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Obama center plans won't destroy Olmsted's park — they should be improved, not rejected

Blair Kamin Contact Reporter
Chicago Tribune
January 22, 2018

As debate heats up over the wisdom of putting the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park, opponents are painting the project as a self-indulgent statement by former President Barack Obama — a land grab whose slant-walled 235-foot museum tower would blight a park co-designed by the great 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

“There is no need to destroy one significant cultural legacy in order to celebrate another,” Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit located in Washington, D.C., wrote last week in the online publication Dezeen.

Birnbaum and other opponents of the Jackson Park site, who include a group of University of Chicago professors who signed a letter condemning the location, are ignoring how the Obama plans would improve a scruffy landscape that is poorly maintained, brutally interrupted by a wide road, and seriously underutilized as a result. They also fail to recognize, as Olmsted did, that parks need to evolve with changing circumstances rather than remain rigidly fixed. At worst, the opponents are imposing a narrow aesthetic perspective on plans that promise to be an economic boon — and an enormous source of pride — for African-Americans who have long suffered from racial discrimination and the under-investment that accompanied it.

“As far as the tallest building, I see it as a beacon of hope, a beacon of change,” Russell Pike of the Jackson Park Highlands Association, which represents a historic district to the park’s south, said at a recent public meeting. "We need something like this to help us with the development of our community.”

Granted, the proposed museum tower needs to become less bulky and more elegant. But that is no reason to throw out an opportunity which backers project will create nearly 5,000 jobs during construction, attract as many as 760,000 annual visitors, and have an economic impact of $3.1 billion in the 10 years after its anticipated 2021 opening. Even if those figures are exaggerations, as such projections are wont to be, it is hard to buy the professors’ argument that the estimates won’t be realized because there is no available land next to the center on which to start a new business. In reality, new uses are likely to replace current ones. The real danger is displacement caused by gentrification, not stagnation.

Like those fighting the Jackson Park site, I would have preferred if Obama had chosen a parcel on the edge of nearby Washington Park that the University of Chicago made available as an alternative. But that didn’t happen, one suspects, because Jackson Park, with its proximity to the lakefront and the Museum of Science and Industry, offered a more traditional presidential center site, one that would be less affected by the vexing problems of urban poverty.

As a result, the center’s architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of New York, were confronted with the challenge of placing the center in an Olmsted park, not alongside it. Obama made their job tougher when he told them that one of their early plans was “too quiet.” That’s how we got where we are today: To a cluster of buildings that seems to speak two languages — one monumental, the other modest.

In addition to the controversial museum tower, the privately-funded 19-acre center would have three low-slung, green-roofed buildings on the western edge of 543-acre Jackson Park: a forum building with an auditorium, a possible Chicago Public Library branch and an athletic center. Parking would be underground, thanks to protests that forced the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit charged with building the center, to back off from a dubious plan for an above-ground garage, dressed up with trees and shrubs, on the west side of Stony Island Avenue. To the east of the center’s buildings, the foundation plans about 5 acres of new parkland, courtesy of a bold urban design stroke: The closure of six-lane Cornell Drive, which cuts this section of the park into isolated patches of greenery. little white

Because the center will not be a conventional presidential library that houses documents from the Obama White House (the National Archives and Records Administration will store them elsewhere), the center is unsettling to traditionalists who value the authenticity and gravitas such artifacts convey. But such items can still be displayed in the center. The guiding idea is not a hushed treasure box. Rather, it is to create a training ground for future citizen leaders and a pleasure ground that invites people to come together. The center’s urban design is integral to those purposes — a place of physical encounter that forms an antidote to the virtual relationships of the iPhone age.

By closing Cornell, which grew to its current width during the highway-building binge of the mid-1960s, the proposal would open an uninterrupted swath of green space comparable to the Museum Campus, which took shape in the 1990s when Lake Shore Drive’s northbound lanes were shifted west of Soldier Field. There would be a sledding hill, plus winding bike and pedestrian pathways would follow Olmsted’s original contours for the park. People from the neighborhoods to the west of the center could more easily make their way to Jackson Park’s lagoons and Lake Michigan.

