Planning and Development discusses transfer of recreational space to Midway with Park Advisory Council

Chicago Department of Planning and Development Public Participation Officer Abby Monroe discusses Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act options with the Midway Plaisance Park Advisory Council (MPAC) during an MPAC meeting Tuesday, as Chicago Department of Planning and Development Bureau Chief Eleanor Gorski, Sharon Lewis and Jackson Park Advisory Council President Louise McCurry look on. – Aaron Gettinger

Staff Writer

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) met with the Midway Plaisance Park Advisory Council (MPAC) yesterday to discuss options regarding the transfer of recreational space to be displaced by the construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park.

They presented four options: passive parkland, with open space and wide paths; nature play, akin to the one in Cornell Park; inclusive play, with amenities for children with disabilities; and active park with ballcourts.

DPD had no timeline, however, saying that the whole process will involve several more groups and the public.

The eastern end of the Midway Plaisance, separated from the rest of the park by the Metra and Canadian National railroad embankment, has been identified as a site for recreational space that must be preserved under the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR), which provided funding to Jackson Park in the 1980s.

The DPD said the Chicago Park District and National Park Service will also be involved in the process; the Department has already met with the University of Chicago and will meet with the Jackson Park Advisory Council before a “public process” with local residents about recreational options that satisfy UPARR requirements. The DPD said that UPARR mandates a conservation of recreational utility, not recreational acreage, and suggested a wide array of recreational facilities should the Midway Plaisance be used as a replacement site.

“What we’re doing right now is background research, and then we’re going to have a full public engagement process,” said DPD Public Participation Officer Abby Monroe.

Monroe said that creating a new park for the sake of UPARR requirements would not work, since the new UPARR-designated parkland must have the same served community and quality as Jackson Park. The City must improve any space for it to fulfill the UPARR requirements, including “passive concepts” like water issues and landscaping. Because an underground stream flows down the Midway, it has been prone to chronic flooding issues that two engineering projects in recent memory have failed to fix.

Eleanor Gorski, the DPD bureau chief for planning, historic preservation and sustainability, said the issue ultimately comes down to a change of federal designation, saying the only change that will happen is that “if someone wants to propose a parking garage there in the future, they’ll have to go through the feds and not just City Council,” though the federal government mandates some kind of improvement.

The developments come after MPAC passed a resolution opposing the repurposing of the park’s historically open public green space last summer. Monroe dodged a question by Jackson Park Watch Co-President Margaret Schmid about whether not having any UPARR site on the Midway was an option, saying that she wanted to discuss the span of UPARR possibilities at the meeting, including all-inclusive playgrounds for children of any age and those with physical disabilities, nature play spaces with playground elements or active spaces like the ballfields in Jackson Park to be displaced by the OPC.

While those in attendance brainstormed ideas to meld playground equipment into the Midway landscape, a children’s garden, which was present in the Midway’s 2000 framework plan, or working off of a specific theme like the World Columbian Exhibition, Renate Gokl spoke in favor of maintaining the park’s open character.

“I think what we are woefully missing today is open land,” she said. “To be in the middle of that Midway is actually kind of a magical experience, when you’re by the tracks in the middle: it feels like everything else has disappeared. It’s such a busy area, and yet you feel like you’re private; there’s open sky and a deeper view, and that is so missing.”

With the pending construction of the OPC, she called such spaces “sacred and really important to keep.”