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Residents Convince Obama Foundation to Remove Garage From Midway, Submerge It

A rendering of the Obama Center campus. Image: Obama Foundation

Yesterday evening, under pressure from community members, the Obama Foundation announced that it's abandoning its proposal to build an above-ground parking garage for the Obama Presidential Center at the east end of the historic Midway Plaisance. Instead, the new plan is to locate the facility underground within the footprint of the center’s Jackson Park site, bounded by 60th, 63rd, Stony island Avenue and Cornell Drive.

This represents step in the right direction for mitigating the potential downsides of the OPC, but the garage will still have 400-450 car spots, and plans for the center include widening nearby roads. Meanwhile relatively little attention is being paid to improving transit, pedestrian, and bike access to the site to make it easier for visitors to get there without driving. It’s clear that the plan for the center needs more tweaks to make it less car-focused and more equitable.

As summarized by the Chicago Tribune today, the plan for the two-story parking ramp on the Midway, which would have been partly concealed by a grassy slope, drew a backlash from residents who were opposed to the privatization of a piece of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Midway to warehouse cars. Groups like Save the Midway and Jackson Park Watch organized protests, a postcard campaign, and the beginnings of a legal challenge against the structure.

Recently, more than 120 University of Chicago faculty members signed a letter opposing current plans for the library, including the garage. They called the parking plan “socially regressive” noting that the garage “privileges cars and those who can afford them” and that none of the proceeds from the facility would be used to improve CTA and Metra access for those who don’t drive.

A statement from an Obama Foundation spokesperson yesterday acknowledged the opposition and announced the change in plans. “The Foundation understands that many of those voices feel strongly that the parking for the OPC should be located within the OPC campus in Jackson Park. The Foundation has heard those voices, and has decided to locate the OPC's parking underground in Jackson Park.”

Under the new plan, the garage will be located located under the southern portion of the center’s footprint, between the library building and a proposed athletic center. The garage entrance and exit will be located on the east side of Stony Island at 61st Street.

The move means that visitors and employees who drive to the center won’t need to walk across six lane Stony Island Avenue to get to the center. This could help prevent pedestrian crashes, especially since the city is planning on widening Stony Island, as well as a stretch of Lake Shore Drive, near the institution. This would be done to facilitate driving after the segment of Cornell Drive on the east side of the center’s campus is pedestrianized to create more green space, even though Cornell, also a six-lane, sees relatively few car trips per day.

On the other hand, people who travel to the center via the nearby 59th Street Metra station or southbound buses on Stony Island will likely still have to cross the wide street, so the plan should incorporate sidewalk bump-outs, pedestrian islands, and traffic calming to facilitate this movement. There are currently raised crosswalks at the University of Chicago Laboratory School’s early childhood facility, located two blocks north on Stony.

The downside of placing the parking directly below the Obama Center is that it will discourage visitors from exploring the surrounding area on foot and patronizing other local cultural institutions and businesses.

But overall moving the garage is an encouraging sign that the Obama Foundation is willing to listen to neighborhood concerns and adjust its plans accordingly. Community members should keep the pressure on to ensure that the center is a net positive for the community, including holding the foundation accountable for hiring local residents.

It would also be great to see support for shifting the foundation and the city’s current focus on driving towards more democratic transportation option by scrapping the plans to widen Stony Island Avenue and Lake Shore Drive. Instead, the money that would have been used for these projects (and the LSD widening alone is projected to cost over $100 million) could be used to improve transit, walking and bike access to the OPC.

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