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

Rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. Image: Obama Foundation
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

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.

  • Jeremy

    I don’t understand why the city can’t temporarily close Cornell Drive for one or two weeks to see what happens to traffic.

  • Tristan Crockett

    To be fair about Cornell, I think closing it without putting bus lanes on Stony Island has the potential to make transit worse by diverting a ton of traffic to there there and potentially slowing down the several bus routes that already use that corridor. I think that it would be easier to make Stony into a BRT corridor under current traffic conditions than a couple years after the effect of the Cornell closing is fully absorbed. Usually I am begrudgingly fine with half measures, but I think the current plan may be a net negative for transit access.

  • The #BlackExcellence Project

    people coming from the south shouldn’t have this problem with the redirects through South Shore via US41 but that would still be a nightmare during rush hours

  • Jane

    Don’t assume that letter is representative of U. Chicago faculty. It was signed by less than 10% of U. Chicago faculty members and by a very skewed sample of them. If you look at the affiliations listed on the letter they are overwhelmingly Humanities, Social Science and similar fields. I counted perhaps 5 biologists but otherwise zero scientists, even though I would guess that science faculty constitute more than half the total. What does that mean? That the letter was not signed by those people whose work involves dealing with the practical considerations of running projects, hiring staff, building equipment, getting stuff done. Protest is cheap when you aren’t responsible for practical outcomes. The rest of the faculty understand that decisions are complicated and involve multiple tradeoffs.

  • Or it could mean that the letter just hasn’t made the rounds among the science division faculty yet.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Scientists are also not usually the first ones to stand up for social justice or really any material conditions facing their communities. It’s generally the humanities and liberal arts professors and students who are more likely to be politically engaged.

    I mean it’s literally called ‘humanities’. They’re much more interested in what happens to people now than the origins of the universe. Obviously we need both types of people but beware of the American STEM circle jerk, they’re not always the most important voice.

  • Too little, too late. Where were they during the site selection process? And the idea that this would be bad for park land and public space is absurd. The only thing I agree with is that it isn’t an area that needs economic development, although the jobs it will create will go to that community whereever it is located in Hyde Park.

  • Obesa Adipose

    Because they weren’t invited to be part the site selection process. Also, please tell me how taking away park land isn’t good for a park?

  • Obesa Adipose

    Cornell can’t be closed until something is in its place to replace it. So just closing for a test will tell you nothing.

  • Obesa Adipose

    Most people using Stony Island and Cornell are on their way to LSD and eventually downtown. Having a BRT on Stony is useless unless provides a means for people to give up driving to the loop. At minimum a BRT would also get on the drive (like the Jeffery Jump) or at least connect to the Green Line.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Of course it will tell you something. I would expect that a temporary closure would shed some light as to how much of its usage can be chalked up to induced demand.

  • Tooscrapps

    Not true. It’ll tell you the effects on parallel corridors so that you can right-size the improvements on LSD and Stony Island and public transit.

    Planned closures, say for reconstruction, can tell planners a lot.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Ecologists and medical professionals might have more than a few quibbles with your take on the role of science and the health of people.

  • Tomorrow (Wednesday) morning, I will be addressing the CTA Board of Directors on the idea of implementing the CTA Gray Line Project: http://bit.ly/GrayLineInfo which would provide direct CTA “L” service from Downtown; by incorporating the in-city Metra Electric District routes, into CTA’s “L” system (I will also be addressing the Metra and RTA Boards next week)

    It would also be a “Solution” as Mayor Emanuel asked of Chris Kennedy, about creating Jobs and Economic Development within the Black Community (On existing facilities already in operation every day.)

    10,000 New Permanent Jobs, and BILLIONS in New Economic Development in Chicago’s South Side Minority Communities!!

  • Jeremy

    Best of luck with your presentations.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    CTA board meetings are open to the public, so SBC readers should feel free to attend. Wednesday’s meeting takes place at 10 a.m. at the CTA headquarters at 567 W. Lake Street, 2nd floor boardroom. http://www.transitchicago.com/board/

  • Tristan Crockett

    There are already a lot of bus commuters going downtown using Stony in front of the library (the 6 and 28), and improvements in bus speeds here would help those commuters even if it doesn’t amount to full BRT . If Stony becomes a bottleneck I wouldn’t be surprised to see ridership on those routes, as well as the local 15, drop.

    And given the car traffic here, it is worth exploring what other routes could be added to enable more people to switch from cars to the bus. This could be routes similar to the 6 and 28 that have different local feeder areas, or express service on the parts of those routes that are local, or ideally some combination of the two.

    But my larger point is that we aren’t going to get closer to that by diverting a bunch of car traffic to an already heavy bus corridor, slowing these current riders down and creating a natural anti-BRT constituency out of the new drivers.

  • They didn’t need to be invited to anything to pen an open letter about it — the proposed sites were made public.

    And the reason it will be good for the park is it will take a little-used corner of the park and make it a destination for people. It will also result in very little loss of open space given the road closures and the underground parking structure. It will be a wonderful new public space.

  • undercover epicurean

    It’s been closed for events in the park many times in the past with few ill effects.

  • Thanx Jeremy…

  • Jacob Wilson

    I was speaking very broadly of course and don’t mean to say scientists are callous. But when it comes to monuments to neo-liberal leaders seizing public land to facilitate the travel habits of the wealthy it’s usually the humanities that are first to speak out against it.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Just gotta stick up for the *very* socially-minded ecologists, cultural anthropologists, and other science folk I work with!

  • Carter O’Brien

    How did it go?

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