“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:

https://www.obama.org/updates/community-commitments/

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: http://www.obamacba.org/ordinance.html

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:

http://jacksonparkwatch.org/updates/

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.

 

 


Pavilion?  Presidential Library?  Professional Golf Course?

The Call for Comprehensive Planning for Jackson and South Shore Parks

By: Juanita Irizarry, Executive Director

Preservation Chicago unknowingly marked my 18 month anniversary at Friends of the Parks this March in a special way.  They announced their 2017 list of most endangered structures and spaces in Chicago.  The historic Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park and the adjacent South Shore Cultural Center made their list.

WTTW reported: “As some of the best-known and most historically significant parks in the city, Jackson Park and South Shore Cultural Center Park are not threatened by disuse or deterioration, but development. Preservation Chicago is concerned by the lack of public engagement in plans for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and a Tiger Woods-designed golf course and what those developments might mean to the historic character of these South Side parks.”

We are thrilled to have yet another voice join the chorus for comprehensive planning for these parks!

A number of Chicagoans have wondered out loud with me why Friends of the Parks is concerned about the roll out of the professional golf course proposal that is now on the table for Jackson Park.  They believe that the Obama Presidential Center’s plan to locate in Jackson Park is good for Chicago and that any attendant development in the community or park must, therefore, be good.

Other Chicagoans have expressed their chagrin that Friends of the Parks has not taken a stronger stance by filing a lawsuit to try to stop the Obama library from locating in a park.  And some haven’t understood why we haven’t voiced a public position for or against a proposed pavilion in Jackson Park.  Yet others consider it a no-brainer that we applaud the idea of closing roads that currently run through Jackson Park. But we haven’t done that.

So let me set the record straight on Friends of the Parks’ point of view about potential Obama Presidential Center-related development in Jackson Park and South Shore Park.

We still maintain that the Obama library should not be located in a park.  But if it must be so, we continue to call for the replacement of park acreage and amenities to be usurped by it.  And with many competing and uncoordinated priorities being pronounced via different entities, we have put out a clarion call for a comprehensive planning process to promote transparency, coordination, equity, and public participation.

Still don’t understand why we think comprehensive planning is more important than us taking stances on certain proposals at this time? Let me offer some historical context, though it will make a long story even longer.

_________

THE CONTEXT

One of the first meetings I attended in the fall of 2015 in my new role as the executive director of FOTP was a community charrette about potential revitalization of the “South Parks”—Jackson Park, Washington Park, and the Midway.

I was confused after that meeting.  At the time, I thought that I didn’t understand what was going on because I was so new.  And because I arrived after the start of the meeting (though far ahead of many people who popped in after they got home from work.)  And that is probably somewhat true.

I was confused about whether this was a sincere effort to gather and incorporate community input or just a show.  Confused about whether the projects mentioned were just someone’s vision or were already a done deal.  Confused about whose meeting this was: the meeting hosts from the Project 120 non-profit organization or the Chicago Park District, whose staff were also part of the presentation. Confused about whether they really intended to address the entire South Park system, as the ideas presented for Jackson Park seemed more fully developed than those for the Midway and Washington Park.  Confused about whether folks from each of these segments of that system related to or thought of themselves as connected to a South Parks system and whether they wanted to.  Confused about how the Obama library would fit into this planning process. Confused about why the audience for the meeting was not very diverse.

FOTP Board Chair Lauren Moltz had been there since the start of the meeting.  A long-time resident of Hyde Park, she helped me get a little caught up and understand some of the dynamics. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that lots of other people—long-time community residents and stakeholders, themselves—also were confused.

Project 120 had expanded beyond its initial interest in improvement of the Osaka Garden in Jackson Park.  It set its sights on broader revitalization scheme that included a new pavilion reminiscent of the Japanese pavilion erected in the park during the World’s Fair more than a century ago.  Objections arose, ranging from fears that the pavilion was part of a plan to make Jackson Park a regular concert venue to complaints that many birds would meet their demise when they flew into the glass walls proposed for the structure. Meanwhile, Project 120 facilitated the installation of Yoko Ono’s “Sky Landing” sculpture on Wooded Island, with this summer’s unveiling overshadowed by local suspicion about the secretive process and underlying intentions.  It was not clear how decisions were made, how permissions about public art installations were granted without public approval processes, and whether more not-yet-revealed plans were being foreshadowed.

