Jackson Park Watch Update – September 18, 2017

Greetings all,


What happened?  Many of you were in attendance on Thursday evening when the Obama Foundation made its first solo public presentation of the conceptual design and emerging programmatic plans for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC).   We invite your comments, additions and corrections to this summary.

The energetic and well-orchestrated event, with an estimated 200+ in attendance, had the feel of a pep rally.  It opened with a boom as a contingent from the King High School marching band paraded through the conference hall, and the excitement was amplified by an unannounced appearance (via live streaming) by former President Obama.  The only questions allowed from the floor were the three selected for President Obama to address, but following the staged presentations, there was an opportunity for attendees to view posters and ask questions of architects and Foundation staffers about the designs and programs, though this segment was unfortunately abbreviated to accommodate the president’s participation.

Coverage of the event in the TribuneSun-Times , HeraldDNAInfoMaroon and elsewhere has focused mostly on President Obama’s remarks and especially his explanation of why the Obama Foundation will not sign a Community Benefits Agreement.  We will focus briefly instead on the presentations and poster board discussions that addressed more specifically Jackson Park Watch’s concern – the impact of the Obama Presidential Center on the future character and shape of Jackson Park.

  • Vision for the Park:  “Inspire and entertain” was the aspirational goal for the OPC once again voiced by President Obama and echoed by other speakers.   The programmatic offerings under development will reportedly range from museum coverage of Chicago and its African American history and of the Obama administration to a global training program in civic engagementfor young leaders to a welcoming community center for  Southsiders.  President  Obama spoke of his hope that the Center will be completely transformative in opening up Jackson Park, making it constantly active, in ways that he sees now in parks on the Northside but not on the Southside.
  • Site Creep:  Creating a unified museum campus linking the Obama Presidential Center directly with the Museum of Science and Industry was cited as the key goal driving the closure of Cornell Drive and the siting of the OPC northward beyond its originally allotted land.   Not given as a rationale for the site shift was the plan to convert the perennial garden into a water retention pond, although lead landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh did identify water management as the biggest site challenge for the designers.
  • Parking on Parkland: The design and location of the parking garage seem to be driven by the water table and the cost of digging down.  The lower of the proposed garage’s two levels might be slightly below grade but would definitely be 3-4 feet above the water table.   Meanwhile, the sloped roof would  rise above the level of the Metra tracks.  Sloped berms would partially cover the north and south walls of the garage and there would  be a plaza on the roof, but the structural essence of the garage would be very visible.
  • Traffic and golf:  The complicated traffic issues created by the closure of Cornell Drive were not addressed at all by members of the Obama Foundation team.  There was, however, a representative of CDOT present to showcase the preliminary proposals previously presented by CDOT in late August.  The proposed merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses received nomention in the presentations, and when asked about that initiative, Obama Foundation representatives stated emphatically that that is a separate, unrelated project.


What next?  Speak up, reach out.

Even this brief summary gives rise to some obvious questions that deserve discussion:

  • President Obama’s models for Jackson Park seem to be Millennium Park and Lincoln Park around the zoo, examples which he referenced directly when unveiling the OPC plans back in May.  Are these the best models for balancing the needs of tourists and local residents in Jackson Park?What would this mean for the green natural character of the Park? for Wooded Island?
  • There are other site options for the location of the water retention facility.  Why not utilize them?
  • Given that the proposed parking garage sets such an ominous precedent for the appropriation of parkland, why not utilize the option of an underground garage beneath the OPC campus as mentioned by President Obama on May 3, or perhaps under the relocated running track?

The many representatives of the Obama Foundation at Thursday’s meeting stressed repeatedly that the current plans are conceptual in nature – not finished, not final; the design team is just getting started and the plans are evolving every day.  JPW notes, however, that the site plan and sketches for the OPC presented Thursday night are mostly the same as those first unveiled in May. A few labels have changed and the design of the unfortunate now-above-ground parking garage on the Midway has been elaborated with the acknowledgement that it would be funded by the Obama Foundation.  But there have been no significant changes to the plan to reflect public or private comments of the past four months, no indication of any genuine community consultation.  We hope that, in keeping with the Center’s commitment to civic engagement, there will be the opportunity for real community engagement in the weeks and months ahead. The Obama Foundation says there will be other public meetings in the future.  We will watch for the schedule and will share it as soon as it is available.


What you can do: 

  • Raise your own questions; make your own suggestions.   Send them to Michael Strautmanis, Obama Foundation Vice President for Civic Engagement, at mstrautmanis@obamapresidentialfoundation.org.  Ask him to schedule a meeting with your community group.  Say that you look forward to his response.
  • Come to the Park District Open Houses on September 25 and 27 (see below for a revised and updated schedule) to ask your questions and offer your own vision of Jackson Park as part of the South Lakefront Framework Plan process.
  • Attend any public meetings the Obama Foundation may subsequently hold.  Look for information about such meetings in JPW Updates.




Please discard the misinformation that was provided in the September 11 Update and note the following dates, times, and locations on your calendar.

Meeting #1

When:  Monday, September 25
Time:   4:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Location: South Shore Cultural Center


Meeting #2

When:  Wednesday, September 27
Time:   4:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Location: Stony Island Arts Bank  (6760 S. Stony Island Avenue)

From the Park District’s press release :

“At these meetings, the Chicago Park District will present an update on the South Lakefront planning process and the Park District’s analysis of existing site conditions.  The goal of the meeting is to verify the guiding principles with the public and to vet the ideas that will structure the overall vision for the framework plan.  Topics to be discussed include active recreation, golf, passive recreation, water use and quality, arts and culture, and pedestrian and bicycle connectivity. The Park District will also address some of the questions that were raised in the first round of meetings and provide updates about ecology and programming opportunities in Jackson and South Shore Parks. In addition, the Park District will solicit input from community members and park users to help further develop a vision for future park improvements. Information collected will be used to guide the development of options for the area which will be presented in subsequent meetings.“

We expect that these meetings will follow the format of the August CDOT meetings at the South Shore Cultural Center – duplicates each day, with the possibility of stopping by at any time – but we will provide more information before the 25th.


Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid
Coordinators, Jackson Park Watch



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