Obama Presidential Center

What you can do:
Sign up to receive Jackson Park Watch Updates to get regular information and participate in JPW’s work. Updates come out every two to three weeks, and often include ways to take timely action on the issues. Updates are sent via e-mail bcc to maintain privacy. E-mail jacksonparkwatch@gmail.com with the simple request “sign me up.” Additional ways to take action can be found under the Take Action heading.

Jackson Park Watch calls on the Obama Foundation to:

  • Provide a model for substantive community engagement in planning for the Obama Presidential Center and its impact on Jackson Park;
  • Publicly urge the Park District to develop an overall comprehensive plan for Jackson Park;
  • Commit to fully supporting and participating in such a comprehensive planning process.

The Issues:

The decision by the City and the Park District to give prime parkland in either Jackson Park or Washington Park to the Obama Foundation was controversial. When the Obama Foundation chose the 20+ acre Jackson Park site across from Hyde Park Academy High School, it quickly became evident that the decision would have both immediate and long-term consequences for users of Jackson Park and for its neighbors. Now that President Obama has unveiled his vision for the Obama Presidential Center, it is possible to consider those consequences, both positive and problematic.

The initial site design for the Obama Presidential Center proposes a collection of three structures: one, tall and monumental, to house a museum, and two one-story buildings with landscaped roofs facing on a plaza. These buildings would house a library (but not an actual archives) and a forum with meeting spaces and classrooms. The proposed programming for the OPC – formal and informal activities to promote civic engagement and develop new generations of civic leaders as well as on-site recreational and entertainment venues – is inspirational and exciting.

However, as can be seen from a review of the initial site plan (below), the proposed design and placement of the OPC raises significant questions.

The site itself: The Obama Presidential Center proposal shifts the footprint of the Center northward and eastward of the original area defined for its placement in the City Ordinance of 1-21-15, which specified the area between 60th and 63rd, Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive. This appears to increase the park acreage given over to the OPC as well as redefining its exact location. Will City Council have to vote on a revised ordinance?

Closing Cornell Drive: According to some estimates, closing Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets would add approximately five acres of green space to the Park. How many acres of parkland would be required to accommodate the traffic that now uses that part of Cornell Drive? What would the net impact on park acreage actually be? Would this be presented as the “nearby replacement green space” that the City promised to provide in the 1-21-15 ordinance? Is five acres the amount of replacement green space that was promised, or was it twenty or more? Finally, who would pay for the work associated with closing portions of Cornell Drive and for constructing alternate roadways and traffic exchanges?

Parking: The site “vision” includes an underground parking structure between the Metra and Stony Island and the two arms of the Midway. As proposed, it would be topped with a plaza and would be connected to the OPC via a bridge over Stony Island. President Obama specified that the Obama Foundation would not pay for this proposed parking garage, leaving questions as to how parking would be provided in this already crowded neighborhood unanswered.

The impact on the character of Jackson Park: The 5-3-17 OPC design includes an Entertainment Area, with a children’s playground, sledding hill, and open lawn for concerts and movies per President Obama’s favorable comments about the amenities in Lincoln Park and Millennium Park.  Those attractions could draw families to the OPC, helping reach President Obama’s goals for the OPC as a community center. At the same time, many in the community value the current open and green nature of much of the Park north of 63th street.  They wish to preserve as much of that natural landscape as possible for bike riding, picnicking, dog-walking, birding, fishing, and simple enjoyment. In order to preserve the character of that central portion of the Park, could the parkland freed up by the removal of Cornell Drive (if that occurs) be transformed into a protective transition zone between the Maggie Daley Park-type activities of the OPC Children’s Play Area and the nature zone of Wooded Island and Bobolink Meadow?

The Central Issue:

The questions point to a core problem: The proposal for the OPC, given its scale and scope, would effectively “transform” Jackson Park. However, 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, commenting on the implications of the decision to locate the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park