Obama Center gardens look like a winner — but more could be done to welcome us all

The Chicago garden, inspired by Michelle Obama’s White House garden, is such a nice idea that it unwittingly underscores other deficiencies in the OPC campus plan.

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Former President Barack Obama beside a drawing of the plans for his presidential center in Jackson Park.

The Obama Foundation has enlisted the Chicago Botanic Gardens to help design gardens and landscape features at the presidential center.

Scott Olson/Getty

As site work begins for the construction of the Obama Presidential Center, it’s good to see that the Chicago Botanic Garden has been enlisted to help create a public fruit and vegetable garden on the future campus.

In addition to whatever bounty of produce the garden produces, it should give the public one more good reason to visit the campus, on top of attending events and checking out exhibits at the $500 million main building on the north end of Jackson Park.

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In fact, a garden as a design element and a community engagement tool is potentially so good that it unwittingly underscores deficiencies in the campus plan that the Obama Foundation and city officials should work now to address.

Like Obama White House garden

Obama Foundation officials say the community garden will be similar to one planted at the White House in 2009 by then-First Lady Michelle Obama. Located on the executive mansion’s South Lawn, that 1,100-square-foot garden yielded more than four dozen types of fruits and vegetables. It also included beehives that produced honey and was tended to on occasion by school children and other members of the public.

Michelle Obama wrote a healthy-eating book, “American Grown,” about the garden in 2012.

An Obama Foundation release says the Chicago garden “will be a place where young people and community members can get their hands dirty, engage with growing fruits and vegetables and learn about the importance of environmental sustainability and pollination.”

The partnership between the foundation and the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, is expected to inform other ecologically sustainable elements on the campus, including stormwater reuse, safe bird migration and a rooftop garden on a branch of the Chicago Public Library.

Other ways of welcoming needed

With its varying topographies, active and passive spaces and the removal of Cornell Drive, the 20-acre presidential center’s planned new greenspace and gardens hold the potential to be a thoughtful civic gesture that could — and let’s double underscore “could” — result in better and more active park space than what’s there now.

So let’s push that spirit of welcoming even harder. The more the Obama Center reaches out to pull in all Chicagoans, the better.

For instance, we have never been fond of the city’s proposal to widen Stony Island Avenue as part of publicly funded $172 million effort to give traffic displaced from Cornell Drive somewhere to go. But the already girthy Stony Island could be turned into a green boulevard between 57th and 63rd streets, with improved pedestrian crossings, bikeways and proper traffic management.

It would be a stark improvement over the wide, gray slab that’s there now. It could keep Stony Island from becoming a barrier between the center and the Woodlawn neighborhood.

And since the Obama Foundation is emerging as the real shotcaller on transportation decisions in the area, we’d like to see a coordinated vision emerge for the three Metra Electric stations located just a few blocks west of the campus.

While the 59th/60th Street Metra station is to be upgraded, those renovations were in the works — with University of Chicago funding — before Jackson Park was selected as the site for the presidential center.

The Obama Foundation would do well to speak up for the 57th and 63rd Street stations. Upgrades and increased service at those stops would help the neighborhood while giving visitors to the center more and better ways of getting there.

“We’ve met with Metra to hear about their plans to provide much needed transportation to all that the South Side has to offer,” a foundation spokesperson told us.

A sit-down is good. But working hand-in-hand with Metra to create an actual plan for the stations — especially since the center expects to break ground in September — would be better.

There’s time enough to address issues like these. And certainly there’s enough money, with nearly a billion dollars in Obama Foundation cash and public funding aimed at the site.

We love the idea of the public garden. But we’d hate to see opportunities to further connect the Obama Center to our whole city, well, wilt.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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