Jackson Park trees cut down near Obama Center site despite lawsuit, promises

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Cut trees in Jackson Park, across from the Hyde Park Academy High School. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times.

WASHINGTON — The city and Chicago Park District are cutting down trees in Jackson Park – in a project related to the Obama Presidential Center – despite a pending lawsuit,  city and federal approvals still needed and a pledge from the Obama Foundation CEO to keep trees intact until the permitting process is complete.

The Chicago Park District is digging up baseball fields in Jackson Park south of the proposed Obama Center complex.

The reason?

The diamonds are being removed to make room for a track field displaced by the Obama Center, to be located on 19.3 acres carved out of Jackson Park.

The Obama Foundation is paying the Chicago Park District up to $3.5 million to fund a new multisport athletic field on the baseball site. That’s because the field is being bumped for the Obama Foundation. The projects are inextricably connected.

On Monday, earth moving equipment, a truck from the Clean Cut Tree Service and downed trees could be seen inside the park. The baseball site is bounded by Cornell and Hayes Drives, Stony Island Ave. and 62nd St.

Since former President Barack Obama picked Jackson Park for his center in August 2016, a series of intertwined projects in and around Jackson Park has made the impact much larger than just the 19.3 acres to be occupied by the center, including retooling roadways and relocating athletic fields.

Jackson Park, designed by the famed landscape architects Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

In January, Obama Foundation CEO David Simas was asked about cutting down Jackson Park trees during a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial board.

Until the foundation has all the permits, “There will be no trees removed or cut down,” Simas said. It turns out he was referring only to the 19.3 acres – and not the trees being cut down in the related athletic field project being bankrolled by the foundation.

Asked about the tree cuttings, the Foundation did not acknowledge the reason the fields need to be relocated was to make room for the Obama Center complex.

A Foundation spokesman told the Sun-Times, “While the track and field of Jackson Park is not on the Obama Presidential Center site, the Obama Foundation offered to fund the construction of the new track to ensure continuity of access to the track for the community.

“The construction schedule put forward by the Chicago Park District ensures the new track will be ready for students and fall sports leagues.”

The Chicago Park District – an entity controlled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel — secured approval for the new athletic field from the Chicago Plan Commission last April.

In May, several park preservationists filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to block construction of the Obama Center in Jackson Park.

On June 28, lawyers for the city and the park district argued in a joint brief that the lawsuit was “premature” because “the terms of the agreement do not yet exist, nor has the City Council authorized the city to enter into an agreement with the Foundation or approved the terms.

“…The City Council has yet to introduce, much less enact, an ordinance authorizing the construction and operation of the Center,” the brief said.

Federal reviews will run at least through the end of the year. The City Council may not act until the fall.

Despite what the court was told, trees have been cut down. The next hearing on the case is on Aug. 28.

Herbert Caplan, one of the players behind the lawsuit, said his team was considering going to court sooner in the wake of the tree cutting.

Margaret Schmid, the co-founder of the watchdog Jackson Park Watch said she was “alarmed that the Park District would feel free to move ahead in disregard of the clauses contained in OPC (Obama Presidential Center) and CDOT (Chicago Department of Transportation) applications to the Chicago Plan Commission — and approved by it — committing the Obama Foundation and CDOT to wait until the conclusion of the federal reviews before beginning construction.

“It is disingenuous to suggest that all of these projects are not closely tied together.”

Earth-moving equipment in Jackson Park on Aug. 6, 2018. Hyde Park High School is in the background.

Earth-moving equipment in Jackson Park on Aug. 6, 2018. Hyde Park High School is in the background. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Earth-moving equipment in Jackson Park on Aug. 6, 2018. Hyde Park High School is in the background. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

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