Plan for parking garage on the Midway is still a go

A rendering of a combined park and parking structure for the Barack Obama Presidential Center, proposed by The Barack Obama Foundation. – Rendering courtesy of The Barack Obama Foundation

Staff Writer

The design team for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) will keep with its original proposal to have an above ground-parking garage on the Midway directly across the street from the Obama Center in Jackson Park despite opposition from the community.

On Wednesday evening, the Obama Foundation hosted a private meeting at its Hyde Park headquarters, 5235 S. Harper Court.

About 70 residents and community leaders from organizations such as the YMCA, South Shore Chamber of Commerce, Friends of the Parks, Jackson Park Advisory Council and Jackson Park Watch were present. Michael Strautmanis, vice president of Civic Engagement at the Obama Foundation, along with OPC design team architects, Michael Von Valkenburgh, Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, and Dina Griffin were on hand to discuss updates on the design of the parking facility.

“The foundation is grateful for the ongoing engagement from the community. As we refine the design for the OPC and prepare for a filing with the Chicago Planning Commission, the input and feedback from the community is critical to our work,” Strautmanis said in a written statement. We look forward to continued engagement from the community to further develop the vision and plans for the OPC and together revitalize Jackson Park.”

In total, the design team presented for about 45 minutes. The meeting also included a question and answer segment.

“I am disappointed to see that there were no other options that were presented that did not include the Midway and concerned that there continues to be a tone deafness to the community’s voice,” said Bronwyn Nichols Lodato, president of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council.

What remains unknown, said Lodato is why the foundation is insistent on the location for the garage and if the foundation has or will consider another site for the garage.

Officials at the meeting said it was important to have the parking garage above ground “so that people will be forced to walk outside across the street and they argue that this would provide an incentive for economic development,” said Margaret Schmid, a coordinator with the citizen watchdog group, Jackson Park Watch.

The question though, said Schmid is where would the shops or restaurants be placed. The area is residential, and there are not any shops or restaurants in the area.

Changes that were presented on Wednesday include – moving bus staging from the Midway to Stony Island Avenue, hiding the entry and exit driveways, disguising much more of the parking structure with additional landscaping, and elevating the Cheney Goode memorial, according to the foundation.

Design plans that were introduced in August that featured a basketball court, BBQ grills, and picnic tables to be situated on top of the parking structure, were cut from the plan.

The foundation said the change came in response to conversations with local residents over the past few months.

The proposed parking garage has been a source of contention in the community.

The Obama Center itself is 20 acres, with the garage the footprint expands to 26 acres.

The parking garage would be above the grade of the present parkland at the eastern end of Midway Plaisance between 59th and 60th streets and Stony Island Avenue and the Metra Tracks and would be able to hold about 400-450 cars.

The facility will be covered and surrounded by a 3-4 acre park open to the public. The structure would also include off-street bus drop-off and pick-up, bicycle parking, and a connection to Metra.

Residents and park preservationists have been vocal about their opposition to having the garage on the Midway, land that is historic and publicly owned.

The City of Chicago owns Midway Plaisance. At a previous meeting, the foundation said that pending approval by the City Council, “the city would convey rights for parking to the Obama Foundation.”

Groups such as the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council and the campaign to Save the Midway have been actively pushing back against the proposal.

The MPAC, in October, voted to adopt a resolution outlining their stance on the proposal during a meeting. As stated in the resolution the MPAC opposes having the parking garage on the Midway and transferring Midway land to private entities. PAC members also feel like a parking garage goes against the original vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the park in the 1800s.

Additionally, they feel the parking structure goes against a master plan that was developed for the park in 2000. The Park District, the University of Chicago and community members worked together to form a master plan for the Midway.

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.

Micheal McNamee and Karen Rechtschaffen, Hyde Park residents, launched the Save the Midway campaign in October in response the Obama Foundation’s proposal.

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

Those who were at the meeting said there were suggestions for alternative sites for the parking garage.

For example, one potential spot is a commuter parking lot that is located on 60th Street and Stony Island Avenue, the parking lot is owned by the University of Chicago. Another suggestion includes pushing it underground near the site for the Obama Center and or expanding parking within the Museum of Science and Industry’s existing underground parking lot.

Naomi Davis, president and founder of Blacks in Green who was also present at the Wednesday’s meeting, was opposed to having the parking site on the Midway. Davis said she would like more discussion on numbers and how visitors and traffic volume for the Obama Center will affect the neighborhood.

“What is the car volume, what is the impact on the local neighborhood for side street parking and what are the relative costs of things,” asked Davis adding that there also has to be an understanding of what taxpayers will pay.

The Obama Center expects to receive between 600,000 and 700,000 visitors annually.

A range of voices is missing from the discussions, said Lodato who wanted to know why the event was invitation only and not inclusive of the entire community.

“I think that keeping meetings open and allowing for as many voices and partners to weigh in it is going to be an important value for all of us to hold as a constant as we move forward into 2018,” Lodato said.