Battle brewing over Obama Center replacement parkland

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Model of the proposed Obama Center before a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — Chicagoans are owed parkland for some of the acres in Jackson Park where the Obama Presidential Center will be located, and three park groups are rejecting the claim by the Obama Foundation, City of Chicago and Chicago Park District that closing and digging up Cornell Drive in the park should count as a replacement.

Friends of the Parks executive director Juanita Irizarry told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Upon hearing a few years ago of the plans for the OPC in a park and the Obama Foundation’s commitment to a park positive outcome, Chicagoans envisioned more than what we seem to be getting. We expected new parks to be created in the community, not just a reconfiguration of the spaces and uses within the current boundaries of Jackson Park.”

Counting Cornell as new parkland is “fuzzy math,” said Charles Birnbaum, the president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation based in Washington.

The replacement land issue debate jumped to the front burner on Friday, when the Obama Foundation laid down a marker in advance of a Chicago Plan Commission meeting on May 17 and as federal reviews are ongoing.


The foundation said in a document about “preserving parkland” that the four buildings in the Obama Center campus take up 2.6 acres — and of that, 1.6 acres of “roof” area will be “totally accessible open space” and the remaining 16.7 acres will remain “open and publically accessible.” And with “road improvements” — a reference to at least Cornell — “there will be a net gain of parkland” in Jackson Park.”

The discussion has shifted through the years of what land the public is owed to make up for locating the Obama Center in historic Jackson Park, designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux.

In 2014, the University of Chicago, pushing its bid for the Obama Center to be on Chicago’s South Side, first advanced the notion that the public will come out ahead with a “park positive” pledge.

In a January 2015 press release the university stated that “opportunities for new greenspace exist along 63rd Street and sites near the Woodlawn location.”

That same month in 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the replacement land will only be for the space taken up by buildings — gauged then as no more than 5 acres.

The public park advocacy organizations — Friends of the Parks, Jackson Park Watch and the Cultural Landscape Foundation — have a variety of concerns including:

• The amount of replacement land owed and how it will be calculated. The city, park district and foundation are poised to claim the bare minimum of the acres owed asserting buildings topped with green rooftops should be counted as a giveback.

• How Cornell Drive — if it ends up being closed, a sizzling neighborhood controversy — can in effect be counted as parkland twice, since it is already in Jackson Park.

“You can’t make new parkland on something that is already mapped parkland. It is already in the park. It is double counting, pure and simple,” Birnbaum said.

Said Irizarry, “They want us to accept the greening of Cornell Drive as adding parkland while they add a cement plaza to their campus. That doesn’t sound consistent.”

• Whether the open space in the 19.3-acre Obama Center campus will really end up as accessible to the public as other parkland under the control of the Chicago Park District. The foundation will be leasing the land from the city.

Margaret Schmid, a co-founder of Jackson Park Watch said, open space controlled by the foundation is not the same as a Chicago Park District park.

“There are key issues,” she said, “such as who controls permitting and more that need to be considered when determining what is and not is a public park. It’s not just a matter of asserting one way or another.”

A City Hall spokesman, Grant Klinzman,responding to questions posed to the city and park district, told the Sun-Times, counting road changes, “We calculate there to be an additional 4.6 acres of open space from what is there today.”

He added a pledge, “The land surrounding the OPC buildings will remain public open space and will be treated as public parkland. … This public access requirement will also be included in the ground lease between the City and the Foundation,” he said.

Irizarry said, “The OPC should not receive Chicago Plan Commission approval without assurances to the public that these mechanisms are all in place, and the space truly will remain public at all times and in perpetuity.”

With the federal reviews to take months more to complete, “the answer as to the amount of green space the OPC owes Chicago is premature,” Irizarry said. With City Hall moving ahead in the meantime, “… It begs the question whether we are being asked to accept a done deal that will be justified after the fact.”

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