The notion that these moves would destroy Jackson Park is ludicrous.

Even a respected Olmsted scholar whom I consulted said so.

“There’s going to be a hell of a lot of investment in this part of the park. That’s a real positive,” David Schuyler, a Franklin & Marshall College professor who has co-edited a collection of Olmsted’s papers said during a telephone interview last week. “And if (the center) draws people to this part of the park, it means that the city’s going to maintain it, which it hasn’t been doing very much lately. So, as far as I can tell, it’s a real trade-off with a very positive effect as well.”

The severe, obelisk-like tower remains the rub. Schuyler said he found its height and bulk “a bit scary.”

Williams and Tsien offer compelling reasons for the tower: It would provide an iconic presence for the center and the frequently-maligned South Side. It would lift visitors above the park and offer, from its top-floor observatory, spectacular views of Jackson Park and nearby parks, as well as Lake Michigan. The tower also would symbolize a key theme of the center — ascension, as personified by the story of Barack and Michelle Obama. You cannot do that with a meek building huddled below the tree line.

Yet the tower, which would be clad in a whitish-gray stone, would dwarf its environs and alter the experience of a park where nature, not buildings, are the prime focus. That’s a big change, although the impact would be muted by the fact that the high-rise would be placed on the edge of the park, not at its center. Maybe it’s the right change, befitting the historic identity of the first African-American president. Still, as I wrote last week, the design is not yet compelling, despite recent revisions that would lighten its opaque facades with lacy stone screens and, at night, create an entrancing, veil-like effect.

In short, the design looks good at ground level; less so, in the sky.

The architects have a lot of work to do before spring when the Chicago Plan Commission is expected to approve the foundation’s plans, and before fall, when a federal review of the project’s impact on Jackson Park should be complete. That impact is expected to include shadows cast by the museum tower and the need to replace mature trees that will have to be cleared to make way for the center.

For their part, the center’s backers, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, must answer other questions: How much, for example, will taxpayers have to shell out for road widenings needed to accommodate traffic now on Cornell? And how much parkland will be consumed by those widenings, which will expand South Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue? The Chicago Department of Transportation, which floated the road closings last August, still cannot provide a ballpark estimate of the costs.

City officials also should give their answer to the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s charge that the Obama center would amount to a “confiscation” of public space. That should not be difficult. The center’s outdoor space would be open to the public, free of charge. Most of its interior spaces would be, too, with the exception of the museum in its tower. That feature would distinguish the center from the failed proposal for the Lucas Museum, which ran into a judicial wall partly because it did not offer this high level of public access.

Olmsted, a beloved figure whose masterpiece is New York’s Central Park, looms over the entire process. Olmsted scholars say the landscape architect generally objected to the insertion of large structures in his parks. On the other hand, he was a passionate abolitionist who might have appreciated the symbolic importance of Obama’s story and accepted the need to accommodate a major new feature in his park. In the end, it’s impossible to know.

What we do know is that Olmsted was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He embraced the need to adapt his parks to changing times and circumstances. After the Chicago world’s fair of 1893, for example, he made a portion of his naturalistic landscape more formal to accommodate the Beaux-Arts fair building that is now the Museum of Science and Industry. He designed roads that could handle automobile traffic. And in a concession to more active recreational habits, he inserted oval outdoor tracks for men and women.

Olmsted did indeed write that future structures should remain subordinate to the present science museum. But that was nearly 125 years ago. Just because he might not have agreed with all aspects of the Obama center proposal doesn’t mean those plans won’t have a major beneficial impact on his landscape and the lives of the people who use it. The triumph of Millennium Park, whose joyous large-scale works of public art broke with the convention of a serene greensward that provides relief from urban congestion, reveals the value of thinking big — and thinking fresh.

Improve the Obama center plans.
Don’t reject them.

In Photo: A view of the proposed Obama Presidential Center campus includes a wide range of recreational activites, such as sledding on the Great Lawn, in Chicago's Jackson Park.

Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.
[email protected]
Twitter @BlairKamin

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