Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Park swap

There's a competition underway to determine the future site of the Barack Obama Presidential Library. The four contestants in the battle, all major universities, are the University of Hawaii, Hololulu, Columbia University in New York City, the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the University of Chicago.

President Obama has connections to all four. He was born in Honolulu, did his undergraduate studies at Columbia, and spent most of his working life before he became a US senator and president, in Chicago. Of the four, it seems to me that the University of Chicago would be the most logical choice, as the president has the closest ties to that institution, where he taught, as well as the south side of Chicago, the childhood home of the First Lady, and the couple's two daughters. It was on the south side where the president famously worked as a community organizer; he also represented a portion of the that part of the city as a senator in the Illinois State Assembly.

I am not aware of any specific connections the president has with the west side of Chicago (where UIC proposes to build the library) or with that institution itself.

The U of C is pushing full steam ahead with their bid, but with reservations. They are adamant about building the new institution in the neighborhood surrounding its campus but not on the campus itself. They claim that the library will do much more good in the community, in terms of spurring on new development, creating new jobs, and bringing new opportunities into the neighborhood. One of the stipulations that the Obamas and the group who will select the winning bid have, is that the land proposed for the site must owned outright by the bidding institution. The university owns considerable property in the surrounding community but apparently not enough contiguous tracts of land sufficient for a site for the library and its environs.

Not to fear, says Mayor Emanuel, the city will just take existing Chicago Park District land adjacent to U of C property, then turn it over to the university, thereby creating a site suitable for the needs of the proposed library. In exchange for the park land, the city would convert currently non-functioning city-owned property into usable park space.

This real estate slight of hand is a win-win proposition, a no-brainer right? After all, in the words of the mayor, we need to jump on this because we shouldn't have to wait for another president to come from Chicago before we get this opportunity again.

I understand the logic but there are ethical issues about grabbing public land and turning it over to a private entity, even if it is for an institution to be open to the public.

"Ethical-schmethical...", the folks in the affected communities seemed to say in a public meeting, "...we want the library and all the perks it will bring." And who can blame them? Drive around much of the Washington Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods to the west and south of the university, and you'll find acre upon acre of vacant lots interspersed with boarded up buildings and shuttered businesses. One can only imagine how plopping a presidential library smack dab in the midst of all the desolation would mean a sudden infusion of jobs, money and opportunity.

One can hear the residents of the community saying the park land in question is not heavily used, it's just land filled with grass and trees, there's nothing particularly useful there. After all, what could be more old fashioned than an uncongested urban park filled with nothing but grass and trees?

The Chicago Park District agrees and last week they rubber stamped the mayor's proposal transferring public park land to the city. The Chicago City Council is expected to follow suit shortly.

Here is a link to a site with a satellite view of  the area surrounding the University of Chicago, with the two proposed sites highlighted in red. One proposed site consists of about 20 acres on the western edge of Jackson Park, the other consists of roughly the same amount of acreage on the western edge of Washington Park. Both parks linked together by the Midway Plaisance served as the site of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, two of the preeminent American landscape architects of the nineteenth century, or any century for that matter, were responsible for the design of the parks before, during and after the Fair. As you can imagine, the two parks play an integral role in Chicago's history, are a significant part of this city's tremendous architectural legacy, and, simply put, are some of the most beautiful places in the city.

Jackson Park

It may be a tough sell these days but no one should take lightly the idea of carving up these historic, magnificent, public parks, even for a worthwhile cause.

One of the problems, as pointed out in this open letter to the president and all parties concerned from Charles Birnbaum, the founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, is that the mayor and the university are presenting this issue as an either/or; either the presidential library gets built on public park land, or it gets built in New York of Hawaii. If that happens, the folks in the affected communities will have the people who care about the parks to blame as the mayor and the university "did all they could" to bring the library here, but those damn park people got in the way.

Not surprisingly, that turns out to be a bunch of hooey. Mr. Birnbaum points out minor alterations in the proposals which would not intrude into park space, but the mayor and the U of C are so far un-moved. This scenario is painfully similar to the one we experienced a couple of years ago with the former Prentice Women's Hospital, an architecturally significant building that was destroyed by Northwestern University. That institution proclaimed that despite owning hundreds of acres of land in the Streeterville neighborhood, only the Prentice site was suitable to build a new research building. For his part, the mayor signed off on the destruction of the important building by saying it was OK to demolish it since we had other buildings in town by the same architect, Bertrand Goldberg. Then with the most egregious malfeasance, the Chicago Landmarks Commission in one breath voted to landmark the building, then in the next breath said it didn't matter, the city and the university needed the land so the new landmark, and in effect, all landmark buildings in the city be damned.

Essentially the Park District did the same thing last week when they declared that the land they are entrusted to maintain and protect as a public trust, could be traded off at the mayor's bidding.

Washington Park

This is not only a bad idea for the parks affected, but a terrible precedent which could have major ramifications for all our parks.

But why should any of this surprise us? As we've seen, in the recent words of a friend, when university officials want something, there is little that can be done to get in their way.

I would add, especially when the mayor is in bed with them.

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