June 3, 2017 – Parks As Democracy

As I was doing some research for today’s show, I was fairly astonished to discover that the plug was pulled on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art a mere year ago. In fact, it wasn’t even that long ago! The dateline on this Chicago Tribune article, headlined Lucas Museum drops plan to build in Chicago, was June 24, 2016.

So why does it seem like five years ago? I suspect that this is the fallout of living in the Age of Trump. Yeesh.

At the forefront of the battle to preserve Chicago’s lakefront was an organization called Friends of the Parks (FOTP). In November of 2014, the group filed a federal lawsuit to keep the museum from being built on what is now a parking lot next to Soldier Field. The Trib reported that “Friends of the Parks argued that the museum plans violate the public trust doctrine, benefit a private interest more than the state’s residents and tarnish the city’s lakefront.”

To call the actions of FOTP controversial would be an understatement. For their troubles, some people labeled them “Friends of the Parking Lot.” Their adversaries were a millionaire filmmaker and his buddies, including the Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But they held firm and, in the end, won a decisive victory.

It was also right around this time that Juanita Irizarry became FOTP executive director. For 34 years, Erma Tranter had held that post, guiding the organization through its formative years. Cassandra Francis succeeded Tranter but suddenly left after about a year. So with the group in the midst of a high-powered legal case, it couldn’t have been easy for a newcomer.

Fast forward one year, and it seems as if nothing has slowed down. Last summer, President Barack Obama announced that the Barack Obama Presidential Center would be built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s south side, raising questions about the use of Chicago’s park lands. Then, out of the blue, 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. Once again, controversy followed this declaration, with FOTP being among the groups questioning the transparency of the decision making process and the ultimate desirability of the project.

In the middle of these south side issues, a group called Project 120 Chicago has made it’s well-funded and well-connected presence felt. In an article for the South Side Weekly called Greener Pastures: What the history of Jackson Park tells us about its uncertain future, reporter Michael Wasney neatly lays out the background for what could be called the turf wars for this area. He writes,

Some are more skeptical, not just about Project 120, but about all of the changes that have been proposed for Jackson Park. When I asked Ken what he has heard about the Obama Presidential Center (OPC),  his answer was telling: “I was at an alderman’s meeting…It seemed like nobody knew what was going on.” Ken is not alone in his concern that “the alderman didn’t have any answers.” A few organizations have coalesced around this perceived lack of transparency in the the Park District’s decision-making process for Jackson Park. These organizations allege that secrecy has shrouded not just the decision-making process for the OPC, but Project 120’s restoration and the golf course revitalization as well.

Friends of the Parks addresses the transparency issue in its Winter/Spring 2017 newsletter:

Friends of the Parks joins South Side residents in their concerns over a lack of transparency regarding plans for two projects on public land in Jackson Park: the Obama Presidential Library and the merging of the JacksonPark and South Shore golf courses. We believe there should be a transparent and inclusive process that respects community input for both of these projects…

The Obama Foundation announced in August that the Obama Presidential Center would be built in Jackson Park. Friends of the Parks has said since 2014, when Chicago was first mentioned as a potential site for the presidential library, that we are excited about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host the president’s legacy on the city’s South Side, where he and the first lady have a deep connection to the community. We have also said from the start that we object to the use of parkland for the library. We echo the concerns of local residents over the decision to construct the library on the current site of playing fields.This decision directly contradicts FOTP’s Policy Principles, which include preserving existing park lands, providing active recreation opportunities, and maintaining an open, clear, and free lakefront…

Meanwhile, in early January, the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a $1.1 million contract to allow for site planning and engineering surveys in support of merging the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a championship-levelgolf complex estimated to cost $30 million. Friends of the Parks is concerned, along with local residents, that this golf complex does not meet the needs of the community but rather will compete for funding and space with heavily used park resources, such as football, baseball, and soccer fields, as well as the outdated Jackson Park fieldhouse.

And I haven’t even gotten to Lake Calumet, the Last Four Miles and a bunch of other things.

So it’s no wonder that FOTP has put together a conference called Rethinking the Role of Chicago’s Parks: Parks As Democracy? This event takes place June 9 & 10 at Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago 60605. They are inviting

  • Park Advisory Council (PAC) / Park Partner Organization (PPO) members
  • Friends of the Parks members and supporters
  • Concerned residents
  • Community activists and organizers
  • Those interested in urban planning, community engagement and policy

to join professionals, leaders in park advocacy and policy, plus supporters of Chicago park preservation and development.

This morning, Peggy Malecki and I talk to FOTP Executive Director Juanita Irizarry about this conference and the plateful of stuff that seems, with each passing day, to be piled higher.


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