Tod and Billie Tsien’s OPC tower and plaza does not belong in Olmsted’s park

To the Editor:

Like most Chicagoans, I was thrilled when the Obamas announced their intention to locate their Presidential Center in Chicago, and even more encouraged when they indicated a preference for the South Side. The idea that Obama would return to the underserved neighborhoods where he had first emerged as a community organizer seemed just right. Given the amount of vacant land on the South Side, the only question was the specific choice of a site.

Then came the bad news: the Obamas had picked the worst possible site. Instead of redeveloping a vacant area, they chose a 22- acre parcel of an already developed site of historic Jackson Park. I can understand the motivation: the site is beautiful, close to the lake, the Museum of Science and Industry, Wooded Island, and the University of Chicago. It is a site, in other words, that does not need enhancement or redevelopment. There is no way they would have dared to float such a proposal in New York’s Central Park.

I have been attending community meetings for the last six months to see how people in the adjacent neighborhoods have greeted the proposal. What I have seen is a rising tide of resistance to the choice of site, worsened by the piggy-backing of a grandiose golf course scheme that would effectively privatize even more acres of public land. The required road closings and widenings of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island will cost the taxpayers of Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars, and will at best amount to a degradation of already congested roadways. I have seen scores of talented and well-intentioned people—architects, traffic engineers, landscape designers, and politicians—working overtime to put lipstick on this pig.

One criticism that I have not heard so far deserves to be put into the record. The original idea of the designer of Jackson Park, Frederic Law Olmsted, was to create a democratic space where the public could commune with nature and enjoy a respite from the over-designed and artificial spaces of urban sprawl. In designing Central Park, Olmsted won a decisive battle with those who wanted to fill the park with massive architectural monuments and grand plazas: “straight lines of trees or stately architecture . . . belong not to parks for the people, but to palatial gardens.” (Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, 144). The proposed tower and plaza of Tod and Billie Tsien is precisely the kind of thing that does not belong in Olmsted’s park. Are the Obamas listening to any of this? Does our beloved ex-president realize that the very communities he tried to organize at the outset of his career are now organizing against what looks like a classic Chicago political land-grab?

W. J. T. Mitchell
Professor of English and Art History
University of Chicago
Author of Landscape and Power (Chicago, 2nd ed., 2005)