Friends of the Parks Blog

“Park Positive” Progress.  Is It Enough?

Juanita Irizarry, Executive Director –  Thursday, May 10, 2018

I had the distinct pleasure of serving recently as one of four judges for a graduate school debate among students in a University of Illinois at Chicago urban planning class.  The students had chosen as their final project the topic of whether the Obama Presidential Center would be a good community development tool for the neighborhoods surrounding Jackson Park.  As a former student in that very program and community development concentration, I was tickled to observe how the students were processing the information they could find and to participate in a debriefing session afterwards in which I was able to share with them more insider knowledge than what they were able to find publicly available.  Notably, all but a few of the students stated during the debriefing that while they are excited about the Obama Presidential Center coming to Chicago, they would feel most comfortable that the benefits of the OPC would be derived by incumbent residents of the community if there were a formal community benefits agreement (CBA) in place.

(And–I won’t leave you hanging–the “cons” won per their performance according to the academic construct and guidelines for the debate.)


While the Obama Foundation says it is committed to strengthening the community in the vicinity of the OPC, the Obamas have been unwilling to engage the leadership of the Obama Library CBA Coalition in conversation about a CBA.  They say they can and will do a fine job of serving the best interests of the community without the accountability measures that the CBA Coalition calls for.

Since that debate, the Obama Foundation has released a list of its commitments to the community.  They are listed here:

In the midst of the changing landscape, the Obama Library CBA Coalition has adjusted its strategy a number of times. The current demand is that the City of Chicago pass a CBA ordinance before the City Plan Commission approves the OPC’s latest proposal for its campus.

You can read the elements of the proposed ordinance here:

Friends of the Parks is pleased to participate as an Ally Member of the coalition in light of the alignment between the Sustainability Platform and our concerns.

As a reminder, Friends of the Parks maintains our firm belief that the OPC should not be built in a park. While we welcome it to Chicago and particularly the South Side which groomed President Obama, we have consistently called for it to be located on the 11 acres of vacant land across the street from Washington Park.  And we have maintained that if it must be in a park, we will advocate for “park positive” outcome, which includes the replacement of all green space taken up by the OPC and the recreational amenities that are displaced.

That said, in the current run-up to the May 17 Chicago Plan Commission meeting at which the Obama Foundation will seek approval for the 19.3 acre Obama Presidential Center campus, Friends of the Parks recently has been asked various times to comment on whether the current OPC proposal adequately replaces parkland.

As part of the above-mentioned community commitments, the Obama Foundation recently released this statement regarding their efforts to preserve parkland:

Preserving Parkland: Designed to honor Olmsted’s democratic idea of a park as a gathering place open and accessible to all.

In their report to the South Park Commission in 1871, famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux said the park they envisioned was intended for everyone, but in particular for the “thousands of the very class of citizens whose convenience most needs to be considered…the toiling population of Chicago.” The landscape architects believed that urban parks not only provided refuge from the stresses of city life, but were also democratic and cultural places for all classes of people to interact. The OPC landscape will embrace the design principles of Olmsted and Vaux and honor the rich history of the park.

  • The Obama Presidential Center will sit on 19.3 acres of Jackson Park’s 540 acre park, continuing Chicago’s rich tradition of museums in the parks.
  • The footprints of the OPC’s four buildings total only 2.6 acres of the 19.3 acre site. Of that 2.6 acres, 1.6 acres worth of “roof” area is covered by totally accessible open space. The remaining 16.7 acres will remain completely open and publicly accessible, including landscaped active and passive areas and a one acre plaza.
  • With the road improvements being considered and our design to preserve parkland for the public, there will be a net gain of parkland in Jackson Park.
  • The parkland at the OPC will give South Side residents a world-class park, with lush gardens, varied topography, beautiful walking paths along the Lagoon, children’s play areas, and a great lawn that can be used for quiet relaxation, special events, or everyday fun like sunbathing and grilling.  The landscape will also include upwards of 400 new trees to be planted across the site.
  • In recognition of Jackson Park’s status as one of the state’s premiere bird-watching sites, the landscape will include plants that attract a broad range of birds and protect their natural habitat in the space.
  • The OPC design will make improvements to enhance access to the Women’s Garden.
  • The OPC campus will also retain the historic comfort station.
  • Continuing President Obama’s commitment to protecting the earth’s resources, the OPC will be, at a minimum, LEED v4 platinum certified.

In response to questions about the adequacy of the Obama Foundation’s approach to offering a “park positive” outcome, Friends of the Parks offers the following statement:

Of course, everyone wants a black and white answer.  What is the exact amount of parkland that the Obama Foundation should replace?  But it’s more complicated than that.

The answer as to the amount of green space the OPC owes Chicago is premature.  The Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District would like Chicagoans to accept their premise based on the assumption that streets through the park will be converted to green space.  But that issue is still being studied under the required Section 106/NEPA federal review processes.  All potential alternatives are supposed to be considered in a thorough analysis that normally takes a couple of years for a project of this scope.  Yet we are being asked to sign on with support this month.  It begs the question whether we are being asked to accept a done deal that will be justified after the fact.