As stakeholders came to Friends of the Parks for help to fight for an appropriate process, we met with lots of individuals and groups over a period of a year to better discern what was going on.  We met with Project 120.  With the Chicago Park District.  With Alderman Hairston.  With community residents.  With the Obama Foundation.

We hosted our own Netsch Lecture Series presentation by Project 120 to a packed house.  Much of the reaction from the audience was negative.  Attendees felt like they still weren’t getting the answers they wanted.  They wanted more transparency.  They wanted to understand why the words they heard from Project 120 staff about the opportunity to speak into the process didn’t match what seemed to be communicated as a done deal on the Project 120 website.

The controversy gave rise to a new group called Jackson Park Watch.  They have disagreed with the Jackson Park Advisory Council about supporting Project 120, and they organized a strong enough voice that Alderman Hairston held a standing-room-only meeting to address concerns about Project 120’s proposals and process.

The moral of this story?  Local residents are concerned are developments in Jackson Park.  And they don’t agree.  Regardless of what side they’re on, it’s probably safe to say that most people have been confused about the decision-making process and the proper portals for community input in the area’s parks for a good while now.

So the mayor’s recent announcement about a professional golf course connecting Jackson Park and South Shore Park and the talk of closures of local transportation routes only exacerbates the problem.

_________

THE OBAMA PRESIDENTIAL CENTER

Since 2014, when Chicago was first mentioned as a potential site for the presidential library, FOTP has expressed excitement about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host the Obamas’ legacy, and especially on the city’s South Side, where the family has deep connection to the community.  We beamed with pride along with other Chicagoans when the announcement was made that our city was chosen for this historic institution.  And we would love to see the Obama Presidential Center be an engine for and centerpiece of healthy economic development of nearby neighborhoods.

But we also have said from the start that we strongly object to the use of parkland for the library.  Park preservationists and real estate interests always will clash over the appropriate use of open space, and the siting of the Obama library is no different.  Advocates for the benefits of green space and neighborhood residents who desperately want economic development may look at the situation with very different lenses.  Even people who agree on preserving the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted certainly disagree on what that may mean in this particular situation.  But Friends of the Parks maintains that we should not have to choose between the economic benefits that may come from having the Obama Presidential Center in the neighborhood and the preservation of precious park resources.

We have repeatedly suggested the use of 11 acres of vacant land—owned by the University of Chicago, the City, and the Chicago Transit Authority—across from Washington Park, rather than parkland itself.  And we have continued to advocate publicly as well as behind the scenes for the Obama Foundation to choose a non-park site, even though all signs have indicated that we would lose that battle.

So when the 2016 announcement came that Jackson Park would host the Obama Presidential Center, our board chair, Lauren Moltz, said in a press release, “Chicago ranks 12th on a list of the most-densely populated cities in the country in terms of parkland per 1000 residents.  President Obama is familiar with these statistics and knows the importance of parks in the lives of ordinary people.  In fact, as a young community organizer, Mr. Obama came to Friends of the Parks and asked how we might work together to increase park space in South Side communities.”

FOTP also announced that we do not plan to sue over the issue as it is our understanding that the selected site is not public trust land, unlike the proposed site for the Lucas Museum. “Friends of the Parks’ analysis suggests that there is no realistic legal remedy at this time to protect this public open space from this development,” I said in our press statement. In it we urged greater public input to the process and proposed that the library’s design “maximize the use of available vacant land and underground space, and be truly ‘park positive’ by adding parkland to the surrounding community. . . Furthermore, any design should upgrade the park’s facilities and preserve existing recreational uses by the public.”

The Obama Presidential Center is not just taking up passive green space.  Its location means that it will displace recreational fields that are used by the general public and many youth-serving programs including various local public schools, not the least of which is Hyde Park Academy which is located right across the street.  Sponsors of local programs have reached out to us to express concern about the fate of their programming and the underprivileged youth they serve if the sports fields are not replaced somewhere nearby.  One coach passionately shared stories of African-American athletes under his tutelage who have gone off to college on track scholarships because of the coaching and practice time they get on that track.  We have shared such stories and spoken about this concern in every appropriate venue where we can make our voice heard.  The limited ideas we have heard privately from the Chicago Park District or in meetings with other concerned stakeholders about possibly replacing these amenities contemplates moving them to existing green space without replacing the park acreage that is being taken away.

