President Obama left a distinguished legacy of important contributions to several issues of great public importance. Constructing the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, ironically, will undermine that legacy — inexplicable when relocation of the OPC to a site only a mile away, near the intersection of 55th St. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, would enhance, rather than detract from it. Three key parts of Obama's legacy are in question: neighborhood revitalization, environmental concerns, and the rule of law.
Before his entry into electoral politics, the young Barack Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago. He set a sterling example of mobilizing residents to help them bring more vibrancy to their neighborhoods. Constructing the OPC in Jackson Park, however, will do the reverse: it will undermine the stable residential community on the other side of Stony Island Avenue, as pressure builds to re-zone those residential tracts for commercial use to overcome the absence of commercial space close to the OPC. At the same time, it will neglect the struggling area near 55th and MLK. Constructing the OPC there, where plenty of commercial space is available, would be a great boost to a largely abandoned neighborhood — fully in keeping with the rest of Obama's legacy of civic improvement.
Another important part of President Obama's legacy is his concern for environmental issues. He tightened restrictions on industrial pollution, demanded higher fuel efficiency for automobiles, and brought the United States into the Paris climate accord. At a time when Australia has been burning, California and the rest of the American West are burning, the Amazon is burning — should we in Chicago really be cutting hundreds of mature trees to build the OPC in Jackson Park? To do so violates everything Obama stood for in environmental matters. Building the OPC at the barren MLK/55th location, on the other hand, would allow the planting of hundreds of new trees to landscape the property, and spur development nearby — a net plus for the environment, the city, and the neighborhood. This would be the proper way to advance Obama's legacy in matters environmental.
Finally, Barack Obama taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School for a time, and was deeply concerned with transparency and the rule of law. The plan to build the OPC in Jackson Park, by contrast, was conjured up behind closed doors, and has been pushed by well-connected developers through an opaque process — probably because it requires an unprecedented and ill-advised violation of the long-standing legal bar against alienating public parkland for private use. Yet, to do so would establish a precedent with potentially catastrophic implications.
Suppose, for example, a group of wealthy investors announces a plan to build a Trump Presidential Center (TPC) on the east side of Jackson Park? (I imagine that President Trump, who relished overturning anything President Obama did, would be all too eager to build something that would spoil the OPC's view of the lake.) If the OPC is constructed in Jackson Park, what legal recourse would Chicago have to argue against a second Presidential Center? Once the precedent is established, it will be nearly impossible to argue against it. Building the OPC at MLK and 55th Street, on the other hand, would not involve the use of public land and so would completely eliminate this problem. This would be in accord with Obama's legacy of transparency and the rule of law.
I urge the OPC and the University of Chicago, which owns much of the land at MLK and 55th Street, to put their heads together and work out a plan to re-situate the OPC in a way that enhances, rather than diminishes, Obama's legacy.
Fred M. Donner