It's official; President Obama has chosen Chicago's south side as the location for his library and archives. After the the University of Chicago received unanimous approval from Council and the Governor rammed through legislation to make it perfectly clear that buildings like the library and George Lucas' Star Wars Museum can be built on parkland that is a public trust, it was inevitable. Everyone appears to be jumping for joy, except for a few isolated preservationists and TreeHuggers.
No doubt it will be a lovely building. But parks are precious, especially when they are designed by the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. It's not like they cannot find land that isn't park; According to Mary Pattillo, professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University, there are 79 vacant acres of city-owned land in the Washington Park area. The University itself has a big patch of real estate available. So why go after the park?
Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, who is always beating his head against the wall trying to save important landscapes that everyone else just considers empty real estate, points out that this is just not necessary.
The University of Chicago has an 11-acre site directly across the street from Washington Park, which is one acre larger than the only other urban presidential library - the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. However, University officials insist that additional acreage - public parkland held in the public trust for nearly 150 years - is required. .... University officials cite 50 acres as the average of the past three presidential libraries, but neglect to mention that none is in a dense urban setting like the South Side. Confiscation supporters cite the presence of other cultural institutions in parks, but fail to report that much of this happened during an era of urban decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a land grab supporter, has been equally evasive, as he was at the most recent mayoral debate.
The University claims that building in a park is a good thing, saying "Locating the Library in a public park also will avoid displacing local residents. The chance to create economic opportunity without displacing residents is a key advantage of park sites." This would be a good argument for putting highrises in Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; lots of open land there to solve their housing crises and create economic opportunity. It's also a red herring. The parks people say they will build parks in other places to compensate, but it's not quite the same thing. Birnbaum continues in his open letter to President Obama:
This historic park was conceived as a comprehensive design and - like a building - selective amputation cannot be remedied with an "acre-for-acre" swap; it's permanent disfigurement. In addition, there's a catch. The amount replaced would only be equivalent to the size of the library building - estimated at three to five acres - not the entire 20+ acres. The "park positive" approach is a non-starter. What is becoming apparent is that the University intends to locate the library within public parkland they don't own - land that will be confiscated on their behalf - so that they can develop the 11 acres they own for commercial purposes.
It's all a done deal now. Most people in Chicago think it is a wonderful thing. But Charles Birnbaum is right; urban green space is precious, the designs of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux even more so. From any sustainable design point of view, it's fundamentally wrong to tear up parkland when there are alternatives. It's a real shame.