Notwithstanding our critiques, the Obama Foundation has been in touch with Friends of the Parks over the last year and suggested that they would involve us in an advisory capacity.  We have privately shared with them our many concerns about process and about specific proposals, going back as far as the controversies around Project 120 to more recent issues.  We have shared with them about the many neighborhood tables at which we sit and key points of information that our co-collaborators have authorized us to share. As they announced early this January their landscape architecture team of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Site Design Group, and Living Habitats, the Obama Foundation invited us to sit on their landscape architecture committee.  We used the opportunity to ask them to step up and ensure that a comprehensive planning process will happen for Jackson Park.

_________

THE CALL FOR COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING

As 2017 has come upon us, announcements and rumors have been flying about regarding various uncoordinated proposals for Jackson Park “improvement.” It seems that rather than approach the opportunity with careful and comprehensive planning, Chicago city and Park District leadership are throwing ideas out there to see which ones stick, just as we saw happen with the Project 120 process.  When the mayor and the Chicago Park District announced in December 2016 that Tiger Woods would be designing a professional golf course for Chicago, we were taken aback. Just a few weeks before, Park District leadership had told Friends of the Parks that there would be a comprehensive planning process for Jackson Park.  But, as revealed via a lawsuit forcing the exposure of the mayor’s emails, the Park District and the mayor had long been scheming as to how to actualize their professional golf course idea while making it seem like the community was in support.

Friends of the Parks had already been meeting and consulting with any Jackson Park, South Shore Park, and Washington Park stakeholders who would meet with us to consider strategies and build coalitions.  We have even been sitting at tables of groups that don’t agree with each other, being transparent with all of them about our presence in each space.  We were asked by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization to help them advocate for the sustainability components of their Community Benefits Agreements demands to the Obama Foundation.  We are participating on a Jackson Park planning team convened by Rev. Arthur Brazier of Apostolic Church of God and 1Woodlawn.  We are serving on a Jackson Park Advisory Council committee and consulting with the competing Jackson Park Watch.  We are represented at Alderman Leslie Hairston’s table.  We have attended a number of meetings of an ad hoc group formed by local leaders who don’t agree on lots of things but agree that there is not adequate opportunity for public participation in the process.  And we continue to conduct our own Listening Tour meetings in the area to solicit additional input about local residents’ concerns for their parks.  Wouldn’t it be nice if these meetings could be consolidated and be informed by full disclosure to the public about park plans and possibilities?

Some of the above was already in process and some of it was stirred into action by the fact that in early January, the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners voted suddenly and unanimously to approve a $1.1 million contract to allow for site planning and engineering surveys in support of merging the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a championship-level golf complex estimated to cost $30 million. Park District CEO Mike Kelly announced his desire to break ground by this March but insisted that they would not go forward if they didn’t have community support.

The Chicago Park District held its vote only two days after the first community meeting about the golf complex. In addition, the Park District has been referring to a framework plan for Jackson Park that was created in 1999, stating that this golf course fits into the framework plan, although a professional golf course was not anticipated in that document. We believe the plan needs to be updated to include all of the other major projects taking place in the park, including the Obama Presidential Center. The rushed process in proposing and approving the initial contract for this golf course highlights the lack of transparency and community input.

Friends of the Parks has many concerns, along with local residents, including but not limited to: this golf complex may not meet the needs of the community, may not be contained to the existing golf course footprint as promised, and will compete for funding with other heavily used resources, including the recreational fields that need to be moved and the outdated Jackson Park fieldhouse. We have been collecting questions and concerns about the golf course and any other aspect of park development related to the Obama library and invite you share your input with us.  It’s hard to know whether the professional golf course proposal is a good or realistic idea without the answers to a lot of questions, and we cannot figure out how the Park District could possibly ensure a full vetting of the issues in the timeframe that they have suggested.

“We recognize that there are always going to be disagreements about the best use or uses of parks,” said FOTP during our testimony at the January Park District board meeting.  “When you hold community input sessions at the very last minute, trying to create the impression of public participation, after the parks superintendent and the mayor had been secretly putting a plan in place for quite a long time, you create mistrust.”

