Obama Presidential Center

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OPC plans rubber-stamped by Plan Commission, City Council

Federal reviews to determine the outcome

As expected, the May 17 Chicago Plan Commission hearing on the applications for the Obama Presidential Center and the CDOT-proposed road changes desired by the Obama Foundation resulted in votes to approve them all.  There was no dissent. There were virtually no questions.

Prior to the hearing, Jackson Park Watch had submitted its traffic study CDOT’S Transportation Plan for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park: A Review and Alternative to Chicago Plan Commission members for their review.  JPW also provided its analysis of CDOT‘s application under the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, arguing that it was flawed and should be rejected.  JPW further highlighted missing information and unanswered public policy questions in the Obama Foundation applications, asking the Plan Commission to send those applications back for additional information. 

Finally, JPW argued that approvals, if any, should be conditional pending the outcome of the federal review process now on-going. Many others had also worked hard to craft submissions addressing various concerns about the proposals. There was no evidence that Plan Commission staff or Plan Commission members (all appointed by the Mayor) had considered any of the materials that had been submitted by JPW and many other parties in advance of the meeting.  The hours of public testimony on all sides of the issue had no impact on the outcome; the Chicago fix was in.

Fortunately, the resolutions approving the OPC and road changes all include the provision that they are contingent upon approval in the federal review process currently underway. A second positive point is the fact that one lone alderman took note and expressed his objection to the proposed use of $175 million (or more) in public funds to pay for the road changes requested by the Obama Foundation. Attention to and concern about the use of public funds for this private venture has surfaced in letters, commentary and editorials in such places as the Tribune, Crain’s, and the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.

JPW’s summary of the meeting along with coverage in the Sun-Times and Tribune can be found in the May 21 JPW Update.

Lawsuit Challenges Plans for the OPC

Protect Our Parks, Inc. is an organization dating from a challenge to the siting of the Latin School soccer field in Lincoln Park over a decade ago. Recognizing some similar issues with the siting of the OPC in Jackson Park, Protect our Parks has sued the City and the Park District in federal court, charging the gift of parkland to the Obama Foundation for the OPC is illegal. The Mayor has labeled the suit frivolous, but the suit raises some very important questions about the proper stewardship of a public good such as Jackson Park and about the hidden processes by which decisions about the Park have been made.  A public hearing before the federal judge is scheduled for August 28.

Given the severe procedural problems with the conduct of the federal reviews, and in particular the NEPA review, it is not inconceivable that additional lawsuits will be filed.  

The Back Story

Although there is broad support for having the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side, the 2015 decision by the City and the Park District to give prime parkland in either Jackson Park or Washington Park to the Obama Foundation continues to be controversial. When the Obama Foundation chose the 21-acre Jackson Park site across from Hyde Park Academy High School in 2016, it quickly became evident that the decision would have both immediate and long-term consequences for Jackson Park and its neighbors.

The Landscape Design

Aerial photo of site originally designated for OPC.

Rather than harmonizing with Jackson Park, the landscape plans for the Obama Presidential Center and related road changes would obliterate all traces of the existing parkland – including the clear cutting of over 800 trees, some magnificent mature specimens  – and replace it with something totally new.  All traces of Olmsted’s Jackson Park – trees, shrubs, grass, even the existing grade levels – would be gone on the OPC site. While the existing track and field would be relocated to the south end of the site, other spaces used for athletics and for family picnics and other leisure pastimes would be lost.

Instead, the Obama Foundation proposes an entertainment area (see image below) modeled on Millennium and Maggie Daley Parks with a mix of slopes, paths, a non-traditional playground, and an open lawn for concerts and outdoor movies.  It includes a large athletic center (40,000 sq. ft.) that could be used for special event rentals and has an undefined relationship to the existing Jackson Park Fieldhouse and South Side “Y,” both nearby.  The cut trees would be replaced – but it would take decades for the new trees to regain the majesty of those that would be lost.

Many in the community have voiced fears that the current open, natural character of the Park would be destroyed by the planned hustle and bustle and the expected congestion as tourists mingle with local park users.  These concerns are exacerbated by the Obama Foundation’s demands to close Cornell Drive along the east side of the site (see “The Site Boundaries” below), something that would allow the crowds planned for the Center to spill directly over into the Park to the edge of the lagoon.

