Closing Cornell Drive for Obama Center advances with Park District vote

SHARE Closing Cornell Drive for Obama Center advances with Park District vote

Jackson Park, looking north, 2017. Museum of Science and Industry upper right, 2017. Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation © Steven Vance

The Chicago Park District on Wednesday approved pushing ahead to turn parts of Cornell Drive into parkland — with the closure of roads in Jackson Park a sizzling community controversy related to the development of the Obama Presidential Center — and still facing multiple reviews.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday to start negotiations to swap 6 acres it owns in Jackson Park at the edges of streets for 8 acres of roads — not all contiguous — the city of Chicago holds in the same park.

The sterile language of the legislation doesn’t tell the whole story. The proposed swap would make possible digging up parts of Cornell and Marquette Drives and transforming them into parkland.

The move to push forward with negotiating for the land exchange is “premature,” said Brenda Nelms, a co-founder of Jackson Park Watch, a watchdog organization, since reviews are still ongoing.

For practical matters, once the park district signs a deal with the city passing along the land, it will be one less place for the public to go to try to block the street changes sought by the Obama Foundation and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The measure gives Park District Supt. Mike Kelly the power to negotiate the details of the land swap.

Kelly defended the decision to forge ahead, telling the Chicago Sun-Times, “I haven’t signed the deal yet. But I intend to. It’s a good plan. . . . We’re just anticipating and getting everything in order.”

Kelly also acknowledged that the widening of the Drive between 57th Street and Hayes Drive and other infrastructure projects tied to the Obama Presidential Center are likely to cost around $160 million.

Kelly denied that he’s jumping the gun in a way that makes Emanuel’s commitment to robust community input a sham.

However, the park district vote came before:

• The Obama Foundation announced on Thursday it will hold a public meeting on Feb. 27 at McCormick Place to discuss its Obama Center application filed on Jan. 10 with City Hall. The Chicago Plan Commission is tentatively expected to consider the application in April.

• Completion of an ongoing federal review of the impact of the Obama Center on landmarked Jackson Park that is months away.

• Completion of an update of the big view South Lakefront Framework Plan.

BACKGROUND: The decision to build the Obama Center in Jackson Park evolved into a broader plan to dig up Cornell Drive as it runs through the park and transform the six-lane roadway into a pedestrian and bike path.

That in turn triggered proposals to widen or revamp streets around Jackson Park — including Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island — to handle the displaced Cornell Drive traffic.

The Obama Foundation plan claimed a portion of Cornell at the north part of Jackson Park. The park district is aiming to take control of the rest of Cornell in Jackson Park.

WHAT HAPPENED WEDNESDAY: The park district board approved giving the city 6 acres to widen the streets around the park and in exchange got 8 acres of parts of roads.

The Sun-Times was told: “These include lands west of Lake Shore Drive from 57th Street to Hayes Drive; land east of Stony Island from westbound Midway Plaisance to 67th Street; and land south of westbound Midway Plaisance from Stony Island to Cornell Drive. Additionally, portions of existing parkland will be converted to roadway in the area of Hayes Drive and Richards Drive as well as in the area of Hayes Drive, 63rd Street, and Cornell Drive for intersection improvements.”

In return, the park district will get roadway segments to be converted to park use. That includes, according to the park district, “Cornell Drive from approximately 62nd Street south to Hayes Drive; Marquette Drive from Stony Island Avenue to Richards Drive; and the northbound lanes of Cornell Drive from 67th Street to approximately 64th Street.

“Additionally, portions of existing roadway will be converted to parkland in the area of Hayes Drive and Richards Drive intersection; and in the area of Hayes Drive, 63rd Street, and Cornell Drive intersection.”

Kelly stressed that the controversial plan to merge the golf courses will not be part of the planned development that goes before the Plan Commission this spring.

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