In Obama’s surprising new foes –
Barack Obama’s adopted hometown, of all places, his $375 million Obama Presidential Center is running into growing headwinds from a few gutsy souls.
Ironically, the winds aren’t gusting from the usual direction—Republicans and others the left often labels racist Obama-haters. Rather, it’s blowing from the very people who have long lionized Obama: white Chicago lakefront progressives, University of Chicago professors, environmentalists, African-American activists, and a community organization of the kind that once employed Obama as an organizer.
On May 14, a preservationist group called Protect Our Parks filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Chicago, seeking a court order that would bar local government agencies from building Obama’s center in the revered and beautiful Jackson Park, which served as the site of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The group also wants to bar the city from giving control of the center’s site to the Obama Foundation. They are opposed by a phalanx of avid Obama supporters headed by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and including local labor unions, businesses, newspaper editorial boards, and a range of do-gooders who have uncritically embraced Obama’s library plans.
Imagine if Republicans had concocted a scheme to sell public land for a song to build a Donald Trump presidential library. Protect Our Parks argues that this is what the city of Chicago has done with Obama’s library, asserting that the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago don’t have the authority to transfer public parkland to a nongovernmental entity such as the Obama Foundation, especially for a nominal amount of money and in violation of state law that bars the “illegal taking of public park land.” The suit claims the sale is “a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.”
If Obama had selected another, better site for his library, there would likely be no fight. But it’s hardly a surprise that his choice of the leafy, peaceful lakefront Jackson Park, designed by the esteemed 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, ignited a fire under lakefront protection, environmental, and other progressive groups. It’s the place many residents of the nearby economically challenged communities flee—to toss around a Frisbee, grill some ribs, take in the spectacular lakefront view of the downtown skyline, or just lollygag in the shade—away from the gunshots and murders all too prevalent on their neighborhood streets.
But the plans for the Obama Presidential Center also appear to violate the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which has often been invoked to protect the 19-mile-long string of Chicago lakefront parks from exactly the kind of intrusion the Obama Foundation is proposing. The century-old mandate, first championed by Chicago retailer and civic leader A. Montgomery Ward in the 19th century, seeks to ensure that the lakefront would remain, as Ward described, “forever open, free and clear.” It is why the gorgeous and popular Millennium Park and its centerpiece Cloud Gate public sculpture (known as The Bean) command the downtown lakefront instead of the railroad yards, warehouses, factories, and garbage dumps commonly found in other cities.
Yet over the years the rich and powerful have tried to bend the ordinance to suit their own interests. Most recently, in 2016, lakefront preservationists drove the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art out of town because the supremely ugly, 300,000-square-foot museum would have devoured 17 acres of lakefront property south of Soldier Field. Sadly, some of the same people who so vigorously opposed the Lucas Museum proposal are suddenly mute when it comes to the Obama Presidential Center.
Soaring above the trees and blocking cherished views of Lake Michigan’s south shore lakefront, the drawings of the proposed Obama library’s main structure show a huge concrete monolith. Call it a menhir, the phallic ancient monumental stone, or call it, as some commenters on the Chicago Tribune’s website did, a “butt ugly building,” “the Tower of Mordor,” “a mausoleum,” or “a giant air freshener, the kind you see in the men’s room at Red Lobster.” At 235 feet tall, the structure destroys the human scale of the surrounding parkland. In response to early criticism, the Obama-approved designed was modified, although you have to look closely to see the alterations. It would still loom over the park like a dystopian power plant.
Among the early objectors to the initial Obama plan was a diverse group of more than 120 University of Chicago professors, faculty, and staff whose campus is near the site. They released an open letter on January 8 opposing the museum’s placement in the park and listed more than a score of community, labor, environmental, open space, and other groups whose objections to the project “taken together . . . form an intelligible whole.”
Among those objections are the excessive public costs of at least $175 million for related infrastructure, the surrender of public land to a private entity, and the consumption of 21 acres—the equivalent of two large city blocks—of public space currently under the guardianship of the National Register of Historic Places. The plans for Obama’s center also initially included an above-ground parking lot that would gobble up a section of another historic public park, the Olmstead-designed, mile-long Midway Plaisance. Critics raised such a stink that the planners redesigned it as a below-ground garage within the boundaries of the center.
