Jackson Park Watch Update – August 11, 2018

Greetings All!

Once again, so much is happening that it is hard to keep up. Here are some highlights:

OPC construction delay, Park District jumps the gun, Protect Our Parks seeks to block work on track

OPC hoped-for construction start pushed back

On July 27, the Obama Foundation announced that the start of construction of the OPC would be pushed back until 2019 despite its repeated assertions that construction would begin in 2018. Among other things, this delay means that the existing track/field in Jackson Park will be intact throughout the 2018 fall season. Any need to rush to construct its replacement would have seemingly disappeared.

Park District begins work on replacement track/field

At almost the same time as the Obama Foundation announced its schedule change, the Park District began fencing off the site for the replacement track/field (located between the current track and 63rd St.) and on August 6, as reported in the Sun-Times and the Herald, crews began cutting trees, digging up the baseball diamonds, and converting the park space into a construction site.   As previously announced, the Obama Foundation is paying for the track/field replacement. Arrangements to relocate the baseball diamonds, which is required under the federal reviews, have not been made nor is there any agreement on who would pay for that work.

Protect Our Parks (POP) goes back to court

As covered in previous Updates, a non-profit environmental advocacy group Protect Our Parks filed suit in May seeking to block the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park. The specifics of that challenge have been covered by Crain’s and other media outlets, and a recent Tribune report offers additional valuable perspectives and background on the suit’s significance and the motivations behind it. Yet the suit has been on hold for the past month.   The City had argued in June that the POP suit was premature as the necessary City ordinance defining the OPC site was not yet in place; it also had represented that no work would take place in Jackson Park until such an ordinance was adopted, a promise now in question.

Reacting to the Park District’s actions of the past week, POP filed a new motion on August 8 asking the judge to stop the Jackson Park tree-cutting and other preparations for construction and to move forward with the original POP suit. The hearing on the new motion is scheduled for Tuesday, August 14.

There has been other important news as well

On July 26, there was a major rally in support of a Community Benefits Agreement.

On July 27, the City Department of Planning and Development announced further delays and a revised schedule for the Section 106 meetings and other elements of the ongoing federal reviews of the changes proposed for Jackson Park.

On August 3, Crain’s published an excellent editorial entitled “Just why is the Obama Center heading to Jackson Park?” We highly recommend it.

Earlier this month there were reports of Illinois Republican legislators’ objecting to the use of state funds for Obama Center-related roadwork, and just today that issue has been highlighted in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately, only WSJ subscribers will be able to read the entire op-ed, but the on-line headline correctly summarizes the author’s point: taxpayers’ money is being spent for a private political undertaking.

Please support us

Clearly, this is not a done deal. Our work continues and we are working closely with others. We will appreciate your contributions! Please send checks (payable to Jackson Park Watch) to JPW at P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – July 23, 2018

Greetings All!

Protect Our Parks (POP) lawsuit prompts the City to play catch-up

Protect Our Parks filed suit against the City and Park District in mid-May arguing, not against the Obama Presidential Center per se, but again its location in historic, public Jackson Park.

In opposing the POP suit, the City requested a hearing delay for a surprising reason: As reported in Crain’s, the City asserted that “The City Council has yet to introduce, much less enact, an ordinance authorizing the construction and operation of the [Obama Presidential] center….there is a significant gap in the approvals necessary for the project to proceed, and in the details of how the foundation will be authorized to use the site and operate the center.” The City maintained that a delay was therefore necessary for the City to introduce and the City Council to enact the needed ordinance and approvals.

Among the questions that leap to mind is this: How could the Plan Commission have acted or the federal review process been launched without such basic approvals?

The next hearing on the POP lawsuit was recently rescheduled for late August with the expectation that an ordinance would be introduced at the July 25 City Council meeting. However, such legislation does not appear on the agenda for that meeting, and a City spokesperson told Crain’s it would not necessarily be introduced in July, just “in the near future.” We and many others will be most interested in following the City Council action.

North Side/South Side Parallels

The coverage in recent days of the plans for a massive residential and commercial development on a prime spot along the north branch of the Chicago River has had clear echoes of the Obama Foundation’s unveiling of its plans for Jackson Park a year ago. The hyperbole and lack of details in the public presentations about those ambitious plans have invited skepticism and criticism, as have the efforts to limit public comments by refusing to hold a Q-and-A. Blair Kamin noted in his Tribune report:

“The Obama Foundation, which is charged with building the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, repeatedly used the same tactic at its public meetings. Like Sterling Bay, the foundation said the format was an opportunity for intimate, reasoned discussion instead of a public shouting match.

“But democracy is, by its very nature, messy. Opponents of the Obama center rightly charged that the format denied the community a chance to hear itself.”

Also in the media

TIME has just published a major piece about controversies swirling around the OPC. The Hyde Park Herald published an important letter from JPW outlining its concerns with the federal review process.


JPW’s current focus is the federal review process that has been triggered by the Obama Foundation’s expansive plan. As mentioned in the prior Update, the third Section 106 meeting, long postponed, is now projected to be held in “late summer,” whenever that might be, as is the initial public meeting regarding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). We can only speculate about what is behind these repeated delays. In preparation, JPW is carrying on with research, analysis, collaboration, and careful monitoring.

Please support us

Despite the impression that the City and Obama Foundation are cultivating, this is not a done deal. Our work continues. We will appreciate your contributions! Please send checks (payable to Jackson Park Watch) to JPW at P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – July 13, 2018

Greetings All!

Federal review process problems mount

Now that the Chicago Plan Commission and City Council have, as expected, rubber-stamped the proposals for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes, all attention is shifting to the federal reviews that are now underway. JPW has now had time to assess both the requirements for these reviews and the ways in which the City is conducting them.

Signs are that the City – specifically CDOT and the Department of Planning and Development, that are managing the review process on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration – is continuing the no-holds-barred efforts to get quick approvals for the OPC and road construction plans. For full details, see the newly revised Jackson Park Watch website.

