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

Jackson Park Watch Update – March 4, 2018

Greetings all!

Obama Foundation’s second public meeting pitches project

The Obama Foundation’s public meeting on February 27 featured an appearance by former President Obama himself in full campaign mode to promote the transformational impact of the OPC on the South Side. No changes to the Obama Presidential Center or the CDOT road plans were announced, although numerous questions about the road plans were raised in the related breakout session. The Tribune responded with an editorial raising important questions about the seeming absence of practical plans to realize the promised $3 billion in OPC-related growth over the coming decade along with the concern that, like the Museum of Science and Industry, the OPC might have virtually no positive impact on the neighborhood. Tribune critic Blair Kamin followed with a commentary noting two challenges presented by the OPC: balancing the tension between the opportunities for economic development and the dangers of residential displacement, and “the difficult and still-unresolved task of placing the Obama center in the historic landscape of Jackson Park.”

More meetings!

Yes, we know, there have been a lot of meetings. Now the Park District has announced two more – March 13 and 14 – to review the new South Lakefront Plan prior to finalizing it for submission to the Park District Board in April and thereby enshrining plans for the expanded golf course, road changes, and new OPC footprint. We note that those plans have not been approved yet and, in the end, may not be. The meetings will take place at the South Shore Cultural Center, from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. both days, with a presentation scheduled for 6:15. We realize the many followers of JPW Updates have been to untold numbers of public meetings, too many of which have resulted in little if any responsive revisions in the plans presented. Nonetheless, we urge you to attend once again and to let your views be known. Absence of public participation can be all to readily construed as public apathy, which is far from the case as regards plans for Jackson Park.

It’s about the PARK

JPW appreciates Lolly Bowean’s recent analysis in the Tribune , skillfully demonstrating that differing opinions about the roads, the Obama Presidential Center and the golf course are not neatly divided along any of the predictable lines of race, class, or education. As we all work toward an outcome that is positive for Jackson Park, for the neighborhood, for the broader community, and for the OPC and its positive mission, JPW hopes that we can remember this.

Preservation Chicago continues to sound the alarm

A year ago Preservation Chicago included Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center in its annual “Chicago 7 Most Endangered ” list of historic sites in Chicago, shining a light on the threats represented by proposals for the parks from private-interest groups with no public accountability — the Obama Foundation, the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, and Project 120. Now Preservation Chicago has taken the unusual step of including those two parks again in its 2018 Chicago 7 list, indeed putting them at the top of the list and adding the Midway Plaisance to the roster of threatened South Side landmarks.   Renewing its call for a transparent, comprehensive, and thoughtful planning process for the South Side parks to protect the historic landscapes and structures, Preservation Chicago also offers six specific recommendations that warrant the attention of JPW readers.

Section 106-related updates

The JPW website’s coverage of the federal reviews currently underway now includes a letter from the Hyde Park Historical Society concerning Cornell Drive and the Perennial Garden that was recently submitted for the Section 106/NEPA process. The federal reviews themselves have been delayed and extended. The next Section 106 meeting, originally scheduled for February, will now take place sometime in March; the full federal review process is now expected to continue until at least December.

Save this date: Plan Commission hearing April 19

While the federal reviews seemingly lag, the Chicago Plan Commission hearing on the applications for the OPC and the CDOT-designed road changes remains set for April 19. There will be opportunities for testimony from the public; you may want to plan to be there. JPW’s FOIA work indicates that surprisingly few impact studies about of the Obama tower or road changes have been conducted in preparation for that hearing. JPW remains concerned about the absence of overall comprehensive planning and the segmented nature of the approach the City and Obama Foundation are pursuing. Look for more about these issues in the future.

Your support is essential!

As the Plan Commission hearing date nears, we continue to seek expert legal and technical counsel in order to raise key questions and pursue community concerns. Your check to support this expert assistance 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 18, 2018

Greetings all!

