Jackson Park Watch Update – September 19, 2018

Greetings, all,

There has been a tidal wave of Jackson Park activity this week. Here’s a summary starting with the most recent announcement.

For lease: 19.3 acres of prime parkland for 9.9 cents per year for 99 years

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the City has offered the Obama Foundation a very sweet deal in the lease agreement that has been a long time in coming. As discussed in the Sun-Times and Crain’s, the proposed lease agreement does require the Obama Foundation to live up to some very basic standards including delaying any development until the completion of the federal review process, but it also proposes to give the Foundation control over this invaluable piece of historic public park on terms that amount to a quasi-privatization. It also underscores prior City and Obama Foundation assertions that virtually no replacement parkland would be needed even though the OPC site would take over 19.3 acres of Jackson Park now used for a wide variety of recreational activities that might potentially require a UPARR conversion approval.

Also in the works at the same time is a proposed ordinance that would redefine the portion of Jackson Park to be given to the Obama Foundation. This altered site would conform to the Obama Foundation’s plans as revealed in 2017 to move the site north and east, taking over Cornell Drive and the Perennial Garden and eliminating the eastbound segment of the Midway Plaisance Drive between Stony Island and Cornell Drive.

The revised ordinance and proposed lease ordinance will apparently be introduced to the City Council this Thursday, though they do not yet appear on the agenda as of mid-day Wednesday.

Protect Our Parks lawsuit attracts Obama Foundation response

The sudden urgency to introduce new ordinances for City Council approval is perhaps related to the September 20 hearing on the Protect Our Parks (POP) recent motion to require the City to cease work in Jackson Park. (See here for details of the POP motion.) Also timely, representatives of the Obama Foundation just made their first public comments on the POP lawsuit in discussion with the Tribune editorial board on Tuesday.

City and Park District halt work on Jackson Park replacement track

A day earlier, on Monday, Sept. 17, the City released the news that it was ceasing work on the new track/field facility necessitated because the existing track/field would be replaced by the OPC. In the meantime, the existing track/field remains intact and is in daily use. The City has previously denied to the public and in court (in the POP hearing on 8/14) that there was any connection between the OPC project and the new track/field facility. Of particular note are the Sun-Times reports that “[t]he city decision to stop the work came after a Sept. 11 meeting with the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration,” and that, according to the City’s deputy communications direction Shannon Breymaier, construction will not resume until “the federal agencies confirm that resumption of work is appropriate.”

Initial thoughts about the September 17 NEPA review meeting

The public meeting about the NEPA review offered lots of information but no clarity. While we salute the NPS for having this meeting – and for having Morgan Elmer, the NPS lead person on the review, there in person and ready to talk to all who were interested (we saw people lining up to talk with her!) – we are still working to sort it all out.

Our initial thoughts:

* It is very significant that the NPS has determined that the “no-action” baseline for its review of the proposed projects (OPC, road changes) will be the park as it now is. JPW and many others have criticized the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) proposal to use the envisioned completion of all of OPC and road changes as its “baseline” for review.

* Of equal importance, we think, is NPS’s comment that it is very interested in community input on the issues it will be assessing in the NEPA review – recreation, current and future desired uses of the park, traffic, birds, and more. It also was made clear that, despite City representations to the contrary, no NPS decisions have been made about UPARR conversion and parkland replacement issues. Note that NPS’s specific concern with regard to UPARR is the “retention of recreational utility in the area,” with recreation being both active and passive pastimes.

Letter writing encouraged

Because of the NPS interest in community views and because of the new NPS role in the process, we encourage interested people to write Morgan Elmer, the NPS lead on the NEPA review, with questions and concerns about these and other related issues as noted above. In order to be certain that these comments become part of the public records, we recommend that the letters be jointly addressed to Ms. Elmer and Abby Monroe at the City’s Department of Planning and Development, and that the subject line be something like this: public comment re NPS NEPA review of proposed changes in Jackson Park.

Morgan Elmer: morgan_elmer@nps.gov

Abby Monroe: abby.monroe@cityofchicago.org

More information on the NEPA meeting

The City has posted links to the introductory video and the presentation boards from the 9/17 meeting on its federal reviews website (check the timetable box for Sept. 17). We are the first to admit the information is not fully self-evident. We will continue to try to sort it out and to provide more clarity.

Your support still needed!

As this summary again makes clear, the federal review of the proposed changes to Jackson Park is on-going and entering a critical phase.  We continue to be engaged in regulatory and legal consultations, and your financial support helps ensure we have the expertise we need.  Please send a donation check to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

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

Jackson Park Watch Update – September 14, 2018

Two items:

* Meeting reminder
* New development in Protect Our Parks Lawsuit

Public Information Meeting Reminder!

The National Park Service (NPS) will host a public information meeting regarding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review of the proposed Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and related road changes this coming Monday, September 17.  We urge you to attend the meeting, which will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 South Shore Drive.

This important meeting heralds a new phase in the federal reviews of the OPC and related road change proposals. NPS is now the lead agency for the NEPA review of these proposals.  As was outlined at the kick-off meeting of the federal reviews on Dec. 1, 2017, the NEPA review will assess the environmental effects of these proposed projects including the impacts on noise; traffic; wildlife/habitat; air & water quality; and socioeconomics.  Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration will continue as the lead federal agency for the related reviews required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which is still underway.

JPW has been in contact with Morgan Elmer, who is the NPS lead on this review and will be at the meeting. She explained what will take place at the meeting:

We are going to be available to clarify the NEPA process forward. To supplement the meeting’s primary purpose of describing the newly combined federal NEPA review process, we will be sharing the draft purpose and needs [statement]for the federal agencies.  We will also describe how the NEPA process will rely heavily on associated work on the NHPA Section 106 process.  

