With the certainty of a Trump presidential library in our not-too-distant future, it’s a little hard to get worked up over the Obama Presidential Center and Golf Course that’s about to emerge in Jackson Park.
But the Trump library, however gilded and gross, will not be rising in Chicago. And the Obama library will.
So last week’s news that the Obama Foundation wants to shut down two public streets running through the historic park deserves some attention.
Closing Cornell Drive (which runs north and south) between 60th and 67th Streets and Marquette Drive (which runs east from Cornell and connects to Lake Shore Drive) isn’t a move required for construction of the Obama library, though it might improve the library’s view. The Obama building will sit on a strip of land on the west side of Cornell that now holds an athletic field and running track.
The closings would, however, facilitate the creation of an elite 18-hole championship golf course from the Chicago Park District’s existing Jackson Park and South Shore courses, now separated by Marquette Drive.
What would happen to the traffic that currently uses those roads is unclear. The Obama Foundation did not respond to questions about the proposed closings.
Spearheaded by a new public-private entity, the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, the golf course plan was a surprise when it was shared with the public, which didn’t happen until mid-December.
At that point Tiger Woods had already been engaged to design the course, with work to begin as early as this spring. Park District board approval of a $1 million contract for preliminary engineering rapidly followed. As the Chicago Sun-Times has reported, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former campaign manager, Michael Ruemmler, is a founding director of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance.
According to Woods’s TRG Design website, the historic courses “will undergo a transformative restoration,” with “special consideration” made to provide “wide landing areas” and multiple holes that “will meander along the lakefront, offering sweeping views.” Greens fees could reportedly exceed $200, though the mayor has promised that neighborhood golfers who’ve been using the links for years “will be able to continue to use and enjoy it at a reduced rate.”
That’ll have to be a mega-reduction: the top rate for residents last summer was $33. A cart could be had for an additional $18.
Recently released e-mails from Emanuel’s private account show that he and Kelly had been working on the golf course plan behind the scenes for months, no doubt responding to a groundswell of demand from a community more often concerned with rampant shootings, poverty, and unemployment. Or maybe they were just inspired by Obama’s love of the game.
The Obamas say they want this presidential center, expected to open in 2021, to be a hub of civic activity. They’ve posted a two-minute video on the Obama Foundation website (not to be confused with the Barack H. Obama Foundation website, which is something else altogether). In the video, Barack and Michelle explain that “this will be a design year” and invite all of us to tell them “what you want this project to be.”
You can do that through the website, which is a good thing, since the local presence so far seems minimal. The foundation has an office in Hyde Park, and a former top Obama administration staffer, David Simas, was recently named as its CEO, but there’s no posted phone number on the site for the Chicago office. Press inquiries are being handled by a public relations firm in Washington.
Meanwhile a separate Obama library website, run by the National Archives and Records Administration, went live on Inauguration Day. By law the archives won’t be available for public access until five years after Obama left office, but you can find everything that had been posted on the White House website there.
The brick-and-mortar library will be designed by the New York firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the same folks responsible for the Logan Center on the University of Chicago campus. On Monday, the Obama Foundation announced that Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, designers of Maggie Daley Park, will be the project’s landscape architect.
Last week, Clinton Presidential Library architect Richard Olcott, in town to speak at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, was asked what advice he’d give the Obama library architects. Olcott said, “Engage with the neighborhood.”
But Margaret Schmid, of Jackson Park Watch, an online citizens’ group, told me that “despite nice words from the Obama Foundation, there’s been no public input yet.”
“There’s a desperate need for one, overall plan for the park,” Schmid says. “Jackson Park is being divided up by private money—with taxpayer money on the side—and so far there’s no public plan, and no adequate means for community input.”
Friends of the Parks executive director Juanita Irizarry agrees. She says by phone that “there should be a comprehensive planning process for Jackson Park, rather than the piecemeal, private conversations that have taken place so far.” v