To the Editor:
The Mayor’s recently introduced 120-page ordinance to regularize the site of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park and to determine the conditions of its lease (aka “user”) agreement deserves major scrutiny before it is voted on by the City Council on October 31. These three aspects are key: community input, public control and costs to Chicago taxpayers.
Community input: The ordinance will redefine the section of parkland that was approved by the City Council in 2015. That earlier approval was based on a series of community meetings. The new ordinance will accept the redefinition of the site as proclaimed by the Obama Foundation in 2017—including key road closures – an arrangement made behind closed doors and without additional community input before or since.
Public control: In a generous gift from the taxpayers, the Obama Foundation will pay only $10 (total) for use of the 19.3 acres of parkland for 99 years. The City and Foundation assert that the OPC site will be under public control and serve a public purpose. But key questions of public control are left unanswered: For example, could restrictions on access and usage such as now apply to Millennium Park (a space under private control) be applied to the OPC site also? What powers will OPC security personnel have? Will groups continue to be able to reserve space for picnics and other activities? Will amplified music continue to be allowed? What security measure will apply when President Obama and Mrs. Obama are present? The proposed agreement should address and provide clarity on these and similar issues.
Costs to the public: The ordinance defines at least one new cost for Chicago’s taxpayers: up to $75,000 for an environmental investigation of the property and, additionally, the cost of undefined incremental remediation. The “incremental remediation costs” could potentially be substantial: hazardous soil has been identified in other parts of Jackson Park and the area’s high water table poses problems for the underground parking garage. The Mayor’s plan calls for the Foundation to turn the land and the Center buildings (once constructed) over to the City: what unanticipated costs to the public might that entail? In addition, we know the closure of Cornell Drive will cost taxpayers at least $175 million, likely more. Further, there are the costs of running City utilities to the OPC site.
These are critical issues. We call on the City Council to take the time to assess the proposed ordinance and related agreements fully. The potential impacts on taxpayers, Jackson Park, and the entire south side need healthy discussion and debate, not a rubber stamp.
Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid