Ironic: Obama Presidential Center sparks community opposition in the cradle of community organizing

On the very turf that gave birth to Saul Alinsky's version of community organizing, community activists are rising in opposition to the impact of building a huge mausoleum-like memorial to Barack Obama.  Young Barack Obama relocated to Chicago in order to study at the feet of Saul Alinsky, who had powered the  Woodlawn Organization to historic prominence as a prototype of community organizing.

Woodlawn directly abuts the Midway Plaisance, a park one mile long and 220 yards wide that separates Hyde Park (where the Obamas' mansion is located) from Woodlawn, a downscale and heavily minority community.  The Obama memorial covets a portion of the Plaisance, as The Hyde Park Herald reports:

Members of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council (MPAC) have come out against the location of a proposed two-story above ground parking garage, for the Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC) that will be situated between the Metra tracks and Stony Island Avenue under Midway Plaisance.

During a private event at its Hyde Park headquarters in August, the Obama Foundation announced that it would fund and construct an underground parking garage that would hold approximately 400-450 cars. The facility will be covered and surrounded by a 3-4 acre park open to the public for use and include a picnic area, a children's play area and other amenities. The structure would also include off-street bus drop-off and pick-up, bicycle parking, and a connection to Metra.

The Obama Foundation previously referred to the area as an "underutilized section of the Midway Plaisance across from the future site of the OPC."

The MPAC, on Wednesday night, voted to adopt a resolution outlining their stance on the proposal during a meeting held at the Midway Plaisance Ice Rink, 1130 Midway Plaisance.

As stated in the resolution the PAC opposes having the parking garage on the Midway and transferring Midway land to private entities.

MPAC members through the resolution urged the foundation, the city of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and the University of Chicago, who proposed the center's location on the South Side to find an alternative site for the parking garage.

Marcy Schlessinger, a resident of Hyde Park, gave a "yes" vote on the resolution. She is not proposing an alternative site per se but wonders if the foundation has considered any other locations.

Another community group, The Friends of the Park, also is opposing the garage.  The Hyde Park Herald reports:

Friends of the Parks (FOP) is aligning itself with local causes related to the Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park.

Today, the group announced that they oppose the above ground parking garage for the OPC, slated to be built on the east end of Midway Plaisance Park, 1130 Midway Plaisance; support the campaign to "Save the Midway;" and will be an ally for the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition. (snip)

"This would be a further reduction in park acreage and marks an unacceptable usurpation of parkland," said Hyde Park resident and FOP Board Chairwoman Lauren Moltz in a written statement. "As part of community meetings toward the development of the South Lakefront Framework Plan, community members have noted the need for additional parking to facilitate their access to various park amenities. The parking garage should be built underground and closer to these amenities so as to enhance rather than detract from the park."

A coalition appears to be building:

Hyde Park residents Michael McNamee and Karen Rechtschaffen launched a campaign to "Save the Midway" in response to the foundation's parking proposal.

They are urging the public through the campaign to take action to protect the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the park to protect the national treasure on the National Register, and to reject the parking garage and bus terminal proposals.

Save the Midway created petitions to keep the Midway as open and clear parkland free of a parking garage.

The group is also collecting signatures online, in person, and through a virtual postcard opposing the parking garage.

Power to the people!

Update from The Architects Newspaper provides valuable context:

... what the [Obama Presidential] Center hasn’t made as clear is that the complex’s footprint is growing, with its leaders recently proposing an aboveground parking garage that could take up about five acres of the Midway. The library’s concession for eating into this space is a green roof, which opponents claim should not be considered green space at all.

Original plans for the center, released in May, did not include any building on the Midway. The land is owned by the city’s Department of Transportation, and the move would need to be approved by the Chicago City Council.

“To say it’s ok to carve up a work of art and replace it with something else is ridiculous,” said Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. “The issue is not whether a green roof is considered green space; what’s disconcerting is the Obama Center’s insistence that they need more parkland.”

Architects Newspaper/ Matthew Messner

When completed, the Obama Center—whose footprint currently measures roughly 20 acres—will consist of a tall, stone-clad, geometric presidential museum, a green-roofed library, and a forum for events, all clustered around a broad plaza. The greenery is meant to blend with the existing park, but will not, say critics, make up for the amount of space it is taking from the famed parks.

Hat tip: Peter von Buol

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