August 28, 2019
Abby Monroe, Public Participation Officer
Department of Planning and Development
City of Chicago
Via email: [email protected]
Re: Section 106 Review – Assessment of Effects to Historic Properties relating to Jackson Park
Dear Ms. Monroe:
Protect Our Parks (POP) is an Illinois nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization composed entirely of independent minded people dedicated to keeping close watch on the conduct on the Chicago Park District and pursuing legal action to keep Chicago public parks “open, clear, and free” as they were placed in trust to be. Although not a Consulting Party we are an interested party to the Section 106 review of the proposed taking of dedicated public park land in historic Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance to be used for construction of a 99 year private interest Obama Center (OPC).
Others who are Consulting Parties, with whom we totally agree, like the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Preservation Chicago, and Jackson Park Watch, have submitted objective highly critical review comments in impressive detail. We write to call public attention back to the primacy of the fundamental public interest values that we believe are in danger of being lost in the nitpicking bureaucratic maze of responding to the “crafty” draft report of the Assessment of Effects to Historic Properties that was issued on July 29.
First, which should give pause to everyone, there is a self-conscious admission of irregularity, because of the way the Park District and City has had the need to pursue a contrived and convoluted law defying land flipping process to even bring the prospect of the proposed Obama Center in Jackson Park into existence, and it being a project which has conspicuously morphed from being a highly desirable official Presidential Library into a constantly changing 99 year work in progress.
Our comment is simple. Before all the other self-serving arguments, the one significant issue is obligation to address and honor the long established lakefront protection principle and precedent that has created the world famous Chicago lakefront public park system and has now produced the immediate challenge of protecting Jackson Park from being recklessly despoiled for no compelling reason.
It is not disputed by anyone , including the City, that there are superior underserved urban locations on the south side that are not only immediately available for building an OPC but are in crying economic need of such an investment to promote neighborhood development .
The vision of a brutish 235 foot high Obama tower being dumped into a vulnerable pristine park, as a personal monument, something more than twenty stories taller than any other existing structure serving as a recognized art and science museum in any lakefront public park, is frightening to contemplate and impossible to justify.
The transient popularity of former president Obama , or whomever in the future may appear next on the political stage with an Ozymandias gleam in their eye, is totally irrelevant. The issue is only the integrity of historic Jackson Park not the collective egos of former Mayor Emanuel and his former boss president Obama.
This is how the Chicago Park District itself describes its park protection mission on the internet: “In Chicago’s backyard awaits a nature oasis. Lagoons, dunes, prairie, grasslands, savannas, woodlands and wetlands not only attract more than 250 migrating bird species but also invite adventurers to explore the beauty of native plants and flora. Exploration and relaxation are offered from all natural areas. Many of these featured sites offer breath-taking views, unique nature-based activities and most importantly, a break from our busy lives.”
Bravo, if the Park District Commissioners, who are politically appointed, were in real life practice the faithful guardians of the public parks they have sworn to be, this would be a perfect description of why Jackson Park is one of the priceless gems in the 24 mile long lakeshore public park system, and serves an irreplaceable outdoor and recreational need in south side community life.
Never mentioned is that Jackson Park is not just an ordinary piece of undeveloped land, it is a unique and historically significant lakefront public park location which is held in public trust. It came into existence and earned its prominence as a result of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the genius of its creator Frederick Law Olmsted; and its continued existence serves an important public interest, that has been made the subject of both state and national legal protection.
And yet, when put to the moral test, the Chicago Park District and City have managed to treat all the existing local and state laws, and long established tradition and practice ,that makes that intent and purpose and need unambiguous as if they didn’t exist; and reduced their sworn oaths of office to faithfully perform that public park protection duty as just without meaning.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation said in its letter to the Federal Highway Administration, dated August 22, 2019, that it is “concerned that not enough detail is provided to properly characterize the nature and intensity of the adverse effects to the cultural landscapes of Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance “ and that “the adverse effects are even greater than has been set forth in the AOE report”.
The AOE report (Section 22.214.171.124) identifies the wide scope of adverse effects, direct, indirect and cumulative, of the undertaking that would result. It is curious that no one has cared to mention in this Review that there is a lawsuit (case No. 18-cv-3424); advancing in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (No. 1:18-cv-03424), raising these same adverse effects issues as a matter of Public Trust doctrine; and that POP, Plaintiff-Appellant in the lawsuit, has filed a motion in that case to spread of record the existence of this Section 106 Review proceeding by supplementing the court record with the details of this parallel legal review.
POP is concerned that, by design, the specific actions of the Chicago Park District and City of Chicago, alleged to be illegal that triggered both the lawsuit and the Section 106 Review will become lost and forgotten in bureaucratic nitpicking , and by malign neglect become a “done deal” instead of confirming a firewall re-enforcing the existing public trust doctrine legal safeguards.
Lest we forget what the Park District has said, open space, access to unspoiled nature, and dedicated public parks are indispensable to provide the needed relief and quality of life in congested industrial and expanding urban centers and Chicago has heretofore had the wisdom to take environmental advantage of that 24 miles of Lake Michigan lakefront by preventing any form of commercial exploitation. In particular, the neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and south shore Chicago have had the unique opportunity to experience the benefit and use of world famous Jackson Park, which is the largest public park of its kind on the south side that directly serves the local communities, and is a public amenity that if not misappropriated for an Obama Center also enjoys the rarity of appearing on the National Register of Historic Places.