This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Chicagoans mostly 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 site their private center on historic public parkland on the shores of Lake Michigan, as these important issues have not been widely covered in the mainstream press, including in any of Chicago’s major newspapers.
Initially the Obama Foundation considered several potential sites for the OPC. These sites were evaluated based on certain factors, including accessibility, enhancements 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 described in its literature as pairing “the greatest need with the greatest opportunity.”
Nevertheless, in 2016, the foundation decided to build on 19.3 acres of wooded public parkland in the heart of historic Jackson Park, east of the U of C campus and about a half-mile from the shores of Lake Michigan. The city of Chicago quickly approved the transfer of public parkland to the private foundation, sparking the current controversy. The city gave the Obama Foundation a 99-year lease on the parkland, tax-free, for $10. The OPC is permitted to charge fees for entry, parking, and third-party use, with the profits to go to the Obama Foundation.
The plan for the OPC 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 throughout the south side expressed concerns about the taking of lakefront parkland. Originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1871, and later redeveloped by Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, Jackson Park is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most important urban parks in the nation.
In 2018, a nonprofit park advocacy organization called Protect Our Parks (POP) went to federal court to try and stop the “partial destruction of Jackson Park,” which it called a violation of public trust. A group of longtime residents of Hyde Park and South Shore later joined in a new suit with POP, which does not seek to thwart the center from being built, but wants to see it built a mile and a half to the west, on vacant land adjacent to Washington Park. The plaintiffs have pointed to an alternate site plan for the OPC authored by Chicago architect (and Bronzeville resident) Grahm Balkany that can be previewed at 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 about 20 acres of public parkland, the Washington Park plan requires no private taking of public green space. Rather, the latter plan proposes building the center on vacant land available for purchase on the west side of Washington Park. In Balkany’s plan, public parkland for south-siders to enjoy would be enlarged rather than reduced.
As Jamie Kalven, award-winning journalist and plaintiff in the POP lawsuit, expressed in a recent Tribune editorial, the privatization of public parkland sets a dangerous precedent. “In view of Chicago’s history of rapacious real estate exploitation, it’s nothing short of miraculous 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. W.J.T. Mitchell, U of C professor, author, and landscape historian. He explains that Olmsted’s vision was for these public parks to be democratic spaces, without gates, open to all visitors. Mitchell believes the taking of parkland 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 obtaining the lease to build in Jackson Park, the foundation changed course and decided to build a private entity with no official connection to the National Archives. According to Sheriff, many south-siders have been misled into believing that the POP lawsuit is an attempt by white people to stop President Obama from building his presidential library.
Second, construction of the OPC in the wooded parkland of Jackson Park will require the destruction of hundreds of mature, carbon-sequestering trees, contributing to the existential problem of global climate change. Mitchell believes more than a thousand trees will ultimately be destroyed in and around the park, many of which are more than 100 years old. The alternative plan near Washington Park does not require destruction of any mature trees, according to Balkany. Another environmental concern is that the placement of a 20-story tower so close to the lake will endanger migratory birds that fly north and south close to the western edge of Lake Michigan. The Washington Park site is farther west and is believed to pose less risk to migrating birds.
Third, the Jackson Park site is not easily accessed by public transportation, meaning that visitors would mostly come by vehicle. In contrast, the Washington Park site is situated right on the CTA Green Line. Further, the Jackson Park plan calls for the closing of two major roads—Cornell Drive and the southern half of the historic Midway Plaisance—necessitating a rerouting of traffic and the widening of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue. The Washington Park plan does not call for any major road closures or traffic disruptions.
Fourth, the Obama Foundation has promised to bring economic development to the south side. Sheriff believes this is 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 homes. “Where is the economic development going to come from?” On the other hand, the Washington Park site is adjacent to many commercial businesses—especially along Garfield Boulevard—that stand to benefit from the OPC.
None of these factors favoring the Washington Park site seem to be seriously disputed. Rather, as Kalven wrote in his Tribune editorial: “The Obama Foundation has declined every invitation to engage the issue of ‘feasible and prudent alternatives’ and has instead mounted a marketing campaign, the central theme of which is that the Jackson Park site is a fait accompli.”
I reached out to the Obama Foundation for comment and was invited to email my questions, which I did, inquiring why the Jackson Park site was selected over the alternative site west of Washington Park; and whether the community has been allowed to weigh in on the controversy over the sites. The Foundation responded that it was “unable to accommodate [my] request at this time.”
Mitchell told me that he attended a town hall meeting 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 plan to build in Jackson Park, the open portion of the meeting was ended, and residents were directed to voice their concerns in small breakout groups. The city never again allowed open-mike questions at meetings regarding the OPC.
Mitchell explained his motivation for joining the lawsuit against locating the OPC in Jackson Park: “I want to save the Obamas from their own bad decision.” Besides being a historic landmark, Jackson Park offers a precarious footing to support a 235-foot tower. The plan is to build the tower on the edge of the West Lagoon that is directly connected to the rising waters of Lake Michigan, which pose serious logistical issues in construction and future usage. “I am afraid it will be a disaster for the Obamas and for the city.”