THREATENED: Jackson Park, South Shore Cultural Center & Midway Plaisance

Address: Bounded by Lake Michigan, 56th, Stony Island and 71st, Chicago
Landscape Architects:
Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux , F.L. Olmsted & Co., Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot with additions by Alfred Caldwell and May McAdams. (Jackson Park & Midway Plaisance)
Benjamin Marshall & Charles Fox, Thomas Hawkes (South Shore Cultural Center)
Date: c.1870s to 1937
Style: Naturalistic
Neighborhood: Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance & the South Shore Cultural Center have now been part of Preservation Chicago’s–Chicago 7 Most Endangered List for a third year in a row.

We at Preservation Chicago very much welcome and support the many buildings proposed for the new Obama Presidential Center, but for another nearby site and not on historic public parklands designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, with additions by Alfred Caldwell, May McAdams and others of national and world recognition.

The Obama Presidential Center (OPC) has been contentious among residents, citizens of Chicago and elsewhere across the nation because of concerns about gentrification and displacement and due to its placement within a historic park belonging to the people of Chicago for more than 130 years. It is also a lakefront site and subject to ordinances designed to keep the shoreline protected from private development and unnecessary non-public structures—and understood by many citizens to be “forever open and free.” This forever open and free idea along Chicago’s lakefront, while revolutionary in concept for a large American city of the 19th and early 20th century, originated in 1836. It gets challenged every so often because of political pressures and perhaps land values and speculation.

The proposed Obama Presidential Center (OPC) campus is to be sited on about 20 acres of Jackson Park, situated near the Midway Plaisance at 60th and Stony Island Avenue and extending southward.

It is part of an on-going Federal Section 106 process required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, due to the park’s significance and listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also subject to a review process through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and to Urban Parks and Recreational Recovery (UPARR), administered by the National Park Service.

Additionally, there is an on-going lawsuit to protect Jackson Park and to further encourage another nearby location for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). The legal action by Protect Our Parks, Inc. (POP) is currently before the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. A tremendous amount of resources are being invested by both the City of Chicago and the Obama Foundation to place this new center and campus of buildings onto a historic Olmsted park and lakefront land where it does not belong. This proposed complex is contrary to Lakefront Ordinances and the public good, acknowledging for this site what has been upheld by Chicago for more than 150 years — that the lakefront should be “public ground. A common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings or other obstructions whatever,” with access to all.

This proposed Presidential Center to be situated on public lands has also absorbed thousands of hours of City staff time over the past few years, as well as preparation of thousands of pages of documents required for the Federal 106 related hearings and U.S. District Court proceedings. Had the University of Chicago and the Obama Foundation chosen a site that was not historically significant and not on public lakefront land, the time investment would have been significantly reduced. If the Obama Presidential Center were proposed for nearby private lands, the complex would have most likely already been under construction and completed, likely with significantly less investment of public resources. The City of Chicago and the University of Chicago own significant amounts of land at alternative site locations, and this viable option should be further explored.

Preservation Chicago joins the fervent support of the Obama Presidential Center locating in Chicago. It just should not be in Jackson Park. The Obama Foundation’s drawings for a site west of Washington Park would be a great location for the OPC. The University of Chicago, along with the City of Chicago has been assembling acreage adjacent to Washington Park, and that area has great access to public transportation. This location is targeted for redevelopment and is adjacent to the Garfield Park L stop for the Green and Red line trains. The OPC located there would be an extraordinary asset to the community and the City and would make this remarkable monument to President Obama’s legacy more accessible to people throughout the area. In solidarity with the residents of the area, Preservation Chicago calls on the Obama Foundation to enter into a binding Community Benefits Agreement for this alternate site to ensure that promises made to avoid displacement and provide more jobs are kept.

The City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District need to develop plans that reflect the full range of stakeholders in this process and balance the interests of their constituents with the interests of private developers. They should prioritize an open and transparent process in determining the future of our public lands and green spaces. In the process, they should protect the historic integrity of these nationally and locally significant landscapes, structures and buildings so they may remain accessible assets for the people of the South Side, Chicago and the world for generations to come.

To help restore the area the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District should consider narrowing the Olmsted-designed historic parkways instead of closing and removing them completely and retaining South Lake Shore Drive, with its current proportions and winding Lakefront Boulevard characteristics. This would render unnecessary the proposed widening of the other roadways and perhaps save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Preservation Chicago reaffirms its commitment to providing a constructive, preservation-oriented voice in this large and complex conversation. As a consulting party in the federally mandated Section 106 review process, Preservation Chicago will continue to strongly advocate for the importance of protecting historic features, including the world-renowned Olmsted landscapes. We continue to work to ensure that any construction in the historic parks will be conducted with sensitivity to historic features, historic structures and historic landscapes. This includes archaeologically important sites such as the foundations and remnants of the Women’s Building designed by Sophia Hayden, the only female architect who designed a building for the Exposition; the Children’s Building; and other important structures and features from the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, likely hidden below the soil line. Also, this proposed construction would impact the Woman’s Garden, also known as the Perennial Garden in Jackson Park, designed by May McAdams in 1937, a noted female landscape architect.

We remain hopeful that the federal review process mandated by the National Preservation Act will reinforce the importance of protecting the important features of the park and minimizing the adverse effects of new construction. Specifically, we want to insure that the South Shore Cultural Center be included in the Section 106 process already underway, or a new Section 106 process be initiated specifically for the golf course expansion project at both Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center.

A formal survey of Jackson Park and South Shore Cultural Center trees, detailing type, age and caliper, should be conducted along with an assessment of which trees are planned to be cleared. The findings of this survey should then be released to the public for comment and discussion before any work begins. Also, while an inventory of historic structures in Jackson Park has been approved, there are a number of critical needs for historic buildings that require urgent repair to stabilize and return them to public use.

Preservation Chicago will continue to push for a written agreement from the Chicago Park District that some percentage of the many millions of dollars to be invested in these potential projects will be earmarked instead for the badly needed maintenance and rehabilitation of historic park structures. These include the South Shore Cultural Center main building and stables, as well Jackson Park improvements to the Comfort Station, the Iowa Building, the Columbia/Darrow Bridge, public paths and meadows, and ball fields.

There is significant Chicago history buried underground at Jackson Park. Archaeological explorations from seven borings on the site were shared at one of the Section 106 meetings. They revealed nearly 10,000 objects from the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition. We understand that permanent concrete foundations for all the temporary buildings are also located below the soil line, and it is our opinion that these features should remain intact and should not be destroyed by heavy-equipment, which will backhoe the site. The Women’s Garden, the approximate site of Sophia Haden’s Women’s Building during the World’s Columbia Exposition, should also not be disturbed. This was the only building designed by a woman architect for the 1893 Fair, which highlighted great strides and accomplishments by women all housed in a magnificent building, on scale with many of the large structures of the Fair.

1. Relocate the Obama Presidential Center to a nearby site outside of Jackson Park. Land just west of Washington Park provides great public transportation access, and a good deal of this land is already owned by the City of Chicago and the University of Chicago.

2. Repair and restore the existing Jackson Park Golf Course and the South Shore Cultural Center golf course. These currently serve the public well, but they are in need of some long-deferred maintenance.

3. Move the proposed TGR Golf Course concept for Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center southward to the new South Lake Shore Drive Extension and extend it to the site of the former and now demolished United States Steel factories in the South Chicago neighborhood. This would be an economic boost to the South Chicago and East Side neighborhoods of Chicago, and it would result in three separate golf courses for a major city like Chicago. A large 18-hole golf course on the former U.S. Steel site, suitable for hosting PGA Championship games, would “green” this former industrial site as part of on-going efforts to retain publicly accessible parks and green space along the extraordinary and expansive Chicago Lakefront.

4. Repair and Landmark the South Shore Cultural Center’s and Jackson Park’s existing historic buildings, structures, paths, meadows, bridges (including the Columbia/Clarence Darrow Bridge—closed for almost a decade for safety reasons). These structures have suffered through enough long-deferred maintenance. One of the historic structures, the modest one-story Comfort Station at 67th Street and South Shore Drive, which is in terrible disrepair, had a partial roof collapse in the past six months.

5. Narrow the Olmsted-designed roadways and parkways to their historic pre-1960s dimensions. The 1960s widening project was considered a misstep by the general public at that time and was part of numerous protests. A substantial number of trees were lost during that widening project. A narrowing of Cornell Drive, in lieu of total closure, could provide a correction of these missteps and help to again restore a tree-lined boulevard through the park which everyone could enjoy. Everyone should be able to enjoy the pastoral setting of Jackson Park by various modes – walking, jogging, biking and driving.

6. Retain South Lake Shore Drive’s current proportions and winding Lakefront Boulevard characteristics, and retain the current proportions of Stony Island Avenue, without unnecessary expansions.

7. The entirety of Jackson Park, the Midway and Washington Park—the Olmsted & Vaux parks, should be considered for a Chicago Landmark designation.

8. In its entirety, the Chicago Lakefront Park System should be considered as a National Monument or National Park. This would be much like the recent honor further recognizing the Indiana Dunes as a National Park, or the Pullman Historic District of Chicago as a National Monument. This would protect our valuable public lakefront parks from further attempts at parceling them out to private developers and would provide additional resources for maintenance and rehabilitation. This could be an amazing partnership if implemented with the National Park Service, the Chicago Park District, and the City of Chicago all sharing the stewardship of Chicago’s Lakefront parks.



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