“Consulting parties” being shut out in Section 106 review

Interested groups and organizations were able to ask to be a “consulting party” for the Section 106 review that is intended to identify impacts of the proposed OPC and road changes on historic properties (such as Jackson Park itself) and to devise strategies to lessen adverse effects. Jackson Park Watch is one of the consulting parties along with numerous local, state, and national groups concerned with parks, natural areas and historic preservation. This designation is supposed to entail the ability to raise questions, submit feedback, and otherwise have a seat at the table. But problems abound:

  • Limited communication: To date, the Section 106 process has been characterized by limited communications with consulting parties, lack of response to questions and concerns, incomplete and delayed information, and the like. The City has not communicated with the consulting parties regarding the comments and questions they have submitted to date. The City does not share notifications regarding meetings, schedule changes or the posting of additional documents with the consulting parties.
  • Changing meeting schedules: The schedule of meetings, set by the City, continually changes. Now the third and fourth Section 106 meetings, originally set to continue in May and June, will take place on unspecified dates in July and August.
  • Inadequate time for review of reports: Documents are not released in a timely fashion. Consulting parties are hard-pressed to prepare for comments and critiques.
  • Unreasonably crowded meeting agenda: The proposed schedule for the July meeting includes the presentation of major reports that have not yet been publicly released. Even more problematic is that fact that the City’s proposed July agenda also includes important next steps that should be grounded on careful review of those same reports.

Overall, the City’s management of the Section 106 review — and in particular the consulting parties’ participation in it and the jamming of meeting agendas — amounts to a subversion of the process. A standard Section 106 review for a project of this scale would be expected to take well over 12 months or more. The City is attempting to foreshorten and compress the review into nine months. This extraordinary haste risks undercutting the validity of the review.

City attempting flawed NEPA review using SLFP as a cover

A National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review is designed to assess the environmental impacts of proposed projects such as the construction of the OPC and related road changes on designated types of properties including historic parks such as Jackson Park. A NEPA review typically addresses a wide range of factors including noise, traffic, wildlife/habitat, air & water quality, and socioeconomic impacts. “Meaningful public input” is required, culminating in a formal public hearing.

The NEPA review is currently underway behind closed doors, concurrent with the Section 106 review. At the March 29 Section 106 meeting, it was mentioned in passing that the City, with no public notice, was beginning to issue documents relating to the NEPA review, documents that have proved to be very controversial. (See “NEPA documents” under “Additional Resources” toward bottom of City’s website.) No public meeting relating to NEPA has yet been scheduled.

As with the Section 106 review, the City’s approach to the NEPA review is badly flawed:

  • No public input: The “Purpose and Need” statement that begins a NEPA review should be developed with public input. There has been none.
  • Flawed definition of “Purpose and Need”: The City’s definition of “Purpose and Need” for this NEPA review erroneously asserts that the purpose and need for the NEPA review is to accommodate the traffic problems resulting from the completed project.
  • Flawed definition of baseline condition: The definition of the “No-Action Alternative baseline condition” to be used as the starting point for the review is critical. In this instance, the No-Action Alternative baseline condition should be the current configuration of the park and its roads. However, the City asserts that the No-Action Alternative baseline condition for the review is the condition in which roadways closure and realignments are in place and the OPC has already been constructed in Jackson Park. (JPW notes that a similar attempt to define the baseline condition as the finished project was found illegal in 2015 in a case concerning the Illiana Expressway.)
  • Attempt to use the SLFP as cover: The City is attempting to use the South Lakefront Framework Plan as a cover, falsely asserting that it requires construction of the OPC in Jackson Park along with its related road changes. In reality, the SLFP was an ex post facto exercise that began after the fully developed plans for the OPC and the road projects were announced. The SLFP was premised on the wholesale inclusion of those plans, and no discussion or consideration of alternatives was allowed during the SLFP process.
  • Refusal to consider alternative traffic plan: Since the actual “Purpose and Need” for this NEPA review is to accommodate the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park, the City (and FHWA) is required to examine alternatives to the CDOT-proposed traffic plan that would have fewer adverse impacts on the baseline condition, that is, the current configuration of the Park and its roads. The JPW-commissioned traffic plan (LINK) that has been submitted to the City is such an alternative. The City has yet to acknowledge its existence.
  • Development of flawed “alternatives”: Using its flawed definition of “Purpose and Need,” the City has proceeded to develop a draft “Alternatives to be Carried Forward” document. See “NEPA documents” under “Additional Resources” toward bottom of City’s website.) It concludes that the only acceptable alternative to be “carried forward” for full evaluation is the CDOT plan itself as approved by the Plan Commission on May 17.

Clearly, there are major problems with both the Section 106 and NEPA reviews. JPW has submitted a lengthy letter to DPD, CDOT, and FHWA detailing the myriad ways in which DPD and CDOT – with seeming concurrence by the FHWA – are violating the legal requirements for the conduct of a the proper federal reviews. (Find the letter at the end of the “How is NEPA review progressing?” section on the JPW website.)

What you can do:

This is admittedly a complex situation, but letters to key officials can alert them to the important fact of public scrutiny. For more information, we urge you to go to the newly revised Federal Reviews page on the JPW website for more background information and for specific suggestions about letter writing.

Other issues:

The Protect Our Parks lawsuit continues. The federal judge has set a new hearing date for August 28, responding to the City’s plea for a delay. Interestingly, the defendants (the City and the Park District) argued that this delay is needed to allow the Chicago City Council to pass both a proper ordinance defining the site of the OPC and a long-term lease between the City and the Obama Foundation. Some might see this as an indication that the Plan Commission actions of May 17 lacked a proper foundation.

The issue of using public funds for the OPC-related road changes continues to get traction. Of particular interest was the 6/30 editorial in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette headlined “Another fast one by Chicago pols.”

The Obama CBA Coalition continues to organize. It will hold a “CBA Summit to Stop Displacement” at the South Shore Cultural Center on Thursday, July 26, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The public is invited.

