Pavilion? Presidential Library? Professional Golf Course? The Call for Comprehensive Planning for Jackson and South Shore Parks
By: Juanita Irizarry, Executive Director
Preservation Chicago unknowingly marked my 18 month anniversary at Friends of the Parks this March in a special way. They announced their 2017 list of most endangered structures and spaces in Chicago. The historic Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park and the adjacent South Shore Cultural Center made their list.
WTTW reported: “As some of the best-known and most historically significant parks in the city, Jackson Park and South Shore Cultural Center Park are not threatened by disuse or deterioration, but development. Preservation Chicago is concerned by the lack of public engagement in plans for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and a Tiger Woods-designed golf course and what those developments might mean to the historic character of these South Side parks.”
We are thrilled to have yet another voice join the chorus for comprehensive planning for these parks!
A number of Chicagoans have wondered out loud with me why Friends of the Parks is concerned about the roll out of the professional golf course proposal that is now on the table for Jackson Park. They believe that the Obama Presidential Center’s plan to locate in Jackson Park is good for Chicago and that any attendant development in the community or park must, therefore, be good.
Other Chicagoans have expressed their chagrin that Friends of the Parks has not taken a stronger stance by filing a lawsuit to try to stop the Obama library from locating in a park. And some haven’t understood why we haven’t voiced a public position for or against a proposed pavilion in Jackson Park. Yet others consider it a no-brainer that we applaud the idea of closing roads that currently run through Jackson Park. But we haven’t done that.
So let me set the record straight on Friends of the Parks’ point of view about potential Obama Presidential Center-related development in Jackson Park and South Shore Park.
We still maintain that the Obama library should not be located in a park. But if it must be so, we continue to call for the replacement of park acreage and amenities to be usurped by it. And with many competing and uncoordinated priorities being pronounced via different entities, we have put out a clarion call for a comprehensive planning process to promote transparency, coordination, equity, and public participation.
Still don’t understand why we think comprehensive planning is more important than us taking stances on certain proposals at this time? Let me offer some historical context, though it will make a long story even longer.
One of the first meetings I attended in the fall of 2015 in my new role as the executive director of FOTP was a community charrette about potential revitalization of the “South Parks”—Jackson Park, Washington Park, and the Midway.
I was confused after that meeting. At the time, I thought that I didn’t understand what was going on because I was so new. And because I arrived after the start of the meeting (though far ahead of many people who popped in after they got home from work.) And that is probably somewhat true.
I was confused about whether this was a sincere effort to gather and incorporate community input or just a show. Confused about whether the projects mentioned were just someone’s vision or were already a done deal. Confused about whose meeting this was: the meeting hosts from the Project 120 non-profit organization or the Chicago Park District, whose staff were also part of the presentation. Confused about whether they really intended to address the entire South Park system, as the ideas presented for Jackson Park seemed more fully developed than those for the Midway and Washington Park. Confused about whether folks from each of these segments of that system related to or thought of themselves as connected to a South Parks system and whether they wanted to. Confused about how the Obama library would fit into this planning process. Confused about why the audience for the meeting was not very diverse.
FOTP Board Chair Lauren Moltz had been there since the start of the meeting. A long-time resident of Hyde Park, she helped me get a little caught up and understand some of the dynamics. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that lots of other people—long-time community residents and stakeholders, themselves—also were confused.
Project 120 had expanded beyond its initial interest in improvement of the Osaka Garden in Jackson Park. It set its sights on broader revitalization scheme that included a new pavilion reminiscent of the Japanese pavilion erected in the park during the World’s Fair more than a century ago. Objections arose, ranging from fears that the pavilion was part of a plan to make Jackson Park a regular concert venue to complaints that many birds would meet their demise when they flew into the glass walls proposed for the structure. Meanwhile, Project 120 facilitated the installation of Yoko Ono’s “Sky Landing” sculpture on Wooded Island, with this summer’s unveiling overshadowed by local suspicion about the secretive process and underlying intentions. It was not clear how decisions were made, how permissions about public art installations were granted without public approval processes, and whether more not-yet-revealed plans were being foreshadowed.
As stakeholders came to Friends of the Parks for help to fight for an appropriate process, we met with lots of individuals and groups over a period of a year to better discern what was going on. We met with Project 120. With the Chicago Park District. With Alderman Hairston. With community residents. With the Obama Foundation.
We hosted our own Netsch Lecture Series presentation by Project 120 to a packed house. Much of the reaction from the audience was negative. Attendees felt like they still weren’t getting the answers they wanted. They wanted more transparency. They wanted to understand why the words they heard from Project 120 staff about the opportunity to speak into the process didn’t match what seemed to be communicated as a done deal on the Project 120 website.
