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Opposition intensifies to Obama Library road closures, lost parkland

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, during a gathering at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

A group that has been the most skeptical of road closures and lost parkland tied to the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park forged a partnership Thursday aimed at intensifying its opposition.

Jackson Park Watch has hammered out a “fiscal sponsorship agreement” with Friends of the Parks that will allow Jackson Park Watch to incorporate as a nonprofit and solicit tax deductible contributions.

The money will be used to hire attorneys and other outside experts needed to assess changes to Jackson Park that include road closures and realignments, an above-ground parking garage and a companion $30 million plan to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single championship-caliber course.

“Friends of the Parks has found that what we are doing is in alignment with their mission. Therefore, they’re allowing us to use their tax I.D. number to raise funds for our work,” said Margaret Schmid, co-president of Jackson Park Watch.

Margaret Schmid, of Jackson Park Watch. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“We are assembling a network of people with expertise in environmental and historical reviews . . . to put this entire set of projects through an extremely rigorous review to be sure it will really be in the best interest of the park and community,” Schmid said.

The golf course merger has stirred controversy because it would require closing Marquette Drive, building a pair of new underpasses, displacing tennis courts and relocating the South Shore Nature Sanctuary to make way for a new 12th hole.

Other controversial elements include an above-ground 450-space garage built on land the city owns on the Midway Plaisance and the city’s pledge to widen Lake Shore Drive between 57th Street and Hayes Drive, in part to accommodate the closing of Cornell Drive, a main artery through Jackson Park.

“Improving the golf courses that exist would be fine. But taking out all of the existing recreational facilities that are well loved and badly needed, taking out the nature sanctuary — absolutely not,” Schmid said.

“We have major concerns about that garage right there at the end of the Midway. That is an inappropriate place. When President Obama announced his vision on May 3, he talked about an underground parking garage that would have been far less obtrusive and said, if that wasn’t possible, they would have to put it under the OPC Center. That seems to be a much better way to go.”

Schmid said it’s important to intensify the review process because the train is leaving the station.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Democratic legislative leaders are mapping plans to seek $100 million in state help with the infrastructure improvements in and around Jackson Park tied to the Obama Presidential Center.

The Plan Commission is expected to consider the entire plan in November or December.

“Their plan assumes they can have a site they have not been given and it assumes that these roads will be closed and other roads will be realigned and widened. That has not been decided either,” Schmid said. “There’s a whole interesting conundrum there about how is this all gonna work procedurally. We want to get at that, talk about that and bring it out there.”

Last year, Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry’s opposition to Emanuel’s giveaway of lakefront parkland near Soldier Field killed movie mogul George Lucas’ plan to build an interactive museum in Chicago.

Schmid said it’s too soon to say whether the Jackson Park Watch partnership with Friends of the Parks could trigger a lawsuit to some of the improvements tied to the Obama Center. But, she said, “It might.”