When it comes to squandering future development opportunities on Chicago’s South Side, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and city planners lead the pack.
Urged on University of Chicago bigwigs, Mayor Emanuel’s heralded plan for the proposed Barack Obama Presidential Library calls for using 20 acres of public parkland in western Jackson Park as a library site.
The proposed site in the Woodlawn neighborhood is bounded by South Stoney Island Avenue, South Cornell Avenue, East 60th Street and East 63rd Street.
An alternative 22-acre site, also proposed by the university, would gobble up public park land on the west edge of Washington Park, and 11 acres outside of it. This site is bounded by South King Drive, South Ellsworth Drive, East Garfield Boulevard, and East 51st Street.
Both sites are on the fringe of the University of Chicago’s elite campus in gentrified Hyde Park. And, Obama’s personal mansion homestead is located not far away in East Woodlawn, another elite South Side neighborhood.
Since the white-flight era of 1950s, the university has acquired numerous parcels of land and buildings surrounding the campus and diligently worked to stabilize Hyde Park, one of the crown jewel neighborhoods of the South Side. Annexing park land for the library seems to coincide with this stabilization plan.
However, the Friends of the Parks oppose the carving up of two landmark public parks that are on the National Register of Historic Places. Earlier, the Friends of the Parks filed a lawsuit to stop Mayor Emanuel from transferring 17 acres of lakefront parkland to movie mogul George Lucas to build an interactive museum in a parking lot next door to Soldier Field.
And, many South Side African-American residents say they cherish their neighborhood parklands, which symbolize freedom—open recreation spaces for rib barbeques, family picnics and softball games.
How many tourists visiting the world-class city of Chicago really would venture on unsafe public transportation to fringe South Side neighborhoods to enjoy the bountiful political and intellectual collection to be ensconced in Obama’s presidential library? In 2014, there were four homicides in Woodlawn and four in Washington Park.
Meanwhile, critics have suggested that Mayor Emanuel should think outside the box and combine the presidential library with the George Lucas museum and build them on a new South Side Museum Campus.
The perfect place for the South Side Museum Campus would be the 37-acre former site of Michael Reese Hospital in the Oakland neighborhood on the Near South Side. This land once was touted as an Olympic Village site by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
In 2009, demolition contractors, hired at a cost of $20 million, razed more than two dozen buildings at the former hospital complex, including several designed by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius—one of the 20th Century’s most influential modernists.
In addition, dozens of trees were chopped down and serene courtyards designed by landscape architect Hideo Sasaki were destroyed on the former hospital campus. If you add the $80 million the city spent to acquire the land, Chicago already has invested $100 million into the Michael Reese site.
It’s time to dust off existing plans to install infrastructure improvements into this vacant no-man’s land between 26th and 31st streets along Cottage Grove Avenue. A Tax Increment Financing District already is in place, and long-range plans include construction of a light-rail commuter system from McCormick Place to 63rd Street along Cottage Grove Avenue.
Ironically, the 37-acre Michael Reese site exactly meets the land requirements for both the presidential library and the Lucas museum, and there may be nearby acreage left over for business, retail and housing development in an economically struggling neighborhood that desperately needs it. By the way, Oakland is a safe neighborhood. Zero homicides were committed there in 2014.
With easy access to McCormick Place, immediately to the north, plenty of tourists and Chicago-area residents could hop on the light-rail system and enjoy two new important attractions to our world-class city.
Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. For more information, visit www.escapingcondojail.com.