Showdown: How far will Obama Foundation push to get Obama Center road closures?

SHARE Showdown: How far will Obama Foundation push to get Obama Center road closures?

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, during a meeting at the South Shore Cultural Center in May 2017. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Days before a crucial Chicago Plan Commission meeting on the Obama Presidential Center development, the leaders of the watchdog group Jackson Park Watch said Cornell Drive should be narrowed, but not closed, as proposed by the city and Obama Foundation.

That’s a compromise position included in a tough Jackson Park Watch critique of aspects of the project delivered to plan commission members and foundation officials on Thursday.

The group, which paid for its own traffic study, urged the commission members not to act at the May 17 meeting to consider applications from the Obama Foundation, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Park District for the Obama Center.

“In light of the fact that the Obama Presidential Center will be constructed in Jackson Park even if Cornell Drive remains open, the public interest demands complete and open discussion of this alternative, as well as of others that may be proposed,” Jackson Park Watch co-presidents Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid wrote in a memo to the plan commission members.

Louise McCurry, the president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, strongly disagrees with Nelms and Schmid, telling the Sun-Times, “Our goal for the past ten years” has been closing Cornell because of the danger posed by speeding drivers.

The Obama Foundation has been running a drive — including a postcard-writing campaign – to demonstrate public support for the project.

No group is seriously opposed to the Obama Presidential Center.

But a host of concerns — from design issues, to taxpayer costs, to who benefits from the jobs and contracts to whether a golf course merger is needed — all are matters the foundation is trying to address without surrendering control to outsiders.

The top foundation officials will be attending the commission meeting in the City Council chambers: Board Chair Marty Nesbitt; Vice President of Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis; architects Tod Williams, Billie Tsien and Dina Griffin; museum director Louise Bernard; the landscape architect team and representatives of the Lakeside Alliance, the five firms managing the construction of the center. Its expected cost is between $300 million and $350 million.

The Obama Center campus will be constructed on 19.3 acres in historic Jackson Park, designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Taxpayers will pay the $175 million in proposed roadway changes triggered by the Obama Center project. The foundation will likely get the land rent-free.

Issues raised by Jackson Park Watch in a memo to the plan commissioners include:

The Cornell compromise: Proposed by the foundation and city is plowing under Cornell between 59th Street and Hayes Drive. Part of Cornell in this stretch is six lanes.

Jackson Park Watch is proposing narrowing Cornell to four lanes, not closing Marquette Drive. They dispute the need to widen Stony Island.

“The proposed reduction to four travel lanes provides additional land to allow greater site flexibility to the Obama Presidential Center as well as potential pedestrian safety amenities. The four-lane roadway could also result in reduced taxpayer costs compared to removing the roadway,” the Jackson Park Watch road study by the Brookfield, Wisconsin, engineering firm raSmith concluded.

This is the latest site plan for the Obama Presidential Center. | Obama Foundation

This is the latest site plan for the Obama Presidential Center. | Obama Foundation

The driving force behind closing Cornell in the park is the foundation vision to connect the Obama Center to the Museum of Science and Industry campuses without a street in between.

Former President Barack Obama, while unveiling the design plan in Chicago last May, said: “A six‑lane road in the middle of the park? You can’t have kids playing next to a road, you can’t have sledding into the road. You can’t walk to the lagoon because there’s no place to cross the street. What we have said is, let’s restore Jackson Park to the original vision.”

Nelms said in a statement, “The Obama Foundation’s desire to closely connect the OPC with Jackson Park, including the Museum of Science and Industry, could be accommodated in numerous ways, including innovative pedestrian bridges, underpasses, or improved pedestrian crossings.”

McCurry said closing Cornell would bring the park closer to the “nice little carriage lanes” designed by Olmsted in his design.

The need for a more stringent parkland replacement policy: Currently, the foundation maintains it “owes” only, at most, for the 2.6 acres to be taken up by buildings.

The city and foundation argue that eliminating Cornell should count as “new” parkland, and so does the Jackson Park Advisory Council. “By closing Cornell, they put that land back,” McCurry said.

That is an argument rejected earlier this week by Jackson Park Watch, Friends of the Park and the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

The need for terms to be detailed in advance for how the Obama Foundation will manage the “open space” – the plaza and playground and other land – on its campus that it intends to be accessible to the public.

Artist’s rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. | Obama Foundation

Artist’s rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. | Obama Foundation

In March, 2015, the ordinance allowing park district land to be transferred to the city for the project was rushed through the City Council by Mayor Rahm Emanuel because then-President Barack Obama was reluctant to locate the Obama Center on Chicago’s South Side without assurances in writing that the park land would be available for his project.

What’s different now is that the leverage has changed. The Obama Foundation is committed to building the Obama Center in Jackson Park and hopes to break ground later this year.

When the City Council approved the transfer of Chicago Park District land to the city for an Obama Presidential Center on March 18, 2015, there was no mention of a massive overhaul of the roadways in and around Jackson Park.

When Obama showed the public for the first time the tentative plans for his center in May 2017, his campus had moved north a few blocks — not in the footprint of the land boundaries written into that ordinance passed by the City Council.

By the time the Obama Foundation on Jan. 10 submitted applications to the plan commission for zoning approvals — and to determine if the Obama Presidential Center was in compliance with the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance — the footprint of the land the foundation was seeking had expanded east to take in Cornell.

The Obama Center project, still subject to federal reviews, needs to have an ordinance approved outlining the current boundaries of the 19.3 acre site.

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