Letter to Editor: Viable options exist for Obama Center without confiscating public park land

By Charles A. Birnbaum | Oct 16, 2018

To the Editor,

Two recent letters — “Don’t let a small group of naysayers kill the Obama Presidential Center” and “No more Obama Center naysaying”  (published Oct. 10 and Oct. 12 in the Chicago Sun-Times) — make false statements about those opposed to the confiscation of public parkland in Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC).  Despite what the author of the first letter wrote, park advocates are not trying to “kill” the OPC.  In fact, park advocates have been supportive of siting the OPC on Chicago’s South Side; however, there is opposition to the confiscation of public parkland, especially since other viable options exist.

The author of the second letter takes aim at specific people and organizations, including me and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The writer claims I am “cynical” for opposing the confiscation of public parkland while being “silent about the 2 million–plus acres of public land that the Trump administration has revoked from protected status.” That’s 100 percent wrong. In the Foundation’s 2017 annual Landslide report, “Open Season on Open Space”, on nationally significant threatened landscapes, we included Jackson Park and the Antiquities Act, which protects the “2 million-plus acres of public land” about which we have allegedly been silent, along with other sites nationwide. In fact, it was the threat to public lands protected by the Antiquities Act that yielded the theme “Open Season on Open Space.”

Rather than distorting the positions of park advocates, perhaps it’s time to ask OPC/Obama Foundation representatives why public parkland must be confiscated for the OPC.  This controversy exists because a decision was made not to use vacant or city-owned land and not to use land owned by the University of Chicago, which orchestrated the winning bid to host the OPC. As Lynn Sweet reported in “Columbia University pushes for Obama library in Harlem” (Jan. 26, 2015, Chicago Sun-Times) Columbia University’s proposed bid called for using 17 acres of university-owned land. They didn’t demand 20 acres of Central Park.

For all the talk of transparency, OPC/Obama Foundation representatives have consistently dodged the essential question of why parkland must be confiscated with an all-too-familiar combination of glad-handing and gas-lighting. The South Side can be the location for the OPC, and public parkland doesn’t have to be confiscated in the process.

Charles A. Birnbaum, president & CEO, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Washington, D.C.

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