Drama in the OPC

Chicago Park District pauses Jackson Park construction for Obama Presidential Center

After meetings with the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration, the Chicago Park District has halted connected construction in Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Center. (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

The Chicago Park District halted efforts to relocate a track and field in Jackson Park hours before a September 17 public meeting on the ongoing environmental review of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). The Chicago Tribune reported in August that the Chicago Park District had begun to cut down trees and install fences in preparation for the relocation, with plans to build a new track and field further south in order to create space for the proposed Obama Presidential Center. Attendees at the public meeting, held at the South Shore Cultural Center, were not notified of the decision.

Intended for use by student-athletes from Hyde Park Academy High School, the new eight-lane, 400-meter track and turf field will be partially funded by a $3.5-million donation to the Chicago Park District from the Obama Foundation, which announced the award after questions arose regarding the displacement of practice space during the construction of the OPC.

The decision to stop the work came after the City of Chicago met with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Highway Administration, the lead federal agency for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. A complex matrix of federal funding and compliance requirements related to Jackson Park’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places requires agencies to consider the impacts the project might have on the park.

NEPA requires that connected actions are considered as a part of a consultation, with the funding and relocation of the track and field by the Obama Foundation likely to be considered a connected action, as the construction of the OPC would not be able to proceed without its removal.

“Jackson Park Watch is very pleased that there is a pause in this rush to make these major and very ill-conceived changes,” Margaret Schmidt, co-president of Jackson Park Watch, said in a statement. “We hope that with NPS, a new player in the very important federal review processes, a result that is better for the Park can be devised.” The Chicago Park District confirmed in a statement that construction will not continue until a dialogue with federal agencies confirms that work is appropriate.

While construction of the Obama Presidential Center was approved by the city council in May, the Obama Foundation has stated that they will not break ground on the center until 2019.

Concerns regarding the track and field join a number of others brought up by activists, including the impact the OPC will have on Jackson Park as an archaeological site and the OPC’s economic effects, as the Obama Foundation refuses to sign a Community Benefits Agreement, and the OPC’s questionable ability to acquire public land, the subject of a federal lawsuit by Protect our Parks.

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