There are major problems with how the City is managing OPC reviews

To the Editor:

Since the Chicago Plan Commission and City Council, as expected, rubber-stamped the proposals for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes, Jackson Park Watch has been assessing both the federal reviews of these proposals and the way the City is conducting them. Signs are that the City is continuing its no-holds-barred efforts to get quick approvals for the OPC and road construction plans. There are major problems with how the City is managing these critical reviews.

The Section 106 review is intended to identify potential adverse impacts of the proposed OPC and road changes on historic properties such as Jackson Park and to devise strategies to lessen adverse effects. Jackson Park Watch is one of numerous “consulting parties” along with local, state, and national groups concerned with parks, natural areas and historic preservation. This designation is supposed to entail the ability to raise questions, submit feedback, and otherwise have a seat at the table.

Unfortunately, problems abound: communication is limited; meeting schedules continuously change; major reports are posted online with inadequate time for review; the proposed agenda for the next meetings are unreasonably crowded. Overall, meaningful consulting party participation is being substantially undermined.

A National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review is designed to assess the environmental impacts of proposed projects such as the construction of the OPC and related road changes on designated types of properties including historic parks such as Jackson Park. The NEPA review is currently underway behind closed doors. However, the two key documents that have been posted online demonstrate that the City is attempting to use flawed definitions to evade a legitimate NEPA review

Serious problems include:

  • Flawed definition of “Purpose and Need”: The City’s definition of “Purpose and Need” for this NEPA review erroneously asserts that the purpose and need for the NEPA review is to accommodate the traffic problems resulting from the completed project.
  • Flawed definition of baseline condition: The definition of the “No-Action Alternative baseline condition” to be used as the starting point for the review is critical. In this instance, the No-Action Alternative baseline condition should be the current configuration of the park and its roads. However, the City asserts that the No-Action Alternative baseline condition for the review is the condition in which roadways closure and realignments are in place and the OPC has already been constructed in Jackson Park. (A similar attempt to define the baseline condition as the finished project was found illegal in 2015 in a case concerning the Illiana Expressway.)
  • Attempt to use the SLFP as cover: The City is attempting to use the South Lakefront Framework Plan as a cover, falsely asserting that it requires construction of the OPC in Jackson Park along with its related road changes. As we know, the SLFP was an ex post facto exercise that began after the fully developed plans for the OPC and the road projects were announced. The SLFP was premised on the wholesale inclusion of those plans, and no discussion or consideration of alternatives was allowed during the SLFP process.
  • Refusal to consider alternative traffic plan: Since the actual “Purpose and Need” for this NEPA review is to accommodate the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park, the City is required to examine alternatives to the CDOT-proposed traffic plan that would have fewer adverse impacts on the baseline condition, that is, the current configuration of the Park and its roads. The JPW-commissioned traffic plan that has been submitted to the City is such an alternative. The City has yet to acknowledge its existence.
  • Development of flawed “alternatives”: Using its flawed definition of “Purpose and Need,” the City has proceeded to develop a draft “Alternatives to Be Carried Forward” document. It concludes that the only acceptable alternative to be “carried forward” for full evaluation is the CDOT plan itself approved by the Plan Commission on May 17.

For more detailed information about these developments, developments that throw a shadow over the OPC undertaking, see the JPW website at Links to all of the relevant documents are included.


Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Jackson Park Watch