Residents of Chicago’s South Side overwhelmingly voted to oppose the removal of thousands of trees because of construction around the Obama Presidential Center and a proposed golf course project.
The nonbinding referendum was added to the ballot in seven precincts through the efforts of Save Jackson Park, a group that advocates for the park and South Shore Cultural Center Park. This group is fighting for the city to stop removing trees for the sake of development and instead preserve existing ones due to ongoing public health concerns for the city’s tree canopy.
“At what point do we start respecting that we need trees to breathe, especially in Chicago?” said Jeannette Hoyt, founder of the group.
Hoyt said the group wanted to put tree preservation in the hands of voters to “give residents a voice.”
“If we hadn’t won, I would have stopped trying,” Hoyt said.
Residents were asked this question on Tuesday’s ballot: “Shall the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District stop cutting down trees in Jackson Park and preserve the trees in South Shore Cultural Center Park?”
Results show that about 80% of respondents in each precinct answered yes.
Construction of the Obama Center in Jackson Park involved the removal of more than 300 trees on site and in the future, more than 350 throughout the park for traffic flow, according to documents from the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Tiger Woods’ company, TGR Design, has also proposed the restoration of the two parks’ golf courses by combining them into one 18-hole PGA-worthy course. According to documents of the design, this development could involve removal of 2,100 trees from the parks.
Construction for the Obama Center began in 2021 and most on-site trees have been cleared. To manage traffic, CDOT has also proposed removing trees to widen certain roads around the park, including Stony Island Avenue.
The Obama Center said in a statement that the site’s conversion of parts of the park will add 3.7 acres of parkland and the landscape will “include more trees than existed before we began construction.”
“The center will increase the amount of green space in Jackson Park that will be accessible to all,” according to the statement.
Meanwhile, the proposed restoration of the two golf courses at the parks has not made ground. Planning began years ago, with former President Barack Obama calling Tiger Woods to take on the project. According to TGR’s website, the proposed golf course would “maintain a traditional parkland aesthetic accentuating the natural features” while focusing on “playability” with wider fairways. TGR Design did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment.
“The thing that makes Jackson Park golf course so extraordinarily gorgeous is that the trees are interspersed throughout, as like you’re walking through an urban parkland,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt received documents about the TGR Design proposal in March via a Freedom of Information Act request to the Chicago Park District. One page outlining the site’s ecology states that the existing Jackson Park golf course is characterized by mature canopy trees. More than 500 heritage trees can be found on the course and the park nearby at the South Shore Cultural Center, according to the document. A heritage tree is a large tree often considered irreplaceable because of its age and ability to filter air, shade homes and provide habitat.
A table in the document shows that on the Jackson Park golf course, around half of the heritage trees are slated for removal, and at the South Shore site, 110 out of 163 identified heritage trees would be removed.
“The removal of trees will have a significant impact to the Jackson Park and South Shore Park site,” the document states.
The Chicago Park District said in a statement that it plants 3,000 trees annually.
“As with any capital endeavor that requires the removal of trees, the district is committed to replacing each tree as part of the project scope,” the district stated.
The proposed removal of trees in these neighborhoods doesn’t appear to align with the mission of the city’s Our Roots initiative, which aims to plant 75,000 trees in five years. Chicago lags behind many other cities in overall canopy coverage, and areas with fewer trees are predominantly concentrated on the South and West sides.
Hoyt said the cumulative removal of trees poses a public health danger. In Chicago, 16% of families have a child or children who have been diagnosed with asthma, according to a 2020 report from Lurie Children’s Hospital and the Chicago Department of Public Health. This rate is higher than the state and national levels of 11% and 12%.
“We don’t quite know what to do about violence; it’s a multifaceted problem, but asthma’s pretty straightforward,” said Hoyt, who has a master’s degree in public health. “It’s air quality.”
Removing old, large trees will be detrimental to air quality, Hoyt said, a problem that planting new saplings can’t solve.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
“A sapling does not create air for anybody,” Hoyt said. “The older the tree, the larger its tree canopy, and it’s the leaves that sequester carbon dioxide, filter particulate matter and remove sulfur dioxide from our air.”
The TGR Design layout also puts the 15th hole through the South Shore Nature Sanctuary. The 6-acre sanctuary opened in 2002 and is a stopover point for birds during spring and fall migration.
The conservation organization Openlands has also spoken out against the TGR Design course proposal. The organization offers a form for people to fill out directing them to the contact information for their alderman and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
The organization agrees with the premise of restoring the two historic golf courses but not TGR Design’s proposal.
“We oppose any plan that would destroy the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, take down thousands of trees unnecessarily, not provide diverse golfing opportunities, and increase the cost to play beyond reach,” Openlands said in a statement.
Protect Our Parks filed a lawsuit in 2018 against the city over the Obama Center. On Nov. 3, a federal district judge ruled in favor of supporters of the center. The group plans to appeal, seeking to halt the project’s construction, already well underway.