By AARON GETTINGER
City workers cut down trees in Jackson Park yesterday as construction began on a new track-and-field facility south of the planned Obama Presidential Center (OPC) campus.
The track and field complex will replace one to be displaced by the OPC itself, which can be built only after satisfying several requirements — passage of an ordinance transferring the ownership of the site from the Park District to the City; approval of the federal environmental and historical review process; favorable resolution of a federal lawsuit brought by the conservation group Protect Our Parks.
The protection of trees in Jackson Park has long been the subject of local activism — protesters famously chained themselves to them during the 1950s and ‘60s freeway revolts — and groups opposed to the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park reacted angrily to the news.
Margaret Schmid of Jackson Park Watch said that Obama Foundation CEO David Simas had committed to not cutting down trees until the federal historical and environmental appeals process is completed. Simas promised not to do this in January, according to a Chicago Sun-Times.
“We think this raises big questions about trust. All of these things raise questions about commitments that have been raised and not followed through,” Schmid said. “It’s not the sort of thing that can make us feel comfortable that all can be well in the end, and it doesn’t feel like a good boost to the Obama legacy.”
Schmid expressed further concern about the public comment process regarding the replacement of baseball fields in Jackson Park that have been displaced by the new track and field. Under the conditions of the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR), a Carter-era grant program, all active recreation space in parks that received federal funds must be maintained.
Because of UPARR, former baseball fields on the site of the new track and field must be replaced with adequate active recreation space. In April, the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council discussed using a section of the park between the Illinois Railroad embankment and Stony Island Avenue for such use.
As of July 27, the municipal Department of Planning and Development’s website on the federal review of Jackson Park improvements — i.e., infrastructural changes done for the construction of the OPC and the implementation of the South Lakefront Framework Plan — the public process regarding the Midway Plaisance and UPARR-required recreation space will begin in “late summer.”
When reached for comment, Protect Our Parks President Herbert Caplan forwarded the reaction of Charlotte Adelman, one of the plaintiffs in the group’s lawsuit.
“All environmental organizations with a conscience, even if it is inconvenient, have a moral environmental duty to help us stop the shocking, appalling, outrageous, shameful, disgusting, scandalous and odious destruction of Jackson Park without court permission,” she said.
“Amen,” Caplan added.
The Park District submitted an application to the Chicago Plan Commission for an artificial multi-use field surrounded by a new running track in January, announced the next month that the Obama Foundation would donate $3.5 million to finance the construction of the new track and artificial turf field and estimated that construction would be completed by this fall.
The Plan Commission approved the OPC plans, including the track and field, on May 17.
When reached for comment, the Obama Foundation reiterated its offer to fund the construction of the replacement park and field.
“The construction schedule put forward by the Chicago Park District ensures the new track will be ready for students and fall sports leagues,” said a Foundation spokeswoman. “We look forward to the continued public process related to the approval for the Obama Presidential Center, which we hope will spur continued investment in public amenities on the South Side.”
The Park District did not respond to a request for comment.
The Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, did not return calls for comment by Herald press time.