June 17, 2017 – The Obama Library: Baby Steps for Transparency

On June 3, Peggy and I spoke to Juanita Irizarry, Executive Director of Friends of the Parks (FOTP). in advance of a conference called Rethinking the Role of Chicago’s Parks: Parks As Democracy? That conference was a response to a couple of announcements in the past year. The first was from former President Barack Obama that the Barack Obama Presidential Center would be built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s south side.

That immediately raised questions about the use of Chicago’s park lands, coming, as it did, on the heels of a failed attempt by George Lucas to build a museum on the Lakefront next to Soldier Field. But what followed the Obama decision was something that raised eyebrows, as the City of Chicago announced in December that golfer Tiger Woods had signed on for a $30 million renovation of the south side Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses, with the goal of transforming them into one massive PGA-calibre course.

That created concerns among various organizations, including FOTP, about the lack of transparency not only in the execution of the proposed plans, but how those projects were approved in the first place.

Just a few days ago, FOTP sent out a notice, following the Parks as Democracy gathering. It read in part:

As we have said repeatedly, at the very least there must be a true, transparent, comprehensive park planning process through which local residents and other Chicagoans can provide community input.  The many proposed “revitalization” projects for Jackson Park and South Shore Park that have been floated by the City, the Chicago Park District, and the Obama Foundation must be considered as a whole, not in a piecemeal, uncoordinated fashion.

Therefore, we consider it a victory that yesterday the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago announced a planning process to do an updated Framework Plan for Jackson Park, South Shore Park, and eventually, Washington Park!

What that means for now are three “community conversations” on June 21, June 24, and June 27. In a press release about the announcement, the Chicago Park District states that

“The upcoming addition of the Obama Presidential Center and plans to enhance the golf courses at South Shore and Jackson Park provide a unique opportunity for community and city residents to help shape the future of the South Lakefront and surrounding communities,” said Michael Kelly, General Superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District. “Residents will be a critical part of this process, and we look forward to receiving valuable input.”

Upon seeing the FOTP email, I contacted Juanita Irizarry, who echoes the positive view espoused in the newsletter, which states, “Sometimes you have to celebrate the little victories!

However, if you read this story in the Chicago Tribune, you might be lead to understand that there’s probably good reason for Chicago citizens to react cautiously:

But park advocates say the short notice and lack of details about how much time the attendees will be given during the meetings to express concerns makes them question the sincerity of the city and Park District’s efforts.

“Many in the community that we talk to will see this as a meaningless ritual — what they’ve been fearing — that it will be a sham hearing meant to show community support when there really wasn’t direct conversation,” said Brenda Nelms, co-founder of Jackson Park Watch, an informal organization representing the interests of park users.

She hopes the meetings include discussions of how these projects will change traffic patterns, congestion, parking and noise for communities around the park. She also hopes the Park District provides realistic timelines and information about sources of funding, including costs to taxpayers.

As DNAInfo explains, the rerouting of traffic through and around Jackson Park is either a good idea or a bad one, depending on who you are, where you live and whether you view Jackson Park as a destination or as something to travel through on your way to the Chicago Skyway.

Here’s when and where the community meetings will be held:

  •     June 21, 6-8pm, South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S South Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60649
  •     June 24, 10am-noon, Hyde Park Academy High School, 6220 South Stony Island Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
  •     June 27, 6pm, Alderman Leslie Hairston ward meeting at La Rabida Children’s Hospital, 6501 South Promontory Drive, Chicago, IL 60649

Juanita Irizarry joins us again this morning to follow up on the conversation we started earlier this month.