Support JPW

Our work continues. We need to compensate our legal advisers. We will appreciate your modest contributions! Please send checks (payable to Jackson Park Watch) to JPW at P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – June 18, 2018


Federal reviews all important

It’s not over! As we have said repeatedly, no work on the OPC or related road projects can begin until they are approved by the federal reviews now underway. The importance of the reviews was reinforced by language in the Plan Commission resolutions on the OPC, CDOT, and Park District applications heard on May 17, saying that “…the final application is subject to continuing review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historical Preservation Act….” The next Section 106 (historical preservation) meeting is supposed to happen later this month, but no date has been set.

However, sadly, signs are that, in line with the current administration’s approach to (de)regulation, the City has chosen to conduct the Section 106 review in a hurry, cutting corners, with little communication with consulting parties. Further, the City is taking an approach to the NEPA review (National Environmental Policy Act) that appears to be illegal. We are still in research mode on these issues. Look for more information on the federal reviews sometime soon.

800+ trees under threat  

The fate of the trees on the planned site of the OPC and in locations that would be impacted by the CDOT road projects has received far too little attention. Those who are familiar with Jackson Park will know that a great many of the trees in question are mature, large and healthy.

Several reports on trees were recently posted on the City’s web site that includes information on proposals for the OPC and the federal review processes, but they received no coverage during the Plan Commission hearing. One important caveat:  The report for the OPC site is an inventory of existing trees along with suggestions for their future care. What that report does not reveal is that the plan calls for clear-cutting the site; evidence for this can be found in the OPC site models as well as in comments made by the landscape architects at various meetings.

Combining the tree counts from the reports for the OPC site, the CDOT road changes, and the track/field relocation, we conclude that close to 800 mature trees will be sacrificed if the CDOT road plan and the OPC site plan as currently proposed are implemented. Yes, the Obama Foundation will plant new trees on the OPC site, but it would be a generation or more before Jackson Park recovered.

Full parkland replacement essential

In another area of on-going conflict and concern, the Obama Foundation asserts that, despite the fact that it is slated to take over 19.3 acres of public parkland in Jackson Park, only ONE acre will need to be replaced. The rest, it claims – concrete plaza, green rooftops, and all – will be open to the public and thus will be the same as public parkland.

JPW strongly disagrees. Privately controlled space, no matter how green and lovely, can never be a substitute for true public parkland; private control simply is not the same as public control. To illustrate the point, consider the recently enacted restrictions imposed — without public discussion or input — on concerts in Millennium Park (which, contrary to general belief, is not a public park, but is under private control).

Granted, things might be different at the OPC. Perhaps the Obama Foundation would never restrict public access in any way. Perhaps family picnics would continue as in the past. Perhaps when the former President and Mrs. Obama visit, public access would not be impeded. But perhaps not. And, as with Millennium Park, there would be no recourse.

A far better option, in keeping with the apparent original commitments by the City and Obama Foundation, would be to establish 19.3 acres of new parkland, owned and controlled by the Chicago Park District, proximate to Jackson Park in the Woodlawn community.

That lawsuit

We are often asked about the lawsuit filed in mid-May by Protect Our Parks, Inc. Neither JPW nor FOTP has any connection with the suit, although we (JPW) had conversations with some of those involved. The Mayor has labeled the suit frivolous, but we note that the suit raises some very important questions about the proper stewardship of a public good such as Jackson Park and about the hidden processes by which decisions about the Park have been made. A public hearing before the judge is scheduled for August 9. We will keep you posted.

What about golf?

We are also often asked about the proposal to merge/expand the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses. The most important thing to know now is that no formal proposal for the golf course merger/expansion has been submitted to the Plan Commission and that the golf course proposal is not part of the plans undergoing the federal reviews. In other words, the golf course proposal is on the back burner.

It is also interesting to note that the Chicago Golf Parks Alliance has been rather quiet, and that predictions of a pro golf tournament in 2021 have vanished. Instead, the rhetoric has turned to discussion of youth programs and high school golf tournaments. Further, the initial euphoria about miraculous impact on economic development along 71st Street has died down as more realistic assessments have been made.

That said, JPW continues to monitor all activity related to the golf course project.   JPW also continues to support improvements of the existing golf courses to benefit current users, just as JPW supports improvements in the Park overall.


This fight is not over. The Plan Commission approvals of the CDOT road changes, the OPC rezoning and construction, and the replacement track/field facility ALL are contingent upon approval via the federal reviews now underway. We continue to participate actively in these processes, utilizing invaluable legal counsel and subject matter experts, all at a price. Our ability to continue this work is dependent on your financial support. Under the terms of our fiscal sponsorship agreement with Friends of the Parks, donations to JPW are tax-deductible. Checks can be sent to JPW at P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.

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

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Jackson Park Watch Update – May 21, 2018

Greetings all!

The May 17 Chicago Plan Commission hearing on the OPC : the good, the bad, and the ugly

The bottom line: after hours of presentations, the Plan Commission members in attendance voted unanimously to approve all of the OPC-related applications. (For the record, ex officio Plan Commission members Rebekah Scheinfeld and Mike Kelly recused themselves.)

The Sun-Times and the Tribune provided useful and differing summaries.

Of course, JPW was there for the duration. Here are some additional observations from the front line.

