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Obama: Closing 6-Lane Road by Presidential Library Will Create a More Vibrant Public Space

Pedestrianizing Cornell Drive by the library site could create up to five new acres of green space. Images: Google Maps, Obama Foundation

At yesterday’s unveiling of the designs for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, Barack Obama voiced support for pedestrianizing Cornell Drive on the east side of the library site to create more green space and a safer, more people-friendly environment. Although some community leaders, such as 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, have opposed the idea, arguing that it would create carmaggedon, the former president noted that it’s important not to get so “fixated on traffic that we lose sight of what's possible."

The plan calls for banning cars from Cornell between 60th and 67th streets. Cornell is a mostly six-lane road that runs north-south through the park, only a few hundred feet east of Stony Island Avenue, another north-south arterial. Cornell was carved through Jackson Park in the 1960s, despite the efforts of local residents and parks advocates to keep the green space intact.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

Pedestrianizing Cornell could create up to five new acres of parkland and create a safer and more peaceful public space, Obama noted. The library plan calls for plenty of open space for picnics and other forms of recreation, including a new sledding hill. "You can't have little kids playing right next to the road," he said at yesterday’s event, held at the South Shore Cultural Center, according to the Chicago Tribune. "You can't have sledding into the road."

Stony Island and Lake Shore Drive, located about a half mile east of Cornell, offer alternatives for car commuters. Obama noted that the Illinois and Chicago departments of transportation have begun doing traffic studies and have determined that, if steps are taken to compensate for the rerouting of traffic, pedestrianizing Cornell would only only add one to three minutes to motor vehicle trips. "We are confident that we will not be [significantly] adding to commute times," he said.

Obama argued that converting the Cornell Drive asphalt to green space is vital for the larger plan for the presidential center. “The truth is, if you have that road, there’s only so much you can do," he said, according to Curbed Chicago. "What we have said is let’s restore Jackson Park to the original vision.” He noted that, compared to Lincoln Park, a similarly large green space on the North Side, Jackson Park currently is less inviting for non-motorized uses. “It is not used in the same way. It is not accessible in the same way.”

Image: Obama Foundation
Architectural model of the Obama Presidential Center. Image: Obama Foundation
Image: Obama Foundation

While asserting the need to make Jackson Park less car-centric, Obama acknowledged that the presidential center may create more demand for car parking. “When people come to visit, they’re going to be looking for a place to park,” he said, according to DNAinfo.

He added that his foundation is in talks with the city and the University of Chicago about possibly adding parking at the east end of the Midway Plaisance, located just west of the library site, and building a pedestrian overpass to get visitors safely across four-lane Stony Island Avenue. “You could build an underground parking garage here that is landscaped on top and has a little recreation area on top of it and put a few barbecue grills while you’re at it.”

Sketch of the new museum. Image: Obama Foundation
Sketch of the new museum. Image: Obama Foundation
Sketch of the new museum. Image: Obama Foundation

One transportation topic that apparently didn’t get much play at yesterday’s event was transit access. The library site is already well served by public transportation: Just west are the Metra Electric District line’s 59th Street and 63rd Street stations, and four CTA bus lines run past the parcel on Stony Island, including the #2 Hyde Park Express, the #6 Jackson Park Express, the #15 Jeffery Local, and the #28 Stony Island.

However, adding more frequent bus and train service would reduce the number of additional car trips to the neighborhood. Community leaders have been pushing for the creation of rapid transit-style service on the Metra Electric for years, so it would be great if the library was a catalyst for making this vision a realty.

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