NEW!   The Jackson Park Watch website has been newly updated.  Check out the all-new Obama Center page and the updated Golf Course page to get the latest information and community perspectives at www.jacksonparkwatch.org .  Share the link with interested friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Another public meeting

The Obama Foundation, with assistance from the Park District and CDOT,  has announced a public meeting on Tuesday, February 27 – only its second in 9 months.  The meeting will be at McCormick Place starting at 5 p.m.  While it is billed as an opportunity “to receive feedback on its zoning application and the Obama Presidential Center design,” JPW wonders whether the meeting will also include a marching band or celebrity appearances, as was the case at the Obama Foundation’s only other public meeting back in September.  JPW also wonders whether the promised breakout sessions on topics such as site design, economic impact, and CDOT’s proposed road changes will allow for substantive dialogue, or instead, as has been the case, will feature poster boards with limited chances for two-way discussion.

The meeting is to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the South Building of McCormick Place, which faces on King Drive and is located just south of (and connected to) the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place Hotel.  Entrance is through Gate 4.   We encourage community members to attend with questions and concerns but limited expectations for actual input.

Park District and CDOT forge ahead to close Cornell Drive

Without waiting for public feedback on February 27, or for review by the Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council, or for finalization of its much-touted South Lakefront Framework Plan, or for the results of the current federal reviews that will conclude in the Fall,  the Chicago Park District’s Board of Commissions last Wednesday – unanimously and without any discussion – authorized Park District CEO Mike Kelly to take steps that would enable the implementation of CDOT’s so-far unvetted plans for radical road changes in Jackson Park.

It was perhaps only a coincidence that the Board’s action took place at a sparsely attended meeting held far away from the Park District’s downtown headquarters, or that the documents discussed at the meeting were not available to the public at the meeting or on the Park District website, but the Sun-Times turned its spotlight on the vote and its implications.  The land swap authorized between the Park District and CDOT does not mean that road construction would start immediately, but it does signal that the powers that be are not looking for community input in spite of public statements by City and Obama Foundation officials.

Note that the Board of Commissioners vote dealt with only a portion of Cornell Drive and other roads within the park; road segments that lie within the current site claimed by the Obama Foundation will require additional steps.


Buried under the heading “Midway Plaisance” in the Chicago Department of Transportation’s application to the Plan Commission for approval to make massive (taxpayer funded) road changes in Jackson Park is this proposal, never before made public:

“North of the Midway Plaisance [on Cornell Drive from 59th north to 57th] a road diet will be implemented with new pavement markings to reduce Cornell Drive to one lane in each direction with a painted median and on-street parking on both sides of the road [emphasis added].  Approximately 70 on-street parking spaces would be added to offset a portion of the 150 spaces lost on Hayes Drive.”

JPAC does it again, sadly

Long time Update readers may recall the controversy two years ago when the Jackson Park Advisory Council endorsed the Project 120 proposal for a pavilion and outdoor music venue without having notified the membership in advance that the issue would be taken up.  At this month’s JPAC meeting, history unfortunately repeated itself.  A report from the JPAC golf committee turned into an endorsement when a motion was made to suspend the rules and proceed to a vote, again disregarding concerns that the membership had not been notified that the issue would come up for a vote.

Events you may want to attend

March 7, 6-8 p.m.

The impact of the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side will be the focus of a public symposium at the University of Chicago featuring national and local experts on Wednesday, March 7.  The event will be 6-8 p.m., in Kent Hall (1020 E. 58th Street).  The symposium is a follow-up to a January 4, 2018 letter signed by 200 members of the University’s faculty expressing strong support for establishing the OPC on the South Side, while raising concerns about the specifics of its plan.  The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

March 10, 8:30 a.m.- 12 noon

Jackson Park Watch’s Margaret Schmid will be a panelist at the Ancona School’s symposium on “Race and Green Space in Chicago” on Saturday morning, March 10.  The event runs from 8:30 a.m. until noon.  Given the concerns about the impact of the major changes proposed for Jackson Park on open green spaces in the park and on recreational opportunities for local uses and local users, the symposium will offer a timely opportunity for discussion and exchange of information.   The Ancona School is at 4770 S. Dorchester.  Registration is encouraged by not required;  Click here to register today.


We continue to seek expert legal and technical counsel as we try to raise key questions and pursue community concerns.  Your check to support this expert assistance 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 3, 2018

Greetings all!