  • Staff of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) presented the project to the Plan Commission members with a decidedly positive and selective spin and without addressing or even acknowledging the many concerns that had been raised in advance. Thus, the height of the OPC Museum Tower was compared to commercial/residential buildings in Hyde Park, but not to the low profile set for Jackson Park by the Olmsted design. The CDOT road proposal was presented as necessary for the OPC plan without acknowledging that Obama Foundation officials have recently told JPW that the OPC will be built in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive remains open. As anticipated, the DPD recommended that the Plan Commission approve all applications and resolutions.
  • Alderman Hairston led off a series of statements by City Council members in enthusiastic support of the OPC plan, all focused primarily on the (unsubstantiated) transformational economic impact it would have on the Southside and the City as a whole. Alderman Hairston noted first that “no groups oppose the OPC,” but then went on to dismiss “professional protesters.” The false dichotomy – good/bad, pro/con – colored the whole hearing.
  • Over 75 members of the public, including JPW, spoke their 3 minutes’ worth. Another 50 or more individuals registered to speak but had to leave before their time came. (The testimony phase, including a short break, went from around 12 noon to 4:30.)  The fact that the Plan Commission staff forced a “support”/”oppose” split among the speakers obfuscated the important truth that many of those “supporters” said things like “I support the OPC but. . . ” and then listed questions or concerns.  And of course “opponents” such as JPW listed concerns but also said “we support the OPC.” There is no real opposition to the OPC per se; the devil is in all those details.
  • JPW critiqued CDOT’s expensive, park-destroying and unnecessary road plan, and argued its application should be rejected. Likewise, we critiqued the Obama Foundation’s new “magical math” whereby it asserts that only one acre of new parkland is required to compensate for the transfer of land for the OPC, rather than the full 19.3 acres it will occupy.
  • Among those speaking in strong support of the OPC were directors of three museums — MSI, Chicago History, DuSable – all claiming (as does the Obama Foundation) a long-standing history of museums in Chicago’s parks. The facts are more complicated: for example, the Museum of Science and Industry, a holdover from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, was built before today’s Jackson Park, which dates to 1895; the Field Museum of Natural History was not built in Grant Park, but on land adjacent to it donated by the Illinois Central Railroad; the Chicago Children’s Museum was not long ago forced to abandon a proposed location in Grant Park in the face of major opposition to the public park location. One has to suspect that museum directors around the city are thinking of opportunities to expand their museums into adjacent public parkland.
  • A number of people voiced strong support for the OPC based on the long list of things they anticipate it will do: provide special education for needy young people; provide refuge from gang violence; provide a second home for youth at its library (presumably the Chicago Public Library branch); provide job training; provide opportunities for young black fathers aged 17-24, many of them incarcerated; bring economic development; uplift the entire South Side.  It will be interesting to see how the Obama Foundation addresses these deeply and widely held expectations.
  • As noted, the Plan Commission unsurprisingly approved all of the applications and resolutions.   What we found depressing was not the unanimous vote in favor, but the total lack of discussion of any actual issues during the public hearing or, we understand, even in private before the meeting. Also alarming was the absence of any recognition of parks as public goods in and of themselves; instead parks were treated as spaces to be utilized for economic development. The only glimmer of responsible government was provided by some Aldermen and Plan Commission members who asked about the unspecified infrastructure costs to be borne by Chicago taxpayers and about the negative impact of the OPC development on affordable housing in the surrounding neighborhoods (two key concerns also raised repeatedly by individual speakers). But such issues were deemed not the purview of the Plan Commission and so not addressed.

What’s next:

  • The Obama Foundation zoning application will be presented to and – one expects – approved by the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards on May 22. (The addition to the committee’s agenda was recorded by the City Clerk on Thursday morning even before the final vote by the Plan Commission.)
  • The City Council will then be asked to approve ordinances to codify the new footprint for the OPC, authorize an Institutional Planned Development for the Obama Foundation, and endorse the development of a long-term ground lease agreement between the City and the Obama Foundation. The next City Council meeting is May 23, and it is likely these items will be quickly added to the agenda for that session rather than held for another month. As new taxpayer burdens and affordable housing are definitely the purview of the City Council, one can hope – but sadly not expect – that there will be substantive discussions of those and other issues rather than another rubber-stamp approval.
  • The OPC plan is still subject to the federal reviews, now underway and expected to continue through 2018.
  • Also ongoing is a lawsuit by Protect Our Parks that has charged the City and the Park District with violating their authority in agreeing to transfer public parkland to a private entity.

JPW is assessing its next steps. Stay tuned.


This fight is far from over. Your support is invaluable. Under the terms of our fiscal sponsorship agreement with Friends of the Park, donations to JPW are tax-deductible. Checks can be sent to JPW at P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.

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


Jackson Park Watch SPECIAL ISSUE – May 13, 2018

Greetings, all:

UPDATE: The Current Situation
The push to get Plan Commission approval on May 17 of all of the proposals related to the Obama President Center is now in full gear. Expect a media blitz in the coming week, and – on the day of the meeting – a pep rally and demonstration in and around City Hall orchestrated by the Obama Foundation.

JPW has been preparing for the May 17 hearing:

  • We delivered the JPW-commissioned independent traffic study – CDOT’s Transportation Plan for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park: A Review and Alternative – to Plan Commission members and to Obama Foundation officials and Alderman Leslie Hairston on Thursday, May 10. Along with the traffic study, which includes both a critique of the CDOT plan and an alternative road configuration for Jackson Park, we provided a critical analysis of CDOT’s claim to be in compliance with the Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance. We also submitted a detailed critique of the Obama Foundation applications for approvals for rezoning and Lakefront Protection Ordinance compliance, identifying missing information and other inadequacies in both. The materials are posted on our web site home page at www.jacksonparkwatch.org. Please take a look.
  • We asked the Plan Commission to reject the CDOT application and to delay action on the Obama Foundation applications pending additional information and the resolution of key public policy questions.

Some of the critical issues relating to OPC were spotlighted by Lynn Sweet of the Sun-Times in two recent articles on replacement parkland and the Cornell Drive road closure , which focused on our traffic study. We highly recommend both articles. Crain’s Chicago Business also provided excellent coverage of the JPW traffic study and appended on-line the study and the full JPW statement to the Plan Commission, as did the on-line Hyde Park Herald.


On Thursday, May 17, in a hearing dedicated solely to requests related to the Obama Presidential Center, the Chicago Plan Commission will consider three key applications:

  • The Chicago Department of Transportation application for approval to close Cornell Drive and make other major road changes.
  • Two separate Obama Foundation applications for approval of the construction of the Obama Presidential Center are on the agenda.  One application argues that it satisfies the Lakefront Protection Ordinance; the other asks for rezoning of the site.


  1. BE THERE!

The Plan Commission meeting will start at 10 a.m., Thursday, May 17, in the City Council Chambers in City Hall (121 N. LaSalle Street between Randolph and Washington, 2nd floor).  Doors to the Council Chambers open at 9 a.m. Seats in the Gallery will likely fill up fast. The Obama Foundation is staging a pep rally complete with tee-shirts, music and free breakfast starting at 5 a.m. just outside City Hall. It also plans to fill the lobby outside the Council Chambers to overflowing at 9 a.m., so make your plans accordingly. You may wish to be there early with a prepared statement you can offer up to the many reporters that are sure to be there (see below).


Members of the public and representatives of organizations like JPW, Friends of the Parks, etc. are allowed only three minutes each to state their concerns or approval.  To speak, you will need to sign up with staff at the entrance to the Chambers.

  • See attached a copy of the sign-up form that you will be handed at the entrance.
  • The agenda item number will be available at the meeting.
  • Do not fill in “Organization” unless you are the designated spokesperson for your group; otherwise, leave that blank or put “self.”
  • You will need to indicate if you support or oppose the proposal, but you can add notes such as “Oppose in current form,” or “Oppose — more information needed.”
  • We advise preparing your 3-minute statement ahead of time. Bring extra copies with you on Thursday so that you can submit a copy for the public record .
  • It is unknown whether there will be a single comment period or separate comments for each application.
  • Seek out opportunities to offer your comments to interested reporters both orally and in writing.       Optional: Include your name and phone number on the statement for possible follow-up.
  • The Chicago Plan Commission is run by the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD).   Department staff will present each of the applications and explain why each  should be approved. There will be PowerPoint or video  presentations.  We expect Alderman Hairston to speak in support.  Public comments will follow these presentations.
  • Given the number, complexity and high-profile of the applications under review, the hearing will likely go on for a long time – perhaps until 5 p.m. or later.       Be prepared; be flexible.
  • Submit your comments via email by 12 noon on May 16 to Patrick Murphey, DPD Assistant Commissioner (Patrick.Murphey@cityofchicago.org ). Explain that you cannot attend the May 17 hearing and ask him if he would please distribute them to the Plan Commission members. Also ask him to let you know this is done and thank him very much.
  • Write letters to the editors (see www.jacksonparkwatch.org, “Take Action” page for email addresses) stating your position(s).  Some key issues are:
  • the need to seriously consider the option of NOT closing Cornell Drive;
  • the need for full replacement of lost public parkland;
  • the importance of the Plan Commission giving at most only conditional approval to any of the applications, subject to resolution of the federal review process now  on-going;
  • the need for resolution of key underlying procedural questions about the allocation and control of public land.


We are pleased that the JPW-commissioned traffic study prepared by raSmith, CDOT’s Transportation Plan for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park: A Review and Alternative, was released in advance of the Plan Commission hearing.   Beyond its influence in the immediate discussions, it provides important information that will become part of the on-going federal review. It also has consumed most of our financial resources – and appropriately so, as our generous donors have intended us to spend their funds, not conserve them for some distant purpose. Nonetheless, at this point, additional funds would be welcome. Please send checks to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. We thank you.

Questions?  e-mail JPW at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com .

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – April 16, 2018

Greetings all!

As we keep noting, a lot is happening! Here is a recent rundown:

The South Lakefront Frame Plan update – where does that stand and why does it matter?

  • The SLFP was “accepted” by the Park District Board at its 4/11 meeting.
  • As JPW underscored at the meeting – and CEO Mike Kelly agreed – it is a plan, nothing more. Although Blair Kamin’s 4/15 Tribune article painted a lovely picture of possible new future water features for Jackson Park, it also noted that the SLFP included “no price tags or funding sources” for any of the projects outlined in the plan. Note that none of the projects included in the SLFP update is dependent on any others. For example, constructing the OPC does not mean any other project – not even the proposed road changes – will necessarily move forward.
  • The Board’s acceptance of the SLFP will likely be seized on by those raising funds for the golf course and the OPC, even though the development of the plans for those projects preceded and was unrelated to the SLFP initiative.

That golf course again

A recent piece in the Tribune highlighted the Tiger Woods/President Obama connection in relationship to the golf course expansion/merger plan, old news to those who have been following the story. In fact, the project does not appear to be moving forward at present, and no actual golf course plans have been submitted to the Plan Commission for review. At the 4/11 Park District Board meeting Mike Kelly noted that “a ton of money” still had to be raised for the construction of the course, and also repeated his promise that the golf course won’t be built if the community doesn’t want it.

Obama Presidential Center promotions

The Obama Foundation has recently launched both a virtual postcard campaign and an online letter writing campaign, asking people to express general support for the Obama Presidential Center. JPW does not know of anyone who actually opposes the OPC. Rather, the devil is in the details, with so many questions and concerns related to the OPC and road plans still outstanding.

Important news: OPC to move forward even if Cornell Drive stays open

The Obama Foundation has recently invited numerous groups for one-on-one meetings, and JPW was among those invited. At our 4/5 meeting with VP for Civic Engagement Mike Strautmanis and Director of Planning and Construction Roark Frankel among others, the talk turned to Cornell Drive. Frankel repeated what we had heard long ago from Strautmanis: the OPC will be built in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive stays open.

Replacement parkland controversy likely lies ahead

Another important note from the JPW meeting with the Obama Foundation: The Obama Foundation staff asserted that replacement parkland will be needed only for the acreage directly under the footprints of the OPC buildings, and that the rest of the OPC site will continue to be counted as public parkland. JPW and others find it hard to understand how land under a long-term lease to a private entity (the Obama Foundation) and controlled by it for purposes including construction, maintenance, security, and programming can be considered public parkland. JPW also believes that the governing principle should be that there can be no net loss of actual public parkland. Given the initial commitment by the City, albeit vaguely worded, to replace all of the public parkland used for the OPC, this is likely to shape up as another key point of disagreement.

Finally – we know what date to save – May 17!

The Obama Foundation’s virtual postcard promotion specifies that its applications to the Chicago Plan Commission – one under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and one for rezoning – will be reviewed at the May 17 Plan Commission meeting. The CDOT roads application, also under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, will be heard that day as well. Now we know we can plan for that date. Look for more details in early May about how the Plan Commission works and how you will be able to participate.

Donations always welcome

Thanks to all who have contributed to our work. Our study of the CDOT traffic proposal is moving along well. We have secured the services of a traffic engineer professional who is reviewing the Sam Schwartz traffic study underlying the CDOT proposal, and we anticipate having a report to share prior to May 17. We continue to benefit from expert legal assistance. It is your support that has made all this possible. Please send your checks to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. If you have questions about our request for support, please feel free to contact us at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.

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


Jackson Park Watch Update – April 5, 2018

Greetings all!

Federal review of OPC confused and problematic

As JPW noted in a letter to local newspapers (which appeared in the Sun-Times and Herald), the March 29 Section 106 meeting offered little clarity and raised new issues:

To the Editor:

As eloquently noted by Openland’s CEO Jerry Adelmann at last Thursday’s Section 106 meeting, there are significant problems with the process the City’s Department of Planning and Development and Department of Transportation are following as they conduct the required federal review of the proposals for the Obama Presidential Center and the related road changes it requires.  Two problems stand out:  First, the City departments have omitted the necessary first step of including public participation in developing the statement of “purpose and need” that defines the project for review.  Second, they have instead drafted their own “purpose and need” statement without public input. Rather than taking the current configuration of the park as the starting point for assessing the impact of the proposed changes, their statement disingenuously presumes that all of the OPC construction and road work has been completed and that only the resulting traffic problems need to be addressed.  As with the South Lakefront Framework Plan, there is an ongoing attempt to put the cart before the horse.

Also of note at Thursday’s meeting was the new proposal to take the eastern portion of the Midway — land that the Obama Foundation previously hoped to use for a parking garage — for use as “replacement” land for the baseball diamonds that will be displaced as a result of the OPC siting in the park.  Ironically, this proposal could result in a net loss of park space unless the City fully meets its commitment to give the Park District new open green space equal to that taken for the OPC.   Further, this proposal disregards the fact that there is an existing Midway Plaisance Framework Plan, developed through a proper community process, that envisions other uses for this space. 

We hope that the haste with which the City and Obama Foundation are pursuing their objectives does not result in mistakes that will ultimately slow the entire project down. 

The meeting – inconveniently scheduled to coincide with school and religious holidays – was sparsely attended.  Public input on the specific focus of the meeting (the impact of the OPC and road changes on historic properties and landscapes) was further limited because the draft archeology and historic property inventory reports (some 1000 pages of documents) had been posted for review only ten days before the meeting date and the promised hard copies of the historic properties reports were first available at the meeting itself.  There were many questions and concerns about the timing and sequencing of overall federal review process along with questions about whether the archaeological review was adequate, how and why the “period of significance” was defined, whether the critique of road changes choose arbitrary cutoff dates, and more.

Voice your concerns! 

Despite the complexity of the federal review processes and questions as to whether they are being managed appropriately, public input continues to be crucial.  You can comment on the 3/29 Section 106 meeting itself (a webinar version of the hour-and-a half meeting is available via YouTube – no visual until minute 1:47) and on the details  of the Historic Properties Inventory and the Archaeological Properties Identification reports that were the specific topic of that meeting. The (very lengthy) reports are available online (scroll down to the March 19 entry under “Milestones”).

You can also comment on any other aspect of the federal reviews:  on the idea of having baseball diamonds on the Midway; on how the South Lakefront Framework Plan process “put the cart before the horse” in presuming the construction of the OPC and the golf course and the related roadwork; on continuing concerns about the OPC, the proposed road work, or the golf course proposal.

The comment period on the Section 106 draft reports closes April 19.  There is no deadline for comments about other aspects of the federal review processes.

Send your comments to the City’s Department of Planning and Development general e-mail address, dpd@cityofchicago.org , and be sure to label your e-mail “public input for the OPC federal reviews.”  You may want to cc your comments to:

Mayor Emanuel (rahm.emanuel@cityofchicago.org),

CDOT Commissioner Scheinfeld (Rebekah.Scheinfeld@cityofchicago.org ), or

Park District CEO Kelly (Michael.Kelly@chicagoparkdistrict.com ) .

Chicago Plan Commission hearing on OPC, road changes pushed back further

The agenda for the April 19 Chicago Plan Commission meeting has been published, and none of the Jackson Park-related applications are on the docket – not the CDOT application to execute the road closures and realignments, not the Obama Foundation applications (there are two) to construct the OPC; not even the Park District application to build a replacement track and field facility at the south end of the site originally designated for the Obama Presidential Library. We do not know the specific reasons for the delays, but suspect that the complexities of the processes, the ongoing pushback against many aspects of the proposals, and the sheer amount of detail involved continue to significantly slow the work.

We will continue to track this and to keep you posted.  The next Plan Commission meeting is May 17.  We urge you to note that date on your calendars and to make plans to be there if at all possible.  When the OPC and CDOT plans do finally come to the Plan Commission, it will be very important to have a major demonstration of questions and concerns.

Quote to note

In Crain’s Chicago Business on March 29, renowned preservationist and architect John Vinci was asked: What’s the worst part of being a Chicagoan?

Vinci’s response:  “The indifference of politicians to architectural significance. I’m furious over Jackson Park and the proposed Obama Presidential Center. People are just starting to realize that it’s being violated.”

Donations welcomed – and needed! 

THANKS to all who have recently donated.  Your trust and support motivates us and enables us to persist.  Our road initiative continues and we hope for an initial report soon.  Additionally, we continue to need funds to support the legal assistance that has been critical to our work. Please send your checks to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.  If you have questions about our request for support, please feel free to contact us at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.

