Midway Plaisance is the wrong site to replace park space taken for Obama Center

The city and the park district need to replace recreational space taken from Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Center, but the eastern end of the Midway should remain a sustainable wetland, parks advocates write.

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A view of a portion of the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park. The eastern end of the Midway is being proposed for a playground, but parks advocates say it should remain a wetland.

A view of a portion of the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park. The eastern end of the Midway is being proposed for a playground, but parks advocates say it should remain a wetland.

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Chicago will soon have a new mayor. At this renaissance moment, we have an extraordinary opportunity to throw out Chicago’s old and worn playbook based on backroom deals, and to assemble a new one based on equity, justice and transparency.

Here’s an example happening right now: Despite community opposition, the misguided, top-down designation of the eastern end of the Midway Plaisance — a historic park designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted — as a “replacement” for parkland taken for the Obama Presidential Center continues its slow crawl forward.

The Chicago Park District notified nearby residents of its application to the Chicago Plan Commission to be heard at its April 20 meeting at 10 a.m. The park district’s intent is to use the Midway site to fulfill the city’s legal responsibility to replace recreational park space lost in adjacent Jackson Park.

The application includes a proposal to reconfigure that portion of the Midway by draining an existing wetland and installing water-diverting piping to try to replicate its natural functions, and by constructing an expansive, universally accessible playground as the central feature.

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We believe the City of Chicago and the park district need to reverse course — to reclaim their responsibility to protect and enhance Chicago’s public parks by choosing a different location for the required replacement parkland. This choice could provide new parkland in a neighborhood that lacks adequate access to open space.

Transform wetland for sustainable, low-maintenance use

At a time when many mature trees in Jackson Park have been removed and when alarming predictions about the accelerating rate of climate change continue to escalate, environmental priorities should be paramount. The Midway Plaisance Advisory Council has endorsed an alternative plan to incorporate the existing wetland into a space landscaped for sustainable, low-maintenance use and centered on the restored Cheney-Goode Memorial, the first monument (1932) to women erected in any Chicago park, which has been long neglected and is overdue for attention.

We heartily support the goal of the park district to serve Chicago’s special-needs community with an ambitious and innovatively-designed playground. However, the existing parkland at the eastern tip of the Midway is ill-suited as the location for this use. The location is inappropriate for three reasons: the lack of barriers between the Stony Island Avenue traffic next to the Midway, and children and adults who would be using the playground and have a wide range of needs and experiences; the lack of adequate parking close to the site; and the lack of adjacent restroom facilities.

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We are sure that accessibility advocates, park advocates, community residents and public officials could come together to plan an extraordinary park with inclusive features that is safely accessible. The millions of city dollars that would go into draining the natural wetland and constructing the envisioned, universally accessible playground would be much better invested in a neighborhood that is truly underserved.

The Chicago Park District, the government body empowered and entrusted as the steward of Chicago’s parkland, did not select the Midway site, though it has been complicit every step of the way. The City of Chicago dictated the selection of the Midway Plaisance as the “replacement” parkland. At no time did the public have an opportunity to present, review or comment on any alternative sites. The community was never invited to the table to participate in the site selection or the decision to install playground equipment.

It is time for the city and the park district to make things right: Amend the Memorandum of Agreement that designated the eastern end of the Midway as replacement parkland. Actively engage the community both in planning for the eastern end of the Midway and in identifying another space for replacement parkland that will expand park access for underserved residents.

It is time to work from a new playbook.

Bronwyn Nichols Lodato is president of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council. Brenda Nelms is co-president of Jackson Park Watch. Mary Lu Seidel is director of community engagement at Preservation Chicago.

This op-ed was co-signed by Marc Lipinski, Vice President; Kristy Rawson, treasurer; and Matthew Isoda, secretary, all of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council; Jack Spicer, co-president, Jackson Park Watch; and Ward Miller, executive director, Preservation Chicago.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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