Secrecy surrounding Obama center plans riles Jackson Park advocates

SHARE Secrecy surrounding Obama center plans riles Jackson Park advocates

A rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Plans for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park are being firmed up largely out of public view, and one watchdog group is sounding the alarm about the lack of transparency.

Decisions on the design of the center, the park’s golf course and even whether to eliminate some roads in the park are being worked out by the Obama Foundation, City Hall and the Chicago Park District.

Jackson Park Watch has sent a letter to City Hall outlining their concerns.

“What groups have the Park District, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the Obama Foundation been meeting with? How were they selected? How representative are they? And what data have they been given to review? Where is the open, public process that is appropriate for consideration of changes to public parks?” Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid, coordinators for Jackson Park Watch, wrote in an Aug. 8 letter to Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp, who is overseeing the massive developments.

There have been four community meetings in June and July — with more to come — but that’s not the whole story on what’s going behind the scenes. The public will learn some details about proposed street changes Wednesday and Thursday when the Chicago Department of Transportation hosts open houses at the South Shore Cultural Center, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. both days.

The Park District also will have meetings at the cultural center, on Sept. 21 and Sept. 25, to gather input.

The Chicago Park District wants to merge the Jackson Park (shown) and South Shore golf courses.

The Chicago Park District wants to merge the Jackson Park (shown) and South Shore golf courses. | Sun-Times file photo

Sun-Times file photo

At an invitation-only Aug. 15 briefing at its Hyde Park headquarters, foundation officials left the impression the foundation will now pay for an underground parking garage, a change from the presentation by former President Barack Obama in May.

Some questions Jackson Park Watch is raising involve basic information the group believes should have been made public by now.

Among the questions the Sun-Times asked the Foundation last week — and that the Foundation declined to answer:

  • Will the foundation pay for the underground garage, and will that garage be located on a part of the Midway Plaisance, between the Metra tracks and Stony Island Avenue?
  • With the design getting finalized, what is the footprint of the Jackson Park site the Obama Foundation wants to occupy?
  • When will the foundation present details to the Chicago Plan Commission?

For months, the Chicago Sun-Times has been asking the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Department of Transportation to put a price tag on the roadway and infrastructure changes tied to the Obama Center and the proposal to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single championship-caliber course. The Sun-Times also wants to know where the taxpayer money to pay that bill would come from. Both agencies have refused to provide details.

Those changes include closing Cornell Drive and Marquette Drive, building a pair of new underpasses — at 67th Street and South Shore Drive and at Jeffery Boulevard and 66th Street — and possibly building an underground garage and improving the shoreline to allow spectacular lakefront holes at the new course.

Now that the course layout calls for displacing tennis courts and the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, Jackson Park residents are demanding to know where the treasured bird and butterfly preserve will be relocated and how that work will be paid for.

The laundry list of possible projects also includes: a new Metra station; a new Jackson Park fieldhouse; a rebuilt Clarence Darrow Bridge; a new headquarters for the Chicago Police Department’s mounted unit now located at the park adjacent to the South Shore Country Club; and a host of recreational amenities, including sledding hills, biking paths and the possibility of an outdoor concert venue.

On Monday, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey issued a statement that continued to talk only vaguely about the taxpayer contribution.

“The Chicago Department of Transportation is developing proposed roadway improvements that will be needed to mitigate the impacts of proposed road closures within Jackson Park,” Claffey wrote.

“This week’s meetings are intended to share details and solicit public feedback from community residents and stakeholders about these proposed roadway improvements. Cost estimates will be developed once we have determined the scope of the investments that are needed.”

City Hall sources privately acknowledge that transportation, park and infrastructure improvements tied to the Obama library and golf course merger could easily top $100 million.

The golf course merger is estimated to cost $30 million, and 20 percent of that will be paid for by taxpayers. It’s unclear if that includes a new clubhouse.

But sources maintain those projects would be built over a six-year period and the massive costs could be “incorporated” into the annual capital budgets for CDOT and the Chicago Park District. Implied but not stated is the fact that other projects would have to be shelved to make way for the Obama Foundation’s wish list.

“They’re planning to spend tens of millions anyway,” said a source familiar with the project, who asked to remain anonymous. “They’ll just spend it in a different way.”

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