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


Jackson Park Watch Update – March 25, 2018

Greetings all!

TAKING STOCK: the story of the Obama Presidential Center, road closures and realignments, and the related golf course merger/expansion project is complicated and ever-changing as it proceeds down multiple pathways simultaneously. Our attempt to cut through the confusion and summarize the current situation is below.

The Obama Presidential Center and the related road changes

The Plan Commission

  • The OPC application for a zoning change and the OPC and CDOT applications under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, long expected to be heard by the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday, April 19, may not be reviewed until May. We will keep you posted.
  • When the meeting does occur, it will start at 10 am and continue until all public comments have been taken.
  • Each speaker will be limited to 3 minutes, but everyone will be allowed to speak, so this could take many hours.
  • We urge everyone who has questions or concerns to be there if at all possible. We will provide more details about ways to participate as the date approaches.
  • Remember, Plan Commission approval will NOT mean the project can proceed. Approvals via the federal review process are needed before any work can start.

Federal review #1 – Section 106

  • A Section 106 review began December 1. Remember, this is a mandatory review of any project in a public park or place listed on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places that involves federal funding or requires federal approval: the proposed road changes trigger this review, which covers the OPC as well and focuses on historic buildings and sites.
  • The second Section 106 meeting has been set for Thursday, March 29, from 3:30 to 5:30 pm, in the auditorium of U Chicago’s Logan Center (915 E. 60th St.).
  • The meeting will consider the draft Historic Properties Inventory and Archeology Reports, and discuss next steps. The (very lengthy) reports are available online (scroll down to the March 19 entry under Milestones). The City’s Department of Planning and Development is taking public comments on the reports until April 19 via email to its general address – DPD@cityofchicago.org (be sure to include reference to Section 106 review of OPC in the subject line). The Archeology Report was summarized by Blair Kamin in the 3/25 Tribune.
  • The March 29 meeting is open to the public, and we urge interested people to attend. We note, however, that the timing is less than ideal for public input: CPS and many other schools are on break, the next day is Good Friday, Passover starts on Saturday, and Easter is on Sunday.

Federal review #2 – NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)

  • A NEPA review of the proposals for the OPC and road changes is also required. It will focus on impacts on the environment broadly defined as including wildlife and habitat, air and water quality, noise, traffic, and socioeconomic factors.
  • Although it was reported at the December 1 Section 106 kickoff meeting that the NEPA review would be “starting soon,” that has not happened. We are hopeful that there will be word on that schedule at the March 29 meeting.

Federal review #3 – Section 4(f)

  • A Section 4(f) review is also triggered by the CDOT road proposals under the US Department of Transportation Act, which provides for consideration of the impact on parkland and historic sites during transportation project development.
  • Beyond a mention in the initial letter sent to Section 106 consulting parties, there is no indication to date that this will take place.
  • A 4(f) review is especially important because it requires substantive consideration of alternatives to proposed road projects.
  • JPW will continue to follow this issue closely.

Federal review #4 – UPARR (Urban Parks And Recreational Recovery Act)

  • Because improvements and programs in Jackson Park were funded by several grants under the UPARR program, recreational areas in the park cannot be converted to non-recreational use unless certain conditions are met and approval by the National Park Service is forthcoming.
  • One of the conditions is provision of appropriate alternate parkland.
  • Virtually no public information has been made available about this review to date.

South Lakefront Framework Plan

The Park District has continued to rush through its hastily developed South Lakefront Framework Plan (SLFP), which is now slated to be approved by the Park District Board at its April 11 meeting. Here are key points to keep in mind:

  • The Park District and others continue to assert that the placement of the OPC, the proposed road changes, and the golf course expansion/merger were needed to support the SLFP.
  • In fact the opposite is the case: the SLFP was initiated after all of those proposals were already developed and was premised on their being in the Park. No public discussion of the status of these key projects was entertained at any point during the SLFP development process.
  • While there are many elements in the new SLFP that many may like, there is as yet no funding for anything other than (potentially) the OPC and road changes and the relocation of the current track to accommodate the OPC.  Like prior park framework plans, it merely sets forth, without funding plans or timelines, possible projects to be developed over the next 10 years, and is subject to on-going change.
  • Of particular concern in this regard is the failure to provide a real plan and timeline for the much-needed replacement of the Jackson Park Fieldhouse, now 60 years old and in bad shape after years of under investment.

That golf course plan

  • Beyond the much-hyped revised design, proposals to actually move the project forward have not been submitted to the Plan Commission.
  • While a Section 106 and NEPA review would certainly be required for that project, as would a review under the City’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, none has yet been initiated.
  • Funding for the golf course and/or the expensive related infrastructure has not been identified.

The broader context

This complicated story of multiple proposals, reviews and timelines for changes in Jackson Park is set against the background of the surrounding neighborhoods that will be impacted by the proposals. A recent Washington Post article provides a wide-angled view of the issues.

Donations welcomed – and needed!

THANKS to all who have recently donated. Your trust and support motivates us to persist – and that we will!

Beyond our new roads initiative, now well underway, we continue to need funds to support the legal assistance that has been critical to ensure that our work is focused effectively. Please send your checks to Jackson Park Watch, P.O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615. If you have questions about our request for support, please feel free to contact us at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – March 18, 2018

Greetings all!

New JPW roads initiative underway

Jackson Park Watch has launched a new initiative, commissioning an expert analysis of CDOT’s plans to close Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets in Jackson Park in order to accommodate the initial design for the Obama Presidential Center. The JPW initiative also includes exploration of an alternative that would allow the Obama Presidential Center to remain in Jackson Park.