Community concerns about golf course merger still not addressed

Over 200 people, including many Update readers, were in the room for the Park District’s golf course meeting Wednesday, January 31, at which the latest version of the proposal for the Jackson Park and South Shore courses was unveiled. The presentation materials from the meeting available on the South Lakefront Framework Plan website are difficult to download and to read. Better graphics of the new routing plan can be found on the boosterish website golf.com. The meeting was also covered by the Sun-Times, Tribune and Herald.

Here are some meeting highlights:

  • Park District CEO Mike Kelly is back out in front on this issue, featured at the meeting and in numerous media reports.
  • While there were some tweaks to the plan first presented on June 21, 2017, the basic design remains the same and the main concerns about the design have not been addressed.
    • The proposed expanded/merged golf course still extends beyond the footprints of the existing golf courses.
    • The proposed course still takes out the heart of the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, obliterating the lakefront path and fire pit circles on the eastern-most point, and turns that space, with its stunning views north over the lake, into Hole 15.
    • While additional spaces identified as natural areas have been introduced between fairways, they are very fragmented and narrow and would not have wildlife conservation value. Nor would they provide peaceful places so important to human visitors for passive recreation and enjoyment.
    • The recreational fields in Jackson Park and South Shore have not been replaced.  The South Shore beach is smaller, with about half of the current beach shown planted with grasses, presumably to add to the claim of replacement natural areas.
    • Overall, only high level information was made available to the public, with little detail.
  • Costs remain a major concern:
    • To build the course: Kelly stated that he intends to raise $30 million from private donors for the construction of the golf course; there was no information on how much has been raised so far. He also stated that the underpasses needed for the plan would cost taxpayers $30 million, but did not reveal where those funds would come from. Nor did he address the other major costs associated with the project – for the closure of Marquette Drive, for the planned new beach house , or for shoring up the lake edge along the South Shore course.
    • To use the course: Despite Mike Kelly’s statement that Chicago golfers would pay no more than $50, adequate information about the fee schedule – including when the most affordable fee times would be scheduled – is still lacking. There are still no assurances that current existing golfers would be able to continue to afford or have access to the course.
    • To operate the course: Questions about a viable business plan for the merged course were not addressed. There was no information about projected use of the new course or about possible PGA tournaments and the financial arrangements they would entail.
  • New themes: Mike Kelly and Beau Welling, the actual golf course designer who gave the presentation while frequently invoking Tiger Woods’ name, introduced these new emphases:
    • It’s all about the kids (over and over).
    • It’s all about bringing the community together. (One of the changes would be to locate the main club house south of what is now Marquette and just west of Jeffrey. It was described as the “community clubhouse,” where people from the Jackson Park Highlands neighborhood could find a “food and beverage outlet.”)
    • It’s all about serving local golfers. “The last thing we want to do is to make the course too difficult.”
  • The main improvement:  By relocating some of the fairways, what is now Marquette Drive would become a multi-use pedestrian path, and some of the existing mature trees would be preserved.

The presentation on January 31 was just that – a presentation. No questions were taken after the speakers concluded. Attendees were told to look at the boards and talk with staff. No additional meeting(s) has been scheduled. If you were unable to voice your concerns that evening or if you were one of the many who were not able to attend the meeting due to the last-minute scheduling, you can submit your comments on the South Lakefront Framework Plan website.

Your views matter! You can also express your concerns directly to:

Pro-OPC rally planned for mid-February

Those who have been following the schedule for the Plan Commission and Section 106/NEPA review processes now underway will have noted the listing of a public meeting in mid-February to prepare for the Plan Commission’s April hearing. This “preparatory” meeting is to be hosted by the Obama Foundation, CDOT, and the Park District. Since a meeting of this sort of unusual, JPW has written to Obama Foundation President David Simas, Park District CEO Mike Kelly, and CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld to ask for information. In the meantime, JPW has learned from other sources that this is expected to be a pep rally akin to the Obama Foundation’s first (and last) public meeting at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place on September 14, which featured a marching band and a live-streamed appearance by former President Obama. As we learn more, we will share our information.

