Obama Presidential Center

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Send your own questions and concerns to Obama Foundation Vice-President for civic engagement Michael Strautmanis at mstrautmanis@obamapresidentialfoundation.org.

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Jackson Park Watch calls on the Obama Foundation to:

  • Engage in regular and public dialogue with a wide range of community groups on the many issues that the Obama Presidential Center and related proposals have raised (see discussion below).
  • Be a model of responsiveness to community concerns rather than continuing to advance the same basic proposals.
  • Slow down the process to allow reasoned, thoughtful consideration of OPC plans and their impact on Jackson Park and the surrounding communities.

The Issues

The original 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 (see diagram above; it also shows the related major proposed road closures), it quickly became evident that the decision would have both immediate and long-term consequences for users of Jackson Park and for its neighbors. After President Obama has unveiled his vision for the Obama Presidential Center on May 3, it became 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, all facing on a plaza. The one-story buildings might house a local 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 as it has developed shifts the footprint of the Center northward, eastward, and westward 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. The Obama Foundation now wants to include the perennial garden (labeled “water basin” in this early schematic); the eastbound section of the Midway roadway east of Stony Island; the east end of the Midway Plaisance acreage between the Metra and Stony Island where it proposes to build a two-story above-ground parking garage; and Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd. 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? Will the fact that this is no longer to be an actual Presidential Library make any difference?

proposed road closures

Closing Cornell Drive: The Obama Foundation wants to close Cornell Drive between 59th Street and Hayes Drive (63rd Street). The reason: to allow the proposed two one-story buildings to have landscaped rooftops with grassy side sloping eastward down to the west side of the Western Lagoon in Jackson Park. This is an optional design decision: the OPC and many of its features could be built without this road closure. Proponents argue that closing Cornell would add approximately five acres of green space to the Park and would take out a multi-lane “highway” that has no business in the Park. At the same time, to accommodate the impact of that closure, the Chicago Department of Transportation is proposing significant changes in local roads which themselves would convert parkland to concrete. There is great concern about the impacts of the proposed closure on neighborhoods near and far, on commuters, on pedestrians (children and adults) walking or being delivered to the many schools in the area, and more. Some question whether replacing Cornell, admittedly a busy traffic artery, with a rebuilt Hayes that would be equally wide and busy would be a net gain for the Park. No one knows how much this would cost or who would pay, although Mayor Emanuel has spoken of spending upwards of $100 million to accomplish the combined projects he is promoting.

Parking: The original site “vision” included an underground parking structure between the Metra and Stony Island and the two arms of the Midway. In August 2017, just two weeks after having told the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council that no such plans existed, the Obama Foundation revealed that it would pay for and construct a two-story above-ground parking garage on that site. There is substantial neighborhood opposition to the idea of a two-story above-ground garage at that location; concern about pollution from buses in the bus parking area that is part of the plan, especially in light of the schools in the near neighborhood; and many questions about the impact on neighborhood traffic, already congested.

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. While in line with President Obama’s favorable comments about the amenities in Lincoln Park and Millennium Park, many in the community value the current open and green nature of much of the Park north of 63th street and are concerned to safeguard it. They wish to preserve as much of that natural landscape as possible for bike riding, picnicking, dog-walking, birding, fishing, and simple enjoyment. Some propose that, if indeed Cornell Drive is removed, the parkland thus freed up should 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