Obama Presidential Center

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Mayor’s OPC Ordinance flies through City Council on October 31; Federal reviews to determine the outcome

Back on May 17 2018, the Chicago Plan Commission hearing on the applications for the Obama Presidential Center and the CDOT-proposed road changes desired by the Obama Foundation resulted in votes to approve them all. See our update from May 21, 2018.  There was no dissent. There were virtually no questions.

As a follow-up, there were no surprises when a compliant City Council passed the Mayor’s proposed OPC Ordinance on October 31 without questions or dissent, this despite the existence of significant outstanding problems – costs to taxpayers, displacement of local residents, loss of public parkland, traffic problems likely to result from road closures and realignments.  (See reports in the Tribune, Sun-Times and Herald , plus additional commentary in the Herald).

Two crucial questions: What was actually passed? AND – will construction start anytime soon?

The actual Ordinance passed by the City Council included a long list of more or less factual assertions (the “whereas”s), along with nine short substantive sections.  The Ordinance 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?

Work on the project cannot begin until at least these steps are completed:

  1. Settlement or dismissal of the Protect Our Parks lawsuit (see below). 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).
  2. Completion of the federal review process.
  3. Resolution of any other lawsuits that may develop.

SPECIAL FOCUS: costs to taxpayers

On-going news about the shaky state of City  finances underscores the recklessness of the out-going Mayor and City Council in committing to millions of dollars for OPC-related spending at this point. There are at least 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 actually unnecessary: Obama Foundation officials told us in an April 5 meeting that the OPC would be built in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive is not closed.   While the City secured 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 could be used more productively for much-needed road work elsewhere in the City and state.
  • A commitment to funding unknown environmental remediation work at the OPC site. The Ordinance passed Oct. 31 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.

Lawsuit Challenges Plans for the OPC

Protect Our Parks, Inc. is an organization dating from a challenge to the siting of the Latin School soccer field in Lincoln Park over a decade ago. Recognizing some similar issues with the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park, Protect our Parks has sued the City and the Park District in federal court, charging that the gift of public parkland to the Obama Foundation, a private entity, for the OPC is illegal.  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.  

While Mayor Emanuel publicaly 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.

As of mid-November, the next step in the lawsuit will be a hearing on December 5.

Given the severe procedural problems with the conduct of the federal reviews, it is not inconceivable that additional lawsuits will be filed.  


The Back Story

Although there is broad support for having the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side, the 2015 decision by the City and the Park District to give prime parkland in either Jackson Park or Washington Park to the Obama Foundation continues to be controversial. When the Obama Foundation chose the 21-acre Jackson Park site across from Hyde Park Academy High School in 2016, it quickly became evident that the decision would have both immediate and long-term consequences for Jackson Park and its neighbors.

The Landscape Design

Aerial photo of site originally designated for OPC.

Rather than harmonizing with Jackson Park, the landscape plans for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes would obliterate all traces of the existing parkland – including the clear cutting of over 800 trees, some magnificent mature specimens  – and replace it with something totally new.  All traces of Olmsted’s Jackson Park – trees, shrubs, grass, even the existing grade levels – would be gone on the OPC site. While the existing track and field would be relocated to the south end of the site, other spaces used for athletics and for family picnics and other leisure pastimes would be lost.

Instead, the Obama Foundation proposes an entertainment area (see image below) modeled on Millennium and Maggie Daley Parks with a mix of slopes, paths, a non-traditional playground, and an open lawn for concerts and outdoor movies.  It includes a large athletic center (40,000 sq. ft.) that could be used for special event rentals and has an undefined relationship to the existing Jackson Park Fieldhouse and South Side “Y,” both nearby.  The cut trees would be replaced – but it would take decades for the new trees to regain the majesty of those that would be lost.

Many in the community have voiced fears that the current open, natural character of the Park would be destroyed by the planned hustle and bustle and the expected congestion as tourists mingle with local park users.  These concerns are exacerbated by the Obama Foundation’s demands to close Cornell Drive along the east side of the site (see “The Site Boundaries” below), something that would allow the crowds planned for the Center to spill directly over into the Park to the edge of the lagoon.

OPC site design as of January 2018.

The Obama Presidential Center Tower Design

Redesigned OPC tower as of January 2018.

The Obama Presidential Center tower would be 235’ tall and lit at night.  The Obama Foundation’s applications to the Chicago Plan Commission describe the tower as “composed of 8 primary floors and multiple mezzanine levels.” The Obama museum would occupy about half of the tower edifice. A public space on the very top would be available for rental.

There are many concerns about the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods: many feel that such a tower simply does not belong in a residential area or in a historic park defined by an emphasis on natural landscape.  There are specific questions about the impact of the large shadow on sunny days and of the night-time light pollution. Questions about the impact on birds are being raised as well, especially since Jackson Park is in a well-known migratory bird flyway.

The Site Boundaries and Road Closures

Amid controversy, on March 18, 2015, the Chicago City Council adopted Ordinance O2105-192 to approve the offering of spaces in Jackson and Washington Parks for the construction of the Obama Presidential Library (now Center).   The site in Jackson Park was defined as stretching between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive and between 60th and 63rd Streets.  There was no formal, public mention of the Obama Foundation’s plan for an altered site with boundaries shifted north and east until former President Obama unveiled the OPC design plans at a invitation-only event on May 3, 2017.  The altered site requires the closure of Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd Streets and the closure of the eastbound segment of the Midway Plaisance between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive.

 

CDOT proposed road closures.

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 more), would have a dramatic impact on Jackson Park:

  • It would directly connect the new tourist environment of the Obama Presidential Center with the lagoon to the west of Wooded Island.
  • 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 serving 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.

Road Plan Concerns

Significant concerns have been raised about the road plan. Near neighbors, those who park in the neighborhood on a daily basis for work, and those who commute through the area have major concerns about traffic snarls, safety, and significant delays.  Those who walk in the area for work, school, or daily living are concerned about pedestrian safety. Park lovers and historic preservationists are concerned about the unwarranted destruction of the Olmsted design: to quote the Park District’s 1999-2000 Jackson Park/South Shore Framework plan  “The Olmsted design has served the park well over time and should not be compromised by future plans.”

In fact, the OPC could be constructed in Jackson Park without these massive and expensive taxpayer-funded road changes that destroy the historic design.  Jackson Park Watch commissioned an alternative traffic plan that accommodates the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park but keeps Cornell Drive open and has called for a formal review of its alternative traffic proposals. 

The Central Issue

Together the concerns about appropriate design and site creep point to a core issue: The proposal for the OPC, given its scale and scope and attendant demands for major road reconfigurations, would effectively “transform” Jackson Park.  This dramatic change would be made without any central vision of what the park as a whole could and should be. It would be made without allowing substantive community assessment of the impact of the OPC on the park and without developing a comprehensive plan for the entire park. This – the future of Jackson Park – is the central issue presented by the Obama Presidential Center.

 

“We should use the fate of Jackson Park as an opportunity to rethink the value we place on open space and public parkland held in trust for future generations.”

-Charles Birnbaum, Olmsted expert and President,

The Cultural Landscape Foundation

NEXT STEPS?  

JPW and others continue to closely monitor all developments.  JPW continues its participation in the federal review processes.  We encourage those with concerns to go to the federal review page on this site and to scroll to the bottom for letter-writing suggestions focused on the flaws in the City’s conduct of the federal review process.