Another problematic CDOT proposal

As we continue to review the CDOT application for all of the road changes that the Obama Foundation wants to require, we noted with some amazement that CDOT proposes to narrow Cornell Drive between 57th and 59th Streets to one lane in either direction, allowing on-street parking in that segment in order to make up for some of the 150 parking spaces it would ban on Hayes Drive. CDOT euphemistically terms this a “road diet,” but it would likely be called a “bottleneck” (or more) by the drivers forced to merge at that point. What a concept!


Expert counsel is critical to our ability to raise key questions and pursue community concerns. Please consider a contribution (or a second one). Your check 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 27, 2018

Greetings, all! 

NEW! With typical short notice, the Park District/Chicago Parks Golf Alliance has scheduled ONE (and only one!) meeting for community review and discussion of the golf course plans: NEXT WEDNESDAY, Jan. 31, at the South Shore Cultural Center at 6 p.m.


Key issues to check on include:
* preservation of the Nature Sanctuary and recreation areas;
* expansion of the new golf course site beyond the current footprints of the courses;
* expansion of the current driving range rather than shifting it south of Hayes Drive;
* continued accessibility and affordability for local golfers;
* cost to taxpayers for infrastructure work; and
* evidence of a viable business plan.

NOTE: JPW advocates opposition to changes that go beyond the footprints of the current courses and/or that remove the Nature Sanctuary and existing recreational areas. A key point you may want to make: the upgraded golf course does NOT need to be longer and could fit in the current footprint! In fact, current discussions in golfing circles focus on problems with longer golf courses, with some elite players predicting that shorter courses are the wave of the future.

OPC redesign prompts further questions:

Jackson Park Watch has not previously commented extensively on the OPC site plan or building design. However, as JPW and others have had a chance to review the revised design for the Obama Presidential Center, attention is required.

The substantially greater height of the proposed tower (now 235’) and the revelation that the Obama Foundation apparently intends to spotlight it at night have been focal points for many. (For comparison, the Museum of Science and Industry is approximately 125’ tall and the Logan Center for the Performing Arts on the UChicago campus, also by the OPC architects, is 170’ tall.) Concerns about the large shadow on sunny days and the nighttime light pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods as well as about the impact on migrating birds are getting attention.

Questions about the uses of the proposed buildings have also been raised. The Lakefront Protection Ordinance application describes the tower as “composed of 8 primary floors and multiple mezzanine levels”; the museum is described as taking up about half of the building. There will be rental/event space in the tower and in other buildings. The relationship between the proposed 40,000 sq. ft. Athletic Center and the Jackson Park Fieldhouse and South Side YMCA has not been made clear.

Some have taken note of the overall site plan as well, observing that all traces of the existing segment of Jackson Park – trees, shrubs, grass, even the existing grade levels – would be eliminated by the OPC design. (The Obama Foundation plans to clear-cut and level the site.) Questions about the amount of existing recreational space that would be eliminated have been raised also, as well as questions about the replacement parkland that the City is required to provide in lieu of the OPC land. While the Obama Foundation prefers to call the proposed OPC campus “parkland,” a privately controlled site is certainly not a public park. Issues of ownership and control need to be clarified. The Obama Foundation states that the OPC will be free and open to the public, but we know that the museum and the underground parking garage will both require fees, and while presumably those fees have been factored into the budget, that information has yet to be made public.

Many have noted as well that the OPC redesign continues to presume the closure of Cornell Drive and the extensive road changes that would entail (all at taxpayer expense). The absence of attention to public transit or to access by pedestrians or bicycles has also raised some eyebrows: the auto-centric plan includes 450 parking spaces for cars and 38 for bicycles.

Two reviews are underway:

First, the Chicago Plan Commission review. The OPC has applied for rezoning of the park site as a Planned Development, and under a separate application argues that its plan meets all of the requirements of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. The CPD and CDOT have also submitted related applications; all are available on-line (scroll to bottom of screen). However, the applications do not include many supplementary studies needed for a thorough and rigorous review. Information from shadow and sun access studies, pedestrian circulation studies, tree studies, wind studies, traffic and parking impact studies, and other such vital indicators of the effects of the OPC on the near neighborhood and broader community should be made available for the review, not only to the Plan Commission members but also to the public in general; they are not now available. JPW will be pursuing these issues. The formal Plan Commission hearing on the OPC is now scheduled for mid-April (likely April 19, the regular meeting date).  All interested members of the public will be able to attend and testify, so you may want to add this to your calendar.

