Though Protect Our Parks intends to appeal a judge’s ruling Tuesday dismissing their lawsuit challenging the siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, the action is likely to shift to other arenas. A community benefits ordinance, backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and both local aldermen, is expected to be introduced next month despite opposition by the Obama Foundation.
Beyond that, a multi-part federal review of the plan which has been stalled since last Spring should resume shortly. And momentum behind a plan to transform the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single tournament-class course — also stalled by the holdup on the OPC proposal — could also resume.
The review and the decision on the golf course represent opportunities for the new mayor to demonstrate that her promises regarding openness and accountability were more than just talk.
Community sentiment is divided. Virtually everyone welcomes the decision of former President Barack Obama to put his presidential center on the South Side. Some accept the assertion that Jackson Park is the only suitable site for the project, while others are aghast that a complex centered on a 20-plus story building will erase the rolling wooded areas – and demolish hundreds of large, mature trees – that surround the site in the historic park.
The critics say they’ve been largely shut out of the conversation. That’s unfortunate, because they have some ideas worth considering. Putting the center somewhere else in the neighborhood – possibly on vacant land owned by the University of Chicago, which sponsored the winning bid to host the center – is one of them, though it looks increasingly unlikely.
But the park defenders at Jackson Park Watch have proposed several tweaks to improve the current plan. The museum tower “could be modified to better fit with Jackson Park; rather than clear-cutting the site, the designers could situate right-sized buildings among the mature trees.” And rather than shutting off Midway Plaisance and removing the heavily-used Cornell Drive – at a cost to the state of $175 million or more – keeping them open, with Cornell reduced to two lanes each way, would reflect the park’s design by Frederick Law Olmsted and produce “better traffic outcomes,” without taking parkland to turn Stony Island into a six-lane highway. (JPW reports it’s been assured by the Obama Foundation that their plan would go forward even if Cornell were kept open.)
JPW has also pressed the city and the foundation about backing off initial pledges to replace parkland gobbled up by the presidential center.
So far all this has fallen on deaf ears. The city was given control over the initial federal review, and the Emanuel administration ran it like a steamroller, with little communication with consulting groups. The city has even tried to evaluate changes using the baseline of a hastily-drawn south lakefront plan which includes the presidential center and expanded golf course, rather than the park as it currently exists.
If Lightfoot is true to her word, that should change going forward, with a more inclusive process. That would be smart, too, since the feds ordered a do-over when a developer took similar shortcuts in the review of a project at Pullman National Monument.
Then there’s a golf course plan, hatched by promoter Mark Rolfing and latched onto by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, parks superintendent Mike Kelly, and former President Obama. It would take the 27 holes in the Jackson Park and South Shore courses and transform them into a tournament-grade 18-hole course. Kelly gave Rolfing $130,000 to study the feasibility of the idea, and he determined that, indeed, it’s feasible.
Bill Daniels isn’t so sure. The founding editor of Golf Chicago magazine has become the project’s biggest critic. The plan is full of holes, he says. There’s no business plan to show it would work, and there doesn’t seem to be great interest among possible funders. The project would require $30 million in private funding and another $30 million or so from taxpayers. He calls the projections of economic benefits to the surrounding community “happy talk” – and it’s worth noting that very few tourists visiting the Museum of Science and Industry venture into the neighborhood.
The enlarged course – with longer fairways and more contours and hazards to challenge professional golfers – would eat into remaining parkland, displacing a nature sanctuary and cutting into South Shore beach. (It also appears that the road closures and widenings are really required for the golf course expansion.) Daniels is skeptical that even then, there’s enough room to build a top-grade championship-level course.
The big problem is that the concept runs counter to current thinking about reversing the decline in golf – seen last week, as Crain’s reported, when Joliet Country Club joined the “parade” of private courses in the region facing closure. The problem, according to the Economist: the game takes too long to play (about four hours for 18 holes), it’s too difficult, and it costs too much.
So it’s not clear why the Chicago Park District thinks making its Southeast Side courses more difficult and expensive is the way to go.
One golf architect told Eric Zorn that a better approach would be a historic restoration of the two courses – which could be done for $5 million or less. That kind of restoration could turn Jackson Park “into a jewel,” Daniels told me. “Jackson Park is the ideal golf course to be the flagship of the Chicago Park District, and it can be done for a lot less money.”
Which means it’s probably much more likely to get done – and more likely to serve the community.