A Chicago 7 Most Endangered in 2017 and again in 2018, Preservation Chicago has consistently advocated for the protection of Jackson Park, a world-class historic landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux with contributions by Alfred Caldwell. Preservation Chicago does NOT oppose the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) being built in Chicago, but for many important and valid reasons, strongly prefers the 20-acre private facility to be constructed in a location other than historic Jackson Park.
“Make no bones about it. The proposed plans…will backhoe and destroy almost 20 acres of this legacy park land,” said Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation, said, warning of the dangerous precedent. “This green, leafy site will now be compromised…with three very large buildings, all on a concrete plaza, and a tall museum building which is over 200 feet tall. … No other presidential library is of this scale and magnitude.”
Miller urged the Obama Foundation and President Obama to consider “another nearby site in the heart of the community” rather than “sort of an extension of the University of Chicago into Jackson Park.” (Speilman, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/22/18)
The University of Chicago played a major role in the OPC process and was responsible for the initial proposals to locate the OPC on Chicago Park District lands including Jackson Park, Washington Park, or the South Shore Cultural Center. None of the University of Chicago proposals included an option to locate the OPC on land controlled or owned by the University of Chicago.
“Given this city’s rich and colorful history of graft, payola and insider dealing, Chicagoans are entitled to be enormously skeptical—and even maybe a tad bit cynical—when asked by our civic leaders to take certain things on faith,” according to the Crain’s Chicago Business Editorial Board on August 2, 2018. “But there’s another reason to wonder about the site selection: The University of Chicago-backed Jackson Park deal may not have been cut in the kind of smoke-filled backroom Chicago is notorious for, but it might as well have been. The public disclosures by the Emanuel administration, the Obama Foundation and the U of C have been about as transparent as cigar smoke.” (Crain’s Editorial Board, 8/2/18)
The University of Chicago and the Obama Foundation considered these proposals to be highly confidential and, despite many requests, had never shared them publicly. This all changed recently when as part of the ongoing federal lawsuit, the Judge John Robert Blakely indicated that he would open a discovery phase in which documents could be subpoenaed. The original proposals were released and made available to the public just prior to the court date. We still await the release of additional relevant documents.
The modest approach of the initial proposals has been completely rejected and reversed by the current project architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The current proposal includes a massive, 235 foot-tall, stone monolith. Equivalent to a 23-story high-rise, the current proposal has been widely criticized. The earlier slightly shorter design was referred to by Blair Kamin as “an expanded version of a truncated obelisk. It’s too heavy, too funereal, too Pharaonic, too pyramid-like.” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 5/4/17) Others have jokingly nicknamed it “Yertle the Turtle” tower. The architects responded to this criticism by making it…even taller!
Even though senior administrators at the University of Chicago have been the strongest advocate for locating the OPC in Jackson Park and even though the University of Chicago is the organization that potentially has the most to gain by its construction there, the “University of Chicago faculty have also weighed in on the public land debate several times. In January, nearly 250 professors signed a letter calling for the Center to be built in a location other than Jackson Park. They argued that preserving public land in city spaces should be an imperative and that building the Center would compromise the vision of the park’s original architect, Frederick Law Olmstead.” (Albaharna, Chicago Maroon, 9/21/18)
“The letter also expressed support for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA): a legally binding document that would hold the Foundation accountable to the communities bordering the park. CBA advocates are concerned that the presence of the Center would raise rent prices in the area, driving low-income residents out of the neighborhood. The Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition is a group of seven South Side activist organizations, including a group of University students. They demand that the Center employ local citizens and supports residents in danger of displacement. The Coalition also outlines two dozen “development principles”: goals to improve everything from education to nearby public transportation.” (Albaharna, Chicago Maroon, 9/21/18)
In early August 2018, the City of Chicago and Chicago Park District began cutting down mature trees in Jackson Park until they were forced to halt following a powerful Chicago Sun-Times editorial. Despite claims that the demolition was unrelated to the planned OPC, it was self-evident that the bulldozing of the groves of trees, lawns, ball fields, and track was the first phase in clearing space for the planned OPC. The timing of the demolition and the destruction of these public assets occurred prior to City Council approval, prior to the outcome of the federal review, and in the midst of an ongoing Federal lawsuit. The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board found the work to be highly contradictory to the Obama Foundation CEO’s pledge that ‘until the foundation has the permits, “there will be no trees removed or cut down” as promised to the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board on January 12, 2018. (Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, 1/12/18)
Ironically, a week prior to the tree-cutting work in Jackson Park, the Obama Foundation announced the groundbreaking date for the Obama Presidential Center would be pushed back to 2019 and only after the conclusion of the federal review process.
