The schedule and overall status of the golf project remain in flux.  We will track its course in future Updates.

The Saga of the SSCC     

A central issue of the golf course project is its impact on the role of the South Shore Cultural Center as a community center for arts and recreation.   An informative history of the SSCC can be found in the recent South Side Weekly.  “A Palace for the People” traces the story of what is now named South Shore Beach Park from its first incarnation as an exclusionary country club  through the community activism of the 1970s that saved the building from demolition and transformed it into a mecca for jazz concerts and other arts programming to its current status as a Park District events center in the crosshairs of new development.  Recommended reading.

Promontory Point on National Register

Update readers on Chicago’s South Side may remember the successful effort to “Save the Point” of some years ago.  One year ago, Promontory Point Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Now the Promontory Point Conversancy is planning to put a commemorative National Register plaque in the park.  For more information or to support the effort, go to www.promontorypoint.org.


Having tallied up the tab for the intense work of the last two months, we need your support.  With the help of our legal counsel, we submitted the amicus curiae brief co-authored with Preservation Chicago, and we provided considerable technical assistance to the POP lawsuit. Please give generously. If you have questions, please feel free to direct them to JPW co-president and treasurer Margaret Schmid at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.

We thank you.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – January 30, 2019

Greetings, all.   

Despite all the distractions offered by cold weather and local and national politics, the myriad questions surrounding the controversial plans for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, along with all the related discretionary, tax-payer-funded roadwork, continue to be out there and in need of attention.

The federal review process appears to be on deep hold.  Nothing has happened since the September 17, 2018 meeting hosted by the National Park Service.  No more meetings are scheduled until “early 2019.”

The Protect Our Parks federal lawsuit, meanwhile, is alive and well.  The defendants, the City and the Chicago Park District, are doing everything possible to get the suit dismissed at the next hearing, February 14.  We continue to believe that the lawsuit raises key issues about the propriety of using historic public parkland for what is, in the end, a private venture, and hope that the POP charges will be given a full review.  To that end, we partnered with Preservation Chicago to submit a friend of the court brief to make two points:  first, that the argument put forth by the City and Park District (and Obama Foundation) that there is a Chicago tradition of building museums in public parks is factually inaccurate; second, that the status of the eleven museums now situated in Chicago parks is not threatened by the POP challenge to the OPC.

You can review the contents of the Preservation Chicago/JPW brief plus two other important briefs supporting the POP suit in this good summary by The Cultural Landscape Foundation.  The full texts of the briefs are accessible via the JPW website.

You may also enjoy the coverage of the lawsuit in the recent issue of the Chicago Reader.


Even if the lawsuit were to be dismissed on February 14, the federal review process is far from over and key issues remain to be resolved.  We are in need of funds to continue our work. 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 – January 16, 2019

Greetings, all,   

You haven’t heard from us for a time but, beyond taking a break for the holidays, we have been very busy.  The result?  A “friends of the court” amicus brief filed yesterday jointly with Preservation Chicago in relationship to the Protect Our Parks lawsuit.  See below for an excerpt from a press release announcing our brief and two others also filed on Tuesday, all arguing against the City and Park District’s motion to dismiss the POP lawsuit. We continue to believe that the lawsuit raises important issues that deserve a complete public hearing.

We gave considerable thought to taking this step.  While raising many questions, we have not actually opposed locating the OPC in Jackson Park.  Rather we have argued that if Cornell Drive and the Midway Plaisance were kept open with the modifications proposed in our traffic study proposal, much less damage would be done to the historic park and the Olmsted design with better traffic outcomes.  (Note that Obama Foundation officials have twice told us they would build the OPC in Jackson Park even if Cornell were kept open.)  The 235’-tall  Obama museum tower could be modified to better fit with Jackson Park; rather than clear-cutting the site, the designers could situate right-sized buildings among the mature trees.  However, the fact that the “myth” of building museums in Chicago parks is not only totally inaccurate but would pave the way for confiscating much more parkland for other uses prompted us to work with Preservation Chicago on this brief so as to set the record straight.  No one benefits from making an important public policy decision on the basis of false information.

You will find the full texts of all of the briefs and updated information about the suit on the JPW  website.  We hope you will read our brief in full; we also recommend Lynn Sweet’s coverage in the Sun-Times.  

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Briefs rebut claims made by Defendants in Motion to Dismiss Protect our Parks lawsuit

Chicago, IL (January 15, 2019) – Three “friends of the court” (amici curiae) briefs were filed today in Federal Court concerning a lawsuit by Protect Our Parks, Inc. (POP) that challenges the legality of using some 19.3 acres of Jackson Park for the site of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) (Case No. 18-cv-3424: Protect Our Parks, Inc. v. Chicago Park District and City of Chicago)

  • The Preservation Chicago and Jackson Park Watch brief rebuts the claim of a “tradition” of building museums in Chicago’s public parks;
  • Professor Richard Epstein, with the University of Chicago and New York University Law Schools, asserts the taking of parkland for the OPC violates the public trust doctrine and merits stricter scrutiny; and
  • The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C. says building the OPC would result in irrevocably harming the nationally significant park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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In the meantime, our funding balance has been much depleted by our recent work, and the end is nowhere in sight.  We are in need of funds to help sustain our work.  If you have questions about making a contribution, let us know at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.  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 – 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