Jackson Park Watch believes this initiative is necessary for several key reasons:

  • The CDOT-proposed road changes, most recently estimated to cost $175 million (although that is certainly not the final tab), put an undue and unnecessary burden on taxpayers, and the Obama Presidential Center could still be located in Jackson Park without all those expensive changes.
  • The CDOT-proposed road changes create problems of pedestrian and vehicular safety and congestion. For example, the recently revealed proposal to create a “road diet” on Cornell Drive between 57th and 59th Streets creates a bottleneck for drivers, a hazard for those trying to use the parking spots along that stretch, and safety problems for adults and children, especially at local schools. The proposal to route traffic between Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island along Hayes Drive creates a new congested and hazardous “S” curve that bisects the park.
  • The CDOT-proposed road changes make it difficult for local users to access the park for recreational uses. For example, the proposal to ban parking along Hayes Drive – now heavily used by people to access the adjacent playing fields, the 63rd Street Beach, the golf course, or Wooded Island – limits access to green and open space and does not include adequate new parking options. Indeed, the CDOT parking analysis, which projects the loss of 236 parking spaces overall, is focused on meeting the needs of visitors to the OPC and not those of other park users.
  • The CDOT-proposed road changes destroy key portions of the historic Olmsted design of Jackson Park.
  • There is no need to rush to decision. Despite the Plan Commission’s almost certain approval of the CDOT-proposed road changes in April, no work on any road change can begin until the federal reviews – now underway and set to last until at least December – are complete.
  • There are alternatives that would enable the Obama Presidential Center to exist in harmony with Jackson Park and its neighbors. One such example, the alternative that JPW’s traffic expert will explore, is the proposal to narrow Cornell Drive and “calm” its traffic, which was a recommendation in the 1999-2000 Jackson Park/South Shore Framework Plan and was touted most recently in the 2016 proposal put forward by the Park District and Project 120.

JPW’s roads initiative took shape when three things converged: City Hall announced the $175 million price tag to taxpayers; the traffic study behind CDOT’s plan was posted on the City’s web site; and after 20+ refusals, JPW was able to find a well-established traffic consultancy to undertake an evaluation. Stay tuned for the more news on this.

Meeting Report #1: A “community conversation” at last!

The March 7 symposium at the University of Chicago was the scene of the first and, to date, only genuine community conversation about the Obama Presidential Center and the myriad of related issues. It demonstrated that, as pointed out not long ago in the Tribune , the debate is more about race, class, and power than about Jackson Park, President Obama, or the OPC.

After an opening by symposium organizer and UC faculty member Tom Mitchell and presentations by the invited panelists – Naomi Davis of Blacks in Green, Charles Birnbaum of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Jawanza Malone of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and (in a statement read by Mitchell) Michael Sorkin of the Michael Sorkin Studio – the audience had its chance to voice opinions in a discussion moderated skillfully by Barbara Ransby, a UIC faculty member.

And opinions there were, cutting across race and class and neighborhood lines! Some challenged the right of others to ask questions or voice concerns. Some insisted on the importance of raising questions and getting answers in the interests of transparency. There was common agreement that the OPC should be on the South Side and that President Obama himself is not the issue. There was much disagreement about the impact of the OPC on the surrounding neighborhoods, with strong support for a community benefits agreement as essential to protect residents from displacement. Another recurring theme was the need to hold the University of Chicago accountable for the secrecy of its bid for the Obama Library (a bid never made public), which offered public park land and also, reportedly, the closure of Cornell Drive, but required nothing of the University itself.

Sadly, the Obama Foundation, the City, the Park District and the University had all refused invitations to participate on the panel. No follow-up is currently planned.

The symposium can be viewed in full on YouTube. (You may need to adjust the video to start at the very beginning of the discussion).

Meeting Report #2: South Lakefront Framework Plan Final Meetings

The final round of South Lakefront Framework Plan meetings this week presented the Park District’s close-to-final version of its aspirational, unfunded potential changes to the Park. As with prior versions, it presumes that the OPC will be sited as the Obama Foundation originally projected, that all of the OPC-related road changes will occur, and that the current golf course merger/expansion plan will take place. Meeting fatigue has clearly set in, as shown by the fact that the meetings were not well attended. This is perhaps accounted for by the additional fact that, while relatively small issues have been acknowledged and sometimes addressed, big questions about the golf course, nature sanctuary, road changes, and the siting of the OPC itself have been off limits throughout. While Park District presenters continue to say “we are listening” and “this is a work in progress,” this version of the Framework Plan will be taken to the Park District Board for approval in the near future (April 11 is the targeted date).

If you missed the meetings, the presentation slides and posters are available on-line and comments on the “draft” plans can still be submitted.

Is it inevitable?

Many have noted the ways in which the Obama Foundation, the Mayor, the Park District, and CDOT have portrayed the adoption of all the plans for major changes to Jackson Park as inevitable, a Chicago-style “done deal.” But is that accurate? Here are some things to remember:

  • Plans for the Obama Presidential Center to date have no permissions, no approvals, and no permits. Final approval is not possible prior to the conclusion of the federal review process.
  • Plans for the major road changes CDOT has proposed to accommodate the OPC have no permissions, no approvals, and no permits. Final approval is not possible prior to the conclusion of the federal review process.
  • The adoption of the hastily executed South Lakefront Framework Plan is an attempt to enshrine the OPC, the associated road changes, and the expanded/merged golf course proposal, but it does nothing to assure that the proposed changes will be implemented. Funding for those three initiatives is not yet secured, and funding for the associated park amenities which many in the community would enjoy is not on hand and will not be even after the SLFP is approved.

Your support is time-urgent!

We have appreciated generous donations from a large number of supporters for our work to date. Now we find ourselves in the position of asking for additional contributions.

We believe that our new roads initiative is critical to our work going forward for several reasons:

  • the roads proposal is the most problematic part of the overall plans to “transform” Jackson Park, relying as it does on massive, discretionary, and disruptive taxpayer-funded changes to the road system in the Park;
  • the road changes need to pass numerous federal reviews (section 106, section 4(f), NEPA), and approval is not certain;
  • exploring options only makes sense so that all concerned can consider alternatives that would be in the best interests of the OPC and the community it wishes to benefit.

Beyond our roads initiative, we continue to need funds to support the legal counsel that has been critical to focus our efforts effectively. If you have questions about our request for support, please feel free to contact us at jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com.

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