Additionally, they want us to accept the greening of Cornell Drive as adding parkland while they add a cement plaza on their campus.  That doesn’t sound consistent.  If it is grass that makes a space part of park replacement acreage, then their concrete plaza shouldn’t count in their figure of parkland added.

Meanwhile, the same National Park Service which the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District are citing as affirming their plan as a sufficient substitution for public parkland suggested at the most recent Section 106 consulting parties meeting that a baseball diamond that must be replaced could be located on the Midway Plaisance.  That is ridiculous!  So while there may be an effort to comply with the letter of the law to replace parkland, there doesn’t seem to be a priority to comply with the spirit of a truly park positive outcome.  Upon hearing a few years ago of the plans for the OPC in a park and the Obama Foundation’s commitment to a park positive outcome, Chicagoans envisioned more than what we seem to be getting.  We expected new parks to be created in the community, not just a reconfiguration of the spaces and uses within the current boundaries of Jackson Park.

As such, we have encouraged both the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District to seek vacant land nearby for a baseball facility to add actual park acreage while also replacing that specific amenity that the National Park Service indeed insists must be replaced.

Additionally, in the spirit of being a “good neighbor,” to use the words of the Obama Foundation, we have encouraged them to pay for a new field house in Jackson Park.  It would be unseemly for the OPC to create a new recreational building on its own campus while the Park District’s facility across the street remains run down.

Similarly, we have called upon the Obama Foundation to raise money to pay for all of the new recreational spaces envisioned in the new South Lakefront Framework Plan.  The Obama Foundation’s desire to locate in Jackson Park catalyzed a park visioning process which created huge expectation in the community.  But what most people don’t understand is that most of the elements envisioned in the exciting new Jackson Park and South Shore plan have no money attached to them.  It behooves the Obama Foundation to ensure that the community doesn’t have to wait decades for the realization of a new dog park, tennis courts, lawn bowling area, pickle ball courts, etc. that are supposedly coming in exchange for letting the Obama Foundation build on public land. 

And, many neighbors remain unhappy about the changes to the nature sanctuary that would be imposed based on the latest golf course design, not the least of which is the part where one would risk getting hit with a golf ball while walking a section of the nature sanctuary path.  Though the Obama Foundation points out that the golf course is not part of the OPC campus or project, it has been made clear that Mr. Obama personally called Tiger Woods to ask him to design the new golf course.  All of the components of the new South Framework Lakefront Plan and the proposed OPC are inextricably linked, and we have communicated to the Obama Foundation that they still need to make sure that the nature sanctuary situation is made right.

Additionally, determining whether the open space on the OPC campus is truly public has a lot to do with whether we can all access it under the same terms that Chicago Park District parks are accessed.  For example, if I wanted to get a permit to have a family reunion on the OPC campus, how would I do that?  And would there be extra limitations to doing that because of security issues related to the nature of a presidential library?  The Obama Foundation has expressed to Friends of the Parks that their intention is to keep the space publicly accessible, but they have acknowledged that they hadn’t yet considered many of the implications we brought up with them and hadn’t begun to figure out the mechanisms to make sure it works.  The OPC should not receive Chicago Plan Commission approval without assurances to the public that these mechanisms are all in place, and the space truly will remain public at all times and in perpetuity.

We also call on the Obama Foundation and the Chicago Park District to include in their lease agreement the ability for the public to bring their concerns about the “public parkland” on the OPC campus to the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners.

Here’s why. Millennium Park closed this most recent St. Patrick’s Day.  It was roped off, with security guards protecting it.  Most people don’t realize that Millennium Park is not part of the Chicago Park District.  We’re supposed to understand it as public parkland.  But it does not have the same regulation and accountability mechanism as the rest of Chicago’s parks.  Friends of the Parks has specifically experienced Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly stating at a Park District Board of Commissioners meeting that Millennium Park is not his responsibility. Neither will the OPC be.  But then, where does the public go to complain when necessary?

These things combined would make for a much more park positive outcome than what the Obama Foundation has committed to publicly to date.

Additionally, another statement recently has been put out by Jackson Park Watch, collaborators in the effort to ensure an appropriate decision-making process around the OPC.  They rightly point out that the federally-required Section 106 and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review processes that are in motion require the consideration of alternative scenarios.  To highlight this issue, these neighborhood-based watchdogs just released a study raising questions about the proposed closure of Cornell Drive and other streets in Jackson Park and offering alternative views.  Their study and attendant statements are available here:

Friends of the Parks affirms the idea that an appropriate review process requires the consideration of such alternatives and would slow down the pace of the review process, rightly so.  A project of the scope of the OPC would normally take about two years and would certainly disallow groundbreaking on the OPC campus in the fall of 2018 as is the Obama Foundation’s aim.

We have communicated to the Obama Foundation our insistence that they adhere to the requirements of the Section 106 process. While Friends of the Parks has stated that we do not plan legal action in this matter, we are aware that other groups continue to consider legal approaches to ensuring compliance with the federal review process and/or other protections for public land. The Obama Foundation has agreed that the former president of the United States is committed to honoring federal processes.

Please join us in continuing the call for an above-board, honest, and comprehensive review process and timeframe as together we seek the most “park positive” outcome for Chicago’s revered South Parks system and the surrounding communities.