Project 120 talks Jackson, Washington Parks

Project 120 president Robert Karr and Patricia O’Donnell, principal with Heritage Landscapes, discuss improvement plans for Washington Park and Jackson Park during a community workshop, Feb. 8,  at the Washington Park Refectory, 5531 S. Martin Luther King Dr. Marc Monaghan
Project 120 president Robert Karr and Patricia O’Donnell, principal with Heritage Landscapes, discuss improvement plans for Washington Park and Jackson Park during a community workshop, Feb. 8, at the Washington Park Refectory, 5531 S. Martin Luther King Dr.

Marc Monaghan

By SAM RAPPAPORT
Staff Writer

Project 120, an organization working with the Chicago Parks District to redevelop facets of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Washington and Jackson parks, presented its most recent framework plans for the two sites at a community meeting, Monday Feb. 8.

For Washington Park, Landscape architect and Olmsted scholar Patricia O’Donnell, a member of the Project 120 team, identified decrepit walkways and dangerous stretches of road as potential areas of focus in a restoration plan.

What is Project 120?
Bob Karr started Project 120 in 2013 as an initiative to support the completion of a restoration project on Jackson Park’s Wooded Island. In order to secure federal funds for the project, the Chicago Park District needed an Olmsted expert that could advise the endeavor. The city’s lack of funds made this difficult. That’s when Karr stepped in and was able to raise the money needed to bring in Patricia O’Donnell, principal with Heritage Landscapes and the nation’s foremost Olmsted expert.

O’Donnell said that the high speeds of cars cutting through Washington Park via 55th St. have made the area unsafe for pedestrians.

“This is a park, not a highway,” she said. “We want to discourage high-speed travelers.”

O’Donnell suggested road diets and revamped cross-walks as possible solutions for a more pedestrian friendly park. She said construction on these projects would not be done all at once and might even take up to 15 years to complete.

The project will take so many years to complete because Project 120 does not currently have a reserve of funds dedicated to Washington Park, said Bob Karr, president of the organization.

O’Donnell said that throughout the spring and summer Project 120 will conduct traffic management tests to better gage effective ways of reducing vehicle speed in the park.

O’Donnell also said that Project 120 will coordinate with community partners for a tree planting initiative. According to O’Donnell, Washington Park has available space to add approximately 1,000 new trees.

Edna Epstein, a Hyde Park resident since 1967, echoed the thoughts of other community members when, in the middle of Monday’s meeting, she confronted Karr and O’Donnell on the origins and management of Project 120.

“Who are you?” Epstein posed.

While Karr has continued to stress the importance of community engagement in Project 120’s plans, some local residents have questioned the organization’s ‘amorphous’ process of decision-making.

Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) member Margaret Schmid is one of those community members that views Project 120 with an amount of confusion.

“It’s something with a lot of moving parts and it doesn’t ever stay still,” Schmid said. “I want to make sure that whatever happens in the park is best for all of us.”

In an interview with the Herald, Karr acknowledged the community’s need for transparency.

“It’s really important that people understand what Project 120 is,” he said. “We are transparent, and it’s a little frustrating because we’ve been putting in so much effort to show that.”

Karr started Project 120 in 2013 as an initiative to support the completion of a restoration project on Jackson Park’s Wooded Island. In order to secure federal funds for the project, the Chicago Park District needed an Olmsted expert that could advise the endeavor. The city’s lack of funds made this difficult. That’s when Karr stepped in and was able to raise the money needed to bring in O’Donnell, principal with Heritage Landscapes and the nation’s foremost Olmsted expert.

“We’ve played an interesting role,” Karr said. “One where we just stepped up and raised our hand. We felt that, if we didn’t act, a great opportunity would have been missed.”

Project 120 was born from that initial step and it continues to evolve. As the organization expands its scope into Washington Park and Midway Plaisance, Karr said he hopes to develop an accessible platform for community members to offer feedback.

“You have to meet people where they’re at,” Karr said.” “We’re very excited to bring a resource to the community in Patricia O’Donnell. What we’re now doing is trying to establish a process of community input for Washington Park and the idea of the South Parks.”

Project 120 has secured at least one meaningful fan in JPAC president Louise McCurry. McCurry refuted the idea of Project 120 as an opaque organization.

“The idea for this is that the community comes and says, ‘this is what we need,’” McCurry said. “It’s a really nice public-private partnership.”

Following the Monday’s presentation on Washington Park, O’Donnell shifted her focus to Jackson Park and continued to outline plans on how to reduce automobile traffic and increase pedestrian walkways and bike paths.

Project 120’s most contentious Jackson Park proposal seemed to be the music pavilion, which would take the place of the parking lot directly south of the Museum of Science and Industry.

Karr said that Project 120 has already started fundraising for the pavilion, but has not moved past schematic designs of the structure.

Epstein voiced concerns about the proposed building’s effects on the park’s tranquility.

“I think people are afraid of the noise, about it changing the character of the park,” she said.”

Jill Niland, vice president of the Chicago Ornithological Society, said that the proposed building would be detrimental for birds in the park.

“The pavilion would disrupt the ecological environment of the area,” she said.

O’Donnell commented that the building would not only be a music shell, but also a venue for educational events. She also said that the pavilion would function to develop a stronger link between the museum and the park.

Karr said that Project 120’s proposed construction projects are simply an initial step in the process of improving Chicago’s South parks. He said that many community residents are mistaking these projects for being set in stone.

“Could the park’s amenities be improved?-that’s only the start of the conversation,” Karr said. “It doesn’t mean we’re jumping to put in a five lane highway.” Karr added, “Jackson Park should be the most democratic space on the lake front.”

Karr said that if Project 120 is to succeed in revitalizing Olmsted’s parks, the organization will require the trust and support of the community.

Karr said, “All we’re doing is bringing the tools and resources.”

Museum of Science and Industry president David Mosena was in attendance at Monday’s meeting, though he would not comment on the institution’s relationship with Project 120.

“I’m just here to listen like everyone else,” Mosena said.

Karr promised future community meetings as the park framework plans solidify.

Karr said, “The process moving forward is one of engagement.”

s.rappaport@hpherald.com