At our most recent Listening Tour meeting, in the South Shore neighborhood, one local resident’s comments reflected the reality of the situation quite well.  She said that she was excited about the golf course proposal when she first heard about it, even though she’s not a golfer.  But then she realized that there were a lot of unanswered questions, she wasn’t hearing about plans to address other needs in the park that might get overshadowed by the cost of the golf course, and she was concerned that the proposed developments in the park might not serve—or might even lead to displacement of—current residents in the area. And, thus, there should be a formal, robust, comprehensive, inclusive planning process for the parks.

Here, here!

_________

Thinking back to my first months on the job and the meetings about Project 120’s vision for the South Parks, I can’t understand why the Chicago Park District didn’t champion a comprehensive planning process for Jackson Park and Washington Park back at that time.  They already knew that the Obama library would come to one of those two parks.  Taking responsibility for developing a park framework plan in 2014-2015 would have saved a lot of headaches and would have provided ample time and space to bat around a lot of ideas and solicit community input.

Media reports just last week suggest that fundraising for the golf course is behind schedule.  And Alderman Hairston recently has chimed in publicly, calling on the Obama Foundation to ensure community outreach and weighing in on the prospect of street closures through the park.  Importantly, the Jackson Park Advisory Council also changed its tune a bit and affirmed the need for comprehensive park planning.  And Preservation Chicago’s recent announcement put an exclamation mark on the issue.

Friends of the Parks is hopeful that this swell of voices and circumstances will converge to  slow down the process and create space for transparency and inclusiveness to help Chicago come to the best possible conclusions for the sake of our precious parks.


UPDATE (8/2016): JACKSON PARK SELECTED FOR OBAMA LIBRARY

The Obama Foundation announced in early August that the Obama Presidential Center, including the president’s library archives, will be built in Jackson Park.

Friends of the Parks has said since 2014, when Chicago was first mentioned as a potential site for the presidential library, that we are excited about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host President Obama’s legacy on the city’s South Side, where the president and the first lady have a deep connection to the community. We have also said from the beginning that we object to the use of existing parkland for the library. We will continue to voice that concern.

In a press release following the site selection announcement, Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry emphasized that the library’s design “should maximize the use of available vacant land and underground space, and be truly ‘park positive’ by adding parkland to the surrounding community.”

Friends of the Parks’ fall Netsch Lecture focused on the Obama Library and its potential impact on Jackson Park. Friends of the Parks co-founder and advisory board member, Vicky Ranney presented on the history and context of Jackson Park and implications for the Obama Library.


From our 2016 Annual Report:

The circumstances around Chicago’s campaign to lure the Obama presidential library have proven especially complex for Friends of the Parks. Our enthusiasm about bringing this important institution to Chicago’s south side is unbridled. Of course we want to honor our first African-American president in the town and neighborhood that launched him to such heights and to invite appropriate investment to the surrounding communities. But our principles about parks remain firm: parks should be used for open space, recreation, and gardens rather than private buildings.

We are thrilled that 2015 brought an announcement that Chicago has been chosen as the library’s home. But Friends of the Parks still contends that it should not take away open space nor desecrate precious Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks. We have suggested repeatedly that the many vacant parcels located immediately west of Washington Park—11 acres owned by the University of Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Chicago—be used for the library. As have many presidential libraries in other cities, such new development on underutilized land represents a boon to the community without taking away our park land to do it.

Unfortunately, amidst the many voices on different sides of the issue during a contentious political campaign season, this complex message did not come across clearly. Also, our capacity was challenged as we and our parks were hit with two very visible threats backed by powers-that-be at the same time. Meanwhile, the organization had also just entered a period of transition upon the retirement of our legendary long-time leader. All of this, along with legal analysis that suggested that Friends of the Parks would not have a strong case in this matter, proved too significant a barrier.

While working to build stronger and deeper roots in communities to enhance coalitional advocacy work in the future, Friends of the Parks will continue to articulate our concerns as the Obama Foundation makes its final decision about the siting of the Presidential Center. At the very least, we seek to minimize the impact on the park chosen respect the architectural heritage of the historic South Parks system.

We call upon the Obamas—neighbors to many of us involved with Friends of the Parks—to remain true to their values and the president’s roots in grassroots organizing on Chicago’s south side. Let’s continue to build up our neighborhoods without diminishing the existing assets and respect the many years of investment that the community has put into our precious Washington and Jackson Parks.