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Friends of the Park Opposes Plan for Obama Center Garage

Plans for the Obama center call for a parking garage with space for hundreds of cars. Image: Obama Foundation

With proposals for the Obama Presidential Center ready to move forward to the Chicago Planning Commission by the end of the year, Friends of the Parks is opposing the Obama Foundation’s plan to construct an above-ground parking garage on the east end of Hyde Park’s Midway Plaisance. Earlier this month they announced support for a new community organization called “Save the Midway," which is conducting an online petition drive and other activities to fight against the parking structure, which FOTP says would detract from a “key element of Frederick Law Olmsted’s highly-revered South Parks system linking Jackson Park to Washington Park.”

Ever since the center was proposed for Chicago, the parks advocacy group has argued that it should not be located on parkland, instead suggesting that it be located on vacant land across from Washington Park, the organization said in a recent press release. Instead, the facility is being planned for a section of Jackson Park bounded by 60th, 63rd, Stony island Avenue and Cornell Drive, which currently holds ballfields and a running track.

According to FOTP, they first heard about the parking garage plan at an August invitation-only meeting, where the Obama Foundation floated the idea of disguising the structure as a sod-covered hill. However, subsequent renderings showed a typical concrete garage with a green roof.

“Friends of the Parks adamantly rejects the Obama Foundation’s characterization of such as the addition of parkland and calls upon the Obama Presidential Center to revisit previous discussions about underground parking garage options,” the group stated in the release. “An above-ground garage further erodes existing green space.”

But as Friends of the Park has shown in the past with their opposition to replacing a huge parking lot next to Soldier Field with the Lucas Museum, and their support for expanding a parking lot near 31st Street Beach, the group isn’t opposed to building more parking in parks per se. “As part of community meetings toward the development of the South Lakefront Framework Plan, community members have noted the need for additional parking to facilitate their access to various park amenities,” stated board chair Lauren Moltz. The [Obama Center] parking garage should be built underground and closer to these amenities so as to enhance rather than detract from the park.”

FOTP added that they are concerned that they are concerned about the pace of approval for the Obama Center plans, which they say doesn’t provide enough time for it to be considered holistically in relation to the South Lakefront Framework Plan. “To further promote an emphasis on the interrelatedness of the many issues that the Obama Presidential Center-inspired revitalization proposals represent and to bolster efforts to protect green space, Friends of the Parks is formalizing its role with the South Side groups that comprise the Obama Library Community Benefits Agreement Coalition,” FOTP states.

“Supporting the ‘Sustainability and Transportation’ platform of the CBA Coalition’s proposed community benefits agreement is consistent with our mission and speaks to Friends of the Parks’ active engagement with many voices in the community impacted by the Obama Presidential Center,” stated Juanita Irizarry, executive director of the parks group. “We continue to use our position to call for transparency around a host of park-related issues and the engagement of local voices in order to make good decisions concerning Jackson Park and South Shore Park ‘revitalization.’ We also call on the Obama Foundation to fully live up to its stated mission of promoting civic engagement in public conversations such as these.”

Much thought has been given to warehousing the extra cars that the Obama Center is expected to draw to the area, as well as widening stretches of Stony Island Avenue and Lake Shore Drive to accommodate extra traffic after a section of Cornell Drive through the park is pedestrianized to make more space for facilities at the center. Less attention is being given to improving transit, pedestrian, and bike access to the center so that fewer people will feel the need to drive there.

The transportation platform of the proposed community benefits agreement, which FOTP is endorsing, does call for improving Metra Electric District rail service with input from community stakeholders, restoring the CTA #1 Bronzeville/Union Station line to its original route, and facilitating “transit oriented economic development” in the area around the Obama Center. It’s good that the parks group is opposing the current garage plans, but it would be great if they pushed harder for creating convenient, low-cost transit service and improved conditions for walking and biking to the site as an alternative to building hundreds of new parking spaces.

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