Related to the Plan Commission review: It has been announced that the Obama Foundation, CDOT, and the Park District will host public meeting(s) in mid-February in preparation for the Plan Commission hearing. It is unusual for such a preparatory meeting to occur, and it is unclear what purpose such a meeting could serve. JPW has asked for more information and will share what is learned.

Second, the federal review process is focused on the questions of whether the proposed development is appropriate for an historic park that is on the National Register of Historic Places and whether the project will have adverse environmental impacts. Since the Plan Commission and City Council can be expected to approve the applications that come to them, these federal reviews are extremely significant. Construction of the OPC cannot begin until these federal reviews are concluded and mitigation of adverse impacts (if any) is explored.

Stay tuned for more information on these parallel reviews and for specific opportunities for public input.

South Lakefront Framework Plan timing questioned:

Among the “Key Milestone” dates posted on the City Department of Planning and Development website are several unspecified events in January and February designated as “preparation for final steps” in the development of the new South Lakefront Framework Plan and concluding on an unspecified date in April when the final plan would be presented to the Park District Board of Commissioner.

However, as has been noted many times, the Framework Plan process that the Park District is running is seriously flawed in two essential ways:

  • rather than being one coherent planning process that encompasses the whole of Jackson Park, it is siloed, with three (or more) projects being proposed simultaneously yet reviewed separately;
  • further, it is based on the premise that the Obama Presidential Center will be constructed as now proposed, that all of the (costly) road changes it demands will take place; and that the golf course merger/expansion will similarly occur as initially proposed.

In fact, none of these projects can proceed prior to the end of the federal review process described above, which is expected to conclude in the fall at the earliest.   We understand that the Park District wishes to create momentum for all of these proposals. However, any Framework Plan based on these initial premises may well need to be revised shortly depending on what actually transpires during the review.

Help us with a donation!

The legal assistance your donations have enabled us to secure is proving invaluable. Such expert counsel is critical to our ability to raise key questions and concerns. Please consider a contribution (or a second one). Your check 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 14, 2018

Greetings, all!

More recent news — AGAIN!

NEW! Be sure to check out the new “Federal Reviews” page on our website for information about the federal review processes and to read the comment letters from a range of organizations that are posted there.

OPC redesign: Hard on the heels of the community’s successful push to force the Obama Foundation to abandon plans for an above-ground parking garage on the east end of the Midway Plaisance, the Obama Foundation, demonstrating its determination to press ahead quickly, released plans for an Obama Presidential Center redesign.

As reported in the Sun-Times, Tribune, and Crain’s Chicago Business, and covered broadly on radio and TV, the redesign, while including some interesting architectural features, is essentially just a restatement of the plans released many months ago – except that the tower is now to be 225’ tall! But still not addressed are many key community concerns, including the impact of the OPC and of the essentially discretionary road changes on the Olmsted design and vision for Jackson Park and the cost and sources of funding for those extensive infrastructure “improvements.” As the Sun-Times noted in an editorial, much more discussion and information are needed. The Sun-Times also reported the previously unpublicized fact that the controversial proposal to close Cornell Drive, which is driving the road configurations, was part of the University of Chicago’s original bid to attract the OPC to Chicago.

  • Not enough people know that Cornell Drive, rather than being a recent addition to the Park, was designed by Olmsted himself in 1895 as the best way to experience the Park. A broad roadway to be shared by carriages and cars, it was 40’ wide. (For more on Olmsted’s vision and design for Jackson Park, see the statements by The Cultural Landscape Foundation and National Association of Olmsted Parks posted on our new “Federal Reviews” page.)

