Former President Barack Obama unveils details of his Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3. Nam Y. Huh/AP

Carving out space in Olmsted-designed Jackson Park for Obama’s presidential library misses an opportunity—and sets a bad precedent.

Grammed and rested, former President Barack Obama returned to work this week after a long vacation with First Lady Michelle. His first order of business, before his deep dive into the Democratic Party’s systemic gerrymandering disadvantage, was to introduce his presidential library and center, which is bound for Chicago’s South Side.

The Obama Presidential Center, which the president unveiled at a talk on Wednesday in Chicago, comprises a campus designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Based on the preliminary sketches and an architectural model, the vision for the center is modern but unfussy, featuring a vertical lantern-shaped museum and a low-slung library and forum building with landscaped rooftop gardens.

The design is in keeping with the architects’ work: formal and restrained, with a focus on materials and contrasting vertical and horizontal elements. Inasmuch as design can stand in as a metaphor for politics, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have Obama’s famously cool temperament down. The former First Family picked TWBTA over a group of finalists that number among the top design firms in the world: SHoP Architects, Snøhetta, Renzo Piano, David Adjaye, and Chicago’s John Ronan Architects.

It’s hard to find any objections with the design so far. But the same can’t be said for the site placement: As I wrote back in 2015, it has a critical flaw, one that sets a bad precedent for park use everywhere. Chicagoans may not miss the sports fields on the park’s perimeter that the presidential library will replace. However, there’s a risk here of missing the trees for the forest. Chicago is slowly giving away an historic park when the city and its partners should be creating new civic spaces where there’s opportunity.   

The Barack Obama Presidential Center, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. (Obama Foundation)

The University of Chicago and the Barack Obama Foundation plan to carve out some 20 acres from Jackson Park, one of the South Side’s most important amenities, to build the Obama Presidential Center. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects who gave New Yorkers Central Park, designed Jackson Park in 1871. Two decades later, it served as the sublime setting for the World’s Columbian Exposition, the backdrop for Erik Larson’s essential The Devil in the White City.

The Obamas considered two options for siting the presidential library in Chicago: Jackson Park and another South Side gem, Washington Park. It’s for the best that they went with the former, not the latter, according to Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization charged with preserving America’s historic landscapes. “Had the Obama Library gone [into Washington Park], it would have claimed some 23 acres along the park’s western edge, which would have been both devastating and irreparable,” he writes.

Washington Park is considered one of Olmsted’s four complete masterpieces, along with Central Park and Prospect Park in New York and Franklin Park in Boston. Any presidential library would be glad to have one of them as a front yard. But to plant such a facility in Central Park, Prospect Park, or Franklin Park—to even propose it—would raise howls of protest. Washington Park is no less sacred, but it’s located on Chicago’s South Side, a place with less social and political power than the others.

The planned site of the Obama Presidential Center: on top of recreational fields in Jackson Park. (Obama Foundation)

On the other hand, Chicago has already infringed on Jackson Park’s integrity. And as far as that goes, Olmsted and Vaux included in the original design an administrative building. It was never built, but it was planned quite close to where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to go. Between the two sites, the cultural cost to build in Jackson Park was lower. It was altogether too low: The July 2016 decision raised few howls of protests from critics. As Birnbaum lamented at the time, design journalists who cried over the dismantling of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York had nothing to say about the Obama Foundation dismantling an Olmsted park in Chicago.

For the Obamas, the benefit is clear. It’s far cheaper to take public park space being handed over freely (or rather for $1) than it is to find and purchase the appropriate space in the city. Instead of creating a new landscape for the South Side—acquiring vacant lots or disused property and handing it over to the excelsior team of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Site Design Group, and Living Habitats—the Obamas are converting a space that is already an existing park. The rec fields may not be lovely, but they’re useful as they are. Part of the appeal of hosting a presidential library in a dense urban center is building a brand new park landscape.

Other related changes to the park are in the works, too. Tiger Woods is involved in a $30 million push to consolidate two golf courses at Jackson Park and the adjacent South Shore into a single, larger, PGA Championship-eligible course—conveniently located next door to the library of a president Golf Digest once commended for “his deep commitment to supporting the golf industry.” Elsewhere in Jackson Park, the nonprofit Project 120 Chicago envisions building some kind of tech campus.

So it comes as no surprise that Preservation Chicago named Jackson Park to its “Chicago 7” list of most endangered sites for 2017. Other critical voices have gone quiet. Friends of the Parks, a nonprofit tasked with the preservation of the city’s 8,100 acres of parkland, initially opposed the plan to use Chicago parks to build the presidential library in a strongly worded editorial and even talked about possible litigation. That editorial has since been deleted. Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Park, now says that while the group still maintains that the Obama Presidential Center should not be located in Jackson Park, the organization has moderated its message somewhat, dropped the legal threat, and joined the landscape architecture committee, at the invitation of the Obama Foundation.

The situation might be less infuriating if there weren’t a superior alternative for siting Obama’s presidential library nearby: 11 acres of vacant, disused, or underused parcels owned by the city, the University of Chicago, and the Chicago Transit Authority, all adjacent to Washington Park. As Friends of the Parks has pointed out from the start, this would bring all the same benefits to the South Side—tourism, prestige, and investment—while contributing something new to the local landscape. (Neither Friends of the Park nor the University of Chicago returned requests for comment.)

Instead, the former president is contributing to a troubling trend. Not just in Jackson Park, which looks like a goner, at least as far as its status as an Olmsted-designed amenity is concerned, but elsewhere. In New Orleans, for example, where City Park and Audubon Park are losing land to development for cultural amenities. Or in New York, where the Frick Collection planned an expansion (since abandoned) that would pave over beloved gardens designed by Russell Page.

In Philadelphia, the city’s Parks Alliance pushed for and won a bill called the Open Lands Protection Ordinance to create standards and guidelines for the use of parklands. Chicago needs to set down its own best practices before any more of Jackson Park gets gobbled up by new initiatives—no matter how popular they are. Parks don’t stand a chance if cities treat them like free parking.

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