What we know about the future of Jackson Park 

Obama’s center? Sure. An elite golf course? Not so much.

click to enlarge Barack Obama at the South Shore Cultural Center in May hosting a roundtable discussion about the Obama Presidential Center. - SCOTT OLSEN/GETTY IMAGES
  • Barack Obama at the South Shore Cultural Center in May hosting a roundtable discussion about the Obama Presidential Center.
  • Scott Olsen/Getty Images

Last week, after a series of community meetings about the future of Jackson Park where some residents had been either shut out or effectively shut up, Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston hosted an expanded ward meeting at the South Shore Cultural Center where everyone was offered the chance to talk.

Dozens of them did. After short presentations by the Park District, the Obama Foundation, the Department of Transportation, and the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance (a new nonprofit entity devoted to turning the historic links at Jackson Park and South Shore into a single, elite course), folks who'd been itching to speak lined up for a crack at the mike.

The July 13 meeting lasted three hours, with questions initially getting brief responses, and then just getting floated. Still, by the end of it, this much was clear:

The Obama Center won't be a presidential library. President Obama, who never wanted his center to be merely a library, announced in May that all his papers will be digitized, with the originals stored at some other location by the National Archives. This means that scholars won't have to trek to Chicago for research, and also that the Obama Foundation will escape a rule that would've required it to hand the National Archives an operating endowment equal to 60 percent of the cost of the library's construction.

The center includes a superfluous building. As designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the center is to be a three-building complex grouped around a plaza—a bulky 180-foot tower that'll house the Obama museum and two flat-topped one-story structures. One of those, the Forum, will be a public event space with an auditorium; the other, still referred to as the Library, is up for grabs. Obama Foundation strategist Jamie Clare Flaherty said it could house a new branch of the Chicago Public Library.

The Obama Foundation doesn't intend to sign a community benefits agreement. When asked by Kenwood Oakland Community Organization executive director Jawanza Malone and others why the foundation is resisting a CBA (which could protect against displacement and provide economic opportunity for local residents and businesses), Flaherty had two answers: "We feel that the Presidential Center is a benefit" and "We don't want a contract, we want to put a policy in place."

It's hard to see where the demand for a PGA course is coming from, or who will profit from it. Although the well-connected people behind CPGA (Mayor Rahm Emanuel's former campaign manager Michael Ruemmler is a cofounder) have been incubating this idea for years, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the professional-level course among the crowd of 150 or more at the meeting. Anne Holcomb of the South Shore block club ETHOS was one of several speakers asking why a PGA course is needed—she said her group just wants the historic links rehabbed.

This plan will, in effect, turn a south-side public treasure over to tourists and suburbanites. Promises of "affordable and accessible" golf for locals notwithstanding, if Jackson Park's 18 holes and South Shore's nine holes are combined into a single PGA-level course, they'll be less available in prime time for residents, who are being thrown the bone of a new six-hole "family course."

An elite course is an odd fit for President Obama. Even though he's known to be an avid golfer, it's hard to believe that this gift to the 1 percenters is what the former community organizer wants as a prominent part of his legacy. Justifying it as an economic boost for the area is dicey, given that elite clubs are notoriously closed environments.

The public will likely be on the hook for infrastructure costs. The plans for the presidential center and, more significantly, for the golf courses call for the closure of major roads through the park, shoreline improvements, and construction of two underpasses. The online group Jackson Park Watch has suggested that those costs alone will equal or surpass the $30 million CPGA is citing as the price for the course changes.

It's hurried. The Park District has set a deadline for completion of a new Jackson Park South Shore Framework Plan in October, but organizations like Friends of the Parks are asking for a slowdown that'll allow for more information and more public participation. And that's the point Jackson Park Watch's Margaret Schmid chose to make when she got a turn at the mike last week: "We have very little information, and the time line is very short. There is no need to have it done by October."  v

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