The Obama Presidential Center has enjoyed strong political support from the Mayor’s office and has sailed through a series of Chicago City Council votes and City Council sub-committee votes. On October 31, 2018, the Chicago City Council passed a proposed Obama Presidential Center Ordinance. There was minimal dissent or questioning from City Council members, but many statements– including by the Mayor–celebrating this “wonderful” accomplishment. These political statements largely avoided many of the unresolved unpleasant topics such as the onerous burden on taxpayers, the widespread displacement of local residents, the significant loss of public parkland, and the traffic problems resulting from road closures and realignments. The closure and removal of South Cornell Drive in the Jackson Park will result in expansion and widening of South Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue into the park resulting in the loss of parkland and massive tree cutting.
On September 20, 2018, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that approved the 99-year lease of 19.3 acres in Jackson Park for a total of $10. Jackson Park Watch co-founder Margaret Schmid said, “The idea of leasing invaluable, irreplaceable public parkland to a private entity for $10 for 99 years is astounding in this era when public lands and natural resources are under attack in so many places. Besides, Chicago’s finances are extremely precarious.” (Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, 9/18/18)
Additionally, as part of this lease deal, the City agreed to reimburse the Obama Foundation for environmental testing of the development site. These testing costs were capped at $75k. However, in the final language of the approved Ordinance, the taxpayers of the City of Chicago and State of Illinois are now fully responsible and liable for ALL costs related to any environmental remediation costs required or resulting from the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. This language includes no cap for the total cost. Estimated remediation costs are not yet available, but it can be expected that the final remediation costs for this “blank check” will likely be enormous.
The City of Chicago and State of Illinois have also agreed to cover the cost of $172 million in discretionary road changes in Jackson Park. The oft-repeated argument is that the ultimate cost burden will be borne by taxpayers – both state and federal. Additionally, any precious federal funds brought to Chicago should be used first for desperately needed road work and crumbling infrastructure elsewhere in city.
Ironically, in August 2018, the Chicago Tribune reported that according to the Obama Foundation’s first annual report, that it raised nearly $233 million in 2017 mostly from private donors. The amount of Foundation’s fundraising in 2018 remains unknown. In light of the incredible amount of fundraising dollars the Obama Foundation has generated, it is hard to understand why a budget-strapped city and state would be required to provide such a “sweetheart” lease deal for incredibly valuable public lands, and then to willingly subsidize a private entity with hundreds of millions of additional dollars.
Another important development is the ongoing federal lawsuit by a better government and parks advocacy group to block the Obama Presidential Center. On May 14, 2018, the nonprofit Protect Our Parks, Inc. filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court. In the complaint, they accuse the organizers for the Obama Presidential Center of pulling an “institutional bait and switch” by shifting away from an “official presidential library” overseen and paid for by the U.S. federal government and the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).
“Although that original purpose of an official Presidential Library no longer exists,” reads the complaint, “the defendants continue to forge ahead to advance a totally different private nongovernmental project on public parkland.”
Furthermore, the suit claims that the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago don’t have the authority to transfer public parkland, that public land is “prohibited by law” from being turned over to a private entity for private use, and that such a deal violates Chicago Park District code.
Additionally, the complaint argues that the City of Chicago and Chicago Park District’s intention to lease the land in perpetuity for a nominal amount is a violation of state law and represents “a shell game” to “legitimize an illegal land grab.”