The controversy gave rise to a new group called Jackson Park Watch. They have disagreed with the Jackson Park Advisory Council about supporting Project 120, and they organized a strong enough voice that Alderman Hairston held a standing-room-only meeting to address concerns about Project 120’s proposals and process.
The moral of this story? Local residents are concerned are developments in Jackson Park. And they don’t agree. Regardless of what side they’re on, it’s probably safe to say that most people have been confused about the decision-making process and the proper portals for community input in the area’s parks for a good while now.
So the mayor’s recent announcement about a professional golf course connecting Jackson Park and South Shore Park and the talk of closures of local transportation routes only exacerbates the problem.
THE OBAMA PRESIDENTIAL CENTER
Since 2014, when Chicago was first mentioned as a potential site for the presidential library, FOTP has expressed excitement about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host the Obamas’ legacy, and especially on the city’s South Side, where the family has deep connection to the community. We beamed with pride along with other Chicagoans when the announcement was made that our city was chosen for this historic institution. And we would love to see the Obama Presidential Center be an engine for and centerpiece of healthy economic development of nearby neighborhoods.
But we also have said from the start that we strongly object to the use of parkland for the library. Park preservationists and real estate interests always will clash over the appropriate use of open space, and the siting of the Obama library is no different. Advocates for the benefits of green space and neighborhood residents who desperately want economic development may look at the situation with very different lenses. Even people who agree on preserving the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted certainly disagree on what that may mean in this particular situation. But Friends of the Parks maintains that we should not have to choose between the economic benefits that may come from having the Obama Presidential Center in the neighborhood and the preservation of precious park resources.
We have repeatedly suggested the use of 11 acres of vacant land—owned by the University of Chicago, the City, and the Chicago Transit Authority—across from Washington Park, rather than parkland itself. And we have continued to advocate publicly as well as behind the scenes for the Obama Foundation to choose a non-park site, even though all signs have indicated that we would lose that battle.
So when the 2016 announcement came that Jackson Park would host the Obama Presidential Center, our board chair, Lauren Moltz, said in a press release, “Chicago ranks 12th on a list of the most-densely populated cities in the country in terms of parkland per 1000 residents. President Obama is familiar with these statistics and knows the importance of parks in the lives of ordinary people. In fact, as a young community organizer, Mr. Obama came to Friends of the Parks and asked how we might work together to increase park space in South Side communities.”
FOTP also announced that we do not plan to sue over the issue as it is our understanding that the selected site is not public trust land, unlike the proposed site for the Lucas Museum. “Friends of the Parks’ analysis suggests that there is no realistic legal remedy at this time to protect this public open space from this development,” I said in our press statement. In it we urged greater public input to the process and proposed that the library’s design “maximize the use of available vacant land and underground space, and be truly ‘park positive’ by adding parkland to the surrounding community. . . Furthermore, any design should upgrade the park’s facilities and preserve existing recreational uses by the public.”
The Obama Presidential Center is not just taking up passive green space. Its location means that it will displace recreational fields that are used by the general public and many youth-serving programs including various local public schools, not the least of which is Hyde Park Academy which is located right across the street. Sponsors of local programs have reached out to us to express concern about the fate of their programming and the underprivileged youth they serve if the sports fields are not replaced somewhere nearby. One coach passionately shared stories of African-American athletes under his tutelage who have gone off to college on track scholarships because of the coaching and practice time they get on that track. We have shared such stories and spoken about this concern in every appropriate venue where we can make our voice heard. The limited ideas we have heard privately from the Chicago Park District or in meetings with other concerned stakeholders about possibly replacing these amenities contemplates moving them to existing green space without replacing the park acreage that is being taken away.
Notwithstanding our critiques, the Obama Foundation has been in touch with Friends of the Parks over the last year and suggested that they would involve us in an advisory capacity. We have privately shared with them our many concerns about process and about specific proposals, going back as far as the controversies around Project 120 to more recent issues. We have shared with them about the many neighborhood tables at which we sit and key points of information that our co-collaborators have authorized us to share. As they announced early this January their landscape architecture team of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Site Design Group, and Living Habitats, the Obama Foundation invited us to sit on their landscape architecture committee. We used the opportunity to ask them to step up and ensure that a comprehensive planning process will happen for Jackson Park.
