By W.J.T. MITCHELL
CHICAGO TRIBUNE |
JUL 31, 2019 | 4:55 PM

Commentary: It’s not too late to move the Obama Presidential Center plan to an alternate site

Chicagoans were jubilant on May 12, 2015, when Barack Obama announced that his presidential library would be built on Chicago’s South Side.

All the symbolism seemed perfect. A fitting monument to Obama’s historic presidency would be located in the underserved neighborhoods of the South Side, where his political career as a community organizer had begun. After many decades of neglect, major capital investments would bring good jobs, new housing and businesses and renewed optimism to neighborhoods afflicted with crime, poverty, food deserts and depopulation.

The euphoria lasted a little more than a year. In July 2016, the Obama Foundation announced that the library would not be located in an underserved neighborhood such as the site preferred by most experts — the vacant lots adjacent to Washington Park, with their close proximity to a commercially zoned boulevard and easy access to downtown on the Green Line. It would instead be located on more than 19 acres of precious public parkland, in historic Jackson Park, a national landmark.

In the ensuing months, as the problems with this site became increasingly evident, the mood of the community changed from enthusiasm to suspicion and division, and the Obama Foundation abandoned its celebratory mission and undertook an enterprise of damage control and political maneuvering.

The community discomfort only rose when the notion that it would be a presidential library was pulled off the table, to be replaced by a vaguely defined “presidential center” with a gymnasium, a sledding hill and a display of Michelle Obama’s dresses. The mood became still darker when President Obama rejected overtures to sign a community benefits agreement that would ensure local citizens their share of the economic gains.

Uneasiness mounted further when around the same time, ambitious plans were announced to replace the current inexpensive facilities in Jackson Park and the South Shore Golf Course with a PGA championship course that would charge higher green fees and inflict further damage to precious nature preserves along the lakefront.

The Obama Foundation’s so-called “community outreach” meetings became slick marketing exercises designed to prevent public debate. Uneasiness had turned to anger, and predictable lawsuits were filed.

People of good will can differ on these issues. For some, the need for investment on the South Side and the imperative to honor Obama’s presidency outweigh the problems with the site. But is it really necessary to sacrifice a national historic landmark to achieve these goals? Or could they be better accomplished with a simple change of location that will produce greater economic benefits and less environmental damage, and fulfill Obama’s historic mission to lift up underserved neighborhoods?

The just-released federal study of the impact is clear in its judgment that the proposed center “will have an adverse effect” on the historic landscape of Jackson Park.

A park of this grandeur was not created overnight. It is the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the most famous landscape architect in American history, designer of New York’s Central Park and many other landmarks throughout North America, from Montreal to San Francisco. It is blessed with hundreds of century-old trees that will be clear-cut under the current plan.

Sandwiched among the highly developed areas of the University of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry and Hyde Park Academy High School, it is not in close proximity to an underserved neighborhood zoned for commercial development. The superiority of the vacant Washington Park site was, in this respect, understood from the outset.

The good news is it is not too late. The Obamas can reconsider their plans before permanent damage is done to the park.

At this moment of irreversible decision they should think carefully about what both the immediate and long-term results for themselves and the community will be if they bring a wrecking ball to the Jackson Park site.

The gentrification of the adjacent Woodlawn neighborhood, its low-income renters already being driven out, will proceed apace. The 19 acres of Jackson Park will be transformed from a beautifully designed (if poorly maintained) public park into a muddy construction site for the next several years, filled with bulldozers and chain-link fences.

Four major arteries within and around will be blocked, including the Midway Plaisance going east and Cornell Drive, a major commuter artery. Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue will require major reconstruction, with all the predictable traffic problems, at a prohibitive outlay of taxpayer money in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The proposed “improvements” will snarl traffic for several years, and leave a long-term grid worse than the present layout.

At the end of this spectacular period of destruction, a 23-story tower will arise from the ruins amid some low-level outbuildings with green roofs to remind us of the beautiful park that was once there. Will this be an enhancement of Obama’s legacy, or a permanent stain on his memory?

W.J.T. Mitchell is a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago where he teaches courses on landscape and politics.