OPC site design as of January 2018.

The Obama Presidential Center Tower Design

Redesigned OPC tower as of January 2018.

The Obama Presidential Center tower would be 235’ tall and lit at night.  The Obama Foundation’s applications to the Chicago Plan Commission describe the tower as “composed of 8 primary floors and multiple mezzanine levels.” The Obama museum would occupy about half of the tower edifice. A public space on the very top would be available for rental.

There are many concerns about the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods: many feel that such a tower simply does not belong in a residential area or in a historic park defined by an emphasis on natural landscape.  There are specific questions about the impact of the large shadow on sunny days and of the night-time light pollution. Questions about the impact on birds are being raised as well, especially since Jackson Park is in a well-known migratory bird flyway.

The Site Boundaries and Road Closures

Amid controversy, on March 18, 2015, the Chicago City Council adopted Ordinance O2105-192 to approve the offering of spaces in Jackson and Washington Parks for the construction of the Obama Presidential Library (now Center).   The site in Jackson Park was defined as stretching between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive and between 60th and 63rd Streets.  There was no formal, public mention of the Obama Foundation’s plan for an altered site with boundaries shifted north and east until former President Obama unveiled the OPC design plans at a invitation-only event on May 3, 2017.  The altered site requires the closure of Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd Streets and the closure of the eastbound segment of the Midway Plaisance between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive.

 

CDOT proposed road closures.

On June 21, 2017, the Park District hosted an event featuring the new OPC plan and a radical new road plan developed by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to “accommodate new traffic and parking demands of the OPC”. The CDOT road plan, to be implemented at taxpayer expense ($175 million or more), would have a dramatic impact on Jackson Park:

  • It would directly connect the new tourist environment of the Obama Presidential Center with the lagoon to the west of Wooded Island.
  • It would destroy key elements of the Olmsted design for the Park by eliminating Cornell Drive between 59th St and 63rd St., laid out by Olmsted in 1895 as a 40’ wide carriage pathway.  It would also destroy the Olmsted design at the juncture of the Midway Plaisance and the Park.
  • It would eliminate the current Perennial Garden at the east end of the Midway Plaisance and replace it with a “Woman’s Garden” whose primary actual purpose would be storm water management.   
  • It would convert Hayes Drive, now a moderately busy road with parking along both sides serving users of local playing fields and the 63rd Street beach, into a high-speed, high-capacity roadway.  It would ban parking on the street and erect a permanent concrete media, thus establishing Hayes as a barrier between the north and south portions of the Park.

Road Plan Concerns

Significant concerns have been raised about the road plan. Near neighbors, those who park in the neighborhood on a daily basis for work, and those who commute through the area have major concerns about traffic snarls, safety, and significant delays.  Those who walk in the area for work, school, or daily living are concerned about pedestrian safety. Park lovers and historic preservationists are concerned about the unwarranted destruction of the Olmsted design: to quote the Park District’s 1999-2000 Jackson Park/South Shore Framework plan  “The Olmsted design has served the park well over time and should not be compromised by future plans.”

In fact, the OPC could be constructed in Jackson Park without these massive and expensive taxpayer-funded road changes that destroy the historic design.  Jackson Park Watch commissioned an alternative traffic plan that accommodates the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park but keeps Cornell Drive open (LINK) and has called for a formal review of its alternative traffic proposals. 

The Central Issue

Together the concerns about appropriate design and site creep point to a core issue: The proposal for the OPC, given its scale and scope and attendant demands for major road reconfigurations, would effectively “transform” Jackson Park.  This dramatic change would be made without any central vision of what the park as a whole could and should be. It would be made without allowing substantive community assessment of the impact of the OPC on the park and without developing a comprehensive plan for the entire park. This – the future of Jackson Park – is the central issue presented by the Obama Presidential Center.

 

“We should use the fate of Jackson Park as an opportunity to rethink the value we place on open space and public parkland held in trust for future generations.”

-Charles Birnbaum, Olmsted expert and President,

The Cultural Landscape Foundation

NEXT STEPS?  

JPW and others continue to closely monitor all developments.  JPW continues its participation in the federal review processes.  We encourage those with concerns to go to the federal review page on this site and to scroll to the bottom for letter-writing suggestions focused on the flaws in the City’s conduct of the federal review process.