Park District plans for “improvements”
As recently reported in the Hyde Park Herald, the Chicago Park District and Alderman Leslie Hairston hosted a virtual meeting on November 29 to present plans for three construction projects to begin in Jackson Park in Spring 2022: renovation of the Iowa Building, a new Dog- Friendly Area (DFA), and a senior-sized baseball field.
We applaud the renovation of the Iowa Building — finally! – after decades of negligence and years of prodding by the Jackson Park Advisory Council, and we appreciate the work of Senator Robert Peters in securing state funding last year for this much-needed work. However, the other two projects raise continuing concerns and questions prompted by the loss of parkland to the Obama Presidential Center and the Park District’s plan to expand the already-large OPC footprint for the dubious public benefit of building a PGA-level golf course in Jackson Park.
The plan to construct a new DFA on a barren and exposed stretch south of Hayes Drive and adjacent to DuSable Lake Shore Drive is meant to replace the well-established and well-loved Jackson Bark to the north. Unlike the long-overdue Iowa Building project, it is not clear why this is essential or an improvement. The new DFA project did not arise from community requests and, as was made clear in the Herald coverage, does not reflect support from patrons of Jackson Bark. Rather, the new DFA is a key element in the controversial plan for a new Tiger Woods-designed golf course, a plan that – like the related one for the OPC – was prebaked into the South Lakefront Framework Plan before community discussions began. The eradication of Jackson Bark is “necessary” because that space can then be used to extend the golf driving range northward. That trade-off should be considered in assessing the DFA plan. Would it not be a better use of public funds (and likely at less cost) to renovate rather than erase Jackson Bark? Would it not be better to move the driving range into closer proximity with the actual golf course as is standard placement in PGA-level courses?
Meanwhile, the new baseball field to be added north of Hayes Drive is the result of the relocation of one of the playing fields already displaced by the construction of the Obama Presidential Center along the west side of the park. The Park District is choosing to build a replacement field in an already congested recreational site, rather than develop new public parkland elsewhere in the Woodlawn area to replace the 19.6 acres lost to the OPC – a mitigation promised by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 ordinance approving use of Jackson Park for the OPC. The plan to squeeze three ball fields and two multi-sports fields into a tight “pinwheel” configuration may be a marvel of spatial design, but it will require careful scheduling for safe use and may offer a less than optimal experience for the local athletes who need and deserve more rather than less athletic space.
Further, if these plans are realized, both dog-walkers and ball-players will be challenged by expected traffic problems relating to the transformation of Hayes Drive into the default pass-through speedway for north-south traffic (replacing Cornell Drive) and the removal of all of the parking spaces now available along Hayes. Citizens from all parts of the South Side use these public Jackson Park facilities because they are accessible and safe. Is crowding average people out of the parks the real price of the OPC?
The virtual meeting on Nov. 29 had only a few participants. We urge regular users of Jackson Park to take a careful look at what is being proposed by the Park District and to submit your comments to the Park District.
Legal process inches along while bulldozers move swiftly
In August, just before the Obama Foundation took control of 19+ acres of Jackson Park, Protect Our Parks and its six co-plaintiffs asked the US Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit to review its request for an injunction to halt all work on the OPC until POP’s suit challenging the federal review process of the OPC project is concluded. The request for such an injunction had been denied at the district court level by Judge Robert Blakey, who is presiding over the federal review case
On November 30, POP’s appeal was finally heard by a three-member panel of judges. Richard Epstein, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, argued that the City, the Obama Foundation and the federal agencies charged with reviewing the project used an improperly narrow definition of the project that divided it in a fashion which improperly precluded consideration of environmental, historical and other relevant impacts and avoided evaluation of alternative locations that would not have impacted parkland at all, even though such considerations are statutorily mandated. Until those issues are resolved, Epstein argued, further disruption and destruction of Jackson Park should be paused. The judges pressed Epstein on those issues, but did not make a determination and did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.
Still pending also is the initial complaint filed by the Plaintiffs in the US District Court in April (months before the City turned over the site in Jackson Park to the Foundation). That suit focuses on specific lapses in the conduct of the federal reviews of the proposed changes to Jackson Park and in particular the failure to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement as would usually be standard for a project of this scale. Recently the plaintiffs have also requested that they be allowed to file an amended complaint that would add two causes of action associated with an alleged failure to comply with the Master Agreement between the Obama Foundation and the City. That Agreement requires that certain financial thresholds be met by the Foundation in regards to the cost of the OPC construction (a cost that continues to be revised upward, now $700 million) and to the funding of an endowment for long-term maintenance and operation of the OPC. The district court has set a briefing schedule on that request which stretches into January 2022.
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