THE CALL FOR COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING
As 2017 has come upon us, announcements and rumors have been flying about regarding various uncoordinated proposals for Jackson Park “improvement.” It seems that rather than approach the opportunity with careful and comprehensive planning, Chicago city and Park District leadership are throwing ideas out there to see which ones stick, just as we saw happen with the Project 120 process. When the mayor and the Chicago Park District announced in December 2016 that Tiger Woods would be designing a professional golf course for Chicago, we were taken aback. Just a few weeks before, Park District leadership had told Friends of the Parks that there would be a comprehensive planning process for Jackson Park. But, as revealed via a lawsuit forcing the exposure of the mayor’s emails, the Park District and the mayor had long been scheming as to how to actualize their professional golf course idea while making it seem like the community was in support.
Friends of the Parks had already been meeting and consulting with any Jackson Park, South Shore Park, and Washington Park stakeholders who would meet with us to consider strategies and build coalitions. We have even been sitting at tables of groups that don’t agree with each other, being transparent with all of them about our presence in each space. We were asked by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization to help them advocate for the sustainability components of their Community Benefits Agreements demands to the Obama Foundation. We are participating on a Jackson Park planning team convened by Rev. Arthur Brazier of Apostolic Church of God and 1Woodlawn. We are serving on a Jackson Park Advisory Council committee and consulting with the competing Jackson Park Watch. We are represented at Alderman Leslie Hairston’s table. We have attended a number of meetings of an ad hoc group formed by local leaders who don’t agree on lots of things but agree that there is not adequate opportunity for public participation in the process. And we continue to conduct our own Listening Tour meetings in the area to solicit additional input about local residents’ concerns for their parks. Wouldn’t it be nice if these meetings could be consolidated and be informed by full disclosure to the public about park plans and possibilities?
Some of the above was already in process and some of it was stirred into action by the fact that in early January, the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners voted suddenly and 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-level golf complex estimated to cost $30 million. Park District CEO Mike Kelly announced his desire to break ground by this March but insisted that they would not go forward if they didn’t have community support.
The Chicago Park District held its vote only two days after the first community meeting about the golf complex. In addition, the Park District has been referring to a framework plan for Jackson Park that was created in 1999, stating that this golf course fits into the framework plan, although a professional golf course was not anticipated in that document. We believe the plan needs to be updated to include all of the other major projects taking place in the park, including the Obama Presidential Center. The rushed process in proposing and approving the initial contract for this golf course highlights the lack of transparency and community input.
Friends of the Parks has many concerns, along with local residents, including but not limited to: this golf complex may not meet the needs of the community, may not be contained to the existing golf course footprint as promised, and will compete for funding with other heavily used resources, including the recreational fields that need to be moved and the outdated Jackson Park fieldhouse. We have been collecting questions and concerns about the golf course and any other aspect of park development related to the Obama library and invite you share your input with us. It’s hard to know whether the professional golf course proposal is a good or realistic idea without the answers to a lot of questions, and we cannot figure out how the Park District could possibly ensure a full vetting of the issues in the timeframe that they have suggested.
“We recognize that there are always going to be disagreements about the best use or uses of parks,” said FOTP during our testimony at the January Park District board meeting. “When you hold community input sessions at the very last minute, trying to create the impression of public participation, after the parks superintendent and the mayor had been secretly putting a plan in place for quite a long time, you create mistrust.”
At our most recent Listening Tour meeting, in the South Shore neighborhood, one local resident’s comments reflected the reality of the situation quite well. She said that she was excited about the golf course proposal when she first heard about it, even though she’s not a golfer. But then she realized that there were a lot of unanswered questions, she wasn’t hearing about plans to address other needs in the park that might get overshadowed by the cost of the golf course, and she was concerned that the proposed developments in the park might not serve—or might even lead to displacement of—current residents in the area. And, thus, there should be a formal, robust, comprehensive, inclusive planning process for the parks.
Thinking back to my first months on the job and the meetings about Project 120’s vision for the South Parks, I can’t understand why the Chicago Park District didn’t champion a comprehensive planning process for Jackson Park and Washington Park back at that time. They already knew that the Obama library would come to one of those two parks. Taking responsibility for developing a park framework plan in 2014-2015 would have saved a lot of headaches and would have provided ample time and space to bat around a lot of ideas and solicit community input.
Media reports just last week suggest that fundraising for the golf course is behind schedule. And Alderman Hairston recently has chimed in publicly, calling on the Obama Foundation to ensure community outreach and weighing in on the prospect of street closures through the park. Importantly, the Jackson Park Advisory Council also changed its tune a bit and affirmed the need for comprehensive park planning. And Preservation Chicago’s recent announcement put an exclamation mark on the issue.
Friends of the Parks is hopeful that this swell of voices and circumstances will converge to slow down the process and create space for transparency and inclusiveness to help Chicago come to the best possible conclusions for the sake of our precious parks.