We seek clarity and an end to secrecy

To the Editor:

Like the rest of the public, the Coalition to Save Jackson Park has questions regarding the proposed Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and related developments. Like the public generally, we find the Obama Foundation and City of Chicago not forthcoming. This is a massive development involving public land, and we have been kept in the dark about too many details. We are now turning to the courts for help, and we want to tell the public why.

The OPC and related projects permanently alter or destroy:

• a majority of the 600 acres of historic Jackson Park and South Shore Park
• the South Side’s only lakefront nature preserve
• two historic drives
• two major roads.

The OPC and its related developments alter three neighborhoods and create permanent incursions of private, wealthy institutions into public parkland.

For over 120 years, the public has paid for this parkland; our taxes will continue to pay for it after it is privatized. Yet none of these projects – nor the City – has been forthright, open, and transparent.

Reporters and community groups have noted this secrecy, yet the wealthy Obama Foundation and the city officials it works with refuse to engage with citizens whose housing, schools, and parks will be forever altered.

People who live here and use these parks are left uninformed about the constantly changing scope and complexity of the OPC. The 2014 economic study commissioned by the University of Chicago on the Obama construction assessed the impact of a library – not a center – and has never been publically released, according to its authors. The University of Chicago, with its $8 billion endowment, “hosts” the OPC, according to its website. What does that mean? What will it pay for?

Details of the plan are released and then changed, virtually without explanation. Overnight, the tower added 50 feet, a 30 percent increase from the design of the day before. A luxury suite for the Obamas in the museum has come and gone but may return. A garage and loading zone have come, gone, come, and gone, replaced by a different garage. The OPC may have a community kitchen or recording or yoga studio; it may not.

In recent months, we have filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the City seeking information about the OPC and related projects. While some departments responded, the Chicago Park District was notably unresponsive and obstructionist. We are now suing the Park District for failing to comply with FOIA law. We seek clarity and an end to secrecy.

What do we know so far?

• The Obama Foundation refuses to sign a Community Benefits Agreement ensuring that housing in our neighborhoods stays affordable, that jobs go to local people first.

• The Obama Foundation refuses to guarantee full-time jobs with benefits to people in the communities.

• Chicagoans will pay hundreds of millions in tax dollars to widen streets for the OPC and golf course and to eliminate streets we need.

• Housing on and near Stony Island Avenue will be destroyed to create development the Obama Foundation wants, otherwise there is no space for businesses the Foundation claims will come as a collateral benefit to the Center.

• Developers who already own land on and near Stony Island and who have been cited for hundreds of housing code violations – and, in one case, a CHA ghost payroll scam – will profit enormously from the OPC increasing land prices.

• Historic Hyde Park Academy – the beloved and needed neighborhood school at 63rd and Stony Island – is emptying. Since 2013, it’s lost more than 40 percent of its students, according to publically available information. Whether this is by design is unknown; it’s prime development territory.

That’s what we know.

City government must work for the people, not for wealthy foundations and developers or academic institutions with multi-billion dollar endowments. The City is privatizing parks and drives, vistas and views that we pay for, care for, and rely on, and it is turning them over to unresponsive, unaccountable institutions.

We have the right to detailed information because these projects are on public land. We have the right to reject projects when they abuse the high privilege of using public land. The first and highest purpose of public parks is to serve the people as the people see fit.

As the Coalition uncovers information, we will share it with the community, community groups, and the press.

Gabriel Piemonte
Janet Geovanis
The Coalition to Save Jackson Park