Obama Presidential Center sparks debate amongst South Side residents, environmentalists, and bird watchers

CHICAGO – South Side residents and park enthusiasts clashed over the Barack Obama Presidential Center’s environmental impact following the recent destruction of trees in Jackson Park.

Although the Obama Foundation made a commitment to ecosystem preservation, the Chicago Park District chopped down 40 trees in Jackson Park two weeks ago to relocate a track and field that would create more space for the center according to reports from WTTW Chicago Public Media.

“The idea that you would cut down that many trees to erect a monument to yourself. It’s obscene,” University of Chicago Professor William John Thomas Mitchell said. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in a man who I really revered.”

In January Mitchell, 76, coauthored an open letter that more than 180 University of Chicago faculty signed over concerns regarding the Obama Foundation’s promises and the lack of a community benefits agreement.

An Obama Foundation spokesperson stated, “Our landscape design provides more ecological variety and biodiversity than the more uniform grassy lawns that occupy almost the whole of this 19.3-acre site now.”

Blacks in Green, an organization focused on sustainability within black communities, has discussed the center’s effects on South Side neighborhoods with the Obama Foundation. The organization’s president, Naomi Davis, 62, of Woodlawn, is concentrating on the center’s potential benefits to the African American community rather than the center’s design.

“Our focus is not, do we love the president? We do. Our focus is not, is the design or the use of the Obama Presidential Center a good, bad or indifferent,” Davis said.  “We are focused on what’s good for black people.”

After the Obama Foundation unveiled the center’s designs in May 2017, many community organizations articulated differing concerns about the effects of a proposed 235-foot-tall museum tower on birds flying through Jackson Park.

Environmental activist Charlotte Adelman, 81, of Wilmette, filed a federal lawsuit with Protect Our Parks, Inc. to halt the construction of the center in the park. On Tuesday District Court Judge John Robert Blakey lifted the stay on the case and allowed legal proceedings to resume.

For Adelman, the center’s design is inconsistent with former President Barack Obama’s environmental policies and poses a threat to migratory birds.

“I don’t understand how Barack Obama who held himself out as being pro-environmental can choose a location to knowingly obstruct migratory birds and ensure many of their deaths or serious injury,” Adelman said.

Avid bird watcher Jennie Strable, 61, of Hyde Park, said the center will not have a significant impact on migratory bird populations. She has spoken with the Obama Foundation about redesigning the construction plans to account for potential risks to birds.

“There’s various types of bird safe glass that can be used,” Strable said. “Architects know how to build the building to minimize the impact to birds.”

Since Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government must approve the center before construction begins. A recent delay in the federal approval process has pushed back the groundbreaking date until 2019.

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