Next week, the city is poised to take the first of several votes on the Obama Presidential Center. The Plan Commission is expected to approve the 19-acre site in historic Jackson Park. But the vote is not without some controversy, as some community groups say they want to slow down the process.
Since this structure will take up valuable, federally protected park space, the dispute is over how much land the Obama Foundation should give back for new park space. The foundation’s argument, which is supported by the National Park Service and the city of Chicago, is that most of the center is going to be open park space. A majority of it will be built atop a submerged structure; in fact, only 2.6 acres will be used for the buildings. In addition, the closing of Cornell Drive, a six-lane structure to the east of Stony Island, will create new parkland that wasn’t there before, totaling a 4.6-acre gain. That means the foundation doesn’t need to take any other parcels of land and turn it into park space.
But this has groups like Friends of the Parks concerned. They say they believed the original premise was that the foundation would return the same amount of acreage it has taken from Jackson Park to new park space. The group also is concerned about the fact that a private entity will control this so-called public space.
“We have a lot of questions about actual access to that public parkland, because the Obama Foundation will control that space, and they won’t have the same accountability measures that Chicago residents are used to when it’s actual park district land,” said Friends of the Parks Director Juanita Irizarry.
Officials with the Obama Foundation say definitively that the vast majority of this structure will be public space, with no gates or barriers to keep people from freely utilizing it. They also recently announced some modifications to the design and placement of certain parts of the structure in response to community feedback. There is the additional issue of a baseball field that will be displaced, which the foundation will have to find a new home for.
Irizarry says Jackson Park needs much more in the way of upgrades, and the city should use its leverage to try and get the foundation to foot the bill.
“We have said to the Obama Foundation, to use their language of being a good neighbor, that they should pay for the new courts that have been envisioned. New dog parks, new tennis courts, new pickleball courts,” said Irizarry.
Other groups that have pushed hard for the Obama Foundation to sign a community benefits agreement have softened some of their opposition, saying the promises put forth by the Obama Foundation, specifically in the area of maintaining affordable housing in the area, look encouraging.
The formal plan will go before the Chicago Plan Commission next Thursday, before then heading to City Council for a vote. There are also federal reviews that the center will have to clear.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz