THREATENED: Jackson Park (Chicago 7 2017 & 2018) City Council Approves Obama Center Federal Lawsuit Seeks to Block Transfer of Public Park Land for Private Use 125th Year Anniversary of Opening Day of the World’s Columbian Exposition on May 1

Chicago celebrated the 125th anniversary of the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition on May 1, 2018, one of the most important cultural events in Chicago and national history. Photo Credit: The White City, Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1983, Chicago Historical Society/ Chicago History Museum
Archaeological Excavation at Jackson Park yields thousands of artifacts, Photo Credit: City of Chicago

Jackson Park has been a Preservation Chicago 7 Most Endangered in 2017 and again in 2018. We are advocating the protection of this important historic landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux with contributions by Alfred Caldwell. Preservation Chicago does not oppose the Obama Presidential Center, but would strongly prefer the 20-acre private facility to be constructed in a location other than historic Jackson Park.

On May 17, 2018, the Obama Presidential Center plan was presented it to the Chicago Plan Commission with over 150 members of the public wishing to give testimony in a packed City Council chambers including Preservation Chicago. After seven hours of heated public testimony both for and against the plan, the Chicago Plan Commission vote passed unanimously. The vote approve proposals including modifying boundaries, closing roads and approving the lease of the building. Many details are yet to be disclosed.

On May 22, 2018, the Obama Presidential Center plan was presented to the Chicago Zoning Commission for zoning approval. This hearing was well attended with Preservation Chicago being one of the advocacy groups to present public testimony. The matter moved swiftly and the sweeping zoning changes were approved. This vote committed the City of Chicago to spending $175 million to rebuild proximate road infrastructure by closing Cornell Drive and widening other nearby streets including South Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue to handle the increased traffic, transferring 19.3 acres from the City of Chicago to the Chicago Park District which in turn will lease the land to the private Obama Foundation in perpetuity for a token $1, and by accepted the Obama Foundation’s “creative” calculations that among other things count green roofs as public park space. The Obama Foundation enthusiastically discussed the additional of green park space by removing Cornell Drive, but is less vocal about the greater loss of green park space resulting from the widening of South Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue.

As reported in the Chicago Sun-times, the arguments presented didn’t satisfy Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

He supports building the center on the South Side. But, he argued it does not belong in “historic Jackson Park, known the world over” for its Frederick Law Olmsted landscape design that “so beautifully connects” Jackson Park to the Midway Plaisance and Washington Park.

“Make no bones about it. The proposed plans…will backhoe and destroy almost 20 acres of this legacy park land,” Miller 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 Barack and Michelle 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)

As reported in the Chicago Sun-times, “17th Ward Alderman David Moore cast the only “no” vote. Moore said he could not in good conscience commit to spending $175 million on public infrastructure improvements when nobody can say for certain where that money will come from.

“I’m in a community where there are streets that are totally jacked up far worse than what’s around Stony Island, and the administration is saying they don’t have money to do those streets,” Moore said. “I can’t get $800,000 to go to streets that haven’t been done in 20 years.”

The full Chicago City Council voted the following day on May 23, 2018 to approve the proposed Obama Foundation plan. The vote was 47-1 with the one politically brave “no” vote coming from 17th Ward Alderman David Moore.’

Another important development was the filing of a 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. (P.O.P.) 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 by the U.S. federal government.

“Although that original purpose of an official Presidential Library no longer exists,” reads the P.O.P. 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 short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.”

Regarding the design history of Jackson Park, the recent discovery of landscape drawings signed by noted Chicago landscape architect Alfred Caldwell from the 1930s increases the historical significance of the existing landscape elements that exist in Jackson Park today. These include a berm extending along Stony Island Avenue from 60th to 67th Street and eastward along 67th including other plantings and trees, in additional to the the golf course greens, fairways, and a lagoon feature from holes 8 through 11.

May 1, 2018 was the 125th anniversary of the opening day of the World’s Columbian Exposition on 1893. This was one of the most important cultural events in Chicago’s history (it is represented by one of the four stars on Chicago’s flag). It’s arguably one of the most important cultural events of the late 19th century.

The federal Section 106 approval remains pending. As part of Federal Section 106 Review, the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) excavated seven small sites in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. This small sampling resulting in the researchers discovering “9,841 artifacts, among them nails, spoons, buttons, bottles and a fan-shaped brass Japanese necklace”. We assume that none of the nails discovered was the golden nail driven by Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer, the final nail used in the construction of the Woman’s Building designated by Sophia Hayden at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Preservation Chicago hopes that that the decision-makers come to recognize and celebrate this important milestone by choosing to relocate the planned Obama Presidential Center to privately held land in nearby Woodlawn or on the South Side.

Additional Reading

Zoning Committee approves Obama Presidential Center, Fran Speilman, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/22/18

Plan Commission passes Obama Center plans, Rachel Hinton, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/17/18

Obama Presidential Center Sails Through City Council, Paris Schutz, Chicago Tonight, WTTW Chicago 5/23/18

Obama Presidential Center Passes Plan Commission Despite Lack of Details, Alexandra Silets, Chicago Tonight WTTW Chicago, 5/22/18

Park advocacy group files federal lawsuit to block Obama Presidential Center, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 5/15/18

Federal lawsuit accuses Obama center organizers of pulling an ‘institutional bait and switch’, Tony Briscoe, Chicago Tribune, 5/15/18

Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair. Alex Bean, Chicago Detours, 5/1/18

Battle brewing over Obama Center replacement parkland, Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/7/18

Closing Cornell ‘unnecessary’ for Obama Center: report, Lisa Bertagnoli, Crain’s Chicago Business, 5/11/18

City Plan Commission approves OPC, Aaron Gettinger, Hyde Park Herald, 5/17/18

Plan Commission passes Obama Center plans, Rachel Hinton, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/17/18

Race Still An Undercurrent Around Obama Center In Jackson Park, WBEZ Chicago, Natalie Moore, 5/30/18

Obama Presidential Center breezes through planning and zoning hurdles, but continues to kindle community concern, Elizabeth Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, 5/23/18

South Siders Take Fight for Obama Library Benefits Agreement To Rogers Park, Lee Edwards, Block Club Chicago, April 12, 2018 

South Side Obama center activists removed after disrupting Plan Commission meeting, Lolly Bowean, Chicago Tribune, 4/19/2018

Column: Artifacts from 1893 World’s Fair found beneath Obama center site, but report signals construction won’t be blocked, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 3/25/18

Digging under Obama library site unearths World’s Fair artifacts, but construction will proceed, Matthew Marani, The Architects Newspaper, March 26, 2018

Jackson Park, Preservation Chicago 7 Most Endangered 2018

What does a presidential building look like?, Alexandra Lange, Curbed, March 22, 2018

In the Rough: Residents remain dissatisfied with plans for expanded Tiger Woods golf course, Jonathan Ballew, South Side Weekly, March 6, 2018

‘East-coasters butt out’ and more from the wildcat Obama Presidential Center debate Deanna Isaacs, Chicago Reader, March 9, 2018 

Column: The dilemma of development: Will Obama center hurt those it’s supposed to help?, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, March 3, 2018

Obama asks for trust at community meeting on Presidential Center, Sara Freund, Curbed Chicago, February 28, 2018

Meet the Community Organizers Fighting Against … Barack Obama, Edward McClelland, Politico Magazine, February 28, 2018

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