CHICAGO (CBS) — Mayor Rahm Emanuel carefully side-stepped questions about whether he backs former President Barack Obama’s proposal to close Cornell Drive in Jackson Park as part of the plan for the Obama Presidential Center.
When Obama discussed the plan for his presidential library and museum this week, he said he would like to see Cornell Drive closed between 60th and 67th streets to add as much as 5 acres of new parkland and make Jackson Park a more cohesive space like Lincoln Park or Millennium Park.
The six-lane road divides the South Side Park, and is used by thousands of commuters to get from Lake Shore Drive to Stony Island Avenue and the Chicago Skyway. Obama acknowledged closing Cornell Drive would be a challenge, but said a traffic analysis revealed rerouting that traffic would add only one to three minutes to commutes.
On Thursday, the mayor was asked whether he would support closing Cornell Drive, but he carefully danced around the subject.
“I support the presidential campus. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the entire city, for the president of the United States, President Obama, the ex-president to make sure that the city of Chicago has what is an incredible piece,” he said. “It is true it’s part of his presidency, but it’s also a campus that then looks forward to making sure that social-political activity and action continues.”
The mayor reiterated that the plans Obama discussed on Wednesday were only the start of the process of building the presidential library and museum, and he said the city would listen to the community’s concerns as that process continues.
“I’m going to make sure that we work through this in a collaborative way, that peoples’ voices are heard, but we ensure that, at the end of the day, we keep our eye on the prize, and that is we build the presidential campus/library here in the city of Chicago, which is why I fought so hard to have it,” Emanuel said. “Peoples’ voices will get heard, but this is – in my view – a significant milestone for the entire city of Chicago.”
Pressed on whether that was a “yes” on the former president’s proposal to close Cornell Drive, Emanuel joked “You’ll have to interpret the music.”
On Wednesday, Obama said closing Cornell Drive is an essential part of restoring Jackson Park to the original vision of designer Fredrick Law Olmsted. He has said he envisions his library and museum campus as just part of making Jackson Park a major tourist attraction, linking the lagoons, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the presidential center campus. He also said it’s a matter of safety.
“If you have that road, there’s only so much you can do, because you can’t have little kids playing right next to a road. You can’t have sledding into the road,” he said. “You can’t walk to the lagoon. You can’t go from Stony over to the lagoon, because there’s no place to cross the street. So what we have said is let’s restore Jackson Park to the original vision, and let’s make sure that traffic is accommodated.”
The former president said city and state officials already have begun traffic studies to accommodate the thousands of commuters who use Cornell Drive to get from Lake Shore Drive to the Skyway, and he said there are multiple options that would add no more than 3 minutes to drive times.
“Let’s not think that somehow the way things are right now are the way things have to be,” he said. “I don’t want everybody to get so fixated on the traffic, which is solvable, that we lose sight of what is possible in this area.”
Obama compared his recommendation to close Cornell Drive to the rerouting of the northbound lanes Lake Shore Drive from the east side of Soldier Field and the Field Museum to the west side when the city created the Museum Campus in the 1990s.
“I was living here when that happened, and at first I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a mess. What’s wrong with things now?’ And then when it was done, everybody was like, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and it transformed downtown Chicago. The same thing can happen here, but we’ve got to be bold in terms of how we envision the project,” Obama said.
The president said he hopes to come up with a plan to close Cornell Drive that would not add any travel time for South Side commuters.