Michael Sorkin: Eleven Theses on the Obama Presidential Center

Proposal for Barack Obama Community Library on 63rd and South Cottage Grove Avenue, a bird’s eye view from the South, with Jackson Park at the south edge of this rendering / Michael Sorkin Studio, 2013

1. Jackson Park wouldn’t have been my first choice as a location for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). Better right on 63rd, half-way down to South Cottage Grove Avenue, where the public draw and ground floor commerce would have breathed life back into that dull, desiccated, yearning street. There might have been direct goals to shared vitality: the archive above, and clubs, cafés, and community facilities below to spark the lively commerce of strollers to and fro, equidistant from Metra and El.

2. But the Jackson Park site can still engender happy knock-on effects if the OPC meaningfully disaggregates by, for example, providing artifacts and art works to the Du Sable Museum of African American History, agriculture to vacant lots, a high school of governance and community affairs nearby, neighborhood nutrition centers, and a stimulating array of distributed community benefits, including many not yet imagined. 63rd Street should be the spine, and there’s plenty of vacant “adjacent land” in Woodlawn.

Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017
Woodlawn Botanic Garden & Village Farm Initiative. Commissioned for Blacks in Green (BIG), West / Terreform, 2017

3. The OPC can enhance the park, activating the shabby streetscape of Stony Island, closing Cornell Drive to commuter traffic, converting acres of pavement to green space, improving accessibility for pedestrians. Even the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive can be a wise piece of public work that would otherwise never happen. Getting rid of the proposed garage on the Midway is a real victory that offers hope for future influence and suggests that the OPC is open to serious negotiation about making itself better and more transparent.

Cornell Drive and proposed site of Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park / The Chicago Tribune

4. The argument from expense against these roadway improvements might have merit if the cash were truly fungible, assuredly going instead for rent-support or day-care. But does anyone actually believe in this zero sum? This is an opportunity to leverage major improvements in local infrastructure and it shouldn’t stop with roads. Restore the El anyone?

5. Of course, the subtraction of public park space reflexively affronts, but this isn’t exactly Columbia ’68, not an aggrandizing and oblivious act of racial imperialism. A more apposite comparison is the construction of the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park in 1876, built on donated public land with public funds and designed by Olmsted’s collaborator, Calvert Vaux. Would anyone now want it gone? Still, the OPC should acknowledge its effect on the ground and provide, in perpetuity, a two to one local replacement of any green space subtracted from the park.

Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Map of the Central Park 1871–72 (detail showing proposed Museum at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue). From Second Annual Report of the Department of Public Parks (year ending May 1, 1872) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

6. The preservationist claim from Olmsteds’ original intent conflates precedent and exception. The OPC is the project and commemoration of America’s first black president, itself an exception many of us never thought we would live to see. Obama was from here, an activist here, lived here, taught here, and chose a place for his library here. This seems an exception worth making, a celebration of rarity. Moreover, the precedent for the museum exception in parks – including Olmsted’s – is voluminous and includes the Art Institute, the Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, the St. Louis Museum, the De Young in San Francisco, not to mention the Brooklyn Museum in Prospect Park.

7. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is a formula to compel a subsidy for the distribution of public goods in compensation for both a taking and a predicted effect. CBA’s are conceptually fraught, forced to negotiate the contradictions of their dual pursuit of stimulation and prophylaxis, building and conserving. They don’t always work and Staples – the invariable Exhibit A – is the exception not the rule. Columbia University’s agreement with Harlem’s pols – a deal made behind closed doors — has not decelerated the terminal gentrification of upper Manhattan in the slightest and it was just reported that nine years after the treaty was inked, less than 1% of the promised investment in affordable housing has been made. The Atlantic Yards CBA was a total developer con, achieved by dividing the community and then negotiating with a small minority of local groups who signed on to a gag order to prevent any criticism of the miserable project for which they offered cover.

8. What’s clearly different here is that the CBA is community, not developer, driven. However, its crucial intention – building an equitable, sustainable, and beautiful neighborhood — not simply exceeds its own particular demands but is beyond Obama’s power — or obligation — to deliver alone. That doesn’t mean the OPC’s feet shouldn’t be held to the fire! But putting too many eggs in the CBA basket — and conscripting Obama as savior — downplays the equally decisive roles the city, the university, the propertied, community institutions, and the people must play and focusing investment on defensive redress isn’t nearly bold enough a strategy to truly rise to the opportunity of this massive infusion. Any development must take responsibility for its social and environmental impacts but the South Side needs more than mitigation! Communities must resist the reflexive conflation of any development with gentrification and take a longer, more nuanced view, working for something far more visionary and wonderful through coalition building and an ongoing fight for community ownership and the right to the city.

9. The hope and the promise for the OPC CBA lies is its origins in a broad community coalition, its articulate goals, and its track record, most notably its roots in the remarkable campaign that led to the university’s construction of its new Trauma Center, a win for everyone.

10. Pushback to the OPC is also a displaced expression of rage at the university’s historic role in the ethnic-cleansing and self-sterilization of Hyde Park via its massive urban renewal project and its decades of malign neglect of Woodlawn. But it’s clear that the university is seeking – as it loads its south campus with dorms, a hotel, a conference center – to efface the 61st Street DMZ and reform its relationship to Woodlawn in concert with the OPC and the municipality. How can this be made broadly beneficial? Surely, hands off isn’t the way. How about building the new University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration building on 63rd Street for the active benefit of the people it aspires to serve? How about lending some lawyers to the cause?

Other Plans: University of Chicago Studies, A Master Plan for the University of Chicago / Michael Sorkin Studio, 1998

11. The task at hand is to make sure communities are equal partners in fomenting a beneficial mix that will guarantee existing residents the right to remain and build a diverse and sharing community that especially embraces low income residents and people of color. There’s risk in an othering of Woodlawn by “protecting” it from a potentially magnificent opportunity to flourish but a greater one in giving up this amazing momentum for a just and wonderful transformation. This demands real cooperative planning.

Michael Sorkin is the Principal of the Michael Sorkin Studio, Distinguished Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at The City College of New York, and president of Terreform, a non-profit urban research and advocacy center. Terreform is currently engaged in preparing a visionary urban design plan for Chicago’s South Side and welcomes collaboration.

One thought on “Michael Sorkin: Eleven Theses on the Obama Presidential Center

  1. PAUL JACOBSON 03/07/2018 / 2:46 pm

    All good points.

    President Obama appears to be in complete denial about the negative impacts a successful OPC will bring to Woodlawn. Instead of focusing on building affordable housing and using his influence and leadership to develop innovative public policy that addresses gentrification and displacement he is busy promoting a new golf course with Tiger. Frankly, it’s mystifying because the construction of the OPC in Woodlawn is the perfect case study project, and gentrification is the issue for the OPC to tackle if they are serious about their own stated mission statement.

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