Rezoning and Lakefront Protection Ordinance applications submitted simultaneously:  Also this past week the Obama Foundation submitted formal applications to the City for permission to build the OPC under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and to rezone the site from parkland zoning to planned development institutional zoning.  Property owners within 250’ of the site that is now claimed for the OPC should soon receive notices of the applications from the Obama Foundation’s law firm Neal & Leroy. If you think should receive such a notice and do not, let JPW know at jacksonparkwarch@gmail.com .

  • JPW is analyzing these applications with the assistance of its attorneys. Look for information about the applications, how this process will unfold, and how the community can participate in the Plan Commission reviews in the near future. Although we know the process is effectively controlled by the Mayor, it is essential that community concerns are raised and that the Obama Foundation, CDOT, and the Department of Planning and Development are required to address them.
  • Note that, as the applications themselves acknowledge, even after Plan Commission and City Council approvals are secured, approvals through the federal reviews now underway are also needed.

OPC construction contracts: The Obama Foundation has received kudos for contracting with the Lakeside Alliance, a consortium that includes four local minority-owned construction firms. While this is indeed good news, it is interesting to note that the fifth, non-minority-owned member of the consortium, Turner Construction Co., will alone have a 49% share of the work.

Help us continue our work with a donation!

The federal reviews will continue for many months; they are key to the final outcome. In the meantime, the Plan Commission/City Council process needs to be critically scrutinized.   Much is at stake. Your donations help us bring outside expertise to maximize the community voice. Please consider a contribution. Your check 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 Special Update – January 9, 2018

Greetings, all!


The parking garage: The Obama Foundation has announced that it is abandoning its attempt to build an above-ground parking garage at the east end of the Midway Plaisance and will instead build a garage underground on the site already designated for the Obama Presidential Center.  Read all about it in the Sun-Times, Tribune, and Herald.  Congratulations to all those who helped create this positive outcome!  Let us all hope that the Obama Foundation continues to listen to community voices!

UChicago faculty letter:   Faculty at the University of Chicago are circulating a letter stating concerns about  numerous aspects of the Obama Foundation plans to date and raising the question of whether an alternate site for the OPC should be considered.   As reported in Crain’s Chicago Business, “W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, said he and Jonathan Lear, a philosophy professor, initiated the letter. Mitchell, author of a book, “Landscape and Power,” attended community meetings hosted by backers of the Obama Center and found them patronizing, he said. Compared with long presentations, he said, there was little time for questions from the audience. ‘More and more I heard these murmurs of discontent, which were getting louder and louder,’ he says, recalling his conclusion: ‘Well . . . this is one of those Chicago power plays.’”    (Note: you may have trouble accessing the full text of the Crain’s article unless you subscribe or have established a log-in.)

FOTP comments on the Section 106 review:  We want to add to the report in our last Update on the federal review of the impact of the OPC the historic Jackson Park.  In its consulting party statement, Friends of the Parks identified the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park as a key adverse effect on the entire Olmsted park system; highlighted the need to preserve the road system in keeping with the Olmsted design; and called again for comprehensive park planning.

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


Jackson Park Watch Update – January 6, 2018

Greetings, all, and Happy 2018!

2018 is off to a busy start on Jackson Park issues.

Federal agencies review OPC and CDOT plans:

Update readers will recall that the federally-required reviews of the massive proposed changes for Jackson Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, began on December 1. The initial focus is on Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and an accompanying review under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) that will begin soon.

JPW among many others signed on to be a “consulting party” to the Section 106 process and was at that December kickoff meeting. At that meeting, a proposed list of historic park features and maps of the “Area of Potential Effect” (APE) that would be evaluated during the review were presented, and consulting parties were invited to submit feedback for the public record by January 5. To date, we have been able to review the submissions by Save the Midway, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Midway Plaisance Advisory Council, Openlands, Landmarks Illinois, National Association of Olmsted Parks, Blacks in Green, and Preservation Chicago – and our own, of course. Some major concerns and themes that we found repeated again and again include:

  • Requests for a one, holistic, comprehensive review of all the proposed plans for the Park, stemming from frustration with the siloed attempt to assess the impact of the various proposals (OPC, golf course, road changes, Park District elements) separately, in isolation.
  • Requests that full information about all planned projects be revealed (especially those for Obama Presidential Center and the golf course) along with questions as to how a possibly premature review aimed at a moving target could be productive.
  • Deep concerns about the ways in which the OPC plan and in particular the road changes that it requires distort or destroy Frederick Law Olmsted’s design and vision for Jackson Park.
  • Numerous recommendations that the APE be expanded to include all of the Midway Plaisance (not just the eastern tip) and additional suggestions to include Washington Park as well to fully respect Olmsted’s original concept of the three parks as a single South Park System.
  • Substantial opposition to the above-ground parking garage on the Midway Plaisance as proposed by the Obama Foundation, along with multiple suggestions for an underground garage under the OPC buildings.

