Chicagoans in droves are venting their displeasure with President Barack Obama’s planned library, calling it an “ugly waste of taxpayer resources” and a “dangerous precedent” for the preservation of historic public parklands.
Recent letters to the editor published in the Chicago Tribune have overwhelmingly panned the Obama Presidential Center, which will take nearly 20 acres from historic Jackson Park and cost taxpayers $100 million in renovations to the surrounding area.
In a letter published on Jan. 26, John Deal of Dolton, Illinois, called the egg-shaped main tower and surrounding buildings “garish monstrosities that ruin the aesthetics of the surrounding parkland stolen from the taxpaying public.”
“Does anyone else think the artist’s rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center campus is ugly?” Mr. Deal asked.
Jerry Bruti of Chicagoexpressed outrage that the library is “taking valuable and irreplaceable park land that belongs to all the people of Chicago” in order to erect an “empty monumental edifice.”
“My suggestion: Build the Obama Presidential Center on vacant land that is not already dedicated as parkland, perhaps in an area that needs rejuvenation; and while at it, maybe spend those millions of dollars to build and endow a state-of-the-art school, library, affordable housing or other facility that the people of Chicago really need and can use to improve their quality of life,” Mr. Bruti wrote in the letter published on Jan. 28.
Plans for the library elicited controversy on the South Side even before the University of Chicago won the bid to host the facility in 2015.
Preservationists point out that Jackson Park, part of Chicago’s public park system, was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects behind New York’s famed Central Park.
Then came news that the center will not be Mr. Obama’s official presidential library and will not house documents from the Obama White House.
Two-hundred professors at the University of Chicago, where Mr. Obama lectured on constitutional law for more than a decade, signed a public letter this month denouncing the plans for the library as “socially regressive.” They argued the library’s lush Jackson Park location, right on the lakefront, does little to rejuvenate Chicago’s economically underserved neighborhoods.
“We are concerned that these are not the best ways to use public funds to invest in the future of Chicago,” the professors wrote.
Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s architecture critic, wrote a Jan. 22 column defending the library on both historic and economic grounds. He said rhetoric about the destruction of Jackson Park is “ludicrous” and approvingly cited Obama Foundation estimates that the center will have a $3.1 billion economic impact over 10 years.
He was less enthusiastic about the center’s main tower, which he called “bulky” and “severe,” but argued that “parks need to evolve” and implored opponents of the center to expand their “narrow aesthetic perspective.”
“Improve the Obama center plans,” Mr. Kamin concluded. “Don’t reject them.”
In response to Mr. Kamin’s review, W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, penned a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune on Jan. 25. He said the university’s public letter, which he signed, represents a “broad consensus” of scholars who represent “all the disciplines of the arts and sciences.”
“Conservative estimates of the costs of what Kamin calls an improvement to Jackson Park run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, to be paid by the taxpayers of Chicago,” Mr. Mitchell wrote. “The only accomplishment of this ‘improvement’ will be to make commuter traffic just a little bit worse than it is now, while defacing a magnificent historical landmark.”
And in a letter to the editor also published on Jan. 25, Charles A. Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit which opposes the center’s construction, argued the plans for the library “suffer from a lack of transparency,” pointing out that the University of Chicago has not made the winning bid for the Obama Presidential Center public.
“What has gotten lost in the discussion is why the University of Chicago, which won the contest to host the center, is not using any of its own land for the project,” Mr. Birnbaum wrote. “The university’s winning bid to host the center — which has never been made public — is remarkable because the university has no ‘skin in the game,’ i.e., none of the property it owns would be used for the center. Instead, the university demanded that Chicagoans give away public parkland listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”
In another letter to the Chicago Tribune, Charles F. Falk of Schaumburg, Illinois, agreed that Mr. Obama deserves “a public monument of some kind that recognizes his undeniable achievements.”
But he questioned if the “mini-Disneyland/Obamaland” would not be better placed “in a locale where it would improve a neighborhood instead of tearing up” Jackson Park, “an established treasure.”
“Chicago should relocate or scrap the Obama Center,” Mr. Falk wrote in the Jan. 23 letter. “If scrapped, the tens of millions of tax dollars not spent on infrastructure for the center would pay for a simple Obama monument and a plaque harmlessly placed on an acre in Jackson Park.”