Obama Library’s Jackson Park Location Will Be Easy to Visit Without Driving

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The Obama library site, located between 60st, 63rd, Stony Island, and Cornell, will be easy to access by Metra, bus, and bike. Image: Google Maps.

Today a spokesman for the Obama Foundation officially confirmed that the Obama Presidential Center will be located in Jackson Park on the South Side, and he lauded the project as the nation’s first urban presidential library. “For the first time, a presidential center will be in the heart of an urban community,” foundation chairman Martin Nesbitt, said in a statement.

It was previously announced that Washington Park, to the west of Hyde Park, where the president previously worked as a University of Chicago law professor, and Jackson Park, to the southeast, were under consideration. As opposed to a more glamorous downtown location, siting the museum in either park would have had the benefit spurring investment in struggling nearby communities, in keeping with Obama’s former role as a community organizer. Each park is also well served by transit.

While there are two Green Line stops just west of Washington Park, the Jackson Park location has an edge when it comes to sustainable transportation access. The library will be located on a narrow, 20-acre parcel between 60th and 63rd streets, Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive, land currently occupied by a running track, football field, and baseball diamonds.

Just west are the Metra Electric District line’s 59th Street and 63rd Street stations. Four CTA bus lines run past the parcel on Stony Island: the #2 Hyde Park Express, the #6 Jackson Park Express, the #15 Jeffery Local, and the #28 Stony Island. The location is also accessible from the lakefront via an underpass and multiuse trails through the park, so it will be possible to bicycle there from downtown without having to share the road with cars.

The Green Line offers more frequent and consistent service to Washington Park than Metra’s train service to Jackson Park. However, it’s likely that decision makers assumed out-of-town visitors would be less comfortable taking the ‘L’ through the heart of the South Side than riding commuter rail towards the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Some local leaders hope that the addition of the library will spark the creation of a new South Side museum campus.

The Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric has been lobbying for the line to be converted to more frequent rapid transit-style service as well as fare integration with CTA and Pace, in order to increase job access for South Siders. Mayor Emanuel has shown interest in the proposal and the Obama library makes it even more likely that upgrade will happen. Moreover, it’s almost certain that the minimalist Metra stations near the library site will be overhauled in order to better accommodate crowds of visitors.

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Both Jackson Park and Washington Park are easy to access by transit. Map: CTA

Crain’s architecture critic Edward Keegan brought up the exciting possibility that the southeast leg of the Green Line, which was truncated to its current terminus at 63rd and Cottage Grove in recent decades, could be restored to its original 1893 route, which traveled to Jackson Park to serve the World’s Columbian Exposition. Adding additional Green Line stops on 63rd at Woodlawn Avenue and Stony Island would be great, and it might even be possible to create a transfer to the Electric line at Dorchester Avenue.

Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin noted that the Jackson Park location is a bit isolated from a pedestrian perspective. To the west, the Metra embankment is a barrier that prevents east-west travel between 59th and 63rd. To the east, high-speed, six-lane Cornell Drive is a dangerous street to cross on foot.

The library might be a good excuse to put Cornell on a much-needed road diet. Perhaps a lane or two could be converted to provide additional land for the library. Kamin brought up the idea of using trolley-style buses to shuttle visitors between the Metra stations, the library, and the science museum.

Today Crain’s ran a piece by Lisa Bertagnoli contrasting the Obama library, projected to cost $500 million and funded by the president’s foundation, with the $750 million, George Lucas-funded Museum of Narrative Art project, which was proposed for the site of a giant lakefront parking lot south of Soldier Field. After the museum proposal, which would have added several additional acres of green space to the site, was stalled by a lawsuit from Friends of the Parks, Lucas gave up on building it in Chicago.

FOTP argued that building the museum on the south lot site, located east of Lake Shore Drive, would have violated the 1973 Lakefront Protection Ordinance. While the Obama library site is west of the drive, it is part of the protected lakefront, so building the library on the site violates the principal that the lakefront should be “Forever open, free and clear.” But the parks group says they don’t plan to sue over the museum since many of their members are strongly in favor of bringing it to the South Side.

To their credit, FOTP says they will push for the parkland eliminated from the library site to be replaced elsewhere. “Friends of the Parks is thrilled to have the Obama presidential library come to Chicago, but we continue to believe that it should not be located on existing park land,” executive director Juanita Irizarry said in a statement to Crain’s. “There is plenty of vacant land in the area that could accommodate the library. However, Friends of the Parks will not sue over the issue. But we will continue to push to preserve the integrity of historic Jackson Park and for the replacement of green space that is taken to accommodate the library.”

Still FOTP’s recent positions on green space and parking have been more than a little ironic:

Eliminate 20 acres of parkland to make room for the Obama Library? Oh, OK.
Tear out two acres of green space to add more parking near 31st Street Beach? Sure.
Replace a parking lot with the Lucas Museum and four acres of new green space? No!!!

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