Obama Presidential Center

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Jackson Park Watch urges the Obama Foundation to:

  • Alter the landscape design to suit the natural and historic character of the site.
  • Modify the design of the Obama Presidential Center tower to harmonize with the Park and the surrounding residential neighborhood.
  • Stay within the boundaries of the site designated for the Obama Presidential Center (then “Library”) by the Chicago City Ordinance adopted in 2015, eliminating the need for massive, taxpayer-funded road changes.

The Issues

Although broad support for having the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side continues unabated, 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 was 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. With the unveiling of the design for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in May 2017 and subsequent supporting proposals, it is possible to consider some of those key consequences.

The Landscape Design

Aerial photo of site originally designated for OPC.

The current landscape plans for the Obama Presidential Center would obliterate all traces of the existing parkland – including the clear cutting of over 300 trees, some magnificent mature specimens  – and replace it with something totally new.  All traces of Jackson Park – trees, shrubs, grass, even the existing grade levels – would be gone. 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.  A much ballyhooed sledding hill would also be included – although a well-used sledding hill already exists on the Midway Plaisance across from the OPC tower just east of the Metra tracks.   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 recent announcement that the Obama Presidential Center tower would be increased to a height of  235’ and lit up at night garnered a lot of new attention.  Questions about the uses of the tower are partially answered in the Obama Foundation’s applications to the Chicago Plan Commission, which describe the tower as “composed of 8 primary floors and multiple mezzanine levels.” The 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

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,” along with an expanded golf course plan. The CDOT road plans, to be implemented at taxpayer expense ($100 million for changes on South Lake Shore Drive alone), would have a dramatic impact on Jackson Park:

 

  • They would directly connect the new built-environment of the Obama Presidential Center with the lagoon to the west of Wooded Island.
  • They would destroy key elements of the Olmsted design for the Park by eliminating that section of Cornell Drive, laid out by Olmsted in 1895 as a 40’ wide carriage pathway, and by destroying the Olmsted design at the juncture of the Midway Plaisance and the Park.
  • They would require elimination of the current Perennial Garden at the east end of the Midway Plaisance and its replacement by a “Woman’s Garden” whose primary purpose would be storm water management.   
  • They 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 by banning parking on the street and erecting a permanent concrete media, thus establishing Hayes as a barrier between the north and south portions of the Park  

Significant concerns have been raised about these road plans. 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, changes that would be unnecessary if the Obama Presidential Center were to stay within the boundaries of the site originally designated for it. Instead, alternative road reconfigurations could be considered.  Of particular promise is the proposal to narrow Cornell Drive south of 60th Street, included in the Park District’s 1999-2000 Framework Plan, that would enable construction of the OPC in harmony with the existing Olmsted design and with the surrounding neighborhood. 

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.  Views on whether this would be a net positive or negative vary widely.  Beyond this, 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 and President,

The Cultural Landscape Foundation