City’s plan for Midway changes draws mixed reaction at MPAC meeting

“I am absolutely mystified,” says Hyde Park resident Judith McCue, “This dead swampy space, you never see anybody in at all. I live right by it … I pass it every day. I know exactly what goes on there … I fail to understand why preserving it as is, in any way honors anybody’s historic legacy. I think that space as is, is an insult to our communities.” (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Contributing writer

City officials received mixed reactions when they presented their plan to create open spaces and a new play area on the eastern end of the Midway during the Aug. 20 meeting of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council (MPAC).

Some of the attending Hyde Park and Woodlawn residents voiced their support and argued that the location as it exists right now is largely unusable; others criticized the use of public, historically designated parkland, wondering why the city couldn’t put the playground in another location.

The proposal is part of the city’s attempt to abide by the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery (UPARR) agreement, under which any loss of public recreational space in Jackson Park requires an adequate replacement. The National Parks Service will review the city’s suggested changes—if it approves of them, it will then amend the original UPARR agreement, expanding its boundaries to part of the Midway.

The current design of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) will reduce some of the park’s existing recreational areas, including part of the track and field facility, biking and walking trails, and the playground near 62nd Street. To replace some of the areas that will be lost, the city is planning to build the playground under discussion Tuesday evening, in the part of the Midway across from Jackson Park and immediately east of the railway embankment.

According to the draft version of the federal review report released on July 29, the planned redesign would alter elements of the existing area—which contains the Cheney Goode Memorial, a wetland area, and some park benches—such that there will be “a negative effect to the historical landscape.”

It was this last point that some of the plan’s opponents seized on. “The [federal review report] already says that there would be an adverse effect on the east end of the Midway,” said Margaret Schmidt, one of the co-founders of Jackson Park Watch. “I’d just like to know if the city will commit to exploring avoidance as the first mandated preferred response to a finding of adverse effect.”

“We did include a chapter in the [federal review report] that talks about minimization and avoidance and mitigation that we baked into the design ahead of time. So, it’s something that was considered,” said Abby Monroe, a planner with the Department of Planning and Development.

In response to another question about whether other sites could be considered for the play area, Monroe said, “The location is proposed at this time, so that’s not gonna change…. One of the things that’s important in terms of UPARR regulations is for the park to serve the same community where the recreation was lost — that’s why it’s so close to the [OPC] site.” (A couple of times, Monroe noted that it wouldn’t be “fruitful” to ask about alternate sites the city had considered. “We can always just FOIA it,” one woman responded.)

Other residents, many of them from Woodlawn, praised the city’s idea, saying that there was no reason to maintain the area as it currently exists. “It’s a haven for bugs right now, I don’t even like to walk through it, I don’t even like to walk to the lake. I don’t feel like anybody would disagree with trying to change it,” said Stephen Brown, a Woodlawn resident. “I don’t care what you do with it, but do something with it. Because right now it’s just a glaring hole in the community.”

“I just want to make clear that there was a large proportion of this community, the minority community, that was left out of this conversation for hundreds of years,” said Sharon Lewis, who supports the playground. “And we have a voice, and we will be coming en masse to talk about what it is we want for our communities and how we want to be included in this conversation.”

“We’re not just dealing with the present, we’re dealing with the future,” said Debra Adams, a Woodlawn resident and organizer with 1Woodlawn. “Any change we’re making is anticipating future population growth, future tourism rising — it just makes sense to have a playground close to the Obama Center.”