EDITORIAL: Let’s make the Obama Presidential Center a South Side gem

SHARE EDITORIAL: Let’s make the Obama Presidential Center a South Side gem

The Obama Presidential Center concept model, as seen from above and the northwest. Lake Michigan and downtown Chicago. | Obama Presidential Center

Eight years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley pulled out all the stops to bring the Olympic Games to Chicago.

Luckily for Chicago, he failed.

Daley’s intentions were laudable, to use the Olympics to revitalize Chicago’s South Side, but plenty of cities have all gone broke hosting the games.

Now Chicago is on to something better, though it carries risks of its own, and the trick is to land it just right. The Obama Presidential Center, to be formally presented in concept to the City Council on Wednesday, is a work in progress — but a promising work in progress. It holds the possibility to become a global tourist destination, a Chicago cultural gem and an engine of South Side economic development.


More than that, the Obama Center in Jackson Park could mean a big infusion of something intangible but excellent — a reinvigorated sense of pride and possibilities — for a part of town that long has been neglected.

As monuments to former presidents go, the Obama Center will be a little different. It will include a museum, as they all do, and a gift shop, as they all must, but it will not house an archive of presidential papers, which are being digitized. You’ll be able to access the unclassified stuff online.

Instead, the Obama Center hopes to be happening place for international scholars, national and local makers of public policy, grassroots organizations and — as much as anybody else — actual South Siders and all Chicagoans. And so it will include parkland, play areas, a sledding hill, concert spaces, an athletic center doubling as a concert hall, a restaurant, a possible city public library, and a footpath to the neighboring Museum of Science and Industry.

Apart from the museum itself, the Obama Center may be less about what’s physically there than about what happens there. It’ll need a hefty budget for events. The Center is to be developed and operated — with key exceptions — with privately raised funds.

Much of this was explained to the Sun-Times editorial board on Friday during a two-hour presentation by the Center’s officials, planners and architects. They set up one of those toy-like scale models that make you want to add an electric train set, and waxed eloquently about the “vision” of Barack and Michelle. They explained much of the plan in fascinating detail but — and here’s the rub — punted on some of the most important questions.

Such as: What’s this going to cost you?

When we asked how much it would cost taxpayers, for example, to widen nearby Lake Shore Drive, which is part of the plan, they said that’s a question for City Hall. And what would happen to rush hour traffic if Cornell Drive is closed, as contemplated? That, too, they said, would be a question for City Hall.

We found ourselves wishing we could get everybody with the answers into one room, so there could be no ducking the toughest questions. And maybe we’ll get that meeting yet. In the meantime, here are a few of our biggest concerns:

♦ By some estimates — nothing is firmed up — widening Lake Shore Drive would cost $100 million. Is that a reliable estimate, and who would pay? The city would no doubt go to the state, hat in hand, a familiar tableau.

♦ Cornell Drive, running along the eastern edge of the 19.3-acre Obama Center would be plowed under and replaced with bucolic walking paths and parkland. What would be the cost and who would pay?

♦ If Cornell Drive is closed, would that create traffic congestion elsewhere? Closing the road makes a lot of sense for many reasons, and we don’t buy the argument that doing so runs counter to the vision for Jackson Park put forth by its designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. When Olmsted designed Cornell Drive as a scenic bridle path in 1869, we’re pretty sure he never envisioned a future six-lane highway. Closing the road also eliminates a barrier for people in the community who want to walk to the lake.

♦ Chicago has a long history of wily insiders subverting the best of intentions. Consider how a well-connected group of insiders came to operate, on the sweetest terms, a moneymaker of a restaurant in Millennium Park. Ideally, we’d like to see an external monitoring of all contracts. Let’s not forget that the Center is being developed on public land. The Center’s directors, honorable men and women, promise there will be full transparency in all business dealings, but forgive our skepticism as we recall an old Chicago City New Bureau saying: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

We have other questions, to be explored on another day, about the soundness of the economic impact studies that have been done, the nature of the public library that likely will be located at the Center, and how the Center intends to reach out into the larger South Side community. Hyde Park Academy High School, for one, will be right across the street.

In our perfect world, Washington Park, not Jackson, would have been chosen as the site for the Obama Center, and the footprint would be smaller, with less parkland turned over to private hands. But we see those as settled issues.

Our job now as a city, as we see it, should be to support, push and prod the Obama Foundation to create the brightest possible new gem for Chicago — always putting the South Side first.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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