The Obama Center and the fight for the preservation of Jackson Park | Opinion
Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense attorney and co-owner of the new independent firm Reader.
Chicagoans primarily support the Obamas’ decision to build the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on the south side of Chicago. But few of us are aware of the controversy over the Obamas’ decision to locate their private center in a historic public park on the shores of Lake Michigan, as these important issues have not been widely covered by the press. general public, including in one of the major Chicago newspapers. newspapers.
Initially, the Obama Foundation considered several potential sites for the OPC. These sites were assessed based on a number of factors, including accessibility, improvements to the physical environment, and potential for economic development. The site receiving the highest score was a site near Washington Park, just west of the University of Chicago campus, which the university has described in its literature as “a pair.[ing] the greatest need with the greatest opportunity.
Nonetheless, in 2016, the foundation decided to build on 19.3 acres of wooded public park in the heart of Jackson Historic Park, east of the U of C campus and about half a mile from the shores of Lake Michigan. . The city of Chicago quickly approved the transfer of the public park to the private foundation, triggering the current controversy. The city gave the Obama Foundation a 99-year, tax-free lease on the park for $ 10. The OPC is authorized to charge fees for entry, parking and use by third parties, with the profits going to the Obama Foundation.
The OPC plan can be viewed on the Obama Foundation website. It includes the construction of a 235-foot-high “museum tower”, which will rise above all neighboring structures, including the Museum of Science and Industry.
More than a dozen neighborhood groups on the south side have expressed concerns about the taking of the lakeside park. Originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1871, then redeveloped by Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most important city parks in the country.
In 2018, a non-profit parks advocacy organization called Protect Our Parks (POP) took federal court action to try to stop the “partial destruction of Jackson Park,” which it called a breach of government trust. public. A group of longtime Hyde Park and South Shore residents then joined a new lawsuit with POP, which does not seek to prevent construction of the center, but wants to see it built a mile and a half away. west, on vacant land. adjacent to Washington Park. The complainants reported a alternative site plan for the OPC written by Chicago architect (and Bronzeville resident) Grahm Balkany which can be previewed on the POP website.
A comparison of the two proposed plans shows that the Washington Park site has distinct advantages over the Jackson Park site.
First, while the Jackson Park plan requires the privatization of approximately 20 acres of public parkland, the Washington Park plan requires no private takeover of public green space. Instead, the latter plan proposes to build the center on vacant land available for purchase on the west side of Washington Park. In Balkany’s plan, public parks for southerners would be enlarged rather than reduced.
As Jamie Kalven, award-winning journalist and plaintiff in the POP lawsuit, put it in a recent Tribune editorial, the privatization of the public park sets a dangerous precedent. “Given Chicago’s history of rapacious real estate exploitation, it is nothing short of a miracle that the glorious archipelago of Frederick Law Olmsted Parks – Washington and Jackson Parks, linked by the Midway Plaisance – has been preserved. At least until now.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit is Dr. WJT Mitchell, professor, author and landscape historian at the University of California. He explains that Olmsted’s vision was for these public parks to be democratic spaces, without doors, open to all visitors. Mitchell believes that taking the park for private use is contrary to Olmsted’s plan.
Another plaintiff, Bren Sheriff, who has lived for nearly 50 years in the South Shore neighborhood near Jackson Park, told me that the center was initially marketed as a presidential library. But after securing the lease to build at Jackson Park, the foundation changed course and decided to build a private entity with no official connection to the National Archives. According to the sheriff, many southerners have been misled into believing that the POP trial is an attempt by whites to stop President Obama from building his presidential library.
Second, the construction of the OPC in the wooded Jackson Park will require the destruction of hundreds of mature carbon sequestering trees, contributing to the existential problem of global climate change. Mitchell believes over a thousand trees will eventually be destroyed in and around the park, many of which are over 100 years old. The alternative plan near Washington Park does not require the destruction of mature trees, according to Balkany. Another environmental concern is that installing a 20-story tower so close to the lake will endanger migratory birds that fly north and south near the western shore of Lake Michigan. The Washington Park site is further west and is believed to pose less of a risk to migratory birds.
Third, the Jackson Park site is not easily accessible by public transportation, meaning that visitors would come primarily by vehicle. In contrast, the Washington Park site is located directly on the CTA green line. Additionally, Jackson Park’s plan calls for the closure of two major highways, Cornell Drive and the southern half of historic Midway Plaisance, requiring traffic rerouting and the widening of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue. . Washington Park’s plan does not include major road closures or traffic disruptions.
Fourth, the Obama Foundation has promised to bring economic development to the south. The sheriff thinks it’s a pipe dream if the center is built in Jackson Park. The park is surrounded by the university, the museum of science and industry, two high schools and private houses. “Where will economic development come from? On the other hand, the Washington Park site is adjacent to many commercial ventures, notably along Garfield Boulevard, which will benefit from the OPC.
None of these factors favoring the Washington Park site appear to be seriously contested. On the contrary, as Kalven wrote in his Tribune editorial: “The Obama Foundation has declined any invitation to address the issue of ‘doable and prudent alternatives’ and instead mounted a marketing campaign, the central theme of which is that the Jackson Park site is a done deal. ”
I contacted the Obama Foundation for comment and was invited to email my questions, which I did, asking why the Jackson Park site was chosen over the alternative site to the west of Washington Park; and whether the community was allowed to weigh in on the controversy on the sites. The Foundation responded that it was “unable to accommodate [my] ask right now.
Mitchell told me he attended a town hall in 2017 at Hyde Park Academy High School where residents were invited to come to the microphone and ask questions about the OPC. But when residents started raising objections to the construction project at Jackson Park, the open portion of the meeting ended and residents were invited to voice their concerns in small groups. The city never again allowed open mike questions at OPC meetings.
Mitchell explained his motivation for joining the lawsuit against the Jackson Park OPC location: “I want to save the Obamas from their own bad decision. In addition to being a historic monument, Jackson Park provides a precarious foundation to support a 235-foot tower. The plan is to build the tower at the edge of the West Lagoon which is directly connected to the rising waters of Lake Michigan, posing serious logistical challenges during construction and future use. “I’m afraid this will be a disaster for the Obamas and for the city.” v