Obama Presidential Center faces legal challenge from park preservationists

Promenade view Obama Foundation
Public Domain Obama Foundation Submission

The TreeHugger view is that hey, we like trees, and parks are precious, especially when they are designed by the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Parks are among our most important civic assets. In 1895, Olmsted, Olmsted & Elliot designed Jackson Park in Chicago to provide "all of the recreative facilities with the modern park should include for refined and enlightened recreation and exercise." According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) it pretty much looks like it did when it was completed, a grand open space, with only the pre-existing Field Columbian Museum in one corner.

But when it comes to building institutions, parks are so... convenient. It's proposed that twenty acres of the site be devoted to build the Obama President Center. The proposed building is designed by the very talented Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and looks terrific. And it would be terrific, if it wasn't in a park. We asked this question before: Should Presidential Libraries or other public buildings go in public parks? The Obama foundation doesn't think that's a problem, noting:

We are confident that our plan for the Obama Presidential Center is consistent with Chicago’s rich tradition of locating world-class museums in its parks, and we look forward to developing a lasting cultural institution on the South Side.

Except, as TCLF notes in their amicus curiae to the court case by preservation group Protect Our Parks, that's not the rich tradition in this park. It's a composition:

Olmsted was unmistakably explicit about the design intent, stating that the Field Columbian Museum was meant to be the only "dominating object of interest" in the park: "All other buildings and structures to be within the park boundaries are to be placed and planned exclusively with a view to advancing the ruling purpose of the park. They are to be auxiliary to and subordinate to the scenery of the park (emphasis added).

Terrace viewObama Foundation/Public Domain


Charles Birnbaum of TCLF thinks this was all so unnecessary.

The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland. “The Obama Foundation could make this issue go away by using vacant and/or city-owned land on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center (which is planned to be a private facility rather than a presidential library administered by the National Archives), or, better still, land owned by the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid to host the Center.”



Kriston Capps of Citylab summarizes the problem.

Almost no one objects to the Obama Presidential Center coming to Chicago’s South Side, but some feel that it hoovers up an existing community asset instead of creating a new one. The question has lingered over the project since its introduction near the end of the president’s tenure in 2015.

“That lakefront land is priceless and irreplaceable,” says Herbert Caplan, the president of Protect Our Parks, plaintiff in the case, speaking of Jackson Park. “It enjoys a national and international reputation as a twin of sorts to Central Park in New York.”

Obama Foundation ModelObama Foundation Submission/Public Domain

Parks are often the lungs of our cities, and are constantly getting nibbled away around the fringes by so-called public buildings. Often architects compensate the loss of the green space by topping it with a green roof, a trend that started in Korea, where the Nanyang University School of Art was placed in a park that Kenzo Tange designed as "the green lung" of the campus.

But a green roof is not the same as a park, and the Obama Presidential Center isn't even a library, but is described in the New York Times:

The four-building, 19-acre “working center for citizenship,” set to be built in a public park on the South Side of Chicago, will include a 235-foot-high “museum tower,” a two-story event space, an athletic center, a recording studio, a winter garden, even a sledding hill. ... the entire complex, including the museum chronicling Mr. Obama’s presidency, will be run by the foundation, a private nonprofit entity, rather than by the National Archives and Records Administration, the federal agency that administers the libraries and museums for all presidents going back to Herbert Hoover.

So it isn't even a public institution that is encroaching on the park, it is a private foundation building a monument. Capps quotes Charles Birnbaum:

If the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago succeed in taking some 20 acres of National Register-listed Jackson Park for the [Obama Presidential Center], what’s to stop other powerful and well-connected interests from citing this precedent as justification for expropriating parkland elsewhere in Chicago and around the country?”

Jackson Park DesignJackson Park/Public Domain

Public parks should be parks- "green lungs" as Kenzo Tange called them. Every square inch of them should be fought for and preserved as green open space, we have so little of it left in our cities. Charles Birnbaum concludes that "any public benefit the presidential center would bring would be outweighed by the harm done to the park's historic design and the lost of open, democratic space." It's like chopping out a bit of Chicago's lungs, and the more you do that, the harder it gets to breathe.

Obama Presidential Center faces legal challenge from park preservationists
The TreeHugger view is that hey, we like trees, and parks are precious, especially when they are designed by the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted.

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