OPEN LETTER: Community input and dialogue needed in golf course discussions for Jackson – South parks

Editor’s Note: This letter was emailed to Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp on Aug. 8.
  
Greetings,
 
In our July 6 letter to you we noted how encouraged we had been by your opening statement that the “Community Conversations on the Future of Jackson and South Shore Parks were to be the start of a dialogue with the community on the development of a new “framework plan” for the parks and by your assurance that “We are here to listen.”  We then noted our subsequent disappointment and frustration as the stage-managed meetings provided few opportunities for full community input or true dialogue. In response, you said in a July 12 letter: “We will use the information gathered at these meetings to guide the framework planning process. . . . and later this summer, additional community meetings will be held so that we can provide the community with an update on the process and provide more detailed answers to the questions raised during the first series of meetings.”

Now – four weeks later – there has been no public announcement of additional meetings and no clarification of the next steps in the framework planning process.   The “Planning Process & Schedule” shown as part of the power point presentations at the “Community Conversations” and still displayed on the South Lakefront Framework Plan website identifies July and August as the period designated to “develop the vision, planning principles and goals, and program for the study area through public input and group discussions.” Where is that additional public input?  Where are those group discussions? We are aware that the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance has been meeting with selected community groups, but how have they been chosen?  And 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? 

This lack of an open process is all the more alarming given the accelerated timetable designed to present the Obama Foundation proposal to the Chicago Plan Commission in November.  The “visioning” period is more than half over, with no announced avenues for legitimate community engagement. Likewise, there is no announced schedule for public discussions in September and October. The lack of transparency around the South Lakefront Framework Plan process continues to prompt cynicism and distrust.  Many are concerned that the City’s “Planning Process & Schedule” does not allow for credible or effective community input on any of the major changes to the Park and is intended simply to allow the City – and the Obama Foundation – to say, “look, see, we did consult the community!”

As we said in our July 6 letter, however, it is not too late to rectify the situation.  Important next steps would be the release in the near future of the most current plans for the golf course design, the road closures/improvements, and the Obama Presidential Center site, all of which would presumably reflect responsiveness to recent community comments.  Back-up documentation such as traffic counts and studies and cost estimates for the golf course and road changes and the sources of the funding should accompany these revised plans.  You should schedule and widely publicize a series of community meetings at which those detailed plans would be considered and which would include facilitated small group discussions to address not only these three projects but also to encourage consideration of other key park issues – for example, the need for a new fieldhouse in Jackson Park. These meetings should be announced with enough advance notice to allow even greater numbers of community members to participate. 

Further, the City and Park District announced the ‘Community Conversations” meeting as the beginning of the development of a new framework plan for Jackson and South Shore Parks.  Some, however, suspect that the underlying motive was to fast track approval of the golf course plan and in particular plans for the Obama Presidential Center and the related road closures and “improvements.”  As a gesture of goodwill and in recognition of the importance of community engagement in the development of this framework plan, the Obama Foundation and the City should publicly state their willingness to defer submission of the Obama Presidential Center plans to the Plan Commission until all relevant information has been publicly released and the community has had a proper chance to review and comment on it.   Additionally, the City and the Obama Foundation should commit to continuing to participate in the development of a new, comprehensive South Lakefront Framework Plan.  The rush to approve the OPC should not distort or undercut the larger goal.

Sincerely,
Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Coordinators, Jackson Park Watch