September 16, 2017 – Remaking Plans to Remake Jackson Park

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the saying that is supposed to be a translation of a Chinese curse, though there seems to be no record of the “original” Chinese version. Nonetheless, Juanita Irizarry could be excused for thinking that the phrase was coined specifically for her situation.  Irizarry is executive director of Chicago’s Friends of the Parks, and if you heard our interview with her on June 3 of this year, you know that she is up to her elbows in issues concerning mostly the south side of Chicago, and mostly Jackson Park.

As I wrote in June,

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.

So here we are, a little more than a year later, with plans moving forward–not exactly at break neck speed, but faster than some folks would like. Just this past Thursday, top Obama Foundation officials and consultants held a public meeting to discuss design plans for the Obama Presidential Center.

The former president himself appeared at the meeting via live video stream to directly answer questions from the hundreds of concerned citizens assembled at the Hyatt hotel at McCormick Place. The most interesting–and perhaps controversial–bit of news to come out of that meeting was that the Obama Foundation would not sign a so-called “community benefits agreement”:

“The community benefit agreement concept is actually one that can be a really useful tool…if you have a bunch of developers coming in that want to build a high-rise or for-profit enterprise in your neighborhood,” Obama said. “But here’s the thing: we are a nonprofit and aren’t making money. We are just bringing money to the community.

“We are going to be … setting up very clear standards for how we’re going to hire, how we’re going to make sure that existing small businesses in the community benefit, how we are going to ensure that residents benefit from this process. And all that will be public.”

But will it be? And will south side residents–all south side residents–benefit from the library? The Sun Times asks that question. And the Chicago Tribune wonders about the hidden costs:

Cornell Drive, however, serves as a vital link for South Side motorists moving between South Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago Skyway. To alleviate the impact of Cornell’s closure, Obama center plans call for Hayes Drive to replace Cornell as a connector between the Skyway and Lake Shore Drive, and for improvements on Lake Shore Drive to accommodate diverted traffic. There would also be improvements along Stony Island Avenue, which runs along the western border of the park. How much will all of that cost? And will taxpayers shoulder most or all of that price tag? No word yet from City Hall.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Parks keeps reminding people that

we enthusiastically welcome the OPC to Chicago but do not welcome its siting in a public park. But absent a viable legal remedy, we have called for a “park positive” outcome which would include the replacement nearby of all green space acreage and specific amenities taken away by the OPC.  We have also repeatedly called for the spirit of Chicago’s beloved, historic, Olmsted-designed Jackson Park to be honored and that it remain publicly accessible.

We have led the call for a comprehensive planning process to ensure a thorough, integrated, transparent look at and community response to all potential “revitalization” proposals for Jackson Park and South Shore Park.  Now the updated South Lakefront Framework planning process is underway.  It is not as comprehensive or transparent as we would hope for, and it is moving more quickly than we think is appropriate.  So we will continue to critique the process while participating and encouraging you all to do the same.  Thus far, we have refused requests to take positions on any particular OPC-inspired “improvement” to Jackson Park or South Shore Park.  None of us should be roped into taking positions on things that are clear as mud.

For instance, one of the newer developments is the suggestion that a garage will be built by the Obama Foundation on adjacent City land. The controversy surrounding that decision centers on whether the garage will be underground, as is the case in Millennium Park, or something more obtrusive with a green roof. Stay tuned.

And there are more meetings on the way. First, the Chicago Park District will hold a hearing for its 2018 budget on Tuesday, September 19 at Fosco Park. Registration is a 5:30pm, with a 6:00pm meeting start.

Then, on Monday, September 25, CPD will hold a hearing about the proposed Obama Presidential Center at 5pm at the South Shore Cultural Center, with another meeting scheduled for September 27. Given the interest in the project, the turnout is likely to be significant.

We’re pleased to have Juanita Irizarry on The Mike Nowak Show again this morning to update us on the positions of FOTP as the various south side projects move forward…as they inevitably will.