At Monday’s informational meeting we are planning on having a film loop to supplement our posters.  We will have staff at the posters to clarify our status.  As you know from my earlier email, we will put the meeting information on the City’s website and a future National Park Service site. This is to ensure those who are not able to attend in person get the same information.  

For those who want to catch up on the review process to date, documents and timelines are available on the website maintained by the City’s Department of Planning and Development.

We hope to see you there!

Important Development in POP Lawsuit

Protect Our Parks has filed a new motion in its on-going lawsuit against the City and Park District documenting the fact that the Park District’s premature track/field work has a direct connection with and was necessitated by plans for the OPC. The Sun-Times has a good piece about the action.  The POP motion points out that the Plan Commission resolution of approval for the track relocation required the Park District to wait until the federal reviews were complete before beginning construction, another important fact that the City and Park District have ignored.

Your support needed!

As the above notes make clear, the federal review of the proposed siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park and the related road changes is on-going.  We continue to be engaged in regulatory and legal consultations, and your financial support helps ensure we have the expertise we need.  Please send a donation check to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

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


Jackson Park Watch News Flash – August 31, 2018

Greetings again!

We have just learned that the ongoing federal review process for proposed changes in Jackson Park under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will include a public information meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, at the South Shore Cultural Center (7059 South Shore Drive).   It is our understanding that the meeting will be hosted by the National Park Service, which has just taken over as the lead agency on the NEPA review, and that representatives from multiple local, state and federal agencies will discuss NEPA and answer questions.

The meeting is now announced on the City’s website.


Jackson Park Watch Update – August 31, 2018

Greetings All!

Once again, much is happening. Here are some highlights.

Good golf course news!

We are happy to have some good golf course news to share. Eric Zorn’s recent column in the Tribune shared exciting new ideas about how the Jackson Park course could better serve the neighborhood, the south side, and the city generally without destroying recreational areas and the invaluable Nature Sanctuary adjacent to the South Shore Cultural Center, all at a much lower cost. We look forward to broader discussions about how to improve the existing golf courses in ways that respect the existing natural areas and recreational amenities and that preserve the reasonable fees and tee access that ensure that local golfers can continue to enjoy them.

Important change in the federal reviews

About a month ago, the City notified the consulting parties to the Section 106 review that new documents and information had been added to the website that periodically posts documents related to the federal review of the proposals for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes.

Among the new information shared was the announcement of a change in the federal agency responsible for leading a critical portion of the review. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), initially the agency in charge, will continue to be the lead federal agency for the Section 106 (historic preservation) review.   However, the National Park Service (NPS) will take over as lead agency for the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review, the overarching umbrella review that covers both the historic preservation assessment and the more comprehensive environmental impact assessments to come. The Park Service’s involvement is based on earlier “UPARR” federal funding for recreational facilities in Jackson Park that cannot be changed to non-recreational uses without NPS sign-off.

JPW and other organizations have sought to understand the reason for the switch and its potential implications.   We and others have been critical of the early, City-led efforts to limit the focus of the NEPA review to the state of Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance as it will be after the OPC and the related road changes have been implemented rather to use the parks’ current state as the baseline for measuring impact. We can only think that it would be a good thing for another set of eyes to take a look at the issues that we and others have raised.

We have written the NPS official newly in charge of the NEPA review, attaching letters detailing our NEPA-related concerns and drawing more complete attention to the unresolved issues of proper parkland replacement, not only for now-destroyed baseball diamonds, but for the entire OPC site.

“FAQ” merits a critique

Among the documents newly posted by the City is an FAQ that is meant to respond to some of the many questions JPW and others have raised about the OPC plans. We note that there are many gaps, half-truths and internal contradictions in the City’s assertions.

Some examples:

One key distortion occurs near the end of the document, when it asserts that the proposal for siting the OPC in Jackson Park was fully reviewed and publicly discussed in 2014-15, when the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the City, developed its bid to the Obama Foundation. But the FAQ fails to note that the portion of land in Jackson Park offered to the Obama Foundation in 2015 was not the same plot of land that it now seeks to claim. In 2015 there was no hint in the community or Council meetings that the OPC would demand the closure of Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets as well as the east-bound segment of Midway Plaisance Drive. There was no hint that, because of those undisclosed road closures, the OPC would require some $175 million in public, taxpayer funds for widening Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue, with an attendant loss of parkland. It is unknown whether such possibilities of site creep were raised in the University of Chicago’s proposal to the Obama Foundation, for that bid has continued to be confidential.

Another example is the continuing insistence that the South Lakefront Framework Plan (SLFP) somehow requires that the OPC and its related road changes be put in place whereas in fact the plans for the OPC and the road changes all predate the SLFP and were fully developed before the SLFP community meetings began.

Yet one more: The City states that “We anticipate that the widening of Stony Island will have no effect to the crown of the [historic Olmsted designed] berms” that mark the western edge of the park. In fact, the OPC landscape architects plan to level the site in order to completely rebuild the contours. 

Seen in the neighborhood

Earlier this week former President Obama dropped in on an event scheduled to update supporters about the Obama Foundation’s programs and the status of the OPC, whose construction start date has recently been postponed until 2019.  The event was closed to the media except for President Obama’s brief remarks to thank the group and reaffirm his close ties and commitment to Chicago. As the Sun-Times and other media noted, the construction project faces a revised schedule and structure for federal reviews, a legal challenge by Protect Our Parks, and a continued call for a Community Benefits Agreement.

We need your support!

As is clear from former President Obama’s visit to cheer some core supporters, the struggle over the location of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park is far from over.  We are engaged in an expanding variety of regulatory and legal consultations, and your financial support is vital to ensure we have the expertise we need.  Please send a donation check to Jackson Park Watch at P. O. Box 15302, Chicago 60615.

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

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