We want also to highlight some additional points from these individual submissions (with apologies for omitting other excellent points in the interests of space):

  • The Cultural Landscape Foundation strongly critiqued Obama Presidential Center plans, including the design of the high rise “Tower” and the proposed changes to the Olmsted road network that contradict the original Olmsted intent. TCLF president Charles Birnbaum stated many of the concerns in a Huffington Post op-ed piece.
  • Openlands proposed a statement of principles to guide the Section 106 review including: minimize building in the parks; replace any land used for buildings with new or reclaimed park acreage (with the added note that the greening of vacated roads does not constitute new park land); provide convenient public access and transportation; exploit synergies with existing community and cultural institutions; and restore and revitalize all of the parks – Jackson, Washington, and the Midway Plaisance.
  • Landmarks Illinois called for expanding the APE to include both the Woodlawn neighborhood in light of potential economic displacement impacts there and the Jackson Park Highlands Historic District, and, within the APE, for acknowledging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers GLFER Project on and around Wooded Island as a national model for balancing ecological needs with historic preservation goals.
  • The National Association of Olmsted Parks called for designation of Cornell Drive and Hayes Drive themselves as historic resources within Jackson Park.
  • Preservation Chicago added concerns about the proposed removal of the May McAdams Perennial Garden between Stony Island Ave. and Cornell Drive where Jackson Park meets the Midway and the impact on the Park’s many and invaluable trees, green spaces and gardens.
  • Finally, Jackson Park Watch asked that the review area include the entire golf course project and challenged the claim that the existing 1999-2000 Framework plans calls for closing Cornell Drive, points raised also by Blacks in Green.

We believe all would benefit from reading in full the thoughtful statements from all of the consulting parties noted above. We hope soon to be able to post these documents and others Section 106/NEPA materials on our Jackson Park Watch website. Stay tuned while we work this out.

Also ahead in 2018:

JPW is also tracking other strands of the Jackson Park story and will keep you informed:

  • The Park District has said it will hold community meetings on the golf course project in the first quarter of the year but there is as yet no schedule. Park District CEO Mike Kelly recently noted that the project is stalled by private fundraising difficulties and the high public cost of the necessary infrastructure improvements ($30 million for underpasses; TBD for shoreline revetments), but he vowed to continue to push the project.
  • Whether the golf course project discussions will be under the umbrella of the South Lakefront Framework Plan process is unclear.       Next steps and the end date for that process is unclear, but we expect that the Park District will hold additional public open houses on the Framework Plan in the first part of this year.
  • Throughout 2017 the Obama Foundation repeated its intention to present the plan for the OPC to the City Council and Chicago Plan Commission by November.   Now there are references to making that submission in the first half of 2018.       In the meantime, the Obama Foundation has just awarded its construction management contracts, while it has continued to refuse to work with the Obama Community Benefits Coalition on a written community benefits agreement. The possible construction start date is now set for the end of the year.


The Section 106 reviews will continue for many months, and much is at stake. Your donations help us bring outside expertise to maximize our effectiveness. Please consider a contribution. Your check 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 21, 2017


Obama Center parking

Just when we thought there might be a break from Jackson Park action for the holidays, the Obama Foundation called an invitation-only meeting for Wednesday night, 12/20, to discuss parking garage plans.  JPW was there, along with top staff from Chicago-area park, open space, and preservation organizations, leaders of concerned local groups, and many others.

