Chicago officials caught short-circuiting required review of Obama Presidential Center

The so-called "Obama Presidential Center" in Chicago is not a presidential library, and it is not part of the National Archives.  It will contain no collections of presidential papers and therefore will have little if any value to historians and scholars of his presidency.  It is a private building, financed by private donations.  Its function appears to be serving as a monument to the man himself, offering space for basketball courts and meeting rooms for "community organizing," among his favorite pursuits.  (No word on whether the presidential NCAA basketball brackets will be memorialized as yet.)

This private endeavor wants to take over land in two publicly owned properties that are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jackson Park (on the Lake Michigan shoreline) and the Midway Plaisance, a treasured legacy of the Chicago World's Fair that defines the surrounding neighborhoods, including the University of Chicago.  This federal landmark status of the two park properties triggers a requirement for what is called a "Section 106 review" under the terms of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.  Local Chicago officials are conducting that review and holding public hearings.  Sort of.

A local citizens group, Jackson Park Watch, is monitoring this review process and has discovered that it appears to be skipping over the hard part and moving toward a conclusion before the facts are considered.

As eloquently noted by Openland's CEO Jerry Adelmann at last Thursday's Section 106 meeting, there are significant problems with the process the City's Department of Planning and Development and Department of Transportation are following as they conduct the required federal review of the proposals for the Obama Presidential Center and the related road changes it requires.  Two problems stand out: First, the City departments have omitted the necessary first step of including public participation in developing the statement of "purpose and need" that defines the project for review.  Second, they have instead drafted their own "purpose and need" statement without public input.

Already, it appears that the fix is in.  The public, who own the land, must be heard.  The power to define the purpose and need is close to the power to define the conclusion.  But it gets worse.  Much worse:

Rather than taking the current configuration of the park as the starting point for assessing the impact of the proposed changes, their statement disingenuously presumes that all of the OPC construction and road work has been completed and that only the resulting traffic problems need to be addressed.  As with the South Lakefront Framework Plan, there is an ongoing attempt to put the cart before the horse.

They have assumed away the nub of the problem: taking protected properties on the National Register of Historic Places and handing them over to a private party that will alter them forever.  This is the question that must be vetted by members of the public and the affected communities.  Focusing on traffic, as if the entire project were approved and completed, is short-circuiting the requirements of the law.

But there is even more chicanery:

Also of note at Thursday's meeting was the new proposal to take the eastern portion of the Midway – land that the Obama Foundation previously hoped to use for a parking garage – for use as "replacement" land for the baseball diamonds that will be displaced as a result of the OPC siting in the park.  Ironically, this proposal could result in a net loss of park space unless the City fully meets its commitment to give the Park District new open green space equal to that taken for the OPC.  Further, this proposal disregards the fact that there is an existing Midway Plaisance Framework Plan, developed through a proper community process, that envisions other uses for this space. 

This refers to the revisions made to the plan for a parking garage built on park land that is protected on the National Register of Historic Places.  Instead of an above-ground building, it is to be built below ground, and as I interpret this, they want to count it as "replacement" for other land (baseball diamonds) taken by the OPC.  Sorry, but at best, burying the garage only "replaces" the land it takes.  It should not be double-counted.  And the existing Midway Plaisance Plan, which was properly developed with community input, just gets junked.

The late, great Mike Royko coined the term "clout" as the characteristic description of the essence of Chicago politics.  With "clout," anything is possible.  Without it, nothing ever gets past the governing authorities of Chicago or Cook County.

It is painfully obvious that plenty of old-style clout is in the hands of the OPC-backers.  What remains to be seen is how much clout the community groups can generate.  Jackson Park Watch concludes:

We hope that the haste with which the City and Obama Foundation are pursuing their objectives does not result in mistakes that will ultimately slow the entire project down.

I take this as a warning that the entire panoply of court reviews will be employed by opponents of taking park land, unless local officials start playing the game by the book.