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When Barack Obama was President of the United States, he eagerly used his “pen and phone” to achieve his grand environmental objective of locking up public lands to keep them from private use. In January 2017, he used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate 1.3 million acres of land in Utah as a National Monument. The month before he mounted an all-out resistance to both the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline—two projects that offered more reliable delivery of oil and fewer adverse environmental effects than the railcars and trucks that they displaced.
Citizen Obama uses a different playbook now that he is embroiled in his own personal land-use controversy. The Obama Foundation is in a fierce struggle over its proposal, now before The Chicago Parks Commission, to locate the new Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in the high-rent district of Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. The park is now a scenic area near Hyde Park, originally designed by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Many compelling objections to the Jackson Park location are outlined in an excellent group letter (to which I added my name) by over 200 University of Chicago professors, as well a powerful letter to the Chicago Tribune by Professor W.J.T. Mitchell, one of the leaders of the opposition, who rightly blasts the Tribune’s architectural critic Blair Kamin for his defense of an ungainly project, which is just too big for its proposed home.
Here are the salient objections. The proposed 20-acre site will have its epicenter—a massive tower that could reach 160 to 180 feet—near East 60th Street, close to both the Museum of Science and Industry as well as the University of Chicago, two major South Side institutions. The scale of the major and auxiliary buildings requires closing a six-lane north-south artery, Cornell Avenue, which winds its way through the park. As a result, the city of Chicago, which is hard-pressed for cash, will have to spend untold millions to make major alterations to expand two nearby arteries, Lake Shore Drive on the east and Stony Island Avenue on the west. Additional parking facilities will have to be built somewhere inside the park. Meanwhile, an initial OPC proposal to build a massive structure above ground was withdrawn after it was met with a chorus of boos. But Chicago’s high water table makes it an expensive proposition to build a substitute facility below grade. The tight boundaries around the complex will make it difficult to develop complementary businesses in the immediate neighborhood.