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100-Plus U. of C. Professors Oppose the Current, Car-Centric Obama Center Plans

Rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. Image: Obama Foundation

More than 120 University of Chicago professors and other faculty members have signed a letter opposing current plans for the Obama Presidential Center, with many of the stated concerns involving transportation issues -- particularly the focus on accommodating visitors who drive -- and the use of public parkland.

The letter notes that the proposals for the center have already faced criticism from a wide range of community groups, including the Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, which is composed of many social justice organization, plus allied groups. The current plan is also opposed by several parks advocacy organizations.

While those who signed the U. of C. letter say they generally support bringing the center to the South Side, they’re opposed to the specific location on a section of Jackson Park bounded by 60th, 63rd, Stony island Avenue and Cornell Drive, which currently holds ballfields and a running track. They argue that because the site is surrounded by the Museum of Science and Industry and the university campus, there’s no available adjacent land for future development that for additional job generators, such as new retail or another cultural center. (Directly to the west of the site are private residences and Hyde Park Academy High School, but that land wouldn’t be available for development either.) Because new jobs generated by the center will be largely within the facility, the letter argues, it's important for there to be a community benefits agreement setting aside jobs for local residents.

The signers are opposed to giving away some 21 acres of public parkland for the center, as well as plans to construct an above-ground parking garage with hundreds of car parking spaces on the east end of the Midway Plaisance to facilitate driving. They note that the Obama Foundation has so far rejected requests to submerge the garage to preserve green space.

Next, in my opinion, the letter veers a bit off course, opposing the foundation’s and the city of Chicago’s plans to pedestrianize six-lane Cornell Drive, which currently slices through the historic Jackson Park green space, east of the Obama Center site. The center will feature plenty of open space for picnics and other forms of recreation, including a new sledding hill and, as Barack Obama noted at the unveiling of the designs this spring, “You can’t have little kids playing right next to the road.” He added that it’s important not to get so “fixated on traffic that we lose sight of what’s possible.”

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

The faculty members argue that closing Cornell to cars means that “every [Obama Center] visitor who comes by car or by Metra will have to cross [Stony Island Avenue].” Of course, Metra commuters already have to cross Stony Island to the site, since the nearby 59th Street stop is west of the six-lane street. The letter adds, “And those of our neighbors who depend on driving north or south for their livelihoods will inevitably be significantly held up. This is a traffic-jam in the making.”

The section of Cornell Drive that would be pedestrianized currently sees 19,300 average daily vehicle trips, far fewer than six-lane Cornell can accommodate, which encourages speeding. Diverting some of that traffic to Stony Island and Lake Shore Drive, which roughly parallel Cornell and also have excess lane capacity, is not going to create carmaggedon, especially due to the phenomenon of traffic evaporation: When driving becomes a little less convenient, people choose to use different travel modes, or opt not to make unnecessary car trips.

However, as it stands, the city is planning to create even more room on Stony and LSD by widening these roadways to make it easier to drive to the Obama Center. The letter correctly notes that it’s unreasonable to ask taxpayers to pay for these road expansions – some $100 million for LSD alone. The city and the Obama Foundation are giving far less attention to the issue of how to improve transit, pedestrian, and bike access to the center so that fewer people will feel the need to drive there.

The next point made by the faculty members is right on the money: Building all this new car infrastructure would be inequitable:

A parking lot, of course, privileges cars and those who can afford them. Parking is expensive, and though public lands are being given away, all the profits from this parking lot will go to the Obama Foundation. None of the funds will go back to the city to improve train lines and public transportation infrastructure. Overall, this is a socially regressive plan.

The letter concludes by urging the Obama Foundation “to explore alternative sites on the South Side that could be developed with more economic benefits, better public transportation, and less cost to taxpayers.” The current site, which has good Metra and CTA bus access, is actually a good one from a transit perspective, although train and bus frequency should be beefed up to make transit a more attractive alternative to driving. But the faculty members are spot-on when they argue that the city officials and the Obama Foundation need to rethink the current, car-centric plan, which unfairly favors drivers over everyone else.

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