Sadly, despite some earlier suggestions to the contrary, the meeting revealed only that the Obama Foundation is choosing to willfully ignore the objections by large segments of the community as well as other organizations to the placement of the parking garage on the Midway and instead is digging in and making only minor tweaks to its earlier design.

After a lengthy description of these minor changes, including the assertion yet again that this was not a done deal and they were still considering alternatives, Obama Foundation V.P. Mike Strautmanis. moderated a Q & A session.  Many questions were raised about the need for and desirability of having the parking garage in that location.  Numerous people suggested that an underground parking garage should instead be constructed on the already-designated OPC plot. Mike Strautmanis insisted that cost was not a primary consideration in determining the location or design  of the garage, although it is generally known that an underground garage at this location with its high water table would be very pricey.  Others focused on transportation issues more broadly and the folly of trying to address the garage issue in isolation from an overall transportation plan for Jackson Park and the Midway. Some supported the basic idea of the parking garage.  And then, suddenly, time was up, with little time for follow-up.

A KEY POINT: The Foundation and its architects are now arguing that an above ground parking garage, by requiring people to walk the short distance to the OPC, will create opportunities for shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. They continue to refer to the area as “underutilized” and in need of “activation.”  However, the Foundation and its architects seem to misunderstand the essential character of the neighborhood around OPC’s desired site: it is residential and institutional, not full of vacant spaces awaiting development.  Unless the University converts its parking lot at 60th and Stony Island to commercial space, or unless Leon Finney’s Woodlawn Community Development Corporation demolishes some of its existing residential development along Stony Island between 60th and Hyde Park Academy, there simply is no space for restaurants and shops within any reasonable distance from the proposed OPC location.

Bottom line:  few if any minds were changed.  Next steps?  Expect the issue to be raised multiple times in many ways in the Section 106 /NEPA reviews now under way.

Darrow Bridge for sale?

The recent article about the Chicago Department of Transportation’s proposed sale of historic Darrow Bridge in Jackson Park is likely to be the beginning rather than the end of the story.  (Note: CDOT calls it the Columbia Bridge.) As recently as August, information available in a CDOT “charrette” focused on the bridge indicated that restoration plans were complete, funding was on hand, and all was moving ahead: not a word about a sale.  Darrow Bridge supporters and historic preservationists have now mobilized, seeking more information and looking for alternatives.  Stay tuned.

Year-end giving

If you are still thinking about year-end tax-deductible gifts, perhaps prompted by the new tax bill, consider a donation to Jackson Park Watch.  It is clear that the crucially important Section 106/NEPA reviews that have just begun will continue for many months, and that much is at stake.  Your donations help us bring outside expertise to maximize our effectiveness.  Your check 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 Action Alert – December 9, 2017

Greetings all,


While continuing to ignore the elephants in the room (the siting of the Obama Presidential Center, the proposed road closures/realignments, the proposed golf course consolidation/expansion), the Chicago Park District has now thrown a grab bag of new options into the mix at its latest round of open-house meetings. The second and last of these hastily announced presentations takes place this Monday, Dec. 11, from 6 to 9 pm at the South Shore Cultural Center. Doors open at 6; presentation at 6:30; open house follows. We urge you to attend!

As in prior meetings, there are a myriad of “boards” displaying possible layouts of the park, with staff posted at each. Specifically, we encourage you to discuss what you like and what you don’t with the staff (some from the Park District, some from the hired consultants). These in-depth discussions on individual park features are more significant than the overall general “vote” that attendees are asked to cast. It is not a question of choosing a single scenario but rather of identifying the desirable and preferred features in each (and tagging the undesirable ones as well).

The new options – packaged as three scenarios – range from bad (a revived “music pavilion” in scenarios one and two, one option locating it at Cornell Drive and 59th St.), to potentially useful (new walkways, a relocated dog park, a boardwalk along the lagoon near the Music Bridge), to intriguing but expensive (new water features in scenarios two and three, construction of a “point” in the lake at the 63rd St. beach). Attention to the details will be important.

The Park District is going to use feedback at these meetings in devising its next steps. While it is possible to view the boards and comment online, direct discussion is much more productive and powerful. This is one of those times when in-person input may carry real weight.

Please feel free to share this Action Alert widely.

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