The list of objections from the University of Chicago group and others goes on: The project would require the relocation of a major thoroughfare linking downtown with the South Side, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. The location “privileges cars and those who can afford them. Parking is expensive and though public land is being given away all the profits from the parking lot will go to the Obama Foundation. None of the funds go back to the city to improve train lines and public transportation infrastructure.” Visitors who take the train would have to walk across a busy street to get to the center.
Moreover, the president who got his start as a community activist faces criticism from a group of predominantly black community activists who form the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition. They say the hiring of five construction firms, mostly African-American owned, was insufficient to meet the crying need for minority employment in the area. They want Obama to sign a community benefits agreement that would guarantee jobs for the center’s neighbors. In other words, they don’t trust Obama unless his foundation puts it in writing. “We cannot take the president’s word on the fact that they’re not going to push African-Americans out,” said activist Jitu Brown at a press conference, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. Brown noted Chicago’s history of hiring minority front firms owned by whites to circumvent minority ownership requirements.
And then there’s the Obama golf course, which as initially proposed would have meant the conversion of two adjacent affordable public golf courses into a Tiger Woods-designed course that would host professional tournaments and cater to the country club set. The golf course also faced enough criticism to force a redesign. In addition to costly infrastructure improvements such as pedestrian underpasses for golfers, there’s concern that the course would impinge on and partially destroy the beloved 4.27-acre South Shore Nature Center. Again, the Obama Foundation claims it is at work on a redesign and that neighborhood golfers won’t be priced out of play.
All of these criticisms give the lie to the Obama Foundation’s endlessly repeated claim that its presence will be a boon to the struggling South Side—potentially “transformational,” we’re told. In fact, if Obama wanted to transform communities in Chicago, he could do so by moving his library to a site farther away from the lake. Plenty of better sites exist on vacant land in needy communities.
Along the Dan Ryan Expressway, block after block of land once occupied by decaying and crime-infested highrise public housing buildings sits invitingly vacant, crying out for someone, anyone, to rescue this forlorn resource. This site is more accessible than the park site: Two Chicago Transit Authority train lines provide a direct connection to O’Hare International Airport, Midway Airport, downtown hotels, and many Chicago neighborhoods. An Obama Presidential Center within rather than outside the community would also be closer to restaurants and other spin-off economic activities that might encourage economic revitalization. The Jackson Park site is isolated from those neighborhoods by busy streets and railroads; virtually no sites for ancillary activities are available adjacent to the center.
Obama’s proposed Presidential Center is a textbook example of how the public interest can be subverted by egos and greed. The good of its neighbors and the city as a whole is giving way to the desires of Hollywood celebrities, wealthy backers of assorted liberal causes, and people who want a dusting of the Obama charisma. From them blindly flow millions of dollars for the Obama Foundation, while information about just how much Illinois taxpayers will have to pay is lost in a fog of generalities and vague promises. In the rush to break ground, too many questions remain unanswered, especially that of the combined total cost of the center, golf course, and infrastructure improvements the Obama Foundation is proposing to make.
As usual in Chicago, cost estimates are squishy and sometimes contradictory. For example, the center’s architects, husband-and-wife team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, told the Chicago Tribune that the center alone would require a private endowment of $1.5 billion as opposed to an earlier estimate of $1 billion. Constructing the new golf course would cost about $30 million, and it would take an additional $30 million to make infrastructure improvements, Michael Kelly, Chicago Park District general superintendent and CEO, said at a public hearing. That apparently is not included in the $175 million estimate of center-related infrastructure improvements.
But no matter how many redesigns the center, parking garages, and golf course go through, this project, if located where it is proposed, will never be the best it can be. The Chicago Park District, which is to say the public, owns the land. But ownership seems only incidental to the need of so many in Chicago and elsewhere to kowtow to the Obama legend. Never mind the dispossessed communities to whom Obama promised so much but is now delivering so little.
source-Dennis Byrne-wkly std- Protect Our Parks- Jitu Brown- Chicago Tribune- Tod Williams and Billie Tsien