The planned Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park has drawn praise and criticism from the beginning. Proponents argue it will bring jobs and spark economic development in Woodlawn, with the Obama Foundation estimating that, over ten years, the OPC will generate $2.1 billion in additional income for South Side business owners. But critics of the center, led by the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, argue that a legally binding agreement is needed to ensure that influx goes to supporting residents, rather than displacing them.
During a tour of the park organized by the Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) on Saturday, however, those economic consequences were far from the center of the discussion. Apart from a passing mention of economic development in Woodlawn, JPAC president Louise McCurry focused the tour on the physical landscape of the park and how the OPC would change it. (JPAC is officially neutral on the project, though McCurry is a public supporter.) These changes have been the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks, an environmental group that opposes the transfer of public parkland to a private foundation. Last month, a judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed on “public trust” grounds, with a final ruling expected in a few months.
The tour was part of a broader day of programming hosted by JPAC at the Jackson Park Fieldhouse as part of the One Earth Film Festival. The main event was a tenth anniversary screening of Home, the first environmental documentary composed entirely of aerial photographs. An “Action Fair” accompanied the film, with representatives from local groups like the Shedd Aquarium and the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference discussing opportunities to get involved with their organizations.
The tour began at the fieldhouse and moved north to a fenced-off site previously home to two baseball fields. The site is intended for a new track and field, but construction is currently on hold pending federal reviews of the project that are required since Jackson Park is a landmark site. The new field is essential, McCurry explained, because the existing field uses artificial turf. While the turf field is green year-round, it also has a lifespan of about ten years before it wears out; since the Jackson Park field was installed in 2011, it is nearly due for a replacement.
The new track, McCurry claimed, was just thirty-five hours from completion when the order came to stop construction, leaving Jackson Park down two baseball fields but without a new track to show for it. “We need all the letters of support we can get,” she said. At the Action Fair, South Side Neighbors for Hope, an advocacy group formed to support the center’s construction, had just such a letter printed on a large poster board, with visitors encouraged to sign on.
Several trees along the route appeared to be in rough shape, offering McCurry an opportunity to discuss both JPAC’s work and the benefits of the OPC. The original design for the park, designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, called for stately rows of American elms, along with a diverse array of black, red, and white ash trees. The introduction of invasive fungi and beetles, such as Dutch elm disease and the emerald ash borer, devastated these trees.
As part of their work, the Obama Foundation has pledged to plant four hundred new trees in the park. In the meantime, JPAC’s TreeKeepers program works to maintain the park’s current trees. TreeKeepers go through an eight-day training course provided by Openlands, a nonprofit conservation group, studying pruning, mulching, common tree pests, and all the other knowledge required to keep urban trees healthy. JPAC currently has seven certified TreeKeepers among its volunteers, and a table at the Action Fair offered information about getting involved with the program.
Beyond trees, however, one of the major changes the center will bring is the closure of Cornell Drive through Jackson Park. Many drivers use Cornell to get from Lake Shore Drive to the Chicago Skyway, effectively turning the road into a six-lane highway through the park. Closing Cornell would allow joggers and cyclists to traverse the park without having to dodge traffic. The highway also separates several of the park’s baseball fields from the closest bathrooms. McCurry said three children had been killed by drivers along the road, citing safety as the main reason to support closing Cornell—and, in a more lighthearted tone, pointed out that the OPC would also add a substantial number of bathrooms to the park.
McCurry brought along a poster displaying the changes the OPC would bring. The center’s site, according to the poster, was only 3.5 percent of Jackson Park, and eighty-seven percent of that would end up as parkland. Of the remainder, two thirds of the center’s buildings are planned to have publicly accessible green roofs, meaning the center would only take up 0.16 percent of the park’s green space. In return, the logic went, the park would have more trees, a new track and field, and a safer environment for pedestrians. (Many critics have pointed out, in response to this line of thinking, that no amount of publicly accessible green space actually makes up for the loss of public parkland to a privately run facility.)
The highlight of the tour came near the end, when Casimiro Peña, an organizer with the Obama Foundation, passed around a virtual reality headset. He told tour attendees that this was the first time community members were able to use the headsets to see the proposed design of the OPC campus plaza, including the museum, forum and library. In an email, a spokesperson for the Obama Foundation said the foundation “looks forward to integrating virtual reality and augmented reality technologies into our public engagement efforts.” While providing no specific details about future events, the spokesperson promised that the foundation is “eager to share these experiences with our neighbors in Woodlawn, South Shore, and Washington Park at upcoming community events.”
Standing on the planned site of the OPC, tour attendees could see exactly what it would look like after construction finished. The rendering put the viewer in the center of the plaza, looking up at the monumental museum tower. Impressive, but not exactly parklike. Turning around, however, revealed the green roofs of the forum and library, a reassurance that the project likely won’t end up destroying a treasured park.
Sam Joyce is a contributing editor at the Weekly and the director of fact-checking. He last wrote for the Weekly about Gavin Van Horn’s new book, The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds.