Jackson Park, one to two grand parks, designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is among the greatest historical and environmental assets of Chicago’s South Side, along with the South Shore Cultural Center and Park. These grand parks include many amenities, resources and features, such as iconic landscape design, lagoons, islands, harbors, museums, historic structures, sculptures, and golf courses, which attract visitors from across the City, the South Side, and the suburbs. Despite these parks being quite distinct, they are adjacent at South Shore Drive at 67th Street, and will become more closely linked by a multimillion dollar renovation plan proposed by the Chicago Park District. Jackson Park is soon to be the site of the Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed Barack Obama Presidential Library to be located between 60th and 63rd, and Cornell and Stony Island Avenue. In a development possibly related to Barack Obama’s passion for golf, the Chicago Park District recently announced a proposed $30 million renovation of both golf courses to provide the possibility of combining them into a single larger course suitable for hosting PGA Championship games. Jackson Park has also been the site of recent improvements sponsored by private non-profit organization Project 120, including the installation of Sky Landing, a sculpture by Yoko Ono, which was designed and installed outside the historic Osaka Garden on the park’s Wooded Isle, with little to no public engagement. Project 120’s website also includes suggested plans for a visitor’s center, music pavilion, and other major changes to Olmsted’s historic landscape.
The national attention that has come with the siting of the Obama Library in Jackson Park provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to attract much-needed reinvestment to the South Shore and Woodlawn neighborhoods. Preservation Chicago joins other neighborhood and community groups and advocacy organizations in calling for the Chicago Park District to conduct a transparent and thoughtful planning process, and furthermore, to preserve the historic integrity of these Fredrick Law Olmsted designed landscapes, so they may remain accessible assets to all people of the City of Chicago for generations to come.
The historical significance of these two parks is monumental. The 500-acre Jackson Park was designed by the important and influential landscape designer of the 20th Century, Frederick Law Olmsted, and was the site of one of the most important events in Chicago history, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 which has been memorialized with one of the four star’s on the city’s flag. It is connected via the Midway to Washington Park, forming one of the most magnificent networks of urban parkland in the country. Both parks are listed on the National Register of Historic places and elements are protected Chicago Landmarks.
The Mediterranean Revival South Shore Cultural Center was designed by well-known Chicago architectural firm Marshall & Fox, and is one of the most recognizable landmarks on Chicago’s South Side lakefront. In its more recent past, it was the site of Barack and Michelle Obama’s wedding reception, and is itself a major community preservation success story. Neighborhood activists famously rescued the former private South Shore Country Club from demolition in 1975, after it was acquired by the Chicago Park District, so it could be re-opened as a public facility welcome to all visitors.
The threats to these parks are three-fold and interrelated; the construction of the Obama Library in Jackson Park, the rehabilitation and construction of the golf course spanning both parks, and the various building proposals by Project 120 in Jackson Park.
The overarching concern of Preservation Chicago and many other advocacy groups is the level of influence by privately held organizations and the lack of substantive community involvement in each of these three initiatives: the Obama Foundation, a newly-established non-profit called the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, and Project 120. These non-profits are governed by their respective boards of directors and not accountable to the citizens of Chicago as are our governmental agencies, such as the Chicago Park District. The privatization of parkland is a concern across the city, including along the lakefront and in neighborhood parks for private events. The increased involvement of private groups in the management of public parkland is of concern, and sometimes may not be in the best interests of the general public. This includes the preservation of historic landscapes and structures which can, without oversight, be significantly compromised.
Preservation Chicago remains hopeful that these organizations’ willingness to participate in an open and transparent planning processes is genuine, however, worrisome signs to the contrary are cause for concern. Project 120 has held few public meetings, and developed their sweeping plans for the park without public input. The Sky Landing sculpture by Yoko Ono was conceived, designed, and installed at the historic Osaka Garden using private funds and has been exclusive in its limited interactions with the community. The golf course renovation was announced at the beginning of this year, with plans to break ground a few months later, in spring 2017. Only days after their initial announcement, after holding a single public meeting, the Chicago Park District approved spending $1 million on an engineering study for the two courses. Since the courses will be designed by a private firm, TGR Design, run by Tiger Woods, we at Preservation Chicago are concerned that preservation considerations will be largely absent from the final design. Similar issues abound in the design process for the Obama Presidential Library, led by the Obama Foundation, in a historic landscape designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted.
The importance of these historic landscapes to the citizens of Chicago is evident by the number of community advocacy groups that have emerged to monitor the development of plans that effect the parks. Preservation Chicago supports the work of these groups, which include Friends of the Parks, Jackson Park Watch, and the Jackson Park Advisory Council.
5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston has shown admirable leadership by publicly demanding that the Obama Foundation participate in a community engagement process as planning for the library proceeds. Alderman Hairston is also working to establish an advisory council of neighborhood residents to provide her with input on future projects in the parks.
Preservation Chicago specifically looks forward to providing a preservation oriented voice in this conversation. The beautiful
historic features of these parks are a large part of the reason that they have attracted the attention of these private interest groups. We at Preservation Chicago believe that current and future residents of Hyde Park, South Shore, and Woodlawn and all Chicagoans should have access to these historic landscapes and parks.
To that end, we hope to obtain open dialogue with the Chicago Park District that any construction and in changes proposed in the parks will be conducted with sensitivity to key features and structures of the historic park landscapes. Furthermore, Preservation Chicago believes that a percentage of the many of millions of dollars to be invested in these projects should be earmarked for the much needed maintenance and rehabilitation of historic park structures such as the South Shore Cultural Center Clubhouse Building, Entry Gate, Colonnade, and Stables, and the Comfort Station at 